No Tune Unturned: Fantasy

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. Part 1 of the audio-only Sonic Boombox feature kicked off last month, but now we return to the traditional format of written text and YouTube videos for this most fantastical instalment. Indeed, it’s time to step through the proverbial wardrobe (or train station wall if you’re a heathen) and visit the worlds of myth.

Dungeons and dragons, swords and sworcery, ghosts and goblins– call it what you will. The term I’ve chosen is “fantasy”, which means plenty of magic and an endless heap of adventure. This genre of fiction has always captured my imagination (only to tag it with creativity and release it back into the wild), especially when videogames are involved. Not only can wondrous realms be fully rendered and explored, but music of all forms spring to life along the roads. I may remember the way a mystical forest appears or how difficult a towering colossus was to bring down, yes, but the memory that lives on in my head forever? That’d be the music.

 

Time of the Falling Rain

From The Legend of Zelda: A Link to Past

Composed by Koji Kondo

The night is dark, the rain is falling, and the princess is way in over her head. So is the young hero Link, come to think of it, and it’s up to you and your Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller to make things right. The opening of A Link to the Past was enormously atmospheric before atmospheric videogames were really a thing, and it gives me chills every time. The repetitive imitation of hyperactive strings keeps a tension crackling in the air, mixed with rainwater, lightning, and the threat of gathering storm clouds. What might be an old school cello pairs up with a horn to complete the ominous mood, casting strange shadows of their own. The entire piece keeps rising and falling as if on the point of snapping like a shoddily made Giant’s Knife. It sets a mysterious, exciting mood for a brand new adventure and– as far as I’m concerned– accompanies the best opening to a Zelda game yet.

 

Astral Academy

From Trine

Composed by Ari Pulkkinen

Openings are generally followed by first levels, as I see it, and that’s exactly what the Astral Academy is. Trine’s haphazard Wizard wanders these firelit halls of supernatural education as he bumps into co-op buddies Knight and Theif, all the while conjuring boxes like, as it were, a boss. A playful melody follows along with delicately plucked strings and an aura of mystery; not dark and scary like A Link to the Past, but full of half-amused handfuls of magic. The meandering music is snuffed out like a candle at 2:00, shortly floating back into sight for one more round. The whole of Trine is a whimsical storybook of an adventure, illustrated with beautiful locations that tingle with imagination, but the setting wouldn’t be complete without Ari Pulkkinen’s wonderful soundtrack. And like all the finest musicians of history, I can’t pronounce his name.

 

The Crowfather

From Darksiders II

Composed by Jesper Kyd

Now the war begins. The Crowfather is a strange old man shackled with chains and in the constant company of scruffy birds, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements; yet this bony fellow’s theme is one of the most powerful pieces of music in Darksiders II. It begins with the gentlest of strings, setting a tragic stage for an unhappy land, made more poignant with a beautifully strummed guitar at 0:53. The Crowfather is embroiled in a world in its death throes, emphasized by an unrest that gathers beneath the surface of the calming song. Finally, unable to contain its inordinate weightiness at 1:34, all hell breaks loose (and yes, I know that’s not technically canonical to the Darksider’s fiction). This portion blares when Death and a phantom of his brother War lock blades in combat, each mighty blow clashing with the sound of horns. Instead of relying solely on the Inception-esque “BWAAAAAHHHHM” and calling it a day, Jesper Kyd weaves in melody and high drama to the perilous scene, and it’s enormously effective. All of that from a crow-obsessed fellow who dies in the first ten minutes.

 

Revived Power

From Shadow of the Colossus

Composed by Koh Otani

After the dark and desperate plight of Death and all of his friends, Shadow of the Colossus springs upon us an unexpected burst of celebratory excitement. Struggling to defeat sixteen behemoths of the Forbidden Land is gruelling work, but when the beast has been scaled, your horse is but an ant on a faraway earth, and conquest is within your hands, Revived Power rises up. The orchestra goes nuts with unbridled enthusiasm and– dare I say– optimism, upending the tone of doom in exchange for the thrill of victory. 0:54 encapsulates the rush of clinging to a patch of fur as a three-story monster tosses you to and fro like a rag, but you’ve come too far to simply let go. The whole world rocking underfoot, the strike of the sword, the fountain of thick black blood, and the impossible being achieved all flash through my mind as the triumphant notes of this magnificent piece resound in my eardrums. Whether or not you feel bad about slaying the noble colossi is your business, but it’s one heck of a ride.

 

Pig and Whistle

From World of Warcarft

Composed by David Arkenstone

There’s no better place to kick back and take a break from the adventure than a local Azerothian tavern, and let me tell you, there’s a lot to choose from. David Arkenstone whipped together a whole bunch of memorable songs for World of Warcraft’s varied inns and houses of drink, but I couldn’t resist picking the Pig and Whistle for its sheer jauntiness. The clinking mugs and cheerful voices of Stormwind City fade into the background as the most toe-tapping of tunes carries the mood, as if performed by a troupe of talented and surprisingly sober troubadours. A flute and a fiddle hop in and out of the spotlight, happily giving way for one another in the cavalcade of orderly instruments, coming to fruition in a heroic display of musical cooperation from 1:57 until the rousing finish. The effect is a song that distils the spirit of friends gathered about a noisy tavern, inviting the listener to drink in the atmosphere lest its lovingly crafted detail be wasted.

