Video Game Music – 5 Intense Tracks from Non-Action Games
by R.T. Allenson
The idea that video games are a form of art is still a much debated topic, but we can agree that many of our beloved games have produced equally beloved and amazing musical scores and tracks. There are games that draw you in with its innovative game play and story, but some stick in your mind cause of how great the accompanying soundtrack is.
Ambient and soothing sounds from video games are a must listen, but if you’re like me, you want to listen to intense music – the kind of musical scores that are exciting and makes your heart race. Or maybe you prefer those foreboding tracks that make you think “Crap, this boss battle’s going to be difficult.”
Think of tracks like “Reaper Chase” from Mass Effect 3 or Nameless King’s Theme from Dark Souls 3. Those are my personal favorites for intense, foreboding music from video games with a whole lot of action.
It would be cheating to list down these epic tracks from video games that you’d expect some action or thrilling battles, so I’m listing five intense tracks from non-action video games. These are the kind that’s of out-of-place in the games where they feature.
5. Blowhard – Spyro the Dragon
If you were a kid growing up in the 90’s and had a Playstation, then you probably played Spyro the Dragon. Published by Insomniac Games back in 1998, it’s a platforming game that stars the titular purple dragon. You jump, fly, and flame across colorful worlds and levels as you save the rest of your dragonkind from Gnasty Gnorc who has frozen them all in crystal.
The plot and story itself is pretty straightforward and I daresay it was one of those few games that you actually enjoyed the in-game collecting and completion aspect of the gameplay, partly due to the colorful world but mostly to its amazing musical score.
You may notice that the soundtrack of the game predominantly features drums, and it won’t come as a surprise to you if you know who composed it – Stewart Copeland. If you don’t know who he is, he was the founder and former drummer of the English rock band The Police, famous for songs like “Every Breath You Take” and “Roxanne”.
Majority of the tracks in the game are cheerful and whimsical, but some are surprisingly intense. Blowhard is just one of the pieces that’s deceptively heart-racing. Take a listen:
This track plays in the boss level of the Magic Crafter’s world. As you may have guessed, Blowhard is a wizard – a storm wizard, hence his name.
The music starts as soon as you swoop down into the level and begin your arduous climb around a sort-of spiraling mountain, with tower spires in the background and frosted mountain tops in the distance. On the way, you’ll be accosted by lesser storm wizards who will zap you with lightning if you aren’t careful.
The boss battle itself is fairly simple, as you only need to dodge Blowhard’s lightning bolts and wait for him to descend so that you can flame him. During your first encounter, Hurricane Hat makes a break for it after you flame him the first time, prompting you to venture further into the mountain.
The platforming is actually the difficult part as you’ll have to jump across cliffs and moving platforms as you chase down the storm wizard. If you’re a completionist, you’ll also have to worry about collecting all the gems in the level. So in the end, it’s one of the more manageable boss levels in the game.
The music that accompanies this level, to me, is one of the best in the entire soundtrack as it really showcases Copeland’s drumming skill. Drums dominate the entire track, and the beat gives you a sense of an approaching storm – fitting since you fight a wizard whose body is a tornado and shoots lightning at you. At the 1:01 mark, it starts getting intense but mellows out into the magical leitmotif of the game.
The drums pick up again, culminating in this amazing ‘drum solo’ that begins at the 2:25 mark where Copeland really lets loose and the drumming sounds like a roaring storm.
This track ranks 5th on my list since though it’s surprisingly intense for an otherwise colorful platforming game, it’s still a lighthearted track. I recommend listening to some of the other tracks in the game, and watch this cool interview/documentary where Copeland talks about how he made the music for Spyro the Dragon.
4. Un-Bearable – Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back
Here we have another game from the 90’s era, and this one is arguably ranks among the most memorable games for any kid growing up with a Playstation. The Crash Bandicoot games are a much beloved series – the original ones, which were published by Naughty Dog, stand out as among the best. Cortex Strikes Back was released back in 1997, and improves much on the original game, as well as introducing a new set of characters.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this platformer are the chase levels; the original had its share of memorable chase levels wherein boulders pursue you à la Indiana Jones style. In Cortex Strikes Back, the second-hub world has chase levels where you are promptly pursued by a menacing, gigantic polar bear.
Fitting for such a terrifying-looking boss, Un-Bearable is intense and foreboding, bolstered by the fact that it predominantly features loud drums and even a synthesized scream or yell.
