When it comes to video games, 2017 was not joking around—both for the sheer quality and their incredible soundtracks.
I had a relatively diverse year of gaming. I still spent it playing a whole lot of JRPGs—Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Persona 5, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga can attest to this. I still chipped away at my backlog by playing older games amongst the new. I didn’t quite finish some of those new ones either. And I still managed to miss some of 2017's bigger ones (it’s one of the reasons why NieR: Automata isn’t on this list—don’t slay me!)
I dipped into a brawler with Yakuza 0 which, while isn’t out of the ordinary for me, isn’t something I do too often (with Yakuza 0 being my first in the series). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s open-world formula forced me to re-think the type of games I play.
But the biggest change was playing—and being below average in the skills department—Destiny 2. My first true, sizeable foray into a First Person Shooter. Additionally, it was my first really big experience with a multiplayer game.
This year, I also experienced video game soundtracks in interesting ways: first, through live performances and second, by picking the brains of a couple of the composers who made some of my favorite earworms over the past few years.
2017’s video game barrage aside, it’s been a great, personal year for gaming and experiences. Here are 10 of the best I played (and in no particular order), whether they were released this year or not, and their amazing soundtracks.
Composer: Shoji Meguro
Here’s one that deserves to be on many end of year lists. I also have a secret: I didn’t love some of it. I have a real problem with some of the vocals and the on-the-nose narration detailing the protagonists’ every action. There are some overly J-pop songs that are catchy but also grate on my nerves. But it doesn’t change the fact that these are minor complaints which do not detract from the overall quality of Shoji Meguro’s compositions in the latest entry in the Persona universe.
With Lin’s jazzy vocals layered over smooth tracks, Persona 5’s music represents a specific type of coolness factor. It’s one that goes hand-in-hand with the game’s aesthetics, and unsurprisingly so, as it’s tailor-made for the experience. Consider this:
A rainy day at a sidestreet cafe where patronage is infrequent. Customers who do visit, find themselves with coffee and curry, served by a gruff man who has seen his share of rubbish in his lifetime.
Although I complained about the word-for-word breakdown of the protagonist’s life in the lyrics of some of the songs Persona 5 puts forth, it’s not always the case. This song is a prime example of that: it’s a narrative that’s a reflective monologue of all your character bears—a perfect brew for the physical inactivity and soul-searching a rainy day can bring. It’s flowing, melancholy, chill, and profound. (Note: I’m aware the rainy day version has no vocals but the sentiment is there when considered with the lyrical version.)
Or there’s this:
The vocal version of this song, in my opinion, is one I just can’t get into. In game, ahead of a final push of a mission, the instrumental track is absolutely flawless. It’s probably one of the best tracks I’ve ever experienced in a game for how it’s utilized. It’s heart-pumping and motivational to channel that excitement. It’s just great.
Persona 5 is too damned real, even if it’s coincidental and doesn’t eerily foretell the future by detailing the nitty gritty of our current political climate. But its point stands, and that is: it makes a convincing blanket statement as to the corruption of the human heart we’re susceptible to, and the struggle to fight for what’s right.
Composers: Naoto Kubo, Shiho Fujii, Koji Kondo
As of this writing, I’m striving to take a screenshot of 666 moons collected because I think there’s a funny Tweet to be made there. But it’s not the only reason why I’ve spent so many hours traveling the world on the titular Odyssey with a Sentient Cap person. I’m genuinely enjoying all the frustrations and moments of pure joy that come with a 3D Mario platformer. And I suck at Mario games.
I’m still undecided on whether I still have the most love for the Super Mario Galaxy games (and I’m leaning towards yes) or this one but it’s been fun. I’m mostly struck by just how freaking mean Mario is to Cappy. He tosses Cappy into the mouths of piranha plants while Cappy vocalizes distress. He jumps on Cappy’s head, possibly with Cappy’s consent but it’s still horrific. With Cappy’s help, he possesses the bodies of his enemies and as I play, I’ll have Mario leave these bodies in lava filled pits, or on the banks of rivers instead of the rivers from whence the fish enemies came. With Mario’s help, I’ve also made sheep fly. I’m not (too) proud.
