Who doesn’t love a stirring theme while you’re exploring the wastes? Nick D. does and he enumerates his top 10 picks for best dungeon themes in RPGs.
When people talk about video games, they often highlight the art style, graphical capabilities, or the gameplay. However, music plays just as big of a role in making good games great. A few dozen notes of a main theme can bring the entire experience of playing a game back in an instant and provide joy long after the game has been shelved. Music can raise spirits, get us pumped, or bring us to the brink of tears. That’s why it’s important to highlight gaming’s greatest tracks.
Today, we’re looking at dungeon themes in RPGs, those wonderful little ditties that endlessly loop as you try to survive an onslaught of vicious monsters blocking your path. These tracks can completely set the mood and tone of the segment, and are often very significant towards building anticipation, tension and excitement. A good composer can make a theme part of the story, giving you clues to what you are about to face in the game.
I will note that all the games on this list could be categorized as JRPGs. The reason for this is that there is a fundamental different approach to dungeon music as between the eastern and western styles. WRPGs usually focus on the ambient, trying to put you into the exact situation with minimal melodic accompaniment. JRPGs often focus on large-scale themes to evoke emotion. I speak in generalities of course. There are exceptions in both cases, though not enough to change the JRPG lean of this list.
10. Beware the Forest’s Mushrooms – Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
The composer of Super Mario RPG: Legend of The Seven Stars is Yoko Shimomura, one of the biggest names in JRPG music composition. Today, Shimomura is attached to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III as well as Final Fantasy XV. Super Mario RPG was one of her early works, and the soundtrack bubbles between the familiar Mario themes and unforgettable new additions.
Beware the Forest’s Mushrooms plays early in the game as the main dungeon of the second area, the Forest Maze. The theme evokes the bubbly staccato elements found throughout the soundtrack. Its longer segments hint at the mystery both behind the damnable maze and the larger issues being explored such as the random doll that just came to life. What this theme does that sets it apart from others is its simplicity and the simple fact it is very difficult to get out of your head. Many themes attempt this, but Beware the Forest’s Mushrooms succeeded.
9. Someday the Dream Will End – Final Fantasy X
The Final Fantasy X soundtrack was created by Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano. The first two are credited with the creation of Someday the Dream Will End. Uematsu is the father of Final Fantasy music, creating instantly recognizable themes over the course of his work with Square. Though his work in later years has slowed, he is still considered one of the greats in the industry. Hamauzu has been with the Final Fantasy series since this game, and was the sole composer of Final Fantasy XIII. For all of the flak that game got, even its largest detractors were hard-pressed to insult the quality of the music.
I had a rule when compiling this list that there could only be one theme from a game or series. This was to prevent a whole list full of Final Fantasy entries. While difficult to pick the best, Someday the Dream Will End stands high. Playing as you reach your supposed final destination in the game, it is a piece that manages to be both reflective in tone and motivating as it pushes you to finish out your journey. Many Final Fantasy tracks are great and deserving of this place, but very few evoke the kind of emotion you see in Someday the Dream Will End.
8. Missing Perspective – Parasite Eve
This marks the second appearance of Yoko Shimomura on this list. The Parasite Eve soundtrack was created shortly after Super Mario RPG, and marks one of Shimomura’s more unique works. The Parasite Eve soundtrack is very much a fusing of western and eastern styles, with ambient tracks and operatic vocals playing over synthesized music.
Missing Perspective is somewhat special in this list. It is considerably more subdued than many of the others wishing to evoke a sense of dread and mystery. It plays in the second dungeon of the game where the greater revelations of the game are really at the forefront of the player’s mind. Where did the monstrous Eve come from and why is protagonist Aya Brea immune to her pyrokinetic powers? These questions are underscored by the almost quiet theme that plays as you explore a central park full of horrific mutations.
7. Heaven – Persona 4
The Persona 4 soundtrack was composed by Shin Megami Tensei veteran Shoji Meguro. Some songs had accompanying lyrics and these were written by Reiko Tanaka and performed by Shihoko Hirata. Together, this team forged the occasionally derided, but simultaneously beloved upbeat new direction for the Persona series. As with Persona 3, there is a wonderful Reincarnation version to this soundtrack, which revamps the different themes in interesting ways.
Heaven is a track as serene as its namesake would suggest. This is somewhat odd considering that it plays during the penultimate dungeon. However, the name is to be taken literally. The dungeon is the representation of heaven by one of the characters, and the theme is supposed to provide that naïve optimism that comes from that. As such, the theme is hopeful and bright. This contrasts wildly with the plot of the game, which has hit one of the most intense and dark parts.
6. The Wretched Automations – Nier
Nier is a game that polarizes people. However, one thing is for certain, it has one of the best soundtracks ever developed. Composed by Keiichi Okabe with vocals by Emi Evans, Nier’s soundtrack far surpassed the quality of the game it is from. It was the combination of inventive vocals, excellent sound design, and hauntingly beautiful melodies that has caught the attention of many people.
