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The 8 Ball: Top 8 Single Songs in Games – Assassin’s Creed 2, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, More

May 8, 2018 | Posted by Marc Morrison
Assassin's Creed

Welcome all to another edition of The 8 Ball! This week is a pretty wide topic of best songs in games. Frankly, this is a completely subjective list. Everyone has different musical tastes, and mine are pretty out there compared to most people’s. For this specific list, I picked out single songs from games I like; songs that help elevate the game to a new level. I didn’t pick any overt licensed tracks or moments. If I did, the Saints Row 3 singalong or the Far Car 3 pot field burning song would obviously be present here, but that’s not my goal. I have one or two licensed tracks on this list, but I explain my reasoning for those picks.  I also didn’t pick any real popular songs.  Music from Final Fantasy, Mario, Zelda is always going to be great, that’s not really the point of my list. After my own list, I have a guest list from a friend of mine named Jens. He is a fellow soundtrack enthusiast with a podcast and took a different, interesting tact with his own list. Enjoy:


#8: At Dawn…For Speed Highway (Sonic Adventure)

To be honest, this Speed Highway track might be the only salvageable thing that came out of Sonic Adventure. The earlier Sonic the Hedgehog games are filled with some great music. The 3D era and up Sonic games have this, as well as stupid “rock” tracks at the end of Sonic Adventure 1/start of Sonic Adventure 2 that are beyond cheesy. However, this track features some pretty interesting instrumentation, has a breezy melody, and is just a good track overall. I think it’s only featured in two places in the game: a Sonic level and a Knuckles one.


#7: Track 1 – Opening (Leviathan: The Last Day of the Decade)

Honestly, I’m not sure if this is a licensed track or not. I don’t think it is, but that’s just my guess. I actually bought this game based solely on the trailer, where this song is playing. That was a mistake on my part, since I don’t like visual novels (which the game is), but the song is still great. It starts very gently with the female vocalist singing for about 57 seconds before it launches into a much more rock-focused sound. This lasts about 30 seconds before going to a whimsical tone, until the rock sound comes back. It may sound fragmentary, but in the end the song really comes together well.


#6: Kinetic Harvest (Shatter)

All of Shatter’s soundtrack is really good. Done by “Module” (Jeremiah Ross), a New Zealand musician, he blends both techno and rock in some great ways. There are some good crescendos in Kinetic Harvest, as the song is always building to something. This is exemplified by the trill that is constantly playing. Most of the song is a peppy techno track, but around the three minute mark is where the trills cut out for almost two minutes, and the song gets kind of sinister sounding but is still building up. At around 5:15 the trills come back and at 5:30 is when it starts sounding like it did in the beginning.


#5: Cyber Peacock (Mega Man X4)

The first three seconds of this song are terrible. The 2:23 minutes after that are great. I really enjoy the refrain that occurs at 50 seconds in and at 1:49, where it almost sounds like a regal piece of techno music. Aside from that, the song has a good melody but some quite weird discordant notes. It doesn’t sound bad, but it sounds very odd when you first hear it. I think the refrain helps ground it, because it helps speed up the actual song quite a bit and helps build the song out. For those curious, Split Mushroom (also in MMX4) also has a good stage song, but Cyber Peacock is the best, I think.


#4: Venice Rooftops (Assassin’s Creed 2)

It may be sacrilegious to say this, but I don’t know a ton of Jesper Kyd’s work. I’ve played at least half a dozen games with him as the composer but only his Assassin’s Creed stuff stands out to me. Even of that list, I’d wager that Assassin’s Creed 2 is the best of the soundtracks he did just for the variety involved, as well as the instrumentation. My favorite track is an early one, pretty much at the start of the game with “Venice Rooftops”. The track plays when you (as Ezio) get into a race with your older brother on the rooftops of Venice to go back home. It really helps set the mood for the game. It’s a much more grandiose song than anything in AC1, but with a more playful feel that helps let the player know that Ezio actually has a personality. It’s also just a good “this is the start of a journey” song, which Assassin’s Creed 2 definitely is.


