The Catchiest Video Game Music of All Time

Posted by Dave 20 FEBRUARY 2014
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A few weeks ago, in my post on the Evolution of the Arcade Machine, I happened to mention in passing that Magical Sound Shower from Out Run was the best piece of video game music ever. Apparently this news was not well-received by everyone, as one or two of you out there have been labouring under the false impression that other pieces of video game music might in fact be better. I was accused of letting nostalgia cloud my judgement, of failing to take into account [insert game X here]’s music, and of perhaps not having the sense with which I was born.

Let’s have a quick listen together, shall we?

I still say it's the best.

All opinions are subjective, of course, and I concede that perhaps Magical Sound Shower isn’t everyone’s favourite track. My initial plan of action today was to write this blog post as a piece on the very best video game music of all time, but then I realised that everyone would already know what was going to be number 1 on my list (Magical Sound Shower, of course). I prefer to keep my audience guessing a little, so today we’ll be doing something slightly different.

This week, instead of the best music, I’m going to look at what I consider to be some of the most catchy video game music of all time. I feel I must offer a warning to readers before we get started: your brain is going to get infected with some of these tracks, and you’ll still be singing them by the time next week’s blog post rolls around. These are the pieces of music that get inside my head and never let go.

With that disclaimer issued, and without further ado, here are ten of the greatest earworms in video gaming history.
Earthworm Jim

That’s “earworms”, not “earthworms”.

Bubble Bobble - Main Theme (1986)

Oh no, what have I done? I’m starting to regret this week’s choice of subject matter already. This is an absurdly catchy track, and I know the only way I’ll get it out of my head is to listen to something equally brain-meltingly catchy.

Bubble Bobble, for those of you who don’t know, is a classic arcade game that was then ported to everything under the sun. Two dinosaur-people-things bounce around, blowing bubbles to catch enemies, and then burst them to make them turn into fruit. I don’t know quite why this sort of thing was even acceptable back in the mid-80s, let alone usual, but as a child I quite freely absorbed the premise of the game and played happily. It never caused me any harm; the only lasting effect was the inability to ever remove this piece of music from my head.


PaRappa the Rapper - Chop Chop Master Onion's RAP (1996)

Rhythm-action games are plentiful throughout history, from Guitar Hero to Dance Dance Revolution, but a lot of that started with PaRappa the Rapper. Some of you may be unfamiliar with the game, so here’s a brief précis of the plot: PaRappa, a two-dimensional rapping dog, has to win the affection of Sunny Funny, a girl who is a flower. To do so, he learns to improve his rapping skills from a moose who is a driving instructor, a frog that runs a flea market, and of course, Chop Chop Master Onion. Of course. Please feel free to have a lie down at this point, and return to reading in a few moments.

PaRappa the Rapper, being a music game, featured several very catchy tracks, but the first words that enter many people’s heads when you say “PaRappa” are “Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind”. Watch the video below to see PaRappa learning the basics from Chop Chop Master Onion.

Now go and take something for your headache.

Super Mario Bros. - Main Theme/Ground Theme (1985)

If you don’t know this one, then I don’t know what to say about it. Go away and play it for a bit (on the original NES/Famicom if possible) and then come back.

Right, now we’re all up to speed. Koji Kondo’s most famous composition has been plaguing the ears of gamers for almost 30 years now, and it’s still just as catchy as it ever was. The merest mention of “Super Mario” will set this track playing inside my head, and sometimes I catch myself whistling it without any reason at all. It’s as much a part of video game history and culture as Mario himself.

This is probably the most well-known piece of music from any game, ever, and it’s easy to hear why. It’s gone on to appear in many of the Mario games since (and there have been a lot of those), the Super Smash Bros. games, Nintendogs (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and Donkey Konga, which you’ll remember from last week. My favourite appearance, however, was in the Japan-only “Daigasso! Band Brothers” on the DS, in which you had to press buttons to play the song in time.

It’s also probably the most covered piece of video game music. Here is a man beatboxing into a flute, covering Ground Theme with a segue into Underground Theme.

Well done to him, I say.

