For many games, a soundtrack will follow a consistent style or tone, whether it’s from leitmotifs or using similar musical genres. Each track is made with certain moments in mind, in order to make for an immersive experience. Boss battles generally have suspenseful, foreboding melodies, while an emotional scene will almost always bring a piano ballad in the minor key.
Occasionally, there’s one song on a soundtrack that comes out of nowhere, catching players off guard with a drastic shift in style or tone. These are five surprising music moments from popular games.
Well, That’s One Way to Pump Up the Crowd
(“Otherworld” – Final Fantasy 10)
Nobuo Uematsu is one of the most widely praised composers in video game history, and his work on Final Fantasy 10 is no different. With a heavy focus on piano, the soundtrack features some of the most beautiful songs in the series, such as the iconic main theme “To Zanarkand.” It’s enough to make even newcomers to the series feel right at home with soothing, emotional melodies from a legendary musician.
And then Uematsu unleashes his overdrive.
“Otherworld” is a heavy metal track that comes completely out of left-field during the opening of the game. With harsh, screamed vocals and drop-tuned guitars, it no doubt feels like it’s straight out of a Devil May Cry game. Yet despite how bizarre it is to hear this kind of track in a Final Fantasy game, it somehow manages to work in the game’s favor.
At the time, this was a new generation of Final Fantasy, with full voice acting, high-definition cutscenes, and a complete overhaul to the series’ narrative structure. This track capitalizes on the idea of creating a new, more modern tone for Final Fantasy. Much in the same way it was surprising to see helicopters and motorcycles in Final Fantasy 7, this new PS2 entry didn’t mind taking risks with unexpected changes.
With a fancy cinematic to accompany the brutal guitar breakdowns, this track ensures that this isn’t the same Final Fantasy you may have grown up with.
Pokey REALLY Means Business
(“Pokey Means Business” – EarthBound)
*Note: contains spoilers for the end of EarthBound*
Despite its innocent exterior, EarthBound is undeniably a game with much darker undertones. Alien invasions and monstrous inanimate objects make this a pretty surreal and unsettling game. When it comes to the game’s soundtrack, it generally favors a trippy, psychedelic aesthetic. This applies to battle themes as well, which range from catchy to outright bizarre. However, the first phase of the final boss takes a drastic shift in musical style.
During the final battle with Pokey – the game’s main antagonist – the music begins with a simple chiptune melody. The track is reminiscent of 8-bit soundtracks from the NES era, and may not seem very threatening at first. It’s not until a minute into the track that the composers fondly recollect their 80’s thrash metal phase.
Pokey’s theme suddenly turns into a fast-paced, heavy metal onslaught of pure terror. The music perfectly fits the context of the sinister final showdown with a psychotic genius, but it still feels totally unexpected. The Super Nintendo’s sound chip is really put to good use here, and features a similar guitar tone to the final boss of Yoshi’s Island.
A Somber Showdown for the Chosen Undead
(“Gwyn, Lord of Cinder” – Dark Souls)
*Note: contains spoilers for the end of Dark Souls*
From the very beginning of the game, it’s clear that the world of Dark Souls is full with despair, and no one is happy to live in it. The lack of music when exploring each area only enhances the bleak atmosphere. That is, until the player encounters one of the game’s many bosses. From gargoyles, to dragons, and even a giant tree branch, each boss has a dramatic, chilling theme to accompany the fight. It becomes second nature for the player to expect a tense soundtrack to carry them to victory. However, this is not the case for the game’s final battle.
The battle against Gwyn begins as soon as the player enters his arena. No cutscene plays, and there’s barely any time to react before Gwyn rushes at the player with a flurry of sword swings. All the while, a somber piano melody fills the dimly lit cavern, turning the fight from triumphant to tragic.
Players may go in expecting a dramatic final battle, with sweeping strings and brass like the previous boss soundtracks. Instead, the choice to use only piano makes the fight feel more personal. It doesn’t feel like a true boss fight in the traditional sense, but then again it isn’t meant to. This is a duel between two hollows, and it can only end in anguish.
The Endless Ladder Climb
(“Snake Eater” – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
The Metal Gear Solid series may be known for its complicated plots and lengthy cutscenes, but it also has a sense of humor. Hideo Kojima doesn’t always take his writing too seriously, and this certainly shows with Metal Gear Solid 3’s classic ladder-climbing scene. As Snake ascends a seemingly never-ending ladder, players are left holding the analog stick forward and waiting patiently, trying not to doze off.
Is Kojima just trolling his fans again? Is Raiden going to be waiting at the top of the ladder to give Snake a high-five?
“What a thrill…” A faint voice is heard slowly creeping in. It’s difficult to make out at first, but within moments it becomes all-to-clear. The most boring section in the game becomes a powerful, poetic moment in the franchise’s history. The chorus reaches its climax, “Snaaaaaake Eateeerrrr,” and Snake ascends further to the top of the ladder. Though really, he may as well be reaching the top of the world.
Smooth Jazz of the Night
(“I am the Wind” – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)
In video games, the ending credits often borrow from reoccurring leitmotifs from the game’s soundtrack. They often feature a variation or remix of the game’s main theme, bringing players back to the earlier moments of their incredible journey.
Perhaps the credits are joyous and uplifting, such as the ending for The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker. Or, maybe the music makes the ending feel somewhat bittersweet, like in Undertale. Some credits use grand orchestral anthems that make players want to salute their TV screen. Some use an epic, symphonic metal track to deliver one last punch of adrenaline after a difficult final battle.
Symphony of the Night uses smooth jazz…
It’s not very effective.
The soundtrack for the Castlevania series is nothing short of brilliant; each entry has a different style or genre that effectively adds to the game’s gothic atmosphere. Symphony of the Night is no exception, with one of the strongest musical selections in the series. It’s a shame that such a fantastic game is given a lackluster conclusion with an out-of-place credits theme. While it doesn’t tarnish the quality of the game itself, “I am the Wind” doesn’t exactly make the ending feel rewarding.
Then again, maybe it does have some sort of context for the game. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing a future event in Alucard’s story. It may even symbolize Alucard’s humanity, and his willingness to leave his vampire history behind.
Or maybe he just really wants to express his appreciation for the wind. In any case, expect to see Alucard perform his very own cheesy, 90’s love-ballad in the next series title.