The Wretched Automations plays at an early point in the game where the titular Nier is sent into an ancient ruins full of machines. Abandoned ruins by advanced civilizations are a very common dungeon type in RPGs, yet Okabe manages to create something fresh and thought provoking. The entire theme is set with sadness tempered by harsh machinery as if to judge the folly of the past culture. The opening is long and drawn out in order to push the automatic, machine-based world you’re entering. When the vocals kick in, it’s nothing short of magic.
5. Electric Power Building – Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is either seen as an abomination to the long-running Final Fantasy competitor, or an amazing breath of fresh air. However, what is agreed between fans and detractors alike that it is certainly different. As part of this is the soundtrack, which is full of clever harmonies and subdued melodies. It was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the man responsible for games such as Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy XII.
The Electric Power Building is an intense theme. It may not seem like it with its quiet, almost timid sounds, but each crack of the machinery amps up the tension. That’s the beauty of this track. At this point in the game, your team is almost at the enemy’s stronghold and this dungeon pushes the tense nature of that fact like no other. Sakimoto’s use of long, complex themes as opposed to Uematsu’s catchy style is seen here more than anywhere else. And it works, brilliantly.
4. Mechonis Field – Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicle’s soundtrack was designed by six composers and I have been unable to find out exactly who composed Mechonis Field. The best I could find was that it was written by a three person team Chico Yamanaka, Tomori Kudo and Kenji Hiramatsu whose group is called ACE +. Because of the many hands working on this soundtrack, the entire thing is full of diverse and occasionally baffling musical choices.
Mechonis Field is definitely a standout in the soundtrack. Like the previous two entries, it involves a mechanical sound effect component, often in the place of loud clanks throughout. What this song symbolizes is a new beginning. Your team has left their world and entered the enemy’s hostile realm. This feeling of isolation in an alien, hostile land is echoed throughout this track, which is markedly different than anything heard before it in the game.
3. Hollow Bastion – Kingdom Hearts
I swear that this will be the final appearance of Yoko Shimomura on this list, but it would be an injustice to leave out perhaps her most famous work, Kingdom Hearts. It was this series that brought the successful composer to the legendary stature of other composers such as Uematsu. The Kingdom Hearts series is one of the more challenging projects a composer could get, being forced to work within the subject matter of dozens of different unconnected works, while still maintaining a cohesive vision.
Like the other Shimomura entries I’ve selected, H0llow Bastion evokes a sense of mystery. Sora, the protagonist, spends quite a bit of time in the enemy stronghold of Hollow Bastion and many of the game’s questions are answered there. Because of all of the events that occur in a single location, the theme is a bit of a catch all. It manages to be enthusiastic while also reflective, sad and triumphant. One thing that it does do is push gamers forward towards the end with its constant, Shimomura-ian bops.
2. City of Radiant Ruin – Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan
The Etrian Odyssey series is one full of fantastic tracks, though its niche status has prevented any widespread recognition of this fact. Series composer, Yuzo Koshiro, has a varied background and it shows in the Etrian Odyssey series, which has tracks ranging from techno to jazz. Koshiro is an underappreciated artist in the gaming community, his credits ranging back to 1986, and include several fan favourite series such as Streets of Rage and Shenmue.
For those unaware, Etrian Odyssey is a dungeon crawler, and, typically, each new layer, or stratum, has a unique theme. This theme is the fifth and final stratum theme in the game. It is a mild, jazzy theme that emphasizes reflection on the journey. That is until it hits its climax with a triumphant horn reminiscent of a spaghetti western. Those of you familiar with Etrian Odyssey music may rejoice that the revamped Super Arrange version of this song maintains the high level of quality, while bringing a more pop-based sound.
1. Undersea Palace – Chrono Trigger
The soundtrack of Chrono Trigger was primarily composed by Yasunori Mitsuda with Nobuo Uematsu providing a few tracks, notably Tyranno Lair and Boss Battle 1. Arguably, it is Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross that mark the high point of Mitsuda’s career, not because he stopped working in the industry, but because of the extreme level of quality found in both games’ soundtracks.
This list is not in any particular order, but I must note that Undersea Palace is my pick for the all-time greatest dungeon theme. It is the embodiment of high stakes tension and style. Trumping Electric Power Building by its elegant simplicity, it’s hard to listen to Undersea Palace and not feel a sudden urgency. The developers knew the power of this music and chose not to interrupt it with the battle theme when the party entered combat, which meant that this theme played, uninterrupted, all the way through the dungeon until you reached the climax of the game.
That’s my list of greatest dungeon themes in RPGs. There are plenty of others that deserve to be highlighted and it’s amazing how quickly 10 entries goes by. Let me know your favourites that you’d like to see on this list in the comments.