Portal - Still Alive (2007)

Well, I was hardly going to skip this one, was I? The game that launched one of the biggest memes on the internet also came equipped with one of the catchiest songs. Technically, this part of my blog post should come with a spoiler warning, but if you haven’t played Portal by now, you’ve missed out on one of the greatest gaming experiences of the last hardware generation and you should be sorry. You can play it on Steam for PC, Mac or Linux, Xbox 360 or PS3.

Regardless of whether you played the game, if you’ve spent more than a few minutes on the internet in the last seven years you’ve probably come across the phrase “the cake is a lie” (and yes, I know many of you just rolled your eyes at the fact that I even had to type that out), followed by some references to “doing science” and possibly “I’m making a note here: huge success”. Well, for those few of you that remain baffled by these references, here is Jonathan Coulton’s ending composition to Portal (though please, if you haven’t played the game for some reason, don’t click unless there’s absolutely no way you ever will play it).

Alongside Super Mario Bros.’s main theme, this is probably the most covered piece of video game music ever. I don’t have any hard data with which to back up that assertion, but trust me, it’s almost certainly true. Here it is being played by an etching laser, for example:

and here it is being played by some floppy disk drives.


Cannon Fodder - War Has Never Been So Much Fun (1993)

This is a slightly more obscure entry to the list, though I’m sure after reading the title it’s instantly jumped into the heads of anyone who played Cannon Fodder back in the 90s.

Cannon Fodder, despite being a fairly graphic game, with grenades and machine guns and cute little soldiers, was intended to convey an anti-war message, which it did by highlighting the futility and pointlessness of war. Even for those on whom such a message was lost, however, it was an absurdly fun game that highlighted the power of the Amiga (that’s a computer, for those of you too young to remember it).

This anti-war message echoed throughout the game, with the horrific violence that contrasted with the cute aesthetics and the use of the poppy symbol to evoke imagery of Remembrance Day, but as soon as the game loaded it showed its true colours, with a cheerful song about how much fun war is. Listen below:

Tell me you won’t still be singing it in a week’s time, and I won’t believe you.

Tetris - Music A (1984)

Tetris was the game that pretty much everyone had for the Nintendo Game Boy, though it’s also been available on pretty much every system ever made in one form or another, as well as calculators, web browsers, mobile phones, oscilloscopes and even the sides of buildings.

Tetris Building.jpg

Aside from the simple yet compelling gameplay, and the controversy over Atari’s distribution rights, the most memorable part of Tetris was, of course, the music, and the piece that everyone remembers was "Music A". Apparently you don’t need a catchy title to create a catchy piece of music. It’s probably playing in your head already as you read this, but in case it’s not, let’s listen together:

Music A is based on a traditional Russian folk song entitled “Korobeiniki”, and has the sticking power of a pot of treacle superglued to a stick. I think the entire game was developed around the principle of taking over your mind, because not only does the music stay in your head, but the game itself remains in your brain after you stop playing. The Tetris Effect has been documented as a form of hypnagogic imagery, meaning it dominates your thoughts as you fall asleep, and has led to several scientific studies. This doesn’t surprise me; I think if you cut my brain in half it would be shaped like Tetris blocks (or “tetrominoes”/“tetriminoes”, as they’re known).

Music A was rendered even more catchy by the addition of lyrics by "pigwiththefaceofaboy" on YouTube, ensuring that not only will you now be able to sing along to the music, but you’ll also learn about the history of the Soviet Union:

The internet is a strange and wonderful place, isn’t it?

The Legend of Zelda - Overworld (1986)

It might be among the best, but I don’t know if this one would make it onto everyone’s list of most catchy video game music, though it’s certainly on mine. This song plays inside my head whenever I swing a sword, collect rupees or go into a cave full of monsters. It also happens when I’m in the shower, or trying to get some work done, but mostly when I’m adventuring. Having played the Zelda games since I was quite young, this music is not just part of my personal gaming history, but part of my upbringing.

Koji Kondo earns a second place on this list with his fantastic yet simple composition that somehow managed to use the paltry sound chip on the NES to create an adventuring atmosphere and sense of exploration. Just listen:

Doesn’t that make you want to go and kill rock-spitting octopi with a sword? Yeah, maybe that’s just me.

Celebrating 25 years of the Zelda franchise, a series of concerts were held around the world with a full symphony orchestra, highlighting just how wonderful the music from the Legend of Zelda games really is (as well as how well it has stood the test of time). Listen to a sample here:

And for good measure, here’s Smooth McGroove doing what he does best: an a capella version of the famous theme song.