#3: Ozar Midrashim (Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver)

This is a partial cheat, since it’s a licensed song for the game. However, the composer of the song, Kurt Hartland, did compose the rest of the music for the game, so I’m giving it a pass. The song originally appeared on a 1997 Information Society album “Don’t Be Afraid”, but again, Kurt Hartland was in the band and did the work for the game, so it’s cool. “Ozar Midrashim” is the track that plays during the intro cinematic for the game, where Raziel grows wings, gets them destroyed by Kain, is thrown into the swirly pit of energy, and then reborn as a wraith. It is a very gothic/industrial track for most of its length. I enjoy the melody that occurs at 2:31, when it is introduced among the various drums and chains clinking together. It’s slightly more upbeat than the previous melody in the song, despite everything else going on.


#2: Lucia vs. Zophar (Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete)

This is a song that is almost in three parts. The first 40 seconds is the serene part with a flute and lute playing in a calm manner. At 40 seconds, drums kick in along with some evil-sounding chorus singing, and it becomes a sinister sound, with some hard violin strings and other drums. This lasts up until 1:33 when the horns kick in and then it becomes almost like royal battle music. The speed increases slightly and the drums drop the sinister sound as the horns continue to play the same melody for about 3 minutes. After that, it repeats again, for the final time, but the instrumentation slightly changes even more with it being the finale of the song. Both Lunar games have some great music but this is the best track by far.


#1.  Introducing…Ulala (Space Channel 5)

Fun fact: I discovered in the course of writing this entry that this song is actually a cover. It’s an old 1960s song from Ken Woodman and his Piccadilly band called “Mexican Flyer”. Still, the Space Channel 5 version does add some things to it and the original version is fairly different. This song exudes energy with its great horn and drums for the length of the song. There are some great horns in this song, almost going constantly, which makes the song really stand out. It almost cuts out completely at 1:45 for a few seconds, until the horns come back for a big band interlude and the mambo sound returns in force, ending with a saxophone highlight near the end of the song. You want good music in a rhythm game and Space Channel 5 has some of the best.




The 8 Ball: Top 8 Orchestral Scores for Bad Games

by Jens

My good friend Marc Morrison, who normally writes The 8 Ball, had been hounding me to contribute a video game music column for months now, pitching broad ideas along the lines of “Top 8 Cues in Video Games”. I felt this was casting the net far too wide – an impossible task to do properly. Hence, I suggested a much narrower focus that would allow me to shine light on some overlooked gems instead. Here, then, are my personal favorite soundtracks for lousy video games.

8. Alone in the Dark (2008)

This is actually the fifth game in the Alone in the Dark series, but because it came out in the era of the soft reboot, that is what it eventually turned into. The game’s flaws are manifold: from turning series protagonist Edward Carnby into an amnesiac with the vocabulary of a salty sailor, to the nightmarish user interface design and control scheme. There isn’t much to recommend this other than the fire tech (which was impressive for its time) and Oliver Dereviere’s music. Dereviere is an experimenter and a pioneer of sorts. His blending of fast-paced string ostinatos and digital distortion in Remember Me, another score for an arguably bad game from the same developer that almost made this list, remains one of the most unique and inventive compositions I’ve heard. His use of Haitian singers and percussion in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry was also unprecedented. For Alone in the Dark he goes all out with eerie vocals, a prominent Bulgarian choir, and dissonant string figures. For a video game score, it is surprisingly avant-garde writing, some of which wouldn’t be out of place in a turn-of-the-century concert hall, or an ambitious ‘70s horror film. It imbues the game with a remarkable character and sense of unease, and it is the only reason I ever made it to the end credits.


