Until recently, video game music has gone largely under-appreciated. For a bit of perspective, Video Games Live–the most prominent example of game music played outside of the gameplay itself–only started a decade ago, whereas catchy game tunes like the original NES Super Mario theme are around 30-years-old this year.
With the evolution of the technology on which we play our games, the quality of the music provided in them has increased as well. From 8-bit chiptunes to fully orchestrated soundtracks, there are a surprising number of songs out there that are as enjoyable to listen to in-game as they are while studying, relaxing, or working out.
Here are five solid examples of songs worth kicking back to, without even powering on your console.
1. Dire, Dire Docks – Super Mario 64
Of all the songs I planned on using in this list, this one was the very first one that popped into my head. This song is so perfect, even with the technical limitations of its generation, that it can be listened to when relaxing or when trying to productive.
I can confirm the latter, mostly because I am listening to it on repeat while writing this article.
Dire, Dire Docks is a standout track for a few reasons–not only does it manage to convey the flowing, watery theme of the level its in, but it also manages to add an air of mystery and immediacy, so that you don’t get too lax under that classic Mario timer.
While it would be easy to fill this list full of Koji Kondo tracks, given his extensive and incredible history with Nintendo ranging from Punch-Out! all the way to The Legend of Zelda, with its clear notes of modern smooth jazz, and a bit of synth, Dire, Dire Docks is one of those tucked-away gems that makes Super Mario 64 an absolute pleasure to come back to year after year.
Best when: Creating an atmosphere for light-focus work, relaxing, light exercise (i.e., relaxation yoga)
2. Lon Lon Ranch – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Okay, okay, I know I said I wouldn’t just do a list of Koji Kondo’s best hits, but I’d be remiss not to put Lon Lon Ranch on here.
To be honest, I had a really hard time determining if I wanted to include Kondo’s original N64 track, or go with the slightly higher quality, orchestral sample from Zelda Reorchestrated. While both are stunning examples of what is, plain and simple, one of the most serene pieces of game music out there, Kondo’s version won out simply because I preferred the “singing” background sample to the string instrument sample.
I think what consistently amazes me most about Lon Lon Ranch is the absurdity of what it is and what it could have been.
Ocarina of Time released in 1998, looking back, according to IMDb, the most popular Western released was The Mask of Zorro followed by a seemingly endless list of episodes of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. I’m not joking. Check it out. The top 10 country songs that year were a mix of Faith Hill slow jams, Dixie Chicks up tempos, and a few Jo Dee Messina power hits to even it out.
My point? There is literally nothing from the Country-Western world in 1998 that exemplifies the desperado-cowboys-around-a-campfire theme that Lon Lon Ranch nails perfectly.
If Koji Kondo had tried to create a country-style song that tried to match what was popular at the time, god only knows what we would have ended up with. Lucky for us, we got a song that, if updated for the tech of the time, could have fit nicely into the evening soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption.
Best when: Trying to fall asleep, sitting around a fire pit enjoying a beverage of choice
3. Finish The Fight – Halo 3
One of the greatest losses to the Halo franchise was not the bastardization of its iconic multiplayer in Halo 4–although that was nearly unforgiveable. No, in fact the greatest loss to Halo was the loss of Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatorri, the composers of the franchise’s immediately distinguishable soundtrack.
There are something in the vicinity of one hundred or so tracks that the team made for the series, and while it would easy to pick the iconic Gregorian-style chanting that haunts each title menu, I figured the list needed something a bit more upbeat.
Finish the fight embodies the perfect mix of serenity and intensity as the sounds that mix ethereally at the beginning give way to powerful striking piano chords. If the rhythmic beat of war drums, transposed against the sharp hum of a piano doesn’t amp you up, nothing will.
While Neil Davidge’s Halo 4 soundtrack certainly fits nicely into the game it was written for, the feel that O’Donnell and Salvatorri laced each new iteration with cannot be imitated.
Best when: Prepping for an intense day, getting ready for the gym, before a sports game