I’m not all that musically inclined. I can’t sing that well, and I’d rather spend my quiet times listening to podcasts than music on my headphones. But even I am not deaf to how important and impactful music can be when contributing towards a moment in a movie or a video game. A well executed moment with the appropriate piece of music can make a good moment great and a great moment stick in your mind for years to come.
This idea randomly just popped into my head the other day, along with a decent handful of immediate examples. Which doesn’t happen to me all too often, my memory being what it is. When it comes to music though, I definitely have a stronger connection to scores from video games and movies than I do any normal song I hear on the radio.
So I thought I’d share some of those most impactful moments for me, those moments in video games that have been etched into my memory thanks to the perfect piece of music that expertly captures the moment and sears it into my brain. For the sake of this post, I’ll list them from most recent and work backwards rather than try to order this list.
Navigating the Ashtray Maze, from Control (2019)
Spoilers for what might be one of the best moments of Remedy’s Control to come out this year.
There is a moment towards the end of Control, where you pretty much have access to all of your powers and weapons. You’re as adept at the combat in the game as you’re probably going to get. And you are tasked with navigating an impossible maze; a twisting ever changing labyrinth that would make M. C. Escher nod in approval.
Then, out of nowhere; music kicks in. There is no other moment like this in the game. But heavy guitars start playing and a song called Take Control starts playing as you begin fighting an onslaught of enemies while, forging through this maze that opens itself up before you.
It’s a fantastic sequence of the game, hyping up the player with this nordic metal banger giving you the drive to really throw yourself at these enemies in a way you may not have done so otherwise, as to not disappoint these Old Gods of Asgard. It’s out of nowhere and probably my favourite sequence of the entire game. If all the combat had been accompanied by music like this, I would have played this game in an entirely different away.
A Traditional Festival!, Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
Super Mario Odyssey is a gift of a video game. In many ways it feels like a game continuously paying homage to its own ridiculous legacy. Playing any of these mainline Mario games is often a joyous experience, but there’s something about Odyssey that really knows how deliver a kidney punch right in the nostalgia.
When arriving at the much hyped New Donk City, Mario meets Pauline, making her own return after her initial appearance in the original Donkey Kong. Piece by piece, Mario needs to find and rescue each member of her big band so they can begin a festival.
When you eventually get everyone back together, the game pulls no punches in putting on a big old celebration. The Traditional Festival stage is a pretty unique stage in what it almost entirely takes place on the 8-bit 2D plain, hearkening back to the roots of the franchise, while also surrounding the player with balloons, fireworks and cheering people.
It’s a hugely feel-good moment, which is accompanies by the big band playing the game’s theme song: Jump up, Superstar, sung by Pauline herself. It’s a great celebration of Mario and one that feels well earned and well deserved and really got me good the first time I played it.
Intro from Escape Plan Bravo, Tales from the Borderlands, Episode 4 (2015)
Tales from the Borderlands is unique in a number of ways; it’s the best Telltale game that nobody ever talks about, and it’s also the best written Borderlands game that nobody ever talks about. Taking place after the events of Borderlands 2 and containing important events that carry into Borderlands 3, it’s a game I love from a franchise I have a lot of nostalgia for even to this day.
The whole game is framed as a road trip, with this rag tag group of strangers coming together to hit the road and search for treasure, lying, stealing and grifting all along the way. And one of the most striking and memorable parts of each of the five episodes are the musical intro sequences that set the tone for the episode to come.
It’s difficult for me to pick just one of these sequences, as they’re all so good. But in the end I’m going to highlight the opening of Episode 4. Showing the gang boarding their slapped together spaceship accompanied by a piece of music that evokes success, romance, inspiration and belief
The song is called To the Top, by Twin Shadow and it’s a song that found its way into my own collection almost right away afterwards. It’s not just the song though, it’s the masterful editing, visual story telling and great humour that is all put into this montage sequence, all of which matches up to the beats of the music while driving the story forward.
These montages are amongst my favourite musical moments in all of video games, and if this list were being ordered, these would be near the very top.
Castle Rock, Rayman Legends (2013)
Rayman Legends is a game that surprised me over and over again. I actually missed the boat on Rayman Origins, and so didn’t realise that the series had made a triumphant return. I only picked up Legends because I was so desperate for Wii U games at the time, and at this point Rayman Origins was being called a console exclusive. That is until Ubisoft got cold feet and pulled right out of that deal with Nintendo.
I never expected to enjoy playing this game as much as I did, nor did I ever expect them to throw in a bunch of musical levels at the end of each section that took me by joyous surprise. And none of which top the first one; the Castle Rock stage.
The stage starts off like normal, till you see fire behind you, making you realise you’re not going to be able to stop running this entire stage. Then a beat kicks in, before long you find yourself wondering: “is that the opening riff to Black Betty by Ram Jam?”
Sure enough it is. But what makes this level so much more fun that that is that the entire level is build around the pace and beats of the song. You jump, attack and slide all in accordance to the timing of the music. It’s a wonderfully weird little non sequitur that never really gets matched again throughout the game, but still reminds in my brain to this day whenever I think of Rayman with a dumb smile on my face.
