Originally Posted on December 26, 2010: Link.
Video games have been a big part of my life ever since I was a little kid. Back when I was about 2-3 years old, my mother bought me and my siblings a NES. Soon, we got an SNES, then a Gameboy, Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and so on and so forth. From those humble beginnings, I cultivated a tremendous amount of respect for not only the games themselves, but the story and the music that stayed in my memory to this day.
Throughout my college years, I made it a purpose to go back and play a lot of these RPG titles, especially the ones I had not played until completion or had only watched a brother or a friend play. And yet, still those nostalgiac feelings remain. I still can’t play a game that does not sustain a solid bedrock of a narrative and great compositions. Those two I place on the highest echelon for whether or not I can recommend it to my friends (gameplay of course being third, but that only supplements these two in my opinion).
Before we get to the countdown, let me start by first saying that this list mixes in a lot of old with a little bit of new, so you can go ahead and call me more of an old school fanatic. I honestly find it pretty difficult to find songs nowadays that really grip me as the RPGs of earlier times did. It is easy to write it off as simply nostalgia, but I have always believed that composers like Nobuo Uematsu were able to craft their greatest work came from when he had very little to work with. Even up and through the original PlayStation days, therein still lied that compelling attitude to try and do the best with what one had. Once he was able to get himself an orchestra and record live sessions with uncompressed sound, I did not see quite as much raw passion or inspiration coming out of these composers. It’s not all bad, though; there are of course some amazing exceptions to this rule, as you will see in this list.
For most of these songs, they may not stand up so much on their own, but within context (like with a lot of theme music in general) they do help compliment some of the most shocking and emotional moments in RPG history. Of course, there are also video games out there where their only real redeeming quality is their soundtrack. With this list, however, I hope to convince some of you out there to go back and give these titles a try. If you would like to listen to them, I have a provided a link to a Youtube page in the title of the song. So without further ado, here is my list of the Top 9 RPG spoiler-free songs of the decade!
Composer: Motoi Sakuraba
Performer: Mio Sakuraba
I have been fortunate enough to come across some great music when picking up gems here and there. Baten Kaitos was one of those games that didn’t really garner much attention or respect from the mainstream RPG fanbase, but there was some incredibly gameplay and beautifully written music to be had. “Le Ali Del Principio” was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, a veteran composer who has written most of the music for the “Tales”, “Star Ocean’, and Golden Sun games, and was performed by his 9-year old daughter, Mio Sakuraba, who serenades us with her beautiful and mature soprano vocals. I loved this song, and it makes me want to go back and play the game again just to hear it once more.
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Drawing towards the climax of the game, players were suddenly thrown into one of the more shocking and emotional moments of the game that radically altered what the mood had been up to that point, bringing the revelation that our main character, Zidane, had been seeking all along but not what he was expecting it to be. The title of the song, “You’re Not Alone”, really speaks well for itself. At a time when Zidane needs his friends the most, they answered the call and came to his aid.
We can all relate to having those types of moments in our life where we need someone to lean on, and seeing how supportive the cast was in order to boost his spirits really raised Final Fantasy IX towards becoming one of the best RPGs in gaming history, and this song playing a big part in making that ascension.
Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda
Performer: Joanne Hogg
Mitsuda is giving it the ole 1-2 punch in this countdown. Xenogears just so happens to be my favorite RPG of all time. Incredible characters, a beautiful art design, bar-none the greatest combat system, and arguably the best story ever told (second disk conflicts aside), it showed that Squaresoft did not have to confine itself in the Final Fantasy series and could branch out to craft these other amazing games. “Small Two of Pieces” features beautiful English vocals and a great guitar solo. This song helped characterize the time-bending love story between Fei and Elly, and also capped off another fantastic soundtrack for my main man Mitsuda. I have always had a copy of this somewhere with me either on a CD or on my iPod. It’s one of those quintessential love songs.
Yasunori Mitsuda himself regards Xenogears as his greatest work, and as a gift to fans, he is currently in the planning stages for creating an orchestral remake of songs from the game selected by the community itself, naming it “Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album”. It is set to be released in February, when hopefully the game itself will also be released on the American PSN.
Composer: Keiichi Okabe
Performer: Emi Evans
If critics like to keep on saying that video games can’t be conveyed as true art, one simply has to take a listen to NieR’s soundtrack for a compelling indicator that this is simply not true. Case in point, “Emil / Sacrifice”. This incredibly bone-chilling operatic vocal tune sung by Emi Evans adds a surreal amount of emotional depth to the already fantastic story-telling that the game provides (something a lot of us on the RPGSite staff agreed with, even if we had other qualms).
Pound for pound, NieR offers arguably one of the best soundtracks of the decade and deserves a thorough listening session to fully appreciate composer and sound director Keiichi Okabe’s masterful demonstration of his ability. I am absolutely certain that this man will be placed amongst some of the greatest composers in gaming history if he keeps creating great songs like this one, and it contains music everyone can enjoy.
Composer: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka
It’s a bit hard to explain, but there’s just something about Ness and his destined group of friends that has this overwhelming since of charm to it even after all these years, where the tale of a bunch of kids out to save the world from evil has turned into one of the most cliche plots in all of gaming. Minutes after I had started playing the game, I quickly became hooked to this creative and original title at a time where so many games had fallen to the same old beaten path, for it is in the details where this game really showed its strengths.
