Here we be for the final stretch of my Top 25 favourite anthems in gaming, running down the top ten. Just like in our run down from 25 to 11 in part one (here if you missed it), there’s not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. Let’s get on then, from number ten…
10. Shadow of the Beast II Game Over Music on Commodore Amiga
I never really got Shadow of the Beast on Atari ST. A lot of side-scrolling wandering about with minimal action then you’d find somewhere interesting and die. Looked and sounded incredible though; actually, at the time, maybe more so than pretty much anything else ever had, which I guess is what sold it to me! The 1990 sequel tried to up the gameplay with more complex combat, conversation systems and some puzzles. Unfortunately they just combined to suck out the last remaining fun that might have been there before! It was way too hard and you were dead before you knew what had hit you, but strangely that might also have been one it’s few saving graces… you saw the game over screen a lot!
This time around I was watching more than playing, on a friend’s Amiga, but I can still hear Tim and Lee Wright’s glorious, haunting title music so I’ve a feeling he might have been too! When he did play though, it wasn’t long before what could be the greatest music in video game history made an appearance! Why’s it at number ten then, I hear you ask? Well, as you might imagine, I’ve agonised over where it should be in this list, and whether or not it should be here at all, because in reality it’s more of an epic sound effect than piece of music – if you take out the fade in and out, you’re left with about 20 seconds. It’s a compromise! We start with a choral synthesiser ambience, then out of nowhere this incredible, echo-drenched soaring sampled lead guitar line makes an all too brief appearance. Listening to it again recently, it puts me in mind of the music you’d get in Miami Vice when one of Don Johnson’s big-haired love interests has just exploded and he’s leaning on a palm tree, staring wistfully out across the ocean. And actually, the more I think about it (and having just spent months watching the Miami Vice box set), I reckon it might have actually been sampled from Miami Vice because it really is that good!
9. Transparent Obstacle From Gauntlet IV on Mega Drive
I have serious form with the Spectrum version of Gauntlet! It currently sits at number nine in my top ten games of all time, after countless hours of play with my brother, starting one Saturday lunchtime in 1987 after we’d made a special trip to town to buy it; I remember every moment that day right up to loading it up and the absolute relief that it really was as good as we’d hyped ourselves (and our very limited pocket money!) up to hope it would be! I often wonder why we were so excited about Gauntlet over anything else in those glory days of the Spectrum, but I assume we’d seen the arcade machine somewhere. Anyway, the expansion pack and the sequel followed, then I wasn’t that impressed with the isometric Gauntlet III and skipped it on Atari ST. Mega Drive Gauntlet IV in 1993 was much more the ticket, combining the gameplay of the original with some RPG elements; the original was included too, which I think was my first time playing the arcade version! It was great but to this day I’d still rather play the Spectrum version, unless I’m in the mood for a bit of music…
Behind all the sampled speech and dungeon mastery sound effects – lifted straight out of the arcade version – we’re also at the very pinnacle of the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities! Hitoshi Sakamoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hal Canon and Earl Vickers’ epic dragon-synth soundtrack is as fine an electronic orchestra performance as you’ll ever hear, and Transparent Obstacle is its absolute climax! Sweeping pads juxtapose the shimmering introduction as the nineties does its best eighties action hero drumbeat, then this pure funk groove kicks in, and before you’ve had your fill of that the main melody comes crashing down on top of it all, leading to all kinds of atmospheric interplay. As good as it ever got on the Mega Drive!
8. Haunted Graveyard From SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
I’ve always loved this side-scrolling platforming series far more than I was any good at any of it! I was useless at the excellent Spectrum version that I picked up at a service station on the way home from our 1987 summer holiday (more here), but I’d happily play the graveyard section over and over and over… Same with my friend’s gorgeous Commodore 64 port – one of the few games that ever made me jealous of not owning one! I could get a bit further on the Atari ST version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, where we’re now definitely in just about arcade perfect territory, though the rain drops versus the original’s full on storm were definitely a bit of a disappointment! Since then, I’ve sought out pretty much every version of every game, from arcade to WonderSwan and Arthur to Maximo, but never really got any further than the first stage or two on any of them! Aside from 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which I finally played much more recently on SNES Classic Mini, and something about the double jump combined with my sheer enjoyment of how it looked and sounded drove me on, way into the second stage!!!