7. Turning Point: Fall of Liberty

When Spark Unlimited, the development team behind Call of Duty: Finest Hour, was creating their first new IP, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, they naturally turned to their previous collaborator, Michael Giacchino. Giacchino, who cut his teeth as a composer on the early Medal of Honor games, had already gone on to Hollywood stardom working for Pixar and J.J. Abrams. That is why, as of this writing, this is his second-to-last video game score. Just because he was writing it on the side doesn’t mean he put in any less effort or bravado than usual, however. Turning Point is quintessential Giacchino, written in the démodé vein of a WWII drama, with a gallant hero theme and action music dominated by jagged, brassy rhythms. When it isn’t operating within one of those two modes, it resembles the composer’s initial Call of Duty score: thoughtful and complex, tense and dissonant, and every now and then brooding and doom-laden. Frankly, I prefer his scores in this style even to his acclaimed film music, and wish he would write like this again at some point, despite this particular effort being wasted on a bad game. As has become an unfortunate trend for Spark Unlimited, the rest of Turning Point didn’t come together nearly as well as the music. The game was a buggy mess, visually far behind the times, and featured generic first person shooter design.


6. Lair

Fans of Turrican and the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series were surely excited for Factor 5’s Lair back when it was announced as a PlayStation 3 launch title. Alas, not only did Lair not manage to make the launch release date, but it turned into such a critical and sales disaster, it ended up sinking the studio entirely. Several misguided game design decisions doomed Lair, the worst of them Sony’s insistence on mandatory motion controls to showcase their new Sixaxis controller, but you can’t blame Sony for skimping on production value. They treated this as a prestige project, investing much in the game’s cinematic presentation. The most cinematic component of all is the music by living Hollywood legend John Debney, known by film music fans for CutThroat Island – one of the greatest scores ever written – but more known by regular folks for his Oscar-nominated The Passion of the Christ. Lair is an utterly massive work for orchestra, choir, and ethnic-sounding vocal soloists, all in that lavish, elaborate orchestration style Debney is renowned for. Lesser known (but still excellent) composer/orchestrator Kevin Kaska also contributes some first-rate material. The score is leitmotiv-driven and contains a multitude of memorable themes: the noble main theme, the gorgeous love theme, lamentful themes for Rohn and the encroaching darkness, and a strident, march-like action theme for the Diviners. It’s unashamedly sweeping and old-fashioned, the kind of music you rarely hear in movies anymore outside of something like Star Wars.


5. SimCity

With SimCity, much like with Lair, unwise game design decisions driven by studio mandates ruined what could otherwise have been a decent game. The granular nature of the simulation limited SimCity to a frustratingly tiny area on which to build, and EA’s demands for always-online connectivity killed whatever goodwill remained. It is ironic and a little sad that the finest score ever written for any Sim City game was written for this one. It comes courtesy of veteran video game composer Chris Tilton, who also wrote Jumper and Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, two terrific soundtracks for terrible games that almost made this list. Tilton scored the game as you would a major documentary about, say, the history of infrastructure or architecture. It’s full of sprightly chimes and woodwinds, driving percussive patterns, and soaring strings and brass that just scream “Progress!” and “Human ingenuity!” Listening to this soundtrack, you can close your eyes and inevitably a time-lapse montage of a city being built will pop into your imagination. The main melody underlying all this is also a real beauty, and highly inspirational. It makes perfect sense that this soundtrack album has taken on a second life as the background music of choice for designers and programmers to listen to while working. Clearly it is a highly effective productivity tool.


4. Aliens: Colonial Marines

There aren’t many things Gearbox did right with the Aliens: Colonial Marines. The studio massively oversold the game at trade shows, all the while diverting resources from the development team to focus on Borderlands 2 instead. When it became painfully clear that the game was an unfinished mess and Gearbox wouldn’t meet their contractual obligations, it was farmed out to various contracting studios, who could also conveniently take the fall for the finished product. However, the one person on the project who brought his absolute A-game to the proceedings is composer Kevin Riepl, who’ll be most familiar to readers for his work on the first Gears of War. Riepl provides an absolute corker of a score that slots perfectly into the Aliens soundscape established by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in the first two films. He takes Goldsmith’s iconic descending, echoing motif and puts it through its paces, adapting it to more forceful guises than Goldsmith ever did, and even using it as an important building block for the action music. That rollicking action, though, feels more like an evolution of Horner’s Aliens, and it matches that composition in boldness and excitement, taking those ideas in remarkable new directions. It’s a better score than anything we’ve heard in the Aliens film series in a very long time and deserves better than to be associated with such an infamously disastrous title.


