“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope
The deep blue sky. It’s the realm of God and His angels. To the pagans, it was the realm of Olympus and Valhalla. Birds were given the gift of flight but mankind has only just begun to leave our earthly cradle and explore the clouds and the heavens beyond them. For us, the sky is both a beautiful mystery and adventure, and a terrifying danger, even phobia, for others. Heights make my palms sweat.
So it is with this fascination with the great firmament that we approach this months Top 20 list of video game themes on the Sky. If you’re interested, you can also check out our Top 20 lists for video game Forest themes and Ocean themes, published over the last two months.
Sky themes seem to be omnipresent in video gaming since the early days, and they’re generally characterized by light sounds of flutes and harps and strings and whistles, making us feel adventurous, like we’re soaring through the air in search of new horizons. At other times, there’s a creeping sense of falling accompanying the sense of flight. Forest themes are full of mystery. Ocean themes are full of peace.
Sky themes are full of wonder.
#20. “Hang Glider” – Pilotwings
Our countdown takes flight with a track off of the delightfully frustrating SNES title: Pilotwings. The game takes place almost entirely in the air, with the inevitable touchdown-slash-crashlanding representing the end of the level. The goal is to maneuver whatever particular aircraft you happen to be piloting at the moment and land yourself on a (ridiculously tiny) space on the ground. This track isn’t the prettiest on this list but I want you to notice that soft flute-ish sound that jumps back and fourth between two notes. That’s an exemplary Sky theme characteristic. Just need to get rid of that awful snare and this track would sound like a peaceful dirigible sailing through the clouds, and not like the aggravation that Pilotwings actually represents.
#19.”Airship theme” – Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Militaristic and threatening, this theme is a musical stand in for Bowser’s massive armada since the days of the 8-bit Nintendo. It’s been updated several times in other Mario games since Mario 3, but it’s the Brawl version that ramps up the menace to level 9001 with the drum and bass pedals coming in. It still sounds like floating airships on a destructive mission, only now with extra evil. Not the best example of a Sky theme, though an iconic one, so it scores rather low on our list.
#18. “Bounce-O-Rama” – Kingdom Hearts II
The collaborative creators of the Kingdom Hearts franchise had a lot of guts trusting that today’s hardcore, head-shooting, rated-M gamers would respond well at all to the familiar Disney characters of their youth. Somehow they made it work. Nowhere is this more shocking than in the Hundred Acre Wood. I mean, we’re used to some gritty, realistic, gory, rated T as in “Too much for your granny” games, but just seeing Winnie the Pooh waddle about was heart melting for anyone. The track “Bounce-O-Rama” plays during the Hundred Acre Wood mini-games in both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, and some of those mini-games involve floating Pooh through thin-air on a balloon or launching him into the ionosphere with a galactic push on a tree swing. True, it’s not technically a sky level, but he’s definitely up in the air, and this track has all of the warmth and bubblyness that characterizes the Sky motif. It’s floating lazy on a peaceful Windsday afternoon.
#17. “Overture” – Katamari Damacy
Space counts as the sky, right? Katamari Damacy was a charming and bizarre game about a space-prince whose space-dad blew up all the stars on accident, and now its the prince’s job to restore everything to the way it was by rolling things on Earth up with his magic ball until he’s got enough organic and inorganic matter to ignite into a new star or planet or constellation. And if that weren’t strange enough, it has a weirdly awesome soundtrack. The “Overture” plays over the title screen and is probably one of the… tamer songs on this fruity OST, but when it resounds over that background of space, that piano immediately seems like the stars are winking at you. It’s like looking up into the night Sky theme.
#16. “Sky City” – New Super Mario Bros. Wii
To be clear this is actually a slowed down remake of the Nimbus Land song from Super Mario Bros., but it’s so fluffy I think I am going to die. Feels like you’re dancing among the puffy white clouds with your red jump suit and pinwheel helmet, playing leap frog with mantas in the sky. Maybe that’s not the first thing that pops into your head if you’ve never played the game. But it is undeniable that this song sounds like a lighthearted and playful tour through some cumulus.