Mari Yamaguchi didn’t just create a soundtrack for Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but pretty much the only soundtrack to Halloween you could ever need! We go from whimsical drama to disturbingly sinister, but everything is just drenched in a joyous creepiness, and screams trashy b-movie in the best possible way! After your damsel gets in distress with the demon that’s run off with her at the start, there’s no better way of instilling a sense of eerie panic than my favourite track (possibly by default as I’ve never really heard much beyond it!) as you travel through the haunted graveyard. It’s actually a relatively simple affair, but the attention to detail is wonderful, using the SNES to expand on Ghost ‘n Goblin’s iconic first level theme, with big Phantom of the Opera organ riffs dressed with orchestral flourishes and an energetic but wickedly subtle bass-line inspiring the horror-filled chase you’re just starting out on.
7. Nemesis the Warlock Title Music on Commodore 64
If I were to list my favourite comic book characters, apart from Dan Dare and Doomlord from Eagle, I think they’d all come from 2000A.D. Actually, let’s have a quick go, in no particular order… Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, Judge Death, Strontium Dog and, of course, Nemesis the Warlock, because otherwise there’d be no point in any of this nonsense! In a particular order, we’d probably go Judge Death first then Nemesis, then Slaine, then it doesn’t really matter here! Anyway, Nemesis the Warlock is a demonic alien out to free the galaxy from religious nut-job Torquemada’s tyranny. It’s all very swords and sorcery in a sci-fi setting. The 1987 Spectrum game arriving was a huge deal for me, though I think I mostly enjoyed it for being the character and how it looked (despite some interesting colour clash!); the single screen platforming as you shot your way through terminators (no, not those ones!) wasn’t that inspiring. Apart from being able to use their piled-up bodies as new platforms! I eventually got to the Commodore version, but whilst that didn’t even have the art style, it did have a very special title screen!
You’ll have noticed a couple of recurring names as we’ve travelled through this countdown, but as we might just continue to find out, there’s none so recurring as Rob Hubbard! And back on his rightful C64 throne this time too! Here we have what might be his most epic work, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes long! At the very beginning it harkens to the intro to Michael Jackson’s Beat it, but instead of going pop it goes even more ominous with a dense bass drum beat slowly picking up steam and this Tardis-type effect ushering in a militaristic heavy synth melody. About half way through and we’re in full flow, with a new, more high-pitched, more complex melody that puts me in mind of stuff like Devil May Cry where you get style points for how you kill – this is the soundtrack to Nemesis in full slaughter mode! As we approach six minutes, Hubbard’s SID chip magic show is in full effect, with everything going on around each other, interspersed with drum fills and snippets of new melody, which becomes more prominent as the tempo starts to slow and we gradually return to that ominous ambience where it all started. Don’t press fire to start, just stay here forever!
6. Mega Man X Spark Mandrill Stage Theme on SNES
I’m noticing a pattern here – a lot of my favourite sounds are from the games that punish me the most! I’m not sure, but I think Mega Man X was the first Mega Man game I played, and certainly the only one I played when it came out, albeit very briefly on a Super Nintendo demo unit; which would have been 1993 in if I’m right. About 25 years later I’d become a bit obsessed with Mega Man, playing through the original six brutal 2D platformers in the space of about a year, before jumping onto Mega Man X and realising that game I’d had a quick go on in a shop all those years ago was actually my new best friend! As well as a slick new look, you get all mod-cons here, with dashing and sliding and wall-jumps and stuff, but the Mega Man fundamentals don’t change as you take on boss-themed levels that absolutely hate you in any order you like. Interestingly, apart from the much more recent Mega Man 11, I’m still to play any game in the series beyond X. Need to fix that!
