One of the more potent aspects of music is the innate ability to attach itself to memories. Times and people long past are often associated with songs; even non-visual facets of oneís memory may be affected. For instance, whenever I hear Johnny Cash, I can smell my grandparentís study (where I was introduced to his fantastic music) - the scent of musty books, old furniture and their many cats wafts in from the past through some mental trickery. Music affixed to a visual interactive medium is naturally even more cohesive in that same way. Any gamer could probably hear one second of the Level 1-1 theme from Mario Bros. and immediately know what it is with an instant visual picture and the sensation of holding a controller. Thatís how powerful a game soundtrack can be.
Let me get it out of the way, I love video game music more than I probably have the right. As a child, I held my tape recorder to the TV to make soundtracks, and still play them on occasion. My main cell ringtone is Pokey Means Business! My text message notification is the Legend of Zelda secret chime. When my wife calls, I hear FFIVís Theme of Love. Most of my friends are set to a segment of I MAED A S0NG W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT! And when my brother calls, the Dr. Wilyís castle theme from Megaman II starts playing. When I play a game and like the soundtrack, I do whatever it takes to obtain a copy. If I canít buy the album, Iíll spend hours tracking it down online. If I canít find a downloadable version, I will extract it from youtube or wherever it may be available in some form (The Secret of Evermore OST was the most recent acquisition through that method).
With the requisite fapping off the tableÖIíd like to use this entry to discuss my absolute favorite aspect of video game soundtracks: character themes. The typical memorable theme will remind one of a certain level or an obstacle. With the advent of storytelling in video games, the themes began to expand to allow certain characters to have an aural sting. Ostensibly, it began with boss themes, not unlike villainous scores such as the Imperial March. Around the 16-bit era, we were graced with character songs that became more than just a cue for the player to know this guy or girl is the enemy. They became a summation of a character, taking their most identifiable aspects and translating them into music, and were played at key points of the story. Rather than expound on this concept generically, Iím going to use the remainder of this entry to focus on my favorite character-based songs.
Iíd apologize in advance for the heavy use of Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda penned songs, but they are the masters of the craft.
Chrono Trigger (Cronoís Theme) ~ Yasunori Mitsuda
Might as well start off the list with a piece that is the quintessential ďfuck yeah, letís go!Ē theme. Crono never utters a word through the game (sans that one ending), yet emotes so much throughout. His devotion to his friends and their quest to save the future never falters for a moment. Crono serves as a perfectly written avatar for the player, who also wants to do whatever it takes to rid the world of Lavos. Played at key points throughout the game, Chrono Trigger is the perfect blend of bravery and compassion for our favorite time traveling, spiky-headed hero.
Cidís Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu
When it comes to Final Fantasy VII, Aerithís theme and One Winged Angel are usually the two everyone remembers. And not to take anything away from those pieces, as they are excellent by their own right, but Iíve always found Cidís theme just as moving. Here was a pilot who lived his life with a dream, to reach the stars. His seemingly one and only opportunity was taken from him when he sacrificed the mission to save his friend, who then became the focus of his anger in the following years. Cidís theme perfectly evokes imagery of a grizzled old man, worn out and strung along by his failing dreams. The song begins in sad form, yet betrays a glimmer of hope as it builds, a notion that the dream may not be as lost as all those years past. It makes the climax of Cidís story all the more powerful.
Ceremony / The Oracle (Thanatosís Themes) ~ Hiroki Kikuta.
The Seiken Densetsu series is loaded with brilliant music, but doesnít offer much in the way of character themes. However, Secret of Mana held a pair of themes for the villainous Thanatos that have stuck out in my mind ever since I first heard them. These two are hands down the most bizarre and unsettling pieces of music Iíve ever heard in a game. The dissonant bells of Ceremony and the pummeling trip-hop beat of The Oracle clash heavily with the rest of the soundtrack, as well as the vibrant art style, a contrast that is simply ingenious.
Moving from the bright landscapes to the misty drear ruins with this music playing is an example in oppressive unsettlement. You never know exactly what heís doing to the townpeople there, or why they wear those hideous masks, and it just adds to the tension. When you finally face him at the end of the game, he turns into a giant skeleton with a pink and purple robe. Sure, the colors are a bit frightening, but the music is insanity. The tolling bells of Ceremony now swirl around, driven by an infernal beat, and just when you get used to it, the song goes batshit crazy at the 1:24 mark. Mysterious, unnerving, and clinically insane, these two themes will haunt my dreams for years to come.
