Back in the ol’ M of arch, we here at The Well-Red Mage took a dive into a new recurring series: an exploration of musical motifs appearing in video games. Music is one element that, if used correctly, can really heighten a gaming experience and take it into the realm of real art. Our first adventure was a Top 20 list of video game Forest themes, songs that best capture a sense of organic mystery and green leaves and hardwood and dappled sunlight.
Well pop in your record (side-B first) because we’re back for another Top 20 list. This time we’re wading through some of gaming’s best Ocean music.
There are several ways that composers have attempted to grasp at an oceanic sense of vastness, delight and wonder. Usually it involves a lot of harps and piano, instruments often associated musically with water, and light percussion that reminds one of clam shells being drummed upon (though of course, they don’t make any such noise in reality). Sometimes these themes are frightening, sometimes they are lighthearted: fickle as the true Sea herself, a thing so much bigger than ourselves which both welcomes and terrifies. She beckons to sailors, repels thassalophobics, and inspires dreams and artists.
Every time I see her, I’m filled with awe. Growing up in Hawaii without electricity or cars or warm clothing (I kid, I kid), we spent a lot of time swimming, diving and playing in the ocean. All that to say, these tracks resonate with me. The ocean has always been something I feel more than something I see or touch. Sometimes I hear her calling in my sleep with the whisper of her lapping against the sand.
Come and drown in a sea of music. It feels like going home.
#20. “Aquarium” – Endless Ocean: Blue World
We start off with a game that was basically a diving simulator with a title that begs to be a part of this list. It introduces us to most of the musical metaphors we’ll continue to see throughout the rest of our list: muffled arpeggio (harp or piano), long pulls on strings, airy flutes, the equivalent of audio bubbles. I’ve never played Endless Ocean: Blue World, but I wish I had.
#19. “Torvus Bog Submerged Temple” – Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
Adding synth-warbles to the formula, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes‘ track takes us from lighthearted straight into the realm of dread and apprehension. Of course, considering this is the Metroid franchise, fear and isolation shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the game’s title would suggest, this track is almost one big echo as its 6-note rhythm plays over and over again. It distinctly sounds as if it’s being heard underwater, in much murkier waters than we’d prefer.
#18. “Shining Sea” – MapleStory
Aaaaand right back to lighthearted again. I’d suggest that the majority of Ocean themes lean in this direction. MapleStory’s “Shining Sea” is percussive and upbeat but that plays out over a layer of echoing chimes which are, again, reminiscent of what we imagine seashell instruments should sound like. This is the song which dances in a child’s mind when swimming in the shallows. In fact, it might be one of the better songs on this list to exemplify a differentiation in the Ocean theme between “shallows” and “open ocean” or “deep water”.
#17. “The Serpent Trench” – Final Fantasy VI
You can always expect to see Square’s classic franchise, renown for its soundtracks, on any list of gaming music. Evocative of spinning weightless and lost, FFVI’s “The Serpent Trench” is a dizzying, hurtling trip through the hidden tracks of the sea. It’s more frenetic, hurried and tense than most other Ocean themes, which makes it unique. The echoes again remind us of sound traveling underwater. Mechanics don’t just change with water levels. Evidently audio functionality does as well.
#16. “The Great Sea” – The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
How can we not feature a track from Wind Waker, a game which involves the sea more than most any other? Adventurous, optimistic, brave and intrepid, “The Great Sea” plays whenever Link saddles up the King of Red Lions, his sentient watercraft companion, to traverse the vast blue expanse, mounting waves under a perfectly crystal blue cell shaded sky. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is a more whimsical and cartoony game than some of its peers in the same franchise, but “The Great Sea” throws out most of that silliness and audibly opts for a much more heroic anthem, giving us a worthy stand-in for the Hyrule field theme. This makes me want to go sailing and hear the waves dashing against the prow!
#15. “Bubble Crab” – Megaman X2
Two things must be said here. First off, “Bubble Crab” approaches the concept of the Ocean motif from an unusual perspective. Musically speaking, Ocean themes are generally soft-spoken, ambient, full of echoes and harps and such. “Bubble Crab”, in the vein of Mega Man, is unabashedly a rock track. Yet it still seems to touch upon the concept, even just in the first seven seconds. Secondly, just about every Mega Man game ever made has got its obligatory water level. That means that there are dozens of water-type tracks to sift through. Maybe there were some I overlooked? Personally it came down to “Bubble Crab” or “Bubble Man” (Mega Man II) and I chose the first for its more Oceanic sensibilities.
#14. “Inside the Water Dragon” – Okami HD
Okami had a great OST. It was distinctively Japanese and ethnic in its aesthetic. This track is no different than the rest of its culturally-driven soundtrack. It’s also not much different from what has already been established: a few chimes and its Asian feel do little to mask the echoing, the ambience and the muffled sounds of the Ocean theme concept. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful and somehow sad than it is.
#13. “Dark Places” – Aquaria
Myterious, shadowy, “deep water”, this track from the indie game Aquaria wraps up all of the audio tropes of the Ocean theme into a sometimes brooding, sometimes active track. This is the sound of exploring a cavern underwater, shining your flashlight about in search of creatures unknown to science. Those high notes on the piano are just the finishing touch.
#12. “World 4: Water Land” – Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Ocean themes are particularly relaxing most of the time, since that’s how we think about the ocean in our leisure most of the time, but in a game as laidback as Kirby’s Epic Yarn, this means that we’re getting a double dose of relaxing with its own variation on the Ocean theme. It’s nicely paced, high-fluted and accented by an eggshell shaker and gentle picks at a guitar, serenading you to calm down, put your feet up and take it easy. How nobody fell asleep playing this game, I’ll never know. Maybe they did, iced lemonade in hand.
#11. “Silence” – Shadow of the Colossus
Sorry to keep doing this to you. The juxtaposition of care-free and fearful can be jarring, but as I said, the Sea herself is fickle at times a cooing mother, at other times a woman scorned. In the masterpiece that is Shadow of the Colossus, the main character faces off against more than just one aquatic monster, but it is this track, which plays after diving into the lake and finding that you’re not alone, that is slow enough and mysterious enough to exemplify the “deep water” half of the Ocean theme motif. Imagine being stranded out in open water, far too deep for you to see the bottom. This might be a scarier track to hear in your head than the theme from Spielberg’s Jaws, especially when you spot a huge, dark shadow swimming past you, brushing against your toes.
I hope that image doesn’t leave you too scared to come back for the second half of our musical journey through the shallow and the deep! Check out A-Side: tracks 10 through 1. Can you guess which watery, warbley song will plunge all the way to number one?
–The Well-Red Mage, Black Humor Mage, Timely Mage & Green Screen Mage