An Afternoon at the [Gamer] Orchestra

The air is cold and dry, with the threat of oncoming snow. It’s still early in the season—not winter quite yet, if we’re being technical—so the prospect of snow is still fun, in the ignorance of not knowing what’s to approach in mere months. But on this December afternoon, you brave the potential storm to drive to a church you’d never been to before, for a concert by a group you didn’t know existed until recently. Because who knew there was a gamer orchestra in Jersey? Who even knew gamer orchestras were a thing?

You arrive early (because that’s what concert-goers do), greeted by a smiling face behind a bake sale table. Or maybe you’re too early, because black-clad musicians are scurrying past with all variants of instruments and equipment. But the sanctuary doors are open, and there’s gentle piano music wafting from within, so you accept a program and find a seat inside.

(Some “backstage” shenanigans, which you can very obviously see across the room)

What’s the deal with this “gamer orchestra” thing, anyway? And how will this be any different from a “normal” concert? (Excuse you. I resent this line of questioning.)

Truthfully, its not that different from other orchestra concerts. You flip through the program, and pull up the program notes online. It’s cool, because you know this stuff. You’ve played these games, or they’re on your endless “to play” list. But when the conductor comes forth, and the group sweeps into the first piece, you begin to understand that this isn’t like any other concert. These talented musicians aren’t just there to entertain. You’re all part of an experience, a love of both music and gaming, one that you share together.

(This is a little intimidating. These guys are like celebrities, right? But you’ll still talk to them after the concert, because they’re cool and they’re nerds just like you.)

As the music plays, you remember so clearly that one part in that one game. There’s a wave of mixed emotions, from joy to panic to nostalgia. You remember questioning shady witnesses in anime lawyer court, and clashing weapons with Gilgamesh on the big bridge. You enthusiastically applause between songs, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the group before you—they all look around, grinning, overjoyed to be sharing this experience.

(Look how happy they are)

Maybe that’s part of the difference, too: These are not super-serious musicians. Most of them aren’t even professional. They smile between pieces, whisper to each other, or offer a little high-five they think the audience can’t see. Even the conductor is dancing, cracking jokes when introducing the next song, and there’s a companionship in that room. You wonder if they’re accepting new musicians. You played in high school, too. (The answer is “yes.”)

Spring seems an awfully long time to wait for the next performance, but the months pass quickly. May 12th rapidly approaches, bringing another glorious Saturday afternoon of music. And this time, there will be no snow to battle on the drive home. Although maybe with the nicer weather, you’ll get there even earlier to battle for prime seating instead.

5 Surprising Music Moments in Gaming

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.

7 Classic Songs from the Nintendo 64

The Nintendo 64 may have had a smaller software library than previous Nintendo consoles, but it still had some quality titles. While the unfortunate lack of RPG’s compared to the SNES meant less legendary soundtracks (it’s tough to top Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6), the N64 featured a number of memorable tunes from other genres. With plenty to choose from, here are seven classic songs from the Nintendo 64.


Bob-Omb Battlefield (Super Mario 64)

 Super Mario music has generally featured light and catchy tunes in the past, giving players the perfect tunes to run and jump around with. Super Mario 64 has a number of notable pieces (Dire Dire Docks is a personal favorite), but the very first level introduces perhaps the most recognizable track in the game.

The trumpet is the prominent instrument on display here, but there are also some memorable “doots” from a synth. This tune is easy on the ears and plenty of fun to listen to, making it the perfect introduction for the levels still yet to come. It’s even featured in several other stages in the game as well.


Spiral Mountain (Banjo Kazooie)

 Grant Kirkhope delivers one of his most iconic and downright brilliant soundtracks with Banjo Kazooie. Spiral Mountain acts as the tutorial level of the game, giving players a chance to learn some of Banjo and Kazooie’s moves.

The song itself begins with an upbeat banjo riff, before bringing in a xylophone, drums, and later a flute. Much like other tracks in the game, Spiral Mountain uses a variety of sound effects, ranging from bird chirps, to buzzing bees (which kind of sound like an elephant). It’s the perfect jolly tune to start Banjo’s adventure, and helps set the tone for the rest of the game.


Hyrule Field (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

 “I can go anywhere!” That’s probably what most Ocarina of Time players felt when they stepped foot into Hyrule Field for the very first time. Sure, the area is mostly barren aside from surrounding towns and Lon Lon Ranch, but the adventurous feel is not lost.

The song evolves from a triumphant, march-like tone, to a fairly dramatic display of blaring trumpets. You’d almost expect a boss to show up in the middle of the field, though luckily the area is safe from enemies during the day (well, except for those giant peahats). The music of Hyrule Field makes Link, and the player, feel less like an outsider in an open-world, and more like a true adventurer.


Credits Theme (Super Smash Bros.)

 There’s nothing quite like finishing a game, only to be greeted with a celebratory ending theme. Considered one of the best multiplayer games on the console, Super Smash Bros. also has a simple, yet still entertaining singleplayer mode. Players are given the challenge of defeating each of the characters in the game, in addition to a few mini-games, such as “race to the finish” and “target test.”

The mode concludes with a battle against Master Hand (who is, quite literally, a giant hand.) The reward is a credits sequence with an excellent rendition of the game’s main theme. It almost sounds reminiscent of the opening to an 80’s animated sci-fi television series. The main melody was even referenced in later Smash titles, including an appearance in the Final Destination theme from Melee.


Rainbow Road (Mario Kart 64)

Whether it’s your favorite Mario Kart level or your worst nightmare, there’s no denying the impact that this classic song has had on players over the years. It really makes you feel like your racing on a giant rainbow in the sky. The stage may be the most difficult in the game, but the song really helps make the experience feel less stressful. There’s even a great guitar riff that plays the main medley during the second verse, which only adds to the epic scale of this final stage. Nothing says “welcome to Mario Kart” quite like the uplifting melody of Rainbow Road.