Celes's Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu
I had two goals in mind with this list Ė keep the Final Fantasy to a minimum of two entries, and make one of them from FFIV. But I couldnít do it, because Celesís theme is undeniably gorgeous. Throughout the story, she promotes a tough faÁade, though often shows cracks in her emotional armor. Side Story: In my first draft, I didn't use the word "cracks" there, I used another word that apparently sets off the filter here. I spent 15 minutes combing my draft and saving with certain paragraphs cut out, until I narrowed it to this one. It was until I had to the exact sentence that I realized this word was also a racial slur. This is why we can't have nice things...er words.
This theme is one of fragility, of a conflicted woman who has found herself between two worlds, torn by her emotions and duties. Her longing for Locke grows as the story progresses, and is arguably at its most beautiful during the opera scene. Hearing Celes sing her actual theme is heart wrenching every time I hear it. It taps a self-referential moment visible only to the player, who canít help but be swept into this love story.
Simonís Theme ~ Konami Kukeiha Club
The Castlevania series is another known for great music, but not necessarily great character themes. The fourth entry brought along the definitive theme for Simon Belmont, who is typically the flagship character for both the series and the Belmont family. Itís a perfect aural match to Simonís quest. TheÖquest, not the game subtitled Simonís Quest, oh nevermind. It begins with a slow ominous creep: fitting for Draculaís castle, with a buildup that insists more of the same is to followÖuntil that darkness gets its face whipped off by Simon. Itís classic video game heroism at its finest. And the best part is that when you finally reach Dracula, and wear down his health, it doesnít play some harrowing boss theme, the game plays Simonís theme! Itís the ultimate form of musical badassery in video games. Simon doesnít give the Count one fucking inch; he beats that bloodsucking bastard down on Simon's terms.
And I always
do the air drums at the 0:49 mark.
Schalaís Theme ~ Yasunori Mitsuda
Chrono Trigger brims with wonderful themes. I could have made this list entirely devoted them, as they all perfectly exemplify the idea of compiling a character into a song. Schalaís has always stood out to me, even more so than the others. She is a latecomer to the story, and only has a few lines of dialog, yet she is a key component to both the overall plot and Magusís backstory. Her theme manages to say more than any visual cues, painting a kind, loving girl who, despite all the trouble sheís been put through, and faces a tragic destiny she canít avoid, still does all she can to help others, particularly her brother. The song retains that dreamy, magical feel that is prevalent in the Zeal theme, giving it an ethereal elegance that perfectly captures Schalaís story.
The Opened Way (Gaius) ~ Kow Otani
I know itís a stretch since this is more a boss theme, and wasnít solely devoted to Gaius, but I couldnít make this list and not include this incredible piece of music. Everyone probably knows exactly when, while playing Shadow of the Colossus, he or she was hit with pangs of guilt. For me, it was this battle, and this theme that did it. At first, the Opened Way seemed to be portraying the struggle the player was going through, but as I caught a glimpse of Gaiusís eyes Ė that look of confusion and anger Ė the music took on a new form. It was reminiscent of reading Frankenstein, when the Monster talked of trying to understand and live in the world of man and was shunned and attacked.
And that is the brilliance of this track. It plants a seed of remorse in the player that may sprout at any moment, whether itís during battle or in conjunction with the end of battle theme. For me, The Opened Way compacts all of what the player goes through into one piece. So it actually makes it more a theme for the player than any character in the game. Itís epic, tragic, and above all, beautiful.
Overworld BGM (Linkís Theme) ~ Koji Kondo
Ah yes, how could there ever be a list about memorable character themes or even memorable game music without this piece. Itís a fine place to end because like the Mario theme, I donít even need to talk about this one. If youíve played Zelda, you already have the song in your head. You can already see Link from the first Zelda game that comes to your mind. Itís a classic character theme by every definition of the word: a summation of a heroís journey, the exploration, the danger, the triumph, and it revolves on a perfect loop.
So thatís about it. I know thereís a million other character themes, and at least a few of them not in a Squaresoft game, but these are the ones that have always stood out to me. Each piece is a masterwork that bridges the player to an intangible character and ensconces itself in their memories. Often taken for granted, a working character theme is something unique to video games. Movies and TV shows come close, but never nail it. There isnít much better than when you can listen to a few minutes of music and the whole of a character and their story floods your mind.