I’m not great at dodging, so the electric-themed Spark Mandrill stage is definitely not my favourite (although the boss fight can be one of the easiest), but if you want a good tune it’s the place to go! Setsuo Yamamoto and the team of Capcom musicians came up with some corkers for Mega Man X – you can just feel the love in every track – but this stage’s music just goes the extra mile for me. I think it’s the bass-line, which seems to be made up of strobing electronic drumbeats, that turns it into this intense energy fest, which couldn’t be more fitting! The proper drumbeats themselves are awesome too, with non-stop fills and rolls making sure the intensity never relents, and the multi-layered synth melodies sound like something Iron Maiden would come up with in an alternate dimension! Electrifying, literally!
5. Aquatic Ambience From Donkey Kong Country on SNES
The SNES has been well represented in these parts recently, and now we’re at the very top of that particular tree with one of the few parts of this game that doesn’t involve trees! I would say I’m much more of a Donkey Kong fan than I am a Donkey Kong Country fan… actually, where’s the Donkey Kong music in this list? Anyway, SNES Classic Mini strikes again with this one all the way from 1994, and while I did have a fine old time with it, and have since played through the sequel on Switch and the 3DS games, I can kind of take or leave it. I think it’s all the monkey-folk. Not my bag. I do like a good pre-rendered background though, and I do really, really like the underwater sections!
David Wise was behind most of the DKC soundtrack, and has noted that Aquatic Ambience was its biggest technological achievement, where he created a waveform sequence on the SNES using a Korg Wavestation synth. It really is SNES audio to the limits, but I think it achieves far more than that too; it seems to transcend musical taste – whatever you’re into, this is an absolute masterpiece! The oceanic ambience, the crystal clear melodies and then about halfway this haunting lead-line that’s part guitar, part brass, and wouldn’t go amiss on a saxophone in the middle of some huge Dire Straits ballad on Brothers in Arms. And then it slides back into the murky depths. This is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever made for a video game (if you don’t count Shadow of the Beast 2’s game over sequence)! And it’s all about a monkey riding a swordfish!
4. Skull Man Stage Theme From Mega Man 4 on NES
First two Robocops, now two Mega Men, and even more sonic treats from something else that hurts you so bad! And who would have thought the humble NES would out-anthem its successor here too! Of all the Mega Mans, my heart lies with Mega Man 2 – it just has an extra bit of magic that I’ve never really been able to quantify! But of all the Mega Man bosses, Skull Man from 1991’s (or two years later in Europe) Mega Man 4 is the man! My Mega Man Official Complete Works encyclopaedia implies that a lot of this game’s bosses resulted from player submissions to come up with new ones, and the developers liked this guy so much too that they completely scrapped then redesigned the level he was originally intended for. Anyway, apart from a charge shot and a Russian bad guy, it’s familiar territory as you action-platform your way through eight punishing boss-themed levels in the order of your choice. It’s a very good Mega Man!
Minae Fujii’s soundtrack to Mega Man 4 is extensive and inspired, which is also familiar territory for the series on NES and way beyond! There’s an incredible density and vibrancy to all of the robot boss stage themes here, but I also want to make special note of the fantastic urgency in the level select music too – come on, make your choice, doesn’t really matter… Skull Man’s theme isn’t just my favourite because he is, but it goes to so many places, and as a result gets so much out of the NES! And once they simply couldn’t get any more out, they’ve just added a bit more at the end of the part where it should have been so you know that was the intention! The main riff is a real earworm, all electronic brass, but there’s always so much more going on with it and around it, from the relentless high-speed bass-line and chip-tune blast-beats trying to keep up as they throw in a roll or a fill, to the occasional haunting pipe melody reminding you you’re fighting your way through a literal boneyard! It’s like each element is looking at each other as it’s playing saying right, your turn, now your turn, okay, now top this, now let’s do that bit again but together this time! The only thing that would make this better is lyrics about Skull Man on top… Now there’s a project!