Mario, in other words, is a trash human. But admittedly, as Mario, I may be garbage too for reveling in the misbehaving.
There are other grievances with Mario and Odyssey. Mario dances like an old man which is a personal crime against me. And holy crap is “Jump Up, Super Star” one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard anywhere.
But! There’s something purely wholesome about playing a Mario game and listening to all those familiar pings, 8-bit sounds and dipping into the nostalgia of Mario games past (manufactured for me since I never actually had a NES or SNES in my youth), which are so seamlessly integrated into Odyssey.
As I said, “Jump Up, Super Star” is a travesty to my ears and well-being but there are dozens of other tracks that make Mario’s latest adventure pop for whatever situation or kingdom he is in, and contribute to that overall good time of a feeling. There’s the nighttime creepy excursions in New Donk City, or the disco themed Wooded Kingdom with its old steampunk structures.
Although I may still be salty about the severe lack of Boos (the cutest characters apart from Luigi), Bonneton, The Cap Kingdom has that foggy, spooky atmosphere I absolutely love. Its theme song is beautifully eerie to match
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
This year, for the first time, I played what is often considered the cream of the crop entry in the Mario & Luigi series. Getting my butt kicked in the original game was how I spent my January. Then the remake was released but that’s okay. I’m thankful I got to play it in its original form and it was glorious.
There are things that are really special about Superstar Saga: from its weird humour that began it all, to Fawful, to Peasley to its music. I have nightmares about Cackletta still, which are accurately depicted by her musical theme and the end boss fight doesn’t help alleviate those night terrors either.
Composers: Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hayato Matsuo
What’s there to say about Final Fantasy XII? It was a weird game in 2006, and it’s a weird game now. But for me, not in a bad way. It’s full of lore told through its citizens’ cultures, hunts, and their social classes. It’s full of beautiful creatures and really horrible, privileged people. The remaster added a fast forward button which makes the game easier to digest on account of how slow the characters originally trudged through its huge towns. It’s a great feature that faster gets to the dense political narrative, and meat of its combat system that, with a little thought and planning, can leave battles running on autopilot and still be immensely satisfying thanks to a gambit system which crafts powerhouse characters.
The remaster also brought an overhauled orchestral score. It’s a gorgeous soundtrack that’s fitting for Ivalice’s world by some of the same folks who scored Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s even better now, if that’s possible (thanks to my greater appreciation of the game in 2017), and even more pressing, looming, intricate, and grand. Some of my favorite tracks then are still favorites now for being just as intense as I remember:
Composers: Michael Salvatori, Skye Lewin, C Paul Johnson
Did I ever think I’d find myself playing an FPS? Nope. I’m convinced I have no business playing them, on the account I’m even worse at them than the genres I do play. So why Destiny 2? That’s not a wade into shallow waters but a full on dunk in the deep end.
My reasons? I wanted to try something completely out of my comfort zone, and brave that nausea that I’m sensitive to when it comes to the first person perspective. I did it to be in the know and to experience the hype for myself. I did it to have something new to write about and to educate myself in a wholly different genre. I did it because I had at least two willing friends to join me as we explored space, and this eventually ballooned into a few more.
And I initially did it due to a persuasive loon who lured me in and damn him for it (but spoiler: in a good way!).
Turns out I’m pretty bad at shooters. Maybe even more so than I expected. Luckily, Destiny 2 moved slow enough for me to not feel very ill. Apparently, I have a problem with maps and directions. And platforms. ::shudder:: I’d rather not talk about them. But you know? For all the hours of frustration I surely gave my fireteam (not to mention the hilarious failed attempt at the first raid), I had fun. I liked going at my own pace to play the story mode. I loved it even more playing with my very tolerant friends.
