Soundtracks in video games have always been an integral part of the overall playing experience. Whether it’s the tried and tested melodies of Super Mario Bros. or the big-budget Hollywood orchestras of modern-day first-person shooters, the pieces of musical genius we hear along the way encapsulate and elevate video games to a rightfully memorable status. That said, not many genres benefit from a befitting soundtrack the way a good RPG does. Vast areas of differing terrains and environments require a soundtrack that is interchangeable but also constant in its quality. Today’s consoles and the mediums on which games are produced can take all the gigabytes of sound data thrown at them, providing us with rich orchestral scores that accompany the game beautifully (when executed correctly).
Back in 1991 when the SNES was released, it was a very different story. Developing for cartridges meant that audio had to be heavily compressed with MIDI instrumentation providing the soundtrack to many a game. This lack of space meant composers had to be even more creative and selective with what material made it onto the game, and in no genre was this more prevalent than the mighty RPG. Scoring epic pieces of music that would sometimes be played for hours on end through a dungeon or overworld was no mean feat. Catchy chords and note progressions were the order of the day, alongside deep, immersive orchestra-like pieces which still sound fantastic today.
My love affair with RPGs on SNES meant the music composed for them holds a particular place in my heart. And today, I present to you a top ten of SNES RPG compositions– in my own humble opinion.
Composers: Miyoko Kobayashi, Masanori Hikichi
One of the greatest RPGs in history (again, in my opinion) has one of the greatest “town themes” from any RPG. As Andrew rightly points out: “who pays attention to music while you’re just passing through some boring town and raiding it of its stuff?” Answer: EVERYBODY– when this is playing.
Breath of Fire: Alan and Cerl
Composers: Yasuaki Fujita, Mari Yamaguchi, Minae Fuji, and Yoko Shimomura
The beginning of this theme reminds me of the music from Segas Columns (not a bad thing). What follows is a beautifully composed piano with heavy delay for atmosphere, and an amazing string section, crafted to accompany the melancholy notation to perfection
Illusion of Gaia: Will’s Dream
Composer: Yasuhiro Kawasaki
Really eerie piece from Illusion of Gaia. I included this piece for not only for its haunting beauty, but also the context in which it’s used during the game. Will falls asleep in the surreal setting of an ancient Incan Gold Ship, and during the dream sequence, this moving music plays as Will speaks with the spirit of his Mother– waking to find everyone dead (as they had been for hundreds of years). This scene has always stuck with me, as has the music. Perfectly fitting.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: Hyrule Castle Theme
Composer: Koji Kondo
Amazing theme from the legendary Koji Kondo. Regal, epic, fearful, and exciting are just some of the words you could describe this music with. Upon entering Hyrule Castle for the first time, this stunning composition greets you, which pretty much sets the scene for the entire game: greatness on an epic scale.
Secret of Mana: A Bell Is Tolling (Ice Palace Theme)
Composer: Hiroki Kikuta
One of many amazing pieces from Secret of Mana. Interchanging themes of the moon light glistening from the ice, and the upbeat sublimely crafted notes that follow it are a joy to hear.
Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals: Battle #2
Composer: Yasunori Shiono
Okay, I have never played this game, but the music here was brought to my attention by Andrew, so we have him to thank for this amazing tune blaring out of your speakers/headphones. Right up my RPG alley, this tune is epic, brilliantly written and gives a sense of scale to what I can only imagine to be a truly great Boss Battle.
Chrono Trigger: Undersea Palace
Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda
What’s not to love about industrial percussion, sweeping strings and an 80’s-style arpeggiated synth all arranged into a masterpiece for one of the greatest games ever created?
Final Fantasy III: Terra (Overworld Theme)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Final Fantasy: are there any more superlatives that can be bestowed upon such a series? While you think of an answer, listen to this superb composition by Nobuo Uematsu. (We know it’s Final Fantasy VI, but it’s III on the SNES, so don’t flame! –Ed.)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: Dark World Theme
Composer: Koji Kondo
I had a tough time considering whether to place Terra’s or the Dark World’s theme at number two on this list. Koji Kondo’s Dark World theme ultimately claimed the position, due to my love of the game and the memories I have of playing through Hyrule’s evil underworld with this ridiculously catchy and brilliantly composed piece as my only companion.
Illusion of Gaia: Where the Wind Doesn’t Reach (Larai Cliff)
Composer: Yasuhiro Kawasaki
Illusion of Gaia is perhaps one of the most criminally overlooked games of the SNES era– in Europe, anyway. The triad of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma is a breed of RPG that I fear we will not see again. My personal favorite has always been Illusion of Gaia, both music- and gameplay-wise). This theme has a scale and feel to its notation, layering, arrangement and general mastery of composition that places it head and shoulders above its esteemed competition. How composer Yasuhiro Kawasaki did not work on more RPGs after this is seriously beyond me. Brilliant game, brilliant music. A must-play.
I hope you enjoyed this list as much as I did creating it. Feel free to make your own list below, or flame me to death for including multiple themes from a single game.