The tension of the level immediately builds up as soon as the music starts . At the 0:08 mark, you’ll start hearing the familiar boom boom boom that serves as the leitmotif of the entire level. The track starts picking up beginning at the 1:19 mark and culminates at 1:36 when the booming drums get really intense.
You’re bound to get surprised the first time you play this level since previously, only giant boulders chase you throughout similar chase levels. The music adds that air of urgency and pressure, especially when the polar bear starts bounding towards you with that creepy grin.
Un-Bearable is my favorite chase theme out of original Crash Bandicoot games, mostly because I have fond memories of Crash getting trampled by the polar bear and failing the level – repeatedly. I was never really good at platforming games, even when I was younger. Still, it’s a gripping piece that also hits you with a bit of nostalgia if you’ve ever played the original games.
I really hope Activision allows you to listen to the original tracks once the remakes of the core Crash Bandicoot games gets released, or at least keep the remixes faithful to the original.
The original chase music from the first game, Boulder Dash, comes a close second for me. I also love the chase theme for Rusty Walrus from Crash Twinsanity, published by Traveller’s Tales. Keen listeners will recognize this track as a sped-up, a capella remix of the beginning of Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn.
Speaking of Twinsanity, Spiralmouth did amazing work composing the tracks for the game. The battle music for Tikimon the Totem God and Uka Uka’s Battle Theme are good examples of catchy and surprisingly intense tracks.
3. Battle! Ghetsis – Pokémon Black / White
Here, we have another track that heavily features drums. It’s a given since loud, booming drums in a musical piece usually mean that shit’s about to go down. Pokémon games feature some of the most memorable VGMs for anyone that’s played them, and the real gripping tracks usually play when you’re battling the League Champion, Legendaries, or the villainous bosses.
Usually, the accompanying musical piece for the villainous bosses are kind of lackluster when you compare them with other tracks for their corresponding games. Team Plasma’s leader, Ghetsis, however boasts one of the more exciting and intense themes for any villainous boss in the Pokémon series. Have a listen:
The booming drums here are actually booming timpanis and the effect is so menacing and primal, that it rivals the supposedly ‘menacing’ battle theme of Arceus, the literal God of the Pokémon world. If the Alpha Pokémon’s battle music theme evokes a chance encounter with the actual creator of the Universe, then Ghetsis’ theme portrays a man that’s ready to throw the whole order of the world in chaos.
And how! Under Ghetsis and the Seven Sages, Team Plasma’s goal is the liberation of all Pokémon to save them from abuse. However, their efforts to free them aren’t limited to just convincing trainers. During the final stretch of the game, it’s revealed that Team Plasma has actually hacked into the PC Boxes of trainers throughout the Unova region and is planning to release them!
That’s right, the PC Boxes. The safe storage spaces where you place all your legendaries and ev-trained Pokémon are under their control, and they’ll release it when Ghetsis gives the signal. Again, Ghetsis isn’t doing this out of the kindness of his heart; rather, his goal is to be the only person who can use Pokémon so that he can dominate the whole of Unova, and presumably, beyond.
It doesn’t help that during the battle, his most powerful Pokémon is Hydregion, resident pseudo-legendary of the games that’s repeatedly described as a violent and destructive Pokémon. At the time, there was no Fairy-type, so the dark/dragon had powerful resistances and could sweep teams if you start the battle unprepared.
Ghetsis returns in the direct sequel, Pokémon Black 2 / White 2, along with a climatic and fast-paced version of his original theme. This one’s even more intense the original, and just shows the lengths he’d go to achieve his goal.
The villainous bosses from the Pokémon games get progressively darker in their agendas throughout the series. This trend of scary, world-changing villainy began with Galactic Boss Cyrus from Diamond/Pearl/Platinum and continues with Aether President Lusamine from Sun and Moon, the latest games in the series. Magma Leader Maxie and Aqua Leader Archie preceded Cyrus, actually, but they were more misguided than malevolent.