3. Ghostbusters Theme on Commodore 64
I’m not sure any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did in 1984, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually playing on your computer. Or my friend’s C64 in this case! The game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, then when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it!
Back to the title screen, and we’re back to that incredible SID chip rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s incredible Ghostbusters theme by Russell Lieblich. It’s a complete – albeit marginally slower – recreation of the seven-inch single, and just so you can be sure of that, there’s a little ball at the bottom of the screen bouncing along the lyrics at all the right times so you can sing along. It might not have had the very first sampled speech (Sinistar, right?), but I reckon it’s the first in-game karaoke! It may not be the most complex C64 tune of all time, but the attention to detail more than makes us for that. Every element is 100% recognisable, and each has its own take on every nuance in the song; when you get to bits like the “bustin’ makes me feel good” part, you’ll have a huge grin on your face over and over as you appreciate what he’s done here. That said, I have a huge grin on my face every time regardless, from the moment the spooky, wobbly melody of the song’s introduction starts, and only fractionally less so than the first time I heard it and realised what was going on! The very best thing, though, is that once you get into the game proper, it’s on an infinite loop, and nothing is better than infinite Ghostbusters!
2. Divine Bloodlines From Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine
My beloved Castlevania meets my beloved PC-Engine! Stuff like Ghosts ‘n Goblins might have made me want a Commodore 64 from time to time, and that Amstrad CPC version of Chuckie Egg might have even made me raise an eyebrow in that weird direction once or twice, but I never lusted after any machine like I did the exotic, unattainable PC-Engine! And as a Japanese exclusive on there, that made 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo) even more unattainable! It was soon reimagined as Dracula X on SNES, though it took the PlayStation 4 double-up with Symphony of the Night for me to get my hands on the original version. A couple of years later I’d finally get them on the official Japanese version too, albeit on the wonderful PC-Engine Mini console rather than original hardware. But near enough at last! And after Splatterhouse, it would be the second game I’d complete on there, as well as be the last classic Castlevania I hadn’t previously played through. Super Castlevania IV on SNES is still the best though!
Castlevania’s soundtracks are crammed with standout tracks, full of intensity, tension and richly atmospheric gothic drama. Symphony of the Night has a good shout for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Super Castlevania IV is a game world I’d happily retire to, and that’s down to its atmosphere, and that’s mostly down to its soundtrack. Bloodlines on Mega Drive was another groundbreaker on that system. But nothing says Castlevania to me more than Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, and on there, the all-too-short Stage 1’s Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth, translated from the original Japanese) by Akira Souji says it the loudest! We begin with a tight guitar lick that’s always reminded me so much of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, as the main song kicks in after the piano intro! From there, drums and keyboards kick you into the perfect rocking electronic guitar soundtrack with a simple riff that somehow perfectly complements everything burning behind you, then some sweeping synths emerge and your suddenly hearing the theme to an epic eighties American soap opera – something classy like Dynasty mind! The guitar riff brings you back down to Earth and the undead skeletons lobbing beer barrels at you, accompanied by an almost Doors-like haunted keyboard track that slowly introduces this gorgeous lead keyboard solo as orchestral strings crash across everything. Then the bassline that’s been hammering in the background suddenly wants a piece of the action too, and launches you back into the main riff and even more vampiric interplay. It’s just so rich and textured and brilliantly produced, and keeps the world burning so brightly.
1. Commando Theme on Commodore 64
No game says C64 to me more than vertically-scrolling run and gun Commando (more here). I first played it on my friend’s machine when I still thought it was about the ultra-cool Arnie movie I wasn’t allowed to watch that also came out in 1985! I’d also been well hyped by the big double-page adverts (my absolute favourite game adverts ever too!) in Computer & Video Games magazine, complete with what I think are hand-painted screenshots! Anyway, despite no Arnie, it didn’t disappoint. Some time later I played the Spectrum version a hell of a lot more, and it was a great version, but it wasn’t the same; and I’m not only talking about the weird colours! Actually, for pure gameplay the Spectrum was better because you had to hit space on the keyboard to throw grenades on the Commodore, but a flick of the joystick would do it on the Spectrum, and that made a big difference. But anyway, it wasn’t the same, and neither were the later 16-bit versions or even the arcade version when I finally played that about thirty years later, because it turns out a lot of the experience was down to the C64 music!
