Level best: 10 pitch-perfect music tracks from video game opening stages

Laced With Wax Level best: 10 pitch-perfect music tracks from video game opening stages

We take a look at great tracks from memorable game openings — cues that perfectly set the tone for what’s to follow.

By Steve Vancouver and Thomas Quillfeldt

Everything begins somewhere.

And in the world of video games — where even story-driven games often see as few as 30% of players actually finish them — opening levels are vital to getting people to invest themselves in the game world and systems.

Level 1’s are famed for their clever design (e.g. the craft of Super Mario Bros 1-1) and often berated for their ham-fisted tutorials (e.g. ‘Press X to kiss your wife’). Not regularly discussed is the music — inherently in the background (except music-based games like Rez), music can convey loads of information about the game world, the tone of the story and the pace of the gameplay.

We picked the brain of game music devotee Steve Vancouver, podcast host of the fledgling VGM Moments, to identify some of the best game music from opening stages over the past 25 years.

“One of a Kind” by Hiroshi Yamaguchi – Bayonetta (2009)

Is there anything more dramatic than a gravity-defying, bamboozling battle against demonic angels atop the face of a clock tower that is plunging to earth from a seemingly never-ending height. This isn’t your garden variety opening level — being more akin to a grandiose final boss fight — but it’s the ideal introduction to the mind-bendingly bonkers world of Bayonetta and it’s exaggerated set pieces.

Yamaguchi’s score is full fat Carmina Burana fare, with a massed orchestra pounding away, topped by a chanting choir. Subtle, it ain’t.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Disco Descent” by Darren Baranowsky – Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015)

Rhythm games live and die by their soundtracks and, despite the suggestion in the game’s title, Crypt of the Necrodancer’s score is full of life (🥁 boom tish!). Disco Descent’s pacey 115 bpm tempo and snappy, four-to-the-floor beat is complemented by some acrobatic synth guitar riffs. It fits perfectly into the universe of knowing, chiptune-esque indie game music where Baranowsky is basically now royalty — it’s also great for introducing you to the unique mechanics of the game.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“At Doom’s Gate” by Robert Prince – Doom (1993)

This classic theme is a significant contributor to the fond memories formed by early 90’s kids when they fell in love with the very first Doom. Its MIDI heavy metal was clearly heavily inspired by the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Alice in Chains, and could be credited with being the first hyper-macho, mass-murdering dudebro ‘FUCK YEAH!!!’ video game moment.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Life as a Flower” by Vincent Diamante – Flower (2009)

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, Vincent Diamante’s score to thatgamecompany’s Flower is a breath of fresh air throughout the game. The music adapts to your actions, and collecting petals — one of the few traditional game mechanics — results in chiming musical notes which are in key with the score.

The opening level’s cue (Life as a Flower on the soundtrack album) teaches us that this is a tranquil, zen game world and that you simply don’t have to rush.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Flight” by Yoshitaka Azuma – Panzer Dragoon (1995)

While the rest of the soundtrack is nothing to be sniffed at, you can hear that a lot of effort was invested into the first level of Panzer Dragoon, both musically and visually to help sell people on what was one of the SEGA Saturn’s launch titles. It’s one of only a handful of fully orchestral pieces from the score, and succeeds in its mission to showcase the game and console capabilities.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Another Winter” by Anamanaguchi – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (2010)

This is the stand-out track from the whole game and really kick things off with a bang. Retro-electronica-cum-indie-guitar-band Anamanaguchi pack in tonnes of melody and charm via synth and drum arrangements that make this sound as much of a skate punk track as it is chiptune. It’s just a shame the game is no longer available due to licensing issues, but thankfully the soundtrack is still out there on Spotify etc.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Egg Planet” by Mahito Yokota – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)

The Overworld theme from Super Mario Bros is likely the more iconic piece, but for something that is indicative of the journey you’re about to take, Egg Planet (soundtracking the Good Egg Galaxy) is probably the superior ‘Level 1’ theme. You’re about to adventure across the stars and this piece — so full of life and excitement — sets your expectations just right. The solo flute section shouldn’t go unnoticed, as it providing a joyous sense of wonder within the orchestral swells.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Siberia” by Graeme Norgate – Timesplitters 2 (2002)

It is plain as day that the Siberia stage from Timesplitters 2 is a reimagining of the Dam level from GoldenEye 007, but this particular cue manages to break free from Bond and stand out on its own. There’s a foreboding, cinematic feel to the piece and it captures the contrast between bleakness and beauty found in the environment.

Since stealthiness is such a common thing in video game, game composers as a group have had plenty of practise producing brooding, stealthy-sounding music — this great piece exemplifies this mood.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Strike the Earth! Plains of Passage” by Jake Kaufman – Shovel Knight (2014)

Heralded as the second (or third) coming of the retro platformer, Shovel Knight had a lot to live up to following its successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. It delivered in spades (😆) and went on to become one of the most lauded crowdfunded games, in no small part thanks to Jake Kaufman’s stunning work on the soundtrack. Coming immediately after the game’s introduction, this piece of music lets you know that you’re in for an adventure that is both faithful to its source material — 8-bit action platformers — and incredibly tongue-in-cheek.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

“Old Friends” by Darren Korb – Transistor (2014)

This one is less of a ‘Level 1’ and more of an opening area. Old Friends sets the scene beautifully for this science fiction-does-art nouveau world by way of its haunting, rigid melody and crisp trip-hop beat.

As you progress through the area and get introduced to the different elements of the game, the soundtrack cleverly switches between variations on this theme. Extra percussion and echoing guitar are added during combat to ramp up the tension, while a hummed variation calms you whilst planning your attacks.

The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:

A few Honourable Mentions — SEGA classics which have turned up in other Laced With Wax articles:

  • Green Hill Zone by Masato Nakamura – Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
    • An iconic track filled with enthusiasm and life. A flurry of rising notes grips you in the first few seconds (during the level’s title screen) before the summery, fast-paced synths propel you into the level and the world of Sonic.
  • Go Straight by Yuzo Koshiro – Streets of Rage 2 (1991)

Steve Vancouver is podcast host of VGM MomentsYouTube channel | Twitter: @VGM_moments & @tangysphere