Every hardcore gamer and collector is familiar with the amazing soundtracks from Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, and Legend of Zelda. Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu are household names among gamers old and new, but what about those talented composers attached to games that just didn’t sell as well as Nintendo blockbusters? For a good number of video game composers, their work goes largely unnoticed. When I was a DJ at my college radio station, I was given to opportunity to host a video game music show, and, as a result, I was able to uncover some amazing soundtracks, many of which were on poorly made or otherwise average games. With the help of Legacy Music Hour Podcast and vgm websites, I was able to dig deeper into the vgm genre. During the 8 and 16 bit era– my main expertise– composers were given great leeway when composing for games, sometimes composing without any screenshots or guidance. A film composer would be fired if he or she composed a soundtrack oblivious to the tone of the film, but video game composers do their best work this way. In this article, I chose ten overlooked games that have suffered due to poor gameplay, limited release, or just forgotten to time. Some of these games are exceptionally good, but, for whatever reason, they remain hidden gems. Every one of these games has an amazing, memorable, and well composed soundtrack, and I will provide Youtube videos of their tracks. Enjoy!
10. Deja Vu (NES)- Hirayuki Masuno
Comprising of 8-bit jazz melodies, Masuno’s soundtrack mimics beautifully the bluesy jazz of a mid-50’s Noir film. Deja Vu was a point and click adventure port from the Mac to the PC. As a amnesiac private eye, the player must solve puzzles to refresh his memory. It is a great game for the NES, but largely unknown due to its esoteric gameplay. The soundtrack was composed only for the NES version.
9. Insector X (GEN)- Unknown
Developed by Taito for the Arcade and Sega Genesis, Insector X is a run of the mill horizontal shooter where you play as an insect and fight off many more insects. The gameplay isn’t as good as say Thunderforce or MUSHA, but the soundtrack is outstanding and it is a shame the composer has not been found. The ending theme is somber and reminds me of the warm ambient synths of 70’s electronica.
8. Erik the Viking (Unreleased NES)- Neil Baldwin
Composed by Neil Baldwin, who wrote about all of his soundtracks here, and released years after the game was cancelled, Erik the Viking was planned to be a Zelda-type RPG based on the obscure film. The soundtrack is reminiscent of Commodore 64/Amiga soundtracks of the 1980’s, rife with arpeggios, digitized sound effects, and catchy melodies. Days of Ocean Blue is a real gem with its 8-bit seagulls, crashing waves, and relaxing melodies.
7. Ghouls n Ghosts (Commodore Amiga)- Tim Follin
I could fill an entire list with all of Tim Follin’s work. Follin is the Jimi Hendrix of Video Game Music, composing amazing soundtracks for very unknown titles like Silver Surfer, Plok, Solstice, and Capcom ports to Commodore and Atari computer systems. Though Ghouls n Ghosts is a very popular title, the Commodore Amiga port was played by far fewer gamers. The soundtrack has many original tracks by Follin, as well as improvements upon Tamayo Kawamoto’s arcade score. The soundtrack carries a progressive rock feel, reminiscent of Gentle Giant or early Genesis. An eerie feel pervades the score, adding to the ambiance of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.
6. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (Gameboy)- Hidehiro Funauchi
The Castlevania series is known for having outstanding soundtracks, but not much is mentioned of the Gameboy releases. Featuring stereo audio, Funauchi’s dark and melodious soundtrack brings a much needed punch to the black and white gameplay. Listen to Ripe Seeds and Cloud Castle.
5. DoReMi Fantasy (Super Famicom)- Jun Chikuma
With the ability to sample music on the Super Nintendo soundchip came the ability to create realistic and symphonic music. Jun Chikuma’s soundtrack is very experimental, using ambient and rhythmic samples throughout the game. A sequel to Milon’s Secret Castle on the NES, DoReMi Fantasy is a typical platformer, but never made a release in the US(but it is available on Virtual Console). Though Super Nintendo tracks can sound very choppy at times, Chikuma’s soundtrack almost sounds like an N64 game, drawing comparisons to the ambient tunes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The music barely fits the cutesy level design and SD characters, almost like playing on mute with a David Lynch movie playing instead.
4. M.U.S.H.A. (GEN)- Toshiaki Sakoda
MUSHA is known as one of the best vertical shooters on the system and one of the most valuable games on the system today. It features a speed metal soundtrack and fits really well with the gameplay and Genesis PSG soundchip. If a band covered every song on the soundtrack, there’s a good chance it would be mistaken for an 80’s hair metal album.
3. The Mahjong Touhaiden (Super Famicom)- Soushi Hosoi, Pirowo
You would never think to find a minimalist composition ala Steve Reich in a Super Famicom Mahjong game, but you’ve probably never heard from The Mahjong Touhaiden. I have no idea what this game is like, but after hearing it on the Legacy Music Hour, I was hooked. “Mister Diviner” could be a B-side to Music for 18 Musicians, phasing flawlessly between two repeating melodies. I’d like to think Hosoi-san went on to become one of Japan’s most prominent minimalist composers, but I don’t think that happened.
2. Snatcher (Sega CD)- Konami Kukeiha Club
With its library of crappy FMV games and CD-audio Genesis games, Snatcher is known to be the best among the forgettable Sega CD library. A mix between Blade Runner and The Terminator, Snatcher is an interactive cyberpunk adventure, mixing adventure gaming and light gun shooting all in one game. Although many composers moved to orchestral instruments in the Sega CD days, the composers of Snatcher stuck to the gritty sounds of the Genesis synthesizer. The soundtrack is dark and bluesy, a bit like Vangelis’ Blade Runner score with a Japanese feel. It went largely unnoticed on the system, but recent interest in the game has turned it into a prized collector’s item. Check out “Theme of Jaime” and “Entrance to Hell”.
1. Mr. Gimmick! (Famicom)- Masashi Kageyama/Naohisa Morota
Mr. Gimmick! was released only in Scandinavia and Japan and is one of the best games released on the system, sporting a unique physics engine and an extra sound channel. Developed by Sunsoft, a company known for their excellent soundtracks, Kageyama-san compositions are unmatched by any other Nintendo game. The songs are upbeat, catchy, and tightly composed. Words cannot express how great this soundtrack is, just listen to all of it!!
I know I didn’t even scratch the surface of great obscure game soundtracks, but I’ll do another one soon.