Since the very moment I first heard Rob Hubbard’s Commando theme, it’s been my favourite music in any game ever! It’s an astounding, greatly enhanced, more complex version of the original arcade music, which he famously put together in less than twelve hours! He did a lecture where he talks about getting invited to Elite’s offices, so he gets on a train from Newcastle to Birmingham that same afternoon and when everyone else goes home, he’s left on his own there. After one listen to the original arcade music, he did an all-nighter, and by the time everyone else arrived back for work the next morning he had the C64 music playing on every machine in the office. Then he was given his cheque and was on a train home by 10! What he did to manipulate the C64’s three “voices” here is nothing short of black magic; it’s like getting Elite to run on a BBC B – not possible but there it is! The level of intensity in this military rave surely comes from loads more stuff than that going on at once! It all sounds like black magic too – apart from the electronic tom-toms and a relatively grounded bass-line driving it all along, the insanely complex set of main melodies are just terrifying sci-fi trance waveforms dancing around each other like maniacs! Then about half way through this sonic heart attack, everything goes crazy high-pitched, and just as you think your ear-holes are going to explode, for a brief second if relents and you think you’re safe as what might be identified as the melodic ringleader by now makes its return, only to be instantly replaced again by this high-pitched cacophony, which gradually turns into an exotic solo and we all go again! There’s just so much going on here that it can’t contain its own energy, and somehow that ends up amplifying the gameplay on the Commodore 64 version more than on any other machine. And some of that energy jumped right into my thirteen year-old soul back in 1985 and cemented itself as my number one favourite anthem in gaming ever!
Obviously, there’s stuff I’ve missed, even from my limited pool of gaming experience. There’s a few things particularly that jump out, but I’ve just not heard enough of them for them to have stuck yet… I’m not a big Michael Jackson fan (though he’s now had two mentions here), but I remember stopping and listening to the Moonwalker arcade game rendition of Smooth Criminal and thinking it was incredible. I am a very big Airwolf fan, and actually persevered with the famously difficult Spectrum version far more than it deserved, but if you want the theme music, you want the Commodore version; unfortunately they upped the difficulty even more here by also making it absolutely appalling to control, making it effectively unplayable. There’s also the similarly unplayable (for the same reasons) The Last V8 on Commodore 64, which features yet another Rob Hubbard classic, but you’ll never hear more than 20 seconds of it before game over!
I could very easily do a top Castlevania anthem list, such is the consistent quality of soundtracks in that series, but I tried to pick the absolute best of the best of most things in this list to keep it relatively varied, only repeating a couple of times where games might have the same subject matter but were different beasts on different systems. Similar for Mega Man and Thunder Blade especially. Likewise, I could have picked stuff from Shadow of the Beast rather than the sequel, and I could easily have picked the theme from that too. Then there’s probably stuff deep in a load of space shooters or run and gun platformers that I have got but will simply never be good enough to deserve to know about! Oh yeah, Robocop, Netherworld, Cybernoid and Cybernoid 2 on C64, and stage two of Dragon Spirit on PC-Engine, and Elemental Master on Mega Drive, and, and… – just forgot about them… we need a top 50!
Anyway, unlike a lot of my favourite things lists that I can usually put together in minutes or even seconds, this one turned into several months of very enjoyable thought and recap as I looked at my history in gaming in a whole new light, so while it might not be 100% comprehensive and will no doubt evolve over time, I’ve had an absolute blast doing it and definitely recommend the exercise to anyone else!