As the weeks went by and I drifted away from Destiny 2 due to other obligations and interests, I have to say I kind of missed it. I miss playing it now. I might go back to hang out with my really ugly character (probably the worst iteration of Zarnyx I’ve ever created in a game), even if I may feel left behind with Destiny 2 going through its many changes and growing pains. Because I miss Destiny 2’s sci-fi setting. Its world is beautiful: all the destruction from the alien war. The bright splashes of red, alien plant life on Nessus. Cayde and his chicken.
Destiny 2 may have cheesy dialogue and main plot but its lore is also pretty intriguing when it’s not trying to over-explain everything. Playing with friends is something I won’t forget. Even when my kill scores were abysmally lower than theirs, or I felt proud at my assist counts, I still had a great time. Excitedly chatting with friends about our journeys was a blast. And its soundtrack that swelled and was orchestrated to be so overly baked and manufactured for those equally-synthetic moments still got to me because they were straight-up lovely:
Composers: Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata
I didn’t know I missed music as much as I did in Breath of the Wild until entering Hyrule castle near the end of my 155 hour journey. 2017’s release of this massive game did things vastly different from its predecessors. Gone were large dungeons with specific puzzles and the dedicated tools to get through them. The latest Zelda broke that idea down and instead scattered mini-shrines all over Hyrule. The puzzles were there, and the tools were too but they were given from the beginning leaving the world open to exploration. If you wanted to!
Players were given the option to explore as much or as little of Hyrule as they wanted. We were also given breakable weapons and shields for defense. Cooking knowledge to experiment with in order to survive. Skills to master and grow through combat and the terrain with natural weather elements. Players could go directly to Ganon if they wanted (save the mandatory Great Plateau adventure/tutorial), or they could take time to explore every corner of the map and all the nooks, crannies and mountain tops in between.
As I played Breath of the Wild, I thought “Well, this is cool but is it really that cool?” As the days went by and I had time to think about it: I’m still not convinced it’s the greatest (Majora’s Mask still holds that honour) but I couldn’t deny that yes, Breath of the Wild is something special.
The incessant rains. The weirdness of it all. The eerie cold swirling around desolate mountains. Breath of the Wild gives a solace—a feeling—that is hard to put into the words. All the sounds of nature and the limited soundtrack approach was so different from the triumphant music of the series past and I was okay with that. Then I got into Hyrule Castle and the music bombarded the senses with ferocity. It’s a brilliant piece that sets the stage perfectly for what’s to come.
A dishonest me would say that I missed music tracking my every step and discovery in Breath of the Wild.The truthful me knows that I relished its overall absence. Sound was designed to make all those lonely nights in Hyrule fighting for survival more meaningful. The minimalist approach worked. But it did something else too. When tracks were used, such as the dragons floating overhead that sometimes come rushing by Link, they were beautiful with a lasting impact.
Artist/Musician/Composer: Steven Wilson
I can’t say too much about Last Day of June that wouldn’t be a complete spoiler. Just know it was awfully sad, hopeful, and anxiety-inducing all in one. This beautiful game about loss, love, and life told through gorgeous unsettling clay-mation aesthetics and a groundhog day gameplay mechanic, had me in deep thought one August afternoon. It also introduced me to UK musician, Steven Wilson. All one needs to do is watch the video for the song “Drive Home” (the game is based on0 to know that Last Day of June will wallop players with difficult emotions that we all must confront even when we don’t want to.
Composer: Hideki Abe
You may think Puyo Puyo Tetris is merely a game combining two huge puzzle franchises into one. But you’d only be partially right.
When the game released earlier this year in the West, my sister and I discovered absolute ridiculousness. Puyo Puyo Tetris’ story was idiotic, lewd, heart-warming, and had ghosts. Its characters brought these emotions to the game with their funny words, terrible voice-acting, and over-the-top delivery. Through puyo puyo and tetris battles. Somehow, it all made sense.