3. Star Trek: The Video Game

Few people purchased Digital Extremes’ tie-in game to the J.J. Abrams Trek universe when it was first released in 2013 to coincide with the miserable Star Trek: Into Darkness, and even fewer appear to remember it now. A rote co-op shooter with a couple of gimmicky mechanics shoehorned in, the game is most notable for its risible bugs and Chad Seiter’s thrilling musical score, written in the classic Trek tradition. Its soundscape is somewhere between Goldsmith’s later work on the film series and Giacchino’s scores for Abrams, with which it shares a few motifs and a fragment of the primary theme. Make no mistake, though: Seiter proudly charts his own course. The long-form theme for the Kirk and Spock duo puts Giacchino’s on the movies to shame, as do Seiter’s relentless, seemingly never-ending action cues, with memorable ostinatos and meter changes that kept me thoroughly entertained throughout the otherwise dull gaming experience. The music is performed by what is by video game standards a gigantic ensemble – over 110 musicians – and the recording quality is pristine, with a vast soundstage. Regrettably, this brilliant soundtrack has never been commercially released, so we must make do with tracks ripped from the PC version of the game for now, but maybe one day I’ll be able to own this Holy Grail properly.


2. Valkyria Revolution

Like many, I loved the original Valkyria Chronicles and, as a fan of action RPGs, was cautiously optimistic about the new direction Sega was taking the series. Unfortunately, it turned out to be fiddly to play and repetitive, with the overall feel of a budget title. Its one saving grace is the spectacular music by Yasunori Mitsuda. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Mitsuda is an absolute legend in video game music. Among countless other things, he wrote Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Kid Icarus: Uprising. His music for Valkyria Revolution (or Valkyria Azure Revolution, as it is known in Japan) is up there with the very best of them. Very little of its generous 100-minute runtime is wasted, and it flies by in a jiffy. Every kind of JRPG cue you’d want is covered therein: character themes, location themes, marches, travel music, battle music, love music, melodrama – each absolutely top-tier material. Upon release, it quickly became one of my very favorite JRPG soundtracks and I expect to be listening to it for decades to come.


1. ReCore

Chad Seiter stakes out yet another, final slot on my list with his epic action-adventure score for Microsoft Studio’s unfortunately rushed 3rd person shooter-platformer flop ReCore. Seiter’s musical voice is unmistakable here, despite the fact he’s opted for a much more modern compositional style than usual, going in the direction of something like Jeff Kurtenacker’s WildStar or late ‘90s Hans Zimmer (for instance, the catchy, recurring guitar motif heard throughout bears a resemblance in its application to Zimmer’s Broken Arrow). The main theme, representing protagonist Joule Adams, blends a mournful female solo vocalist with choir, guitar and sweeping, heroic strings and horns, building up to a massive counterpunctual climax. It’s a remarkably strong start to a score that is stuffed to the brim with sweet riffs and memorable melodies. Despite the very modern percussive elements, the influence of late-era Goldsmith can again be heard in this score’s action music. Goldsmith is Seiter’s favorite composer, and he must have had “The Fire Dragon” from The 13th Warrior in mind when writing “The Eden Tower”, one of the true stand-out cues of the score. Indeed, each of the big action tracks – “The Cradle”, “Dust Devil”, “Bolt Cutter”, “Prime Core” – contains something big and exciting to hook you. At almost two hours, the soundtrack somehow never gets boring. It has become and evergreen staple in my collection, accompanying many an otherwise dreary workday.



For comments, list which single songs you like from a game and why.

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The 8 Ball (Games), Marc Morrison