Welcome back to No Tune Unturned, a feature in which some dude with no musical training beyond boring childhood piano lessons elaborates on why, precisely, he likes videogame music so much. You can catch last month’s conversation with Chainsaw, the benevolent audiological mastermind at Twisted Pixel, or move onto the fourth episode of No Tune Unturned right here and right now: character themes.
It’s that magical moment when the music becomes the character. When Darth Vader strides on-screen, an imposing man/machine cloaked in billowing darkness, accompanied by a commanding score that sends shivers of majestic evil down one’s spine. When the Imperial March plays, you know Darth Vader has arrived; the instruments, tempo, and style mirror everything about him; the music becomes the character. Think of it like the X Parasite from Metroid Fusion but without all the death. I’ve always had a soft spot for this technique (combining music and storytelling, not the death thing) and videogames are in a prime position to take advantage of it. Huge casts of characters that live inside worlds as vibrant as they are varied help with that, and I’ve gone through a small handful of these worlds to pick some of the best examples. Of course, we’re not talking about cool songs that happen to hang around specific dudes/female dudes; the music and characters need to reflect each other. It may be tempting to get up and dance with all the fervour of a thousand mythological beasts when King Dedede’s theme knocks off your proverbial socks, but it doesn’t reveal much about the greedy penguin-thing’s inner psyche.
Remember to turn up the video quality all the way for maximum enjoyment!
Zelda’s Lullaby (Princess Zelda)
Originally from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Composed by Koji Kondo
Here we have a song held close to the hearts of many. It may elicit a slightly different emotional response, but Zelda’s Lullaby is forever tied to the Hylian princess just as the Imperial March can’t bear to be separated from the dark lord of the Sith. As noble and innocent as the princess herself, the gentle notes have been around since the SNES days and have only been growing stronger over the past twenty years. It doesn’t matter if Zelda is communicating telepathically with young heroes, playing a time-warping musical instrument, or dressing like a pirate; the ageless melody will be right there with her, just like Link and his beloved floppy hat. With a rightful place in the Zelda fiction and an era-spanning thematic meaning, this is a glove that fits snugly on the hands of history and nostalgia both. Why, Skyward Sword went so far as to play Zelda’s Lullaby backwards and call it a main theme– and it actually (kind of) worked!
Sirrus’ Theme – Mechanical Age (Sirrus)
Originally from Myst
Composed by Robyn Miller
Worlds were left lifeless from the obtuse crimes of two now-imprisoned brothers who blamed each other for everything that went horribly wrong, and exploring their long-abandoned rooms is the only way to discover the truth. While Achenar couldn’t even bother to throw a blanket over his torture devices, Sirrus’ menacing secrets remain covered in subtle refinement; yet the primly-plucked strings only serve to highlight an ominous undertone of drums and industrial clanking. As you poke timidly through mahogany furniture and eighteenth-century paintings, Sirrus’ paranoia seeps through the almost-harmonious discordance, like his eyes are always trained on the back of your head. The effect is a brilliantly unnerving atmosphere so thick you could cut it with one of his hidden knives (which you know are there somewhere). To this day I can’t hear those insidious opening notes without getting chills.
Bowser’s Theme (Bowser)
Originally from Super Mario 64
Composed by Koji Kondo
If you ever thought Bowser was anything but 110% rippling turtle muscle set afire with radness, boy must you feel silly now. Drums with enough punch to knock the wind from a Whomp stomp right along with the Koopa King’s earth-shaking footsteps, followed by a guitar at 0:05 every bit as guttural as his monstrous laugh. Licks of flame and guitar frets engulf the boss arena with more attitude than any mortal should consume in one sitting, which is only intensified by 1:06’s head-banging finish. There’s never been a cooler theme for Bowser in all the long years since Super Mario 64, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of that fierceness return to frighten young children who thought the living piano of Big Boo’s Haunt was the last of their fears. It’s almost a pity this spike-ridden colossus was overthrown by a portly little fellow who tossed him out by his tail.
E-102 Gamma’s Theme (E-102 Gamma)
Originally from Sonic Adventure
Composed by Fumie Kumatami
Sonic Adventure was a master of character theme songs, even if its smattering of musical genres was stuffed with enough cheese to satisfy Wallace and Gromit for life. Like the other five playable characters, E-102 Gamma saw the game’s storyline through his own eyes, and what a tragic tale those scanners processed. The void-like electronic sounds that begin the song speak to his empty existence as a mindless Eggman robot, easing into difficult truths that confront him with a mournful, contemplative piano at 0:25. Gamma learns that he and his “brothers” have been created to enslave helpless animals and, after struggling with the concept of emotion, he deletes his master registration program. The heartfelt synth solo at 1:13 soars above cold reason as he frees the innocent bunnies and birds by destroying his brethren one by one until only a single robotic prison remains: himself. In a final act of self-sacrifice, Gamma– the last of the E-Series– willingly self-destructs. This strangely profound story had to work with the stilted, goofy cutscenes of a platformer from 1999, but a song touched with mystery and sadness somehow pulled everything together. Feel free to shed a tear for that heroic robot; I won’t laugh at you.
In the Name of the Father (Nightmare)
Originally from Soulcalibur
Composed by Junichi Nakatsuru
While we speak of tragedy, let us descend to Ostrheinsburg Castle’s twilit stage of history, dwelling place of the Azure Knight. Although an entire No Tune Unturned instalment has already been dedicated to the Soulcalibur series, ignoring its excellent character themes would be a crime I cannot in good faith commit, and Nightmare is the perfect example we seek. His dramatic transformation from misguided youth into demonic warrior, driven by passion and foolish hubris, is swept up in the roiling orchestra of the burning soul of unjust truth. If your very being does not yet overflow with Soulcalibur-esque hyperbolic monologue, consider 0:16’s rushing heartbeat of militaristic drums, as if the boy trapped beneath hellish armour remembers the father slain by his own malicious claw of impure power. A sense of desperation taints the wild symphonic strikes of 0:33, clashing like the evil blade of hatred wielded by one who has forsaken hope and named enmity his lover. Waves of unfettered pain take the form of imperious choirs to crash against the shores of memory suppressed by the sting of malfeasance, leading to 1:14’s inevitable thundering, pounding drums. Of destiny.