The game truly had a style and a tone that was all its own, balancing coolness with the outlandish, a combination that helped place it far ahead of its time and still being able to hold up to this day. I guess taking the time to poke fun at your own genre made it even more appealing. “Smiles and Tears”, the tune that ran during the credits sequence of the game, helped top off this wonderful (and challenging) experience, and made the time spent playing the game even more extraordinary. Oh, and the song has a great history attached to it. Now… where did that monkey go? I need to continue my training.
Composer: Hitoshi Sakimoto
After the incredible ending that Final Fantasy Tactics gave its player with its many twists and turns, “Epilogue” was a rather haunting tune wonderfully crafted that conveyed a sense of sadness with a little bit of hope. It stands well enough on its own, but for those that played it, it will remain in their memory. The epilogue itself has to be one of the best on the PlayStation, bringing the game to a whole new level to put itself heads and shoulders in some gamer’s minds above the Final Fantasy series itself. Over the span of the game, players were able to become emotionally attached to the plight of childhood friends Ramza and Delita, and ultimately the fate of the Kingdom of Ivalice itself.
Final Fantasy Tactics remains to me a textbook example of how to create a compelling narrative while not being bogged down by a large cast of characters that each has their place in the story. Some may have opposing attitudes especially when it came to the disregard of revealing what came of the other characters in the story, but whatever your opinion may be, the payoff for spending dozens of hours of game time lost in Final Fantasy Tactics was huge, and gave players a lot to talk about long after the credits had rolled.
Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda
When players got their hands on Chrono Cross, they were presented with a stark contrast from the familiarity and design of the previous entry into the series, Chrono Trigger, and one closer to the original Radical Dreamers which coincidentally featured the same characters. Sure, people will have their qualms of the quality of the game itself (it just so happens to be one of my favorite games, so poo on you), but when it came to the soundtrack, the verdict was almost unanimous: Yasunori Mitsuda solidified his role among the greats in the industry with a soundtrack still beloved to this day (and still considered one of the best in gaming history.
I could have cheated and gone with the memorable “Scars of Fate”, but I decided to go with another great tune, “People Imprisoned by Destiny”, which was played during a fight in which, you guessed it, neither side wanted to be a part of. Oh, and how ridiculously tough that very battle was. The mood during that entire sequence was stifling and heart-wrenching because you knew what led up to that point and how much of a change things were starting to become for the direction of the story itself. All you had to hear was the combination of stretched-out violins and sobering cellos to become completely engrossed in the moment.
I think another song, “Star-Stealing Girl”, comes in a close second to this, if not for the tear-jerking speech made by Kid while that song is played. Those that have played the game know exactly what I am talking about.
Composer: Shoji Meguro
One hell of an epic tune if there ever was one, “The Genesis” plays during the true ending to Persona 4, the game we awarded the “Best RPG of 2008” that was given in part because of its top-tier original soundtrack. Not only does it feature dark guitar riffs and smashing drums blended with orchestral instruments, but also a blistering remix of the original boss battle music. This nearly 8-minute-long track is intricately woven to give players one of the most satisfying ending songs (and soundtracks) ever crafted in this gamer’s opinion. It is highly worth the listen, and certainly worth a playthrough.
After 60 + hours of game time, I don’t think anyone was surprised that Persona 4 capped it off with one of the most amazing boss battles of the modern era, led by a theme that helped to define the series.
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Yes, the top song on this list is from Final Fantasy VII. Surprised? No matter if you loved or hated Final Fantasy VII, one thing is for sure: Nobuo Uematsu arranged one hell of a soundtrack that many consider to be his magnum opus. “Anxious Heart” plays just after the bombing raid at the Mako Facility which takes place at the beginning of the game. Hearing this song when players meet Aeris, it started to become ingrained into the mind of RPG fans everywhere that this game was really starting to become much more than what they had even hoped for.
Just hearing this song after so long caused a rush of memories back into my head — the train ride, the fateful encounter with Aeris, and the absolute emotional impact I sustained (as many did) as a young boy during the shocking twist in the middle of the game that changed the face of RPGs, rather video games forever. “Anxious Hearts” is certainly the embodiment of the entire Final Fantasy VII experience. And what a coincidence, today just so happens to be the 14th anniversary of the game’s release! Two reasons to celebrate.
Songs like these are the reasons why I love RPGs so much. For me, if the game doesn’t have an incredibly solid story with strong character development and a powerful soundtrack, I don’t want any part of that game. Inside this genre however, you find many examples that altogether amount to these moments that will stay with you forever like a good book or an exciting movie. I am sure that if I live to be 100, I will still be going back to play a lot of these games and listen to these songs and they will continue to have that vise-like grip on my hippocampus.
I am sure I will be getting a lot of flak from you readers for not including one of your favorite songs on this list, but I had to cap it off somewhere, and these are really songs that touched me the most. Please share the songs that you really enjoyed in the comments section below along with perhaps a link to where it can be listened to so we can all enjoy it!