Music Friday: Why game music?

My wife (a doctor) once told me music has some soft of positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s disease – the one where you slowly lose your memories and other terrible consequences – and she says it’s because music reaches some special area of the brain, or something to that effect. That got me thinking on how important music is for our lives. Specifically: video game music.

Music is important because it elicits memories. Sure, every now and then there’s a particular song that catches you because simply because it’s catchy (think Uptown Funk) but often a song is linked – even if unconsciously – to a moment in time, as if our brain secretly takes a multi-dimensional snapshot of the moment and stores it away deep in our minds.

Game music can take us to two different moments in dimensional time (look at me, talking all fancy-like!): the in-game moment and the real life moment. What happened in the game at that moment? How did that make you feel? What was your life like back then?

How about a few examples?

Beaches and Demons

The theme of the final world in the NES masterpiece Blaster Master is special for a few reasons. For one, it’s creepy. Also, it’s linked to a memory:

I did not own BM, but I had played it before and liked it very much, though I had never gotten beyond a couple of worlds. For reasons I can’t remember I had a copy of the game and wanted to deep dive into it but as usual my parents had a great idea to ruin my weekend: they wanted to spend the weekend in a beach town that was three hours away from my city; away from most fun things (I do not like beaches) but more importantly away from my NES. Now, I don’t know how but I convinced my parents to let me take the console to the beach and they agreed. On arrival I noticed a little problem: I had forgotten the controller.

Fortunately, a neighbor from the beach house I was staying at had a NES as well, and let me take BM and play at his house. I don’t recall how long I was there but for the first time ever I made it past the level I was stuck in and reached all the way to the final boss. I was so focused and excited I may have been sweating profusely! Once the final boss went down I thought I was done! Victory…? Alas the game has a second final boss that I was not prepared for… and this was a time with no saves or states, so, yeah. But it’s an awesome memory!

High School Afternoon Times

How about some Chrono Trigger? I cannot recall the ungodly amount of times I played this game to completion (from start to finish, over and over again) during high school. Sometimes I even listened to a CD while grinding a few extra levels (I had to have all characters – ALL of them – at max) but otherwise I was just enjoying the soundtrack.

I used to come back from high school, have lunch and quickly finish my homework (oh, life was so easy back then!) so I could dedicate the rest of the afternoon/early night to playing CT; I can even remember the way my room was organized by listening to this popular soundtrack. The track above happens in an important part of the game, and I remember feeling as much wonder and confusion as the main characters were probably feeling. That’s a legendary game, right there.

The Smell of Magic

While Final Fantasies have long been my favorite RPGs, one of the most vivid memories I have of those times was from Secret of Mana, though it’s not exactly in-game. The soundtrack was fantastic, but Mana music makes me remember the time I got the game.

I had gone to the only mall in town that sold games back then, and bought Secret of Mana for no other reason than the fact it was made by Squaresoft. I wanted to go home so badly and embark on another fantasy adventure, but instead I had to wait for my mother who had decided to enter a perfume store – the kind of place she could stay hours in. I was pissed! Bothered, I sat in a staircase and decided I would open the box and peek at the game’s manual. What I remember most vividly is the smell – that new game manual smell! Today’s gamers barely get a couple of pages with controls and a code, but back then Squaresoft’s manuals were mini-bibles, and they smelled heavenly when opened! Now, almost 20 years later, whenever I pass by the same perfume store I fondly look at those stairs where I sat as a 13 year old and remember Secret of Mana.

The Snake and the Beach

At a future point in time I remember I was playing Metal Gear Solid (PS1) at the beach. By that time I didn’t have to convince my parents to let me take the console – I just took it and that was it. After a particularly tiring day I was playing this game and my uncle came in the room, and after asking me a few questions about some thing or other he paused, then asked: “Which movie is that?”.

It’s funny how non-gamers could even confuse graphics back then in the PS1 days. I told him that it was a game, and he left, saying something about the game having so much dialogue; I couldn’t hear him well since I was paying attention to the conversation happening in-game, which was after the Hind-D battle. I kept playing, and I still remember the room, all cold from the air conditioner, surrounded by the smell of sand (from those who had just returned from the beach) and food being cooked for the afternoon.