Rooftop Run, Sonic Generations (2011)
In hindsight, Sonic Generations wasn’t really that great of a game. But that doesn’t stop me loving it all the same. It was released to celebrate the 20th birthday of the character and was a perfect love letter to the history of the and legacy of the franchise, as good or bad a thing as that is to some people.
While each stage in Sonic Generations felt almost like it played itself, I felt like so much love, attention and effort was put into the design, the look and the music of each stage that I couldn’t help but be swept up by the powerful nostalgic forces the game put out.
Playing Sonic Generations made me feel good, it made me feel happy. There was basically no story there and the whole game felt like a greatest hits collection of the Sonic franchise’s first 20 years. No stage in the game made me feel more love for the franchise and the character than Rooftop Run. (Specifically the modern iteration)
The stage was inspired by Sonic Unleashed; a game I had never played. Which makes it all the more impressive to me that this stage stuck with me more than the others. Rooftop Run is bright, celebratory and grand in scope. Despite being one of the final stages in the game, it still felt happy and open in a way later stages in Sonic games tend to lose.
Within a game with an amazing soundtrack, Rooftop Run stick out as the perfect celebration song to accompany my favourite stage in the game. And really the last 3D Sonic game I genuinely enjoyed.
Finishing a stage, Peggle (2007)
There’s nothing like a good fanfare, and Peggle mastered the art of it. A relatively simple, physics based puzzle game that came out on PC, but came to everyone’s attention when it came to the Xbox Live Aracde. While the game itself was cute, inoffensive and pretty simple in its premise, it held back no punches in making the player feel amazing each and every time they finished a stage.
Upon the ball approaching the final required peg, the camera would zoom, time would slow and a drum roll would play. If the ball stayed true and connected there’d be an explosion of colour and music as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy starts playing. Rainbows and geysers of starts accompanying the final moments of the stage.
It happens each and every time you finish a stage in the game, and yet, somehow it never gets old.
Peggle 2 tried to outdo this by adding a whole bunch of other songs to the fanfare, but it never had the same feeling of satisfaction that came from the pure, excessive celebration of hitting an orange peg with a pinball in that first game.
Climbing a ladder, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Metal Gear Solid is a franchise filled with some hauntingly beautifully and perfectly atmospheric scoring. While I am a big fan of the franchise, all of my strongest feelings linger on the three “Solid” games on the PS1 and PS2. The games introduced me, like many others at the time, into how video games really could tell a cinematic story as well as be a great game.
As silly and over the top as that story was. And there were none sillier than Metal Gear Solid 3, where Hideo Kojima just said the hell with it and made a love letter to James Bond. Complete with a psychedelic title sequence complete with an amazing titular song to go along with it.
It’s a song used to great effect in the game, and none better during a sequence where Snake finds himself at the bottom of a huge ladder at the base of a tall shaft. It’s a ladder that takes the player two minutes to climb, which feels like an eternity in video game time.
So rather than have the player climb the ladder in silence, the game cuts in a slow, vocal performance of the Snake Eater theme to accompany the player as they ascent the ladder. Why does it do this? I have no clue, what does it symbolise? Hell if I know.
I just know its just one ridiculous moment in this franchise that makes me love it so much.
Superman, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
This entry is a little different than all of the others on the list, in that it isn’t a singular moment punctuated by a great choice of song. Rather, it’s a song that, every time I hear it, drags me back to a certain time in my life and every time, without fail drags up a particular memory of my childhood, playing this game on my PS1.
It helps that this song by Goldfinger is about as time and place as you can get in a song. Screaming that late nineties, pop punk, punk ska vibe that came and went in a flash. And maybe that’s why I feel so justified putting it onto this list. It’s one of those songs that couldn’t have come out at any other time.
Nor could it have matched up perfectly with the rise of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, the music and the video game complimenting one another like chocolate and peanut butter. It doesn’t hurt that, but the nature of the game, it’s a song you’ll end up listening to over and over and over until it’s etched into your very soul.
Waking up the Wind Fish, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
The final entry on this list isn’t some grand piece of vocals, nor some epic orchestral score that punctuates a climactic moment in the video game. Rather, it’s a moment that is built up to slowly, piece by piece before allowing you to appreciate how far you’ve come and say goodbye in a moment of both triumph and melancholy.
Link’s mission in the game about his awakening of a fish is to collect eight magical instruments to play a song. One of the unique aspects of this mission though is that you visit the egg of the Wind Fish almost right away. And from the time where you have the second instrument, you can play the Baled of the Wind Fish with the instruments you’ve collected thus far.
Each time you finish another dungeon, the song fills out and becomes more complex. At least, as complex as a song on the Game Boy can be. And by the time you’ve collected all eight, you’ve learned enough about the island to realise that, once you wake up the Wind Fish, everything you’ve done and everyone you’ve met with disappear.
It’s a bittersweet ending to the game, in which you finally get to hear the fully realised Baled, knowing it’ll mean the end of your adventure.
Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game I ever played, and the first one I finished. So playing the remake is bringing back a lot of old feelings playing this one on my Gameboy in the 90s.
Feel free to share any of your own musical moments in the comments. Like I said at the top, music can elevate moments in video games that make them stick in out minds forever, and for me that kind of music is far more important than anything I hear out of context during my commute.