The Pokémon games have several exciting and heart-racing battle themes. Below are some tracks I recommend listening to if you feel like Ghetsis’ battle theme isn’t quite as intense:
Vs. Legendary Pokémon – Pokémon Black and White
Battle! Zinnia – Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire
Battle! Champion Cynthia – Pokémon Diamond /Pearl / Platinum
Battle! Elite Four – Pokémon Black and White
2. Pokey Means Business! – Earthbound
Anyone whose ever played Eartbound has fond memories of the game. The Undertale of the SNES generation, and actually the direct inspiration for the latter, it’s an unconvential RPG that has the same formula as its contemporaries, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but with a twist. Instead of playing as a knight or warrior, you play as an ordinary kid from a Podunk armed with a baseball bat.
The story of Earthbound actually continues where Mother picks off, but it’s not necessary to play the first one for you to understand the story. The world of Earthbound is colorful and somewhat silly, with enemies ranging from Coiled Snakes, Mighty Moles, and the slightly creepy Unassuming Local Guys. Throughout the game, you’re accosted by your naughty and cowardly next-door neighbor, Pokey (Porky) who first begins as a pain in the but to an actual threat as the game gets darker and creepier, until the game flat-out becomes the start of a cosmic horror story.
At the end of the game, Pokey has now allied himself with Giygas – the big bad of the first game who has ascended to become the Embodiment of Evil and the Universal Cosmic Destroyer.
The music that accompanies the penultimate fight is amazing, and offers the same twist the story throws at you. Have a listen:
From the beginning until the 0:52 mark, the music sounds fairly typical of a SNES RPG game. As soon as that passes, the full potential of the SNES soundboard is unleashed as the track turns into a heavy metal battle theme. It’s a musical piece with a plot twist, just like the game, and it’s heart-pumping as it is unexpected.
Take note that this is the SNES we’re talking about and throughout the game, the musical pieces were all fairly typical 16-bit tracks that were either playful sounding or just weird. Then this track hits you at the penultimate battle, and that’s when you realize that Earthbound’s not your typical kiddie RPG game.
I highly recommend playing this game for anyone who hasn’t yet. No need to dust your old SNES though! If you have a DS or a Wii U, you can download this game from the Nintendo Store for $9.99. Trust me, it’s worth it.
1. Council Chamber and Battle Arena – A Bug’s Life
Number one in my list of intense music from non-action video games is a tie between two tracks from the same game – A Bug’s Life, released for the Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Microsoft Windows.
That’s right, the movie game for Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life – the kiddie version of Seven Samurai starring ants and other insects. It’s not exactly the kind of game you’d find on top of the list, but trust me, the tracks for this game are hidden and forgotten gems composed by the genius duo Andy Blythe and Marten Joustra, who are better known for their jazz tracks.
Council Chamber is the level theme for the first boss of the game. Here, you’re fighting against Thumper, the creepy pet/henchman of the movie’s big bad – a feral grasshopper.
Fittingly for such a scary Pixar villain, the music that accompanies his boss fight is equal parts exciting and menacing. Have a listen:
Take note that this is a game based on a kid’s movie and the track immediately hits you with menacing drum beats and tribal chanting. The musical piece is so out-of-place for the game; if you were listening to it and didn’t know it was from A Bug’s Life, you’d think it was real tribal music or even a track from Far Cry Primal. It’s fast paced and sounds so good, and it would be the top of my list if it weren’t for another track within the game that’s also for a boss battle.
I’m talking about Battle Arena, which is the music that plays when you fight Molt – the comedic villain of the movie, also known as Hopper’s younger brother.
Now the protagonists in the movie don’t actually go toe-to-toe with Molt, but in the game you do. The accompanying music of the boss level isn’t as fast-paced as Council Chamber, but it’s certainly epic in its own way.
The beginning of the track starts with ominous instruments accompanied by the crackling of thunder, and it gives way to some subtle rumbling and cheering – presumably from the ants watching you as you lay the smack down on Molt. The music picks up at the 0:25 mark and you’ll first hear the tribal drums and chanting at around 0:34. The rest of the tribal tune starts at the 1:04 mark, and it essentially serves as the recurring theme of the actual track.
These two tracks from the game’s OST stand out as impressive and intense musical scores that are kind of out-of-place for a movie game about bugs. I suggest you listen to some of the game’s other tracks since it’s surprisingly polished for a rather mediocre movie game. It’s certainly a welcome treat, and hits me with some good old nostalgia.
I’m sure there are other VGMs from non-action video games that are equally intense and fast-paced as what I’ve listed here, but these are my top five. If you know of any other tracks or musical pieces, go ahead and comment and share.