The TV and the Robot

I had traveled to Miami when I got my PS2. Bought it in a Toys R’ Us that was near where I stayed. The first game I bought was Zone of the Enders, because it came with a demo for Metal Gear Solid 2. I should have kept the console in its box until I came back home to my country but I couldn’t resist!

I plugged in the PS2 into the big TV in the living room of the house I stayed in (close friends of my parents, and coincidentally, the same family I stayed with on my recent trip to Miami after 14 years of not visiting). It was one of those huge screen TVs that looked like they were “projected on” (sort of like this). The sound was spectacular, so when I turned on ZoE and hear the clip above, even the house owner – who did not know anything about games at all – smiled and said “sounds good, eh?

Nostalgia, Clouds and a Prince

This song is funny, because I never actually played Katamary 2. I loved the OST for the first one, though! Due to that, my wife had searched for related music and found this song, which I listened to and found enjoyable.

Many years later we took a trip to Argentina. We actually wanted to move there! My wife had gone ahead with her son, so I was traveling alone, leaving everything I’d ever known behind. On the way there, on the plane, this song popped up on my old stick-like iPod. I turned up the volume and listened to this catchy song while I looked out the window, at the passing clouds. Long story short: we couldn’t stay for various reasons, but we were lucky enough to be able to get up on our feet quickly upon our return.

Now, whenever I am on an airplane, I must listen to Disco Prince while looking at the clouds. Consider it a silly ritual.

The Fantasy

It may surprise you, if you’re a frequent reader (thank you!), that I haven’t used a single theme from Final Fantasy. Worry not! I just saved the best for last.

There’s almost too many Final Fantasy tracks I like. Being the series of games I’ve played the most during my life, it’s no wonder that every soundtrack is full with memories. But I share today the theme that starts it all for me: the Main Theme.

My first FF was IV (then called II in America), a game which a class mate let me borrow for a while. The Prelude was engaging but it was the Main Theme that gripped me. After some story exposition, the demoted Cecil and his Dragoon friend Kain set out for the village of Mist. The player is treated to a “cutscene” of the castle and the world, while the game’s text-heavy intro happens. It made me want to know more!

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The Main Theme plays during this sequence. It was so important that when it appeared again at a pivotal moment near the end of the game it became one of my favorite tunes. As future FFs included it (usually in the ending) it managed this identity as the “Final Fantasy Theme”. I even started disliking when FF games didn’t use it – a quirk I also have with FFs that don’t have the traditional victory theme (one of the reasons I am glad XIV uses it!), here in the version from VI:

When I went to the Distant Worlds concert in Buenos Aires in 2013, the first song in the program was the Main Theme. I had asked my wife to keep the program a secret for me, so when I heard the first notes I must have gasped because my wife will remind me of that every chance she gets. Manly tears were shed that night. Oh, and by the way, though the video above isn’t mine, it is from that very Buenos Aires Distant Worlds concert!

Musical Magic

I can probably bring back memories of most games I’ve ever played thanks to their music and enjoyed; some of them I’ve even featured in previous Music Friday posts.

The Destiny (PS4) orbit themes reminding me of how fascinating the game was in Beta (a sparkle it regained with the expansion), Kingdom Hearts’ (PS2) “Dearly Beloved” becoming one of my wife’s favorite tracks ever, Alundra’s (PS1) ice nightmare, Sion Barzhad’s theme from The Bouncer (PS2) being the first PS2 game I rented, that infernal water level from TMNT (NES) making me pull a couple of hairs out in my childhood, Metroid Prime’s (GC) amazing music in the first level bringing back that classic Metroid feels…

There’s just so much wonderful music! And it’s the “there” that seals it. It’s not just because a track is good – it’s because it happens at the right time, both in-game and in your mind, forming such a wonderful crystal of memory that dances inside your head for the rest of your life.

Enjoy game music! Enjoy the memories it brings back!

Simply listen… and enjoy.

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