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Having grown up in the age of Atari 2600, I’ve seen the gaming industry flourish and leap in ways that I had never thought completely possible.  From the old days when floppy discs were floppy up to the Blu-ray disc format, it’s been incredible to see the decades reiterate and redefine gaming.  I like to think that living in the time I have gives me a level of insight that the current crop of gamers don’t quite possess yet.

I also like to think I’m a V-12 sex machine.

The best illustration of how gaming has evolved isn’t the graphics, though.  it’s certainly one of the first barometers people think of when they consider gaming’s progress…but for me, it’s been about the music.  We’ve gone from digital pooting to chiptunes to full orchestral masterworks that have just the same level of artistry as any large-budget film.

So with that in mind, I’d like to take you along on some of my favorite tunes from gaming of all-time.  This isn’t a list in any specific order so much as just a random sample of gaming songs that have impressed upon me the realization that we have come a very long way.

“MERIDIAN DANCE” – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

This final fight was hardly the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced in my video gaming life, but the combination of casting a spell to fully awaken my weapon, the stakes at hand at the time of this battle, and this song pumping away in the background combined to create a finality that far too few games bother to work towards.

And this was an experience on a 16-bit machine.

Meridian Dance stands out in an excellent OST for its unique attack and its intrinsic connection to a very pivotal gaming moment for me and many other RPG players.

“THE INSTINCT” – Mick Gordon, Killer Instinct 2013

Say what you will about Killer Instinct as a video game–especially the ridiculous amount of DLC that this game demands of you…but the one thing you cannot say is that the soundtrack is terrible.  Composer Mick Gordon has faced the challenge of re-imagining a classic fighting game franchise’s iconic tunes with incredible gusto, and while a couple of the tracks that he produced for this game are a bit hit or miss for me, he was savvy enough to know when to leave a good thing alone.

So it is with “The Instinct”, the title theme for the game.  The soaring guitar riffs that are associated with this series remain, and are backed up by thudding digital drums and excellent pad and sound-work.  A particular favorite is the final part at the 5:43 mark, where he presents his take on the classic character select theme.  Here, he retains the imposing sense that you stand on the crucible of combat that the original had without just settling on doing just a remix.

Well done, Mr. Gordon.  Well freakin’ done.

“I WAS BORN FOR THIS” – Austin Wintory, Journey

I was skeptical about the amount of heaped praise and screaming fervor that the game Journey had earned when it was initially released.  I finally ceded to popular opinion and bought the title….and have never regretted the decision since.

Music is a primary part of Journey’s emotional impact, as the character you control makes no sounds beyond a variety of chirps, and through a compelling and fascinating and ultimately heart-wrenching journey to a distant peak the final credits roll to this song.  A combination of quotes from the Iliad, the Aeneid, a Japanese haiku, Beowulf and Joan of Arc illustrate the game’s ultimate message: a message of cooperation, of togetherness and how, when people and ideas come together regardless of distance or culture, amazing things can happen and incredible feats can be achieved.

“TO THE ANCIENT LAND” – Ko Otani, Shadow of the Colossus

When I first played this game, I had almost no idea what I was getting myself in to.  I had the barest knowledge of its heritage having never played Ico, and I read that it was basically about you running about taking on immense boss fights, both in size and in challenge.

I was not prepared…and this first song told me that I was in for so much more.

The journey of your character and the ultimate end of this game still sends me to shivers and fits of intense emotion, and it all gets kicked off by this haunting and ethereal score.  We enter this realm that feels almost like a Greek epic with its instrumentation, and I got the sense that something special was coming.  Boy was this song right.

“HEARTH AND HOPE” – Rod Abernathy and Inon Zur, TERA

TERA is a game that makes an incredibly strong first impression, from its lovely graphics, to its unique classes, to wondering just how the hell old the Elin really are, to the racial themes.  I found a lot to like about all of the race’s themes in this game, but found the Human theme of “Hearth and Hope” to be a personal stand-out.

Inon Zur’s name struck familiar as the guy who did the soundtrack to Dragon Age 2, but there was no real sense of personal style in the case of either composer.  Regardless, the music for this race stirs and hits home a sense of boundless pride and unflinching valor–traits that always endear one to a hero in any RPG.

“OUR PERCEPTION OF BEAUTY” – Jeff Kurtenacker, WildStar

The story of the planet Nexus in WildStar and the introduction of the character Drusera are two moments in MMO storytelling that really stand out to me, which has been heightened greatly by this particular theme.  We have the character of Drusera in song form–immense power, gossamer beauty, and the slight wisp of a tear at the corner of an eye.

Evidently, the creation of this song was an incredibly personal one for composer Jeff Kurtenacker, which he very kindly shared with me when responding to a question I posed to him about the song on Twitter.

“When we recorded that cue, I was lucky it was right before a break. I was pretty wrecked emotionally after that.  Lots of my own feelings towards my daughter in the writing of that cue, and to hear it come to life, it was surreal and beautiful.  I was so moved I had the orchestra sign that score after the session. It’s a treasure of mine.”

Now, please tell me again that these guys and girls wanted to make a bad game.  Please do.

“TENACITY” – Masayoshi Soken, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

I’m not sure how any composer who is approached for doing work for a Final Fantasy game doesn’t explode in to a cloud of terror pee.  Regardless of my own personal fear, composer Masayoshi Soken has made the score for the revitalized Final Fantasy 14 an excellent piece of musical work that takes its place in a series that is known for its themes.

This particular track stands out among a long list of fantastic tracks for this game because it really illustrates what this game is to me.  We have a unique score, with nods to Final Fantasy VII’s classic battle theme–a meshing of nostalgia and new, stirred carefully together to mold a unique and wholly iconic sound.  It really kind of lays out what A Realm Reborn really is.  A classic car that’s been lovingly remodeled to a factory shine without being slapped together with factory parts.

If you guys have thoughts about this list, or some songs you enjoy or that strike that same chord of gaming’s progress, then feel free to leave your own thoughts and comments.  Who knows…I’m pretty sure that shortly after publishing this, I’ll come up with other songs that I feel should have been listed, or will be reminded of some excellence in the comments.

In which case, I’ll just have to write a second listing.