 

Main Theme

From Jade Empire

Composed by Jack Wall

We now turn from the most western song of the west to the most eastern of the east, conjuring images of coiled dragons and all the bamboo you could wish for. Bioware’s foray into Chinese mythology failed to keep me invested (when goat-faced demons from another realm put you to sleep, something’s wrong), but the main theme is undeniably beautiful. It’s very simple at it’s core– no more than a few well-placed notes repeated throughout most of the arrangement– but the soaring majesty it evokes is worthy of the name Jade Empire. 0:55’s thoughtful interlude makes the backing drums all the more prominent as they pound methodically away, soon to be swept up in another chorus at 1:22. This mixture of quiet confidence and grand recurring themes gives the entire piece a presence that not many games touch, particular because of the dedication to a radically different culture than your typical fantasy fare. When it closes with the piercing wind instruments of 2:37, I immediately want to sell all my worldly possessions, hop on a segway, and go to China, but then I remember there’s an ocean and get pretty bummed out.

 

Fury Sparks

From Tales of Vesperia

Composed by Motoi Sakuraba

Okay, we’re still in the eastern part of the world, but that’s where the segway falls apart. Tales of Vesperia is about as Japanese as RPGs come, but boldly tosses out the trope-ridden hero so common to the genre for a protagonist with a genuine personality. Yuri Lowell is an ex-knight with a tendency towards both compassion and anarchist vengeance, so it’s always a special moment when he reunites with his old friend Flynn Scifo, a noble member of Yuri’s old regiment. These meetings occasionally end with the flash of steel, which is where Fury Sparks comes into play. Upbeat guitars with a deadly focus mingle with the two combatants shouting special powers at the top of their lungs, backed by high-paced drums and a bit of symphonic drama for good measure. As sparks fly (furiously, I might add), the song works its way up to the rocking buildup at 0:50, unleashing the frustration and determination that only two anime rivals can generate. It’s a fun bout of exciting battle music that simultaneously highlights a great story and an important piece of the fantasy pie.

 

Expedition

From Fire Emblem: Awakening

Composed by Hiroki Morishita / Rei Kondoh

Put the fury sparks away. Time to calm down. Within seconds of starting Expedition, you will be swept away to another place entirely; one of soft, melodic wonder and introspective turn-based battle systems. This music appears upon entering one of Fire Emblem: Awakening’s side missions, which are actually about killing zombies, but you’d never know it. After an opening that may have been forged in the heavens, 0:18 introduces a stringed instrument that all but guarantees the heaven theory. The soothing waterfall flows into a hint of eastern flavour before moving stealthily into a peaceful rendition of the Fire Emblem theme at 1:25, playing it through until the end. When the fighting starts, the orchestration rises up with a fiery spirit, adding a seamless new layer to the extraordinary song. It’s a glimmering jewel hidden in a huge game’s seemingly rudimentary side path, which somehow makes it all the lovelier when discovered.

 

Beyond the Horizon

From Soulcalibur

Composed by Junichi Nakatsuru

Beyond the Horizon represents Hwang Sung Kyung, a swashbuckling warrior from Korea, and his personal stage of history, the Silk Road Ruins. This may sound awfully tame for legitimate fantasy, but no! There is a lizardman and it is armed, thus our hero Hwang Sung Kyung circles his foe with the cautious steps of one who looks scaly death in the reptilian eye and laughs loudly. The song leaps into motion with exotic notes that ring into the blazing sky, adding to the illusion of dust swirling beneath the duellists’ feet. The tension mounts as fingers stray to swords, rising like the sandy winds of change, until– at 0:52– the music springs to life with the ferocity of a very annoyed Bengal tiger! Orchestra hits are traded like breathless blows, faster than the ear can track, mirroring the fleet-footed motions of one Hawng Sung Kyung and the wicked lizardman. The fluid one-on-one wars of Soulcalibur could never ascend to their fullest heights without the lightning-fast soundtrack to fuel them, and as has been made clear through the struggles of man and lizard, Beyond the Horizon pulls its own weight.
 

Nerevar Rising

From The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Composed by Jeremy Soule

And so we come to the final entry in this episode and what I view as the greatest song the fantasy genre has ever known: Nerevar Rising. Drum beats boom like distant thunder in a sea of silence, pausing expectantly in a rhythm, until the main theme shows up at 0:07. It has a light touch at first– almost mystical– but grows in strength, unfurling the mists of Vvardenfell with each passing moment. Mesmerising as it is, this is all preparation, of course, for 1:09. If cresting a hill in the dew-strewn cold of dawn to see a red sunrise sparkle between strange mountainous regions on the horizon could perform a crazy ritual and take musical form, it would be in this moment. Morrowind’s majesty and deep mystery are explained eloquently in the unforgettable melody, reminding me of Balmora’s flat-roofed buildings, the otherworldly call of a silt strider, and the endlessly shimmering Sea of Ghosts. Even when these sights and sounds glitched out or took three hours to load, Jeremy Soule’s amazing (and atypical) soundtrack kept me in open-eyed wonder. As the drum beats return to close out the piece, I’m always left with a feeling of a journey’s end, but with more to see tomorrow. In fact, that’s exactly what a good fantasy adventure should do.

 

And that’s it, we’re all done! The road may go ever on and on, but I’m out of here. I had to cut my list of potential games down to half its original size for this one and I’m fairly certain most of them could carry their own instalments– Soulcalibur and World of Warcraft already did. All the same, these ten incredible songs are a pretty decent representation of the expansive glory that is videogame fantasy music, wouldn’t you say?

And hey, don’t forget about the No Tune Unturned Twitter account! I tweet one videogame song every day and gladly take requests, so join the club and follow along. It’ll be fun and musical. Either way, I shall leave you with my classic and self-explanatory catchphrase that everyone will be quoting someday:

Videogame music is great, so listen to it!

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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