For months it became a daily ritual where two battles between sisters led to five more. Even though we still haven’t mastered the Puyo Puyo side of the game, and even though its music isn’t the finest, this game is one of our most played in 2017. If I close my eyes, I can still hear our favorite characters talk smack to each other, or lose gracefully over the saccharine pop music.
Composer: Joel Steudler
I first knew I loved this game when a character said something with hesitation because it was kind of snarky. To show just how dicey the whole line was, without a voice actor to vocalize that emotion, the entire text-box tilted the conversation. That one action was so simple but also incredibly amazing. It showed this game had off-kilter humour, confirmed a few moments later when a sausage roll and some ducks were the centerpiece of a joke.
When I wrote about this weird indie golf RPG a few months ago, I noted some of the music in the first level was a cacophonous mess. I also noted the track was a perfect fit for the game with its weird blaring of jazzy horns. While I couldn’t tell you if the rest of the soundtrack was memorable for good or bad reasons, I can tell you that Golf Story as a whole—its jerk characters, its underdog story, its drama, rap battles, its zombie attacks, its golf tournaments, and its tilted text boxes—is a lovely, bizarre, funny little game that surprised in 2017.
Composer: Darren Korb
Supergiant Games’ two prior games were excellent. Bastion is an action game with a Western and fantasy flair. The other, Transistor, is a Sci-Fi RPG. Both are games with intriguing stories with complex questions. Then came Pyre: a blend of RPG, visual novel and basketball…? I wasn’t sure if I liked it when I first started. It was gorgeous as I’ve come to expect from the indie studio’s games but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of its method of storytelling.
As I progressed, I had nothing to worry about and it’s probably my favorite one of the works of theirs now. Its story has incredible depth which tasks players to learn lessons from losing. The consequences and choices are difficult to make, and impact a huge cast of characters who are all likable and live in a complicated existence, each with their own motivations to unveil. Pyre’s questions are philosophical and its answers are far from easy to condense into neat packages.
And its soundtrack, of course, is beautiful. This year I had the incredible opportunity to interview Darren Korb, the composer for Pyre, Bastion and Transistor. His compositions have been some of my favorites since discovering the games in the last few years. With Pyre, it was his most challenging to create to date and its complexities show in just how diverse each piece is.
Each character has a theme that speaks volumes to their personalities. Location pieces are as beautiful as the locales themselves. There are so many tracks I could pull to make my point of just how brilliant this soundtrack is. But one of my favorites is a piece that plays during a tense encounter. The track reminds me a little of a cheering section at the sporting event. Maybe it’s all in my head but right in the middle of the track at the breakdown, the clapping start up and it’s just so lively:
Back in June I saw El Huervo, Magic Sword, and Doseone perform at publisher Devolver Digital’s E3 parking lot hangout. It was an absolutely amazing experience thanks to the invitation and coolness of this one guy I had the good fortune of interviewing this year. But it’s the last artist in that talented list who I’d be remiss to exclude from the best music I listened to this year.
After returning from E3, I bought the soundtrack for Enter The Gungeon. I listened to it religiously for months on end, while I was glued to my desk doing routine tasks. I’m currently playing Gungeon and I love it. As I haven’t spent enough time though, and I’m not sure I’ll ever make it to the end because of how difficult it is, I can’t yet say it’s a favorite game I’ve played. It sure is fun though but also frustrating, as it’s meant to be.
Before I bought the game a couple of weeks ago, I broke my rule of never listening to a soundtrack before experiencing it in-game but oh well. Doseone’s music is fantastic enough to do that for. So fantastic, in fact, I broke the rule again once High Hell came out, too.
The soundtracks and his live performance are high energy and insanely great. I’m also well-aware I’m super late to the Doseone train because he’s got a massive discography apart from his foray into the video game world. But better late than never because I’m better off having discovered him.
Because, I mean, just listen to this greatness:
After all those words, there you have it.
It was a great year, and I have a feeling this year is going to be just as amazing, if not better, for video games.
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