The Secret of Monkey Island - Opening Theme (1990)

The Secret of Monkey Island came from the glory days of LucasArts’ graphic adventures, proving that a game could have horribly difficult puzzles but still be fun, and above all funny. What other game would have you collecting a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, trading insults to win sword fights (“you fight like a dairy farmer!” “How appropriate, you fight like a cow!”) and destroying ghost pirates with root beer?

The music in the Monkey Island games was composed by Michael Land, and I believe the opening theme to be his best work in all of his time at LucasArts. Listen below and see how well the atmosphere of an adventure in the Caribbean is evoked:

It’s also damned catchy, hence its appearance on this list. The adventures of Guybrush Threepwood (yes, that is the main character’s name) are underpinned by fantastically evocative music throughout, but the main theme is the one that keeps playing in my head long after the game is over. Even though the sound quality is basic and the MIDI sounds a little cheesy, the tune itself is, like all good compositions, completely timeless. Here’s an updated version to show you what I mean:

Fallout 3 - I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire (2008)

Okay, so perhaps this one is cheating, since it’s not an original composition. But I never said they all would be, did I?

I just checked back and I never said that. So, this is allowed.

For those who need a quick refresher, Fallout 3 sees you wandering a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland, where most technology has evolved in small pockets of civilisation that built upon the 1950s (when the bombs went off). Throughout the game you can hear transmissions from the radio station GNR, hosted by the cool cat “Three Dog” (or, if you choose to kill him, an old lady named Margaret), which plays exclusively music from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The most famous song on the playlist is probably Anything Goes by Cole Porter, but ask anyone who played Fallout 3 which song they remember and it’s almost certainly this one:

A relatively obscure song by The Ink Spots has now become firmly lodged in your head, and if you played the game, you’re probably experiencing images of drinking irradiated water from toilets and shooting Super Mutants.

Featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Brown and Billie Holiday, the entire soundtrack is well worth hearing, but it’s the Ink Spots that truly stand out and just won’t quite leave my head.

Katamari Damacy - Katamari Nah-Nah (2004)

The Katamari games are known for being completely bonkers, and yes, that is the technical term. The basic plot is as follows: The King of All Cosmos goes on a drinking spree and destroys all the stars and planets, so he charges his son, the Prince, to go to Earth and roll things up into balls so as to recreate all the missing celestial bodies. The Prince is only 5cm tall, so he starts by rolling up small things with his “katamari” such as pencils and playing cards, but quickly progresses to household pets, cars, buildings and eventually countries. There’s sometimes a dearth of originality in video games, but then at other times you get things like Katamari Damacy and realise that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the insanity that is possible.

As befits a crazy game like this, the music is catchy yet also completely bonkers, and “Katamari Nah-Nah” is well known for being the song that everyone keeps singing after the game is over.

I once found myself with this song playing inside my head during a job interview, and needless to say it was more than a little distracting. I didn’t get the job, which I’m sure entitles me to some form of compensation from the game’s creators. However, they managed to make a fantastically fun game as well as a compelling soundtrack, so I guess I’ll have to take that as my compensation.

Special Bonus Song - Final Fantasy - Victory Fanfare

Managing to appear in over a dozen Final Fantasy games over the years, this fanfare has been remixed and rearranged over and over. The first nine notes, however, remain constant, and will probably be stuck in my head for the rest of my life. Here’s the version from Final Fantasy VII:

I think a victory fanfare is a fitting way to celebrate our surviving this little musical escapade.

So, if you listened to all of those tracks, you probably have a complete playlist of catchy music stuck in your head now, nearly all of which will manifest at the most inappropriate times (especially when you’re trying to get to sleep). I make no apology for that, since these songs all play inside my head at various times, and I have to chase them away with new games and new music. Now you can all share in my aural difficulties.

However, these are just my picks for the most catchy music. I’m sure I’ve left one or two out (Magical Sound Shower notwithstanding) so I’d love to hear your video game earworms. Let me know what tracks you think I missed, or just drop me a line to berate me for polluting your ears with great yet incredibly catchy pieces of music. Get in touch with me through the comments below, via Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or email [email protected] and let me know what you think!

Written By: Dave Morgan

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