#15. “Thousand Wings” – Breath of Fire IV
The kingdom of Windia is a recurring story element in each of the first four Breath of Fire games. Windia is the residence of a race of humans with birdlike qualities, wings in the earlier games, with some of them even able to transform into giant majestic birds. Recurring playable characters named Nina come from Windia. In BoF IV, where the country is spelled as “Wyndia”, the song about town is “Thousand Wings” which opens with what sounds like many wind chimes tolling in the wind. Then a soothing melody strolls in, highlighted by the occasional chime and airy two note switch (mentioned earlier if that sounds confusing). The result is a track as delicate as membranous wings. It has hints of whimsy, hints of majesty, hints of regality and history and sadness, and hints of intangible wisps of cloud. It’s the best of the Windian tracks and by far the most unique for that winged race.
#14. “Storm Eagle” – Mega Man X
The Mega Man franchise has always been about rock n’ roll music (hello, Rockman in Japan!), and the same flavor carried over into the Mega Man X series with renewed youthful vigor. While it may seem a little strange to bump into a straight up rock song on a list of (usually) delicate and “airy” Sky themes, what this track off of Mega Man X does with its guitar riff is unforgettable. Once Mega Man X rises above the cloud layer and ascends up into the blue, and the wailing melody reaches its shrill zenith, then it is the music that seems as if it has pushed the hero onward and upward. Its crescendo is so high-pitched it musically sounds like ascension into the heavens. Plus, it’s easily one of the best songs from a game with a really great soundtrack.
#13. “Taking to the Skies” – Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
The first of several RPG entires concerning a flying mount. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was composed by the legendary Joe Hisaishi of Studio Ghibli fame and his knack for melodic orchestra comes across in this JRPG magnum opus. In few words: this game is great and its music is good. When Oliver reaches the dragon Tengri and leaps into the cerulean zenith, the score crashes in like a flood with those symbols and its enough to give you goosebumps it’s so incredible. The strings section brings a sweeping throwback to the game’s theme and it feels like its moving through the air. This triumphant song encapsulates the aspect of the Sky theme that is all about soaring in search of adventure.
#12. “Island in the Sky” – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Beating out the more aptly named track “The Sky” from the same game, this song hailing from Skyward Sword is rustic and ethnic, rural and grounded, even though that ground may be floating magically in the stratosphere. The plucking strings, the playful flute, the little rattle shake makes the song seem like it belongs to a living, breathing culture. “Island in the Sky” abandons the broad puff and bluster adventure of “The Sky” for a smaller, more personal sound, like a single figure of a bird circling high in the air, passing in and out of the clouds on a golden afternoon. It’s sweet and near and simplistic and it belongs on our list of Sky themes.
#11. “Athletic Theme” – Super Mario Bros. 3
Palm sweat city! This is one of the earliest Sky themes I ran into and one of the songs I immediately thought of off the top of my head. Is it a Sky theme at all? Yes. Two reasons why: when it first appears in the legendary platformer Super Mario Bros. 3, it plays over both the second and forth stages on World 1 but it’s the fourth stage that I think is the more memorable occurrence. That’s because SMB 3’s “Athletic theme” has a kind of stop-and-go precariousness to it, like you’re about to fall off something really high up and need to catch your balance… and World 1-4 is just that, complete with a screen that slowly, irresistibly scrolls to the right. Frenetic pace, tiny spaces, floating blocks, and falling platforms, World 1-4 is a Sky level night terror for those with acrophobia, which would be everyone.
Do drop in again soon. We’ll be parachuting into the second half of our Top 20 list of Sky themes, counting all the way down to number 1! What song will it be? Any guesses? You’ll just have to wait to find out the forecast!
–The Well-Red Mage, Black Humor Mage, Timely Mage & Green Screen Mage