Opening Theme (Star Fox 64)

 While this song is mostly recognized from Super Smash Bros. nowadays, it serves as the grand introduction for Fox and his squad on the Nintendo 64. When it’s not featuring talking dinosaurs, the Star Fox series deals with a galactic war between space animals and a giant monkey head (were the dinosaurs really that out of the ordinary in Adventures?)

This opening theme gives players the adrenaline rush they need before flying into action, dodging asteroids and barrel rolling through enemy fire. Not to mention, seeing the main characters run with such quick, silly motions is always a blast.


The DK Rap (Donkey Kong 64)

 What? You thought I’d just forget the quintessential rap track of the 90’s? The DK rap has no doubt influenced countless artists throughout the twenty-first century (because who wouldn’t be inspired by this masterpiece?)

All jokes aside, it truly is one of the most recognizable songs from the Nintendo 64. The track was even given a remix in Super Smash Bros. Melee a few years later. Sure, it’s incredibly cheesy, but that’s part of the fun. Besides, the lyrics are actually quite accurate with the game, since they mention several key abilities that the Kong’s can learn.

How Super Metroid’s Ominous Soundtrack Creates Immersion

When Nintendo released the original Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1987, it introduced a new level of non-linearity to gaming. Players were thrown into an open world, not unlike the Legend of Zelda did prior, and left to figure out where to go to progress. Along with an eerie, minimalist soundtrack, Metroid truly made players feel alone in an alien world. With the limitations of the NES sound capabilities, tracks were often simple, yet had rather creepy melodies. From the ominous tone of Kraid’s Lair, to the mesmerizing, yet haunting notes of Tourian, Metroid’s soundtrack knew how to create a sense of loneliness in its world.

Though Samus would see another adventure on the Game Boy with Metroid II, the series really hit its stride in the 16-bit era. With the launch of the Super Nintendo in 1991, Metroid fans would have to wait an extra three years before the release of the third installment in the series, Super Metroid. Luckily, the wait was well worth it; Super Metroid is considered one of the finest Super Nintendo games of all time.

With enhanced 16bit visuals, improved controls, and new abilities (not to mention a map!), Super Metroid was a huge step up from its predecessors. Perhaps one of the most iconic aspects of the game is its soundtrack; not only were there far more tracks than the NES original, Super Metroid utilized the Super Nintendo’s sound capabilities in incredible ways. The result is an immersive, atmospheric masterpiece that leaves the player isolated on an alien planet.

Though Super Metroid is far from a horror game in terms of gameplay, its atmosphere is perhaps one of the darkest and loneliest on the Super Nintendo. From the moment the player begins their adventure, the opening segment doesn’t use any musical melodies prior to the encounter with Samus’s enemy, Ridley. An ominous beeping noise and single droning note are the only sounds accompanying Samus. Even when exploring Crateria, the first main area of the game, the music consists only of droning vocal samples, and a low backing drumbeat. It’s as if the vocals are coming from the alien life that lives on the planet, warning Samus to pack up her spare missiles and get out of their home.

One comparison that can be drawn to the Super Metroid soundtrack and atmosphere is the 1979 sci-fi horror film, Alien. With its droning notes and eerie sound effects, the music of Alien often builds tension with minimalism. Some tracks begin quiet with little instrumentation, before introducing brief, loud melodies that last only a few seconds. Sure, the same can be said about most horror movies, but Alien is already a big inspiration for the Metroid franchise. One of the film’s tracks, “The Lab,” in particular sounds like it could fit right at home in a Metroid game.

While Alien’s soundtrack does create tension, the film has its fair share of jump scares as well. The scariest scenes are often more frightening from the unexpected nature of the moment, rather than the Xenomorph itself. Similarly, Super Metroid is all about setting the right tone for horror; the music itself is often more frightening than the actual environment or situation. That’s not to say there aren’t some creepy enemies in the game, but the stress from the slow, lingering vocal samples and noises are what really drives the atmosphere. This lonesome, chilling tone continues for the duration of Samus’s journey.

The final level of Super Metroid, Tourian, brings the soundtrack full circle, and uses noise samples in place of an actual musical track. It consists of bubbling lava and a grumbling sound, not unlike a hungry stomach (what has Samus had to eat all this time anyway?) Much like the beginning of the game, the final segment relies heavily on in-game sound effects, including the occasional shrieks of the Metroids themselves. The result is a familiar atmosphere that reminds the player of the beginning of their adventure.

Even during the first phase of the battle with Mother Brain, there is still no music present until the last segment. It’s not until the true final encounter that a loud, dramatic track begins to play. The notes are shrill and piercing, with Mother Brain screeching at the player with every chance she gets. This is the perfect way to give the player a final send off; it begins with an ominous lack of music, drawing Samus further into the lair of Mother Brain. Then, just when her adventure seems to be finished, the boss rises up once again (after unexpectedly growing legs) and begins one final attack.

Hmm, this ending seems a bit familiar…remember the finale of Alien? Just when it seemed like Ripley was going to make an escape without having to worry about the Xenomorph, it appears unexpectedly, hiding in the same escape shuttle. In a similar sense, Mother Brain returns even after it seems like she is no longer a threat. Ok, so this comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but Super Metroid does evoke a similar feeling in its last battle. The adventure isn’t over until Samus makes it off the planet in one piece, and the player won’t feel safe until they are certain they have escaped. One final victory song plays, with a rendition of Samus’s theme. It marks a triumphant conclusion to a game that previously provided pure isolation and terror, and stands as one of gaming’s greatest finales.