In 8GR8, we’ll examine eight excellent pieces of video game music, loosely related by some sort of theme. Given it’s the first installment, it’s only fitting that we check out some great title screen themes.
In video games, where music often serves a more functional and workmanlike purpose than in other media, the title theme has extra burdens to bear. It’s the song out on the front lines—the one that has to somehow encapsulate the overall feeling of the entire experience the player is about to explore. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so that title screen really has to knock a player’s socks off, or at least do its job better than “okay”. Here are eight title screen intro themes that have gone way above and beyond the baseline job description and made it into my personal “classics” pantheon.
1. Puzzled – “Title Screen”
Composer: Thomas Mogenson
Platform/Year: Game Boy Color, 2001
This is one of my favorite random discoveries ever. What good is the Internet if you’re just going to use it to listen to the same million-view songs over and over again? I’ve never even played this game. The song evokes memories of the Commodore 64 in the way that it’s apparent that the bulk of the compositional effort was put into the title track. The whole soundtrack relies heavily on that trilling sound that appears far more often in chiptune compositions and so-called “de-mixes” than in actual video game songs and seems to most closely represent a Hammond organ, but it’s deployed most tastefully on the title screen as a subtle call to the guitar’s (or possibly saxophone’s) funky responses.
2. Treasure Master – “Title Screen”
Composer: Tim Follin
Platform/Year: NES, 1991
You can hardly have a feature about title screen themes without mentioning Tim Follin. No matter what games he worked on, you could always count on Follin to manage previously inconceivable feats of wizardry with limited sound chips. Follin enjoyed working with the NES sound chip in particular, aptly citing its “character”, and his soundtracks on the console rank among his best work. (Hardcore Gaming 101’s user base ranked his title theme for Solstice third on their 2011 list of the 250 greatest Western video game songs.)
Distressingly often, one could count on a Tim Follin soundtrack to be the best part of an otherwise mediocre if not downright awful game. Treasure Master is no exception: a stoopid-hard platformer that instantly dated itself both with its ugly-as-sin box art and by yoking itself to a dumb MTV contest. This theme is actually somewhat of a remix of the Starsky and Hutch theme, but it’s very well done: obvious enough to pick it out if you listen to them back-to-back, but subtle enough to stand as a tune on its own merits.
3. Castle Master – “Title Theme/In-Game Music”
Composer: Matt Furniss
Platform/Year: Amiga, 1990
It would be too easy to fill a list of great title screen themes with examples from the Commodore Amiga, so we’ll just go with a representative that happens to be one of my personal favorites. The European computer’s history is stacked with long, sprawling, and most importantly, amazing pieces of music. I found this one while playing a fanmade Lemmings level pack called PimoLems. It’s been non-skip material in my VGM playlist ever since. This one’s got atmosphere out the wazoo, and just when you think it’s about to loop back around to the beginning, it tacks on another spooky segment.
4. Mega Man 3, “Title Screen”
Composer: Yusuaki Fujita
Platform/Year: NES, 1990
Stewart Copeland is best known as the drummer for The Police, but before I ever bought my first copy of Outlandos D’Amour, his rock-star moment for me was composing the Spyro the Dragon soundtrack. Before Spyro hopped on the XTREME bandwagon a decade late and got sucked up and demoted to one more cog in the Skylanders machine, he was the star of his own series of bright, amiable collectathon platformers. Copeland’s music incorporated all the elements the games put forward—fun and bouncy, a little rowdy at times, but also redolent with the weight of dragon history and legend. It’s a more intriguing career move than Desert Rose, at any rate.
6. The Adventures of Willy Beamish, “Opening Theme”
Composers: Don Latarski, Chris Stevens
Platform/Year: Sega-CD, 1993
Some purists will try to tell you that Redbook audio was the beginning of the end for chip-based OSTs, but I personally can’t get enough of the stuff. Before the bulk of more realistic VGM disappeared into a boring orchestral void, many games that featured Redbook audio contained wailing butt-rock guitars, cheesy saxophones, and myriad other instruments one on occasion feels somewhat sheepish about unabashedly enjoying.
I get a real Saturday morning cartoon vibe from the Willy Beamish theme, which is unusual because I either don’t remember a lot of theme songs sounding like this or didn’t watch a lot of shows that featured such themes. The only show of the era I can think of that I watched and had such guitars is Mighty Max, though for no discernible reason, the song I always want to hear after this is the intro from the CBS cartoon of Where’s Waldo?. In any event, of all the versions of this theme, the Sega-CD version with real instruments in my opinion captures the spirit of the game best.
7. RoboCop 3, “Title Screen”
Composer: Jeroen Tel
Platform/Year: NES, 1992
When I first heard this, I thought, “If this isn’t the work of Tim Follin, I’ll eat my hat.” Consider my hat well and duly eaten.
In related news, Jeroen Tel is currently (as of this writing) crowdfunding a remix album of some of his best Commodore 64 themes, including the above. I don’t often consider backing crowdfunded projects but this one definitely has my attention.
8. Metroid II: Return of Samus, “Title Theme”
Composer: Ryoji Yoshitomi
Platform/Year: Game Boy, 1991
When people think of a great Metroid game, they usually think of Super Metroid, and for good reason: it’s the best one. But this Game Boy installment is my sentimental favorite. Unlike Super Metroid, which aims to impress the player with its atmosphere and give them a well-rounded experience, Metroid II‘s atmospherics convey darkness and discomfort. Despite being the most linear Metroid game (until Fusion came out, anyway), the player does not receive a map of any sort, and many of its branching caverns lack true music—only ambient, incidental creeps, crawls, and chitters. In that sense, the title theme is something of a statement of intent, starting with a series of incremental, off-pitch pings before building into a brief soaring moment of ecstasy that soon dies beneath a series of echoing explosions. It’s only two minutes long, but it’s kind of a chore to get through the whole thing. That’s the thing about chores, though: when you finish them, you usually get some kind of reward from it.