Music Makes My Mind Melt

A Discussion on Game Music

Not gonna lie: I've wanted to talk about Crypt of the NecroDancer on one of my sites for years now. If I could have found a way to write an article about it for the Inverted Dungeon, I would have already (just couldn't find a way to shoehorn it in). Thankfully, with this blog site back up and running, I finally have a chance.

But let's not just discuss that game (which is hella fun and if you haven't already played it, go do that; like, right meow). What I want to talk about is my favorite part of that game, and several others as well: the music. I'm the kind of person that always has to have so kind of noise going on. When I'm watching TV or movies, that sates that need, but when there's nothing else going on with sound, like when I'm working on this site, I have music turned up. A huge potion of my (not insubstantial) music collection is game music. I'm a gamer through and through and the music that gets put into video games are the tunes and the genre I grew up with.

There have been a number of games recently that have had what I would say are essential music listening. These are soundtracks that I think are great not only for fans of the games they came from but for anyone that likes good music in general. So I want to take a few moments and highlight those absolutely essential soundtracks. And, yes, first up is...

Crypt of the NecroDancer

I mean, come on, this game was going to have an absolutely phenomenal soundtrack. It had to: it's a rhythm game/dungeon explorer all mixed up into one. Your character, Melody, has to explore the eponymous Crypt, dancing the beat of the music the whole way. You collect treasures, upgrade Melody, and fight monsters (by running towards them on the beat -- the game takes care of the actual attacking for you). Do it well and you'll make it to the end.

The soundtrack to go along with the fun gameplay is propulsive. It's got a very techno feel to it, featuring hard beats, strong beats, and constant energy. For my money, the absolute best track is the one from the first floor of the first dungeon, "Disco Descent", which sets the tone for the adventure ahead. Its equally parts propulsive dread, hard synths, and crunchy guitars and it really makes you feel like you're taking your first steps into a great and expansive dungeon. There are other fantastic tracks, from metal-infused techno to jazzy-pop (and even a conga), so you never feel like you're getting recycled material.

What I like best is that there are official remixes of the game, too. ARival put out the techno-infused Melody Mixes that lean hard on the beats and synths. FamilyJules (who contributed backing tracks for metal-infused numbers on the main soundtrack) cranked out Aria's Ascent, which doubles-down on the guitars and heavy beats. You can also find Jake Kaufman's Freestyle Retro album which takes the music to its more old-school roots, upping the classic synths for a very 16-bit feel. All of these soundtracks (or even your own music) can be subbed into the main game, giving you so many options on what to listen to as you play.

Word of advise, though: ignore the Shopkeeper versions of the songs -- his singing is awful and I'm sure these tracks were included mostly as a joke.

Shovel Knight

Oh, Shovel Knight. I wrote about your game over on Inverted Dungeon, but your soundtrack is so good I have to mention it again. Written by Jake Kaufman (with a couple of guest tracks by others), this soundtrack is an old school-inspired classic. Written to sound as if it could have come out of your NES (which, really, is Shovel Knight's whole aesthetic), this soundtrack is one good journey of beats and synths after another.

Like with Crypt of the NecroDancer, I tend to feel that the first level track from this game, "Strike the Earth", is the standout of this collection, a hard, fast, epic song with enough sweeping melodies to push you deeper into the game. I also love the regal tone of "In the Halls of the Usurper", the deep dread of "Am Underlying Problem", and the epic, sweeping thrust of "The Fateful Return".

Plus, there have been bonus soundtracks released for the expansions. Although A Plague of Shadows only features a few extra songs, the second expansion, Specter of Torment features a fully remixed soundtrack for the entire game. If you get into the music from the main game, you owe it to yourself to check out these expansion songs, especially the remixed track from Flying Machine, "A Cargo of Fineries", which layers syncopated rhythms and new themes into the main score for a song altogether more epic than the original.

Alwa's Awakening

I caught a speedrun of Alwa's Awakening on the Games Done Quick marathon and I immediately started grooving out to the soundtrack. This is another game with an NES inspired score (in fact I seem to recall that there were a limited number of soundtracks released, all on NES reproduction cartridges). Written by Robert Kresse, this is a soundtrack that does a lot with very little, mixing the limited channels and instruments to create a deep, moody, rhythmic soundtrack. I full recognize that chiptune-heavy soundtracks aren't for everyone, but this is one where I feel like you should really give it a chance. It does not disappoint.

Oh yeah, and the game is very fun, too. An interesting take on the Metroidvania formula. Of course, the graphics are done up in NES style as well, making everything feel of-a-piece.

Blossom Tales

The last game I want to talk about is Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King. A Zelda-like game, this one is another old-school throwback, directly inspired by the classic SNES and Game Boy Zelda games. The music, by Visager, has a more Sega Genesis feel, a selection of crunchy synths and heavy beats that make it sound distinct from most other retro soundtracks out there. And songs run the gamut from epic, sweeping fanfares to moody, dread-filled dirges. It's certainly the most diverse of the soundtracks highlighted here, one I have a fondness for because of how different it is (plus the game is a lot of fun).

I'll also note that Visager has a number of soundtracks they've written, with their three Songs for an Unmade World albums being true highlights. I highly recommend checking those out as well.