Bastila’s Theme (Bastila Shan)
Originally from Knights of the Old Republic
Composed by Jeremy Soule
What do you get when you cross the subtle performances of Jennifer Hale’s voice, Jeremy Soule’s music, and Bioware’s writing? Ordinarily I would deliver a punchline, but I doubt stoically proper Jedi Knight Bastila Shan would approve of knock-knock jokes. Hearing those quiet, thoughtful strings fade into existence, I instantly find myself in the Ebon Hawk’s stark hallways face-to-face with her disapproving yet obstinately serene stare. A supernatural bond is formed between Bastila and the player (whether you like it or not) and I can think of no better score to serve as a backdrop for another argument or a delicate revelation. The calming violin and piano cast her in a mystical light with a few veiled secrets beneath the ice, which makes her difficult to understand and easy to mess with. When the beautifully familiar theme of the Force appears at 0:50, Bastila’s role in the Star Wars universe hits home and the circle is now complete.
Jake’s Theme (Jake)
Originally from Advance Wars: Dual Strike
Composed by Yoshito Hirano
Jake is a bright-eyed CO of the Advance Wars battlefront who wears headphones at all times, intentionally purchases ripped clothing, and invites you to get the plates ’cause you just got served. Through some miracle his slang-slinging attitude is more likeable than obnoxious, and his theme song follows suit. Going toe-to-toe with Bowser himself, Jake brings a whole mess of churning guitars and crashing cymbals to the table, thoroughly putting the DS speakers through their paces. There’s a satisfying crunch to the hard-hitting rock that drives one to listen repeatedly without complaint, which is fortunate considering how much a Jake player will be allowing it to enter his or her ear drums. As for the CO himself, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover this very song blaring from his aforementioned headphones.
Ike’s Resolution (Ike)
Originally from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Composed by Yoshito Hirano
Ike is one of my favourite videogame characters out there, but not because he’s a fire-breathing turtle boss or a maniacal destroyer of ages or a melodramatic knight with a scary eyeball sword; instead, he’s just Ike. Honest to the point of rudeness and optimistic in the face of tragedy, he has a believable personality that somehow finds time to develop in a cast of well over fifty characters. Listening to his theme is like watching the character arc he travels start to finish. A fresh beginning of triumphant horns tell of the eager days spent training with his father’s mercenary group at an excited tempo that nearly leaves him behind. 1:09 introduces a quiet, serious side to Ike that grows with each passing day at war until almost everything fades, save a constant back and forth of intent strings. Like a gathering army, other instruments of all shapes and sizes slowly grow in resolution before bursting to life at 2:23. Both Ike and his theme are simple and likeable yet loaded with depth, much like a good nacho if we pretend depth is guacamole.
Maya Fey’s Theme (Maya Fey)
Originally from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Composed by Masakazu Sugimori
There’s something inexhaustibly, wonderfully cheerful about psychic-in-training Maya Fey, and there’s no better medium (Ha! Get it? Medium?) to express this than chiptuney music for the soul. This is a song that always brings a smile to my face and warm feelings to the depths of my innards, which is far less disgusting than I make it sound. The borderline incompetent efforts of Pheonix Wright and his happenstance sidekick to unearth clues and solve the mystery were hilarious and always made better by a non-sequitur or two from Maya’s over-active imagination. I hardly noticed how attached I was getting to her freak-outs over Steel Samurai memorabilia and unshakable conviction to call Phoenix “Nick” at every opportunity until the cases were all closed and it was time to part ways. Maya’s theme wraps all these good memories in the fuzzy blanket of chipper nostalgia, reminding you of what made her such a loyal oddball of a companion in the first place.
Mother, I’m Here (Zulf)
Originally from Bastion
Composed by Darren Korb
A missionary from a far-off land, Zulf stood in the ruins of Bastion’s world-shattering Calamity, staring into the stars. Utterly uncomplicated and intensely personal, a lone voice with a lone guitar tells of a hollow, gut-wrenching loss that runs deep. Zulf’s yearning for home, expressed with each melancholy strum of the strings, overwhelms any promises his life so recently held out with deceptively open arms. The lyrics are tinged with regret yet somehow expectant of a homeward rest just beyond the clouds. Only a single piece of the puzzle that is Bastion, Zulf’s theme carries weight in a narrative crafted with music and meaning. It’s not something we’ve seen in videogames before, and I doubt we’ll see it again anytime soon.
Closing it out with a real winner, our time together must come to an end. A collision of videogame storytelling and music is more than enough to get me pumped, so I genuinely enjoyed sharing some favourite songs. Don’t think for a moment that the above is a top ten list or some such rot; it’s merely a standout selection of character themes that I find to be splendid. As always, be sure to buy these soundtracks if possible rather than downloading them illegally like a jerk face or everyone will stop being your friend at once. iTunes and Amazon are good places to look.
I’m always on the hunt for other character theme masterpieces, so leave a comment if you have some I glossed over. Also, ideas for new No Tune Unturned features are always welcome, whether you have a series, a genre, or anything at all in mind. Twitter is a nifty place to reach us (@Critical_Gamer) as is, of course, the comment section below. With nothing left to say, I leave you with the wisest thing I know:
Videogame music is great, so listen to it!