“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Play it again, Sam! Welcome back to our countdown, children of all ages!
Let’s draw the long bow about good old-timey ragtimey. Prepare yourselves for the musical equivalent of slapstick, but be sure to check out the first half of our list before venturing on into the song list below or its the Earth bath for you! Back to the past with you.
#10. “Title Theme” – Cooking Mama
Mamma mia, it’s-a Cooking Mama again! Italian stereotypes aside, there are so few original ragtime songs in video games that this track had to make the list, even though a song from the sequel already did. Don’t grouse and be a gentleman of four outs. You know you love the tinkly-tankly honky tonk lovin’ of Cooking Mama. This track made it into the top 10 of our list for sounding as clean as it does whilst still having that warbly sound of an old piano.
#9. “Ragtime” – Roller Coaster Tycoon 2
Bravo to a game about amusement parks for not sinking into trashy, poppycock “circus music” and sticking with sophisticated ragtime. True, this song is actually “Searchlight Rag” by Scott Joplin. Many of these tracks aren’t original. So then why does it score so high on our countdown? Setting, my boy. Setting. Ragtime is the anthem of mirth that fills the air of an amusement park with its carefree jazz.
#8. “Athletic Theme” – Super Mario World
If there was one franchise that could beat out any other for most ragtime songs, it’s got to be the Super Mario franchise. Our favorite red capped hero has been smashing blocks and jumping pits to some truly bizarre choices of music, in context, from reggae to the waltz to symphony. But somehow all of those flavors mix with the sunshiny world of Super Mario and his “wahoo-ing” goes hand in hand with ragged time like peanut butter and jelly, like America and baseball, like politics and corruption. So long as Bowser continues to kidnap the Princess, Mario will be running and jumping to ragtime. However, this variation on the “Athletic Theme” from Super Mario World may be the only time in the history of music that ragtime was accompanied by bongos.
#7. “Athletic Theme” – Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 had a strange vibe of self-awareness, opening as if to a vaudeville act with the red curtain being raised above the title screen. In that sense, this 8-bit ragtime piece fits right in this brightly colored world. It oozes precariousness, and those of you who have played this NES classic know why. All I remember is sweaty palms.
#6. “Who Turned Out The Lights?” – Earthworm Jim
By all accounts the soundtrack for Earthworm Jim was a varied one, as strange as the game it belonged to with its elevator music, electronica, and hip hop, and yes even ragtime. Heck, that might just be the only sentence in the world where those four music genres were mentioned together! This appropriately named rag plays on a bonus stage of pitch blackness. All you can see is the cartoony eyes of the invertebrate hero and a few spots of light. It’s a hilarious effect from golden age animation coupled with this fast track of tumbling and tripping fingers tickling the ivories. First time I discovered this bonus level I had a huge grin.
#5. “Slide Show Part II” – Final Fantasy VIII
Rivaling Super Mario as a franchise with many great rags in it is none other than… Final Fantasy? You may think of dungeons or dragons or Sephiroth but anyone who has fallen in love with the FF series (which should be everyone) knows that ragtime has a charming and befitting home among these games. They stand to prove that Final Fantasy is a unique RPG franchise that can do what it wants, even if that means deviating from the realm of high fantasy or sci-fi for a little taste of 1910’s Americana. Even FFVIII, which from appearances seemed to be taking itself more seriously than most of its predecessors, knew how to have a good time with this showtune rag. Sorry “Shuffle or Boogie” and Triple Triad, but “Slide Show Part II” is nigh-perfect ragtime.
#4. “Spinach Rag” – Final Fantasy VI
I’ve already put it down in writing that I believe Final Fantasy VI to be the greatest Final Fantasy of them all. Everyone who’s played it remembers the iconic scenes: Kefka laughing, fighting Ultros, sinking the desert castle, the Ghost Train, and the Opera House scene. Upon entering the Opera House, this hurried, happy “Spinach Rag” strikes the ears. To this day I have no idea why it’s even called that but structurally it’s perfect ragtime. One of the most memorable songs off of a great soundtrack. And if you’re wondering about “Johnny C. Bad”, “Spinach” beat it out for being a proper rag.
#3. “Overworld Theme” – Super Mario Bros. 2
This rag (Overworld Rag?) which plays over the first stage of Super Mario Bros. 2 may be the best example of traditional and “correct” ragtime on the 8-bit NES system. It has a musical introduction, a three-part structure, recurring melody motifs, and strict ragged time. There’s a barely audible bass-line doing the two-step rhythm, too. Super Mario Bros. 2 is a weird game, considered by some to be the black sheep of the 8-bit trilogy, but maybe that’s why ragtime fits right in with it!
#2. “Solace” – BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite had to make an appearance on this list somewhere. You know it had to. With its emphasis on American themes and settings from the turn of the 20th century, there are actually several songs from its soundtrack that might’ve made this list. Perhaps it’s the one video game that has the most ragtime songs on its soundtrack, but I didn’t exactly count. The steampunk city of Columbia just oozes all kinds of rag possibilities. This “Solace” (again by Scott Joplin) sounds as if it’s being played on an old, vaguely out of tune piano off a record speckled with dust. I’d read that Scott Joplin’s later works toward the end of his life masked his discouraged heart, his sadness, and frustration as a struggling, bankrupt artist beneath the happy tunes. It should be noted that there’s a kind of slow, reflective, wistfulness to this song. Almost like regret. I picture an old man sitting in his chair, looking out of the window at the wind playing on the grass. This is a song that’s representative of the reality of the world seen through the false smile of ragtime. As a musical genre, it perfectly encapsulates the human tendency to pretend to happiness.
#1. “Sleepless City Treno” – Final Fantasy IX
The number one spot on our list is no tune the old cow died of. Also known as “Dark City Treno”, this piece is perfect ragtime for several reasons. It’s traditionally structured, it takes its time and doesn’t rush through itself at a frantic pace, and Treno itself is a timeless vision of early 1900’s Western civilization with its wealthy aristocracy and poverty-stricken poor. It beats out BioShock Infinite‘s track ultimately for being an original composition, also managing to somehow capture a hint of sadness underneath the happy honky-tonking. I may be partial to this song considering it is great fun to play on the piano, and is actually learnable unlike most hideously difficult rags. I could listen to this song all day. A complicated rag that evokes an entire city ecosystem rounds out our list at number one. Good show, Uematsu! Take a bow!
And now my face hurts from smiling so much.
Bonus Track: “Dogsong” – Undertale
Dang. Watching a master play ragtime is a sight to behold. Tom Brier is a pianist who takes to playing ragtime renditions of non-ragtime video game songs… by sight-reading. All pianists reading, be impressed. Too bad his videos are generally pretty low quality because the man is a musical gift to gamers. So here’s a little Undertale to play us out. Enjoy it and watch Mr. Brier play around with the melody, basically doing whatever he wants because no one can top his ragtime. If you still want more of this sugar-high music, YouTube “Tom Brier“.
Roll credits! Ladies and gents: the only countdown of video game ragtime tracks online. Tada!~
–The Well-Red Mage
Deez Honorable Mentions:
“Ending Theme” – Super Mario World
“Johnny C. Bad” – Final Fantasy VI
“Shuffle or Boogie” – Final Fantasy VIII
“Rocket Game Corner” – Pokemon Red/Blue
“Title Theme” – Super Mario Bros. 2
“Done” – Cooking Mama
“Ragtime Tune #1” – BioShock Infinite