but then there are a few game soundtracks that seemed to have come out of left field, and show that there have been people who were interested in doing something different with the hardware they were given, if only out of boredom. they often languish in obscure games that are either terrible or commercially unsuccessful (often both), or are misunderstood by fans expecting the soundtracks to push the same emotional buttons most game soundtracks do (i'm thinking of the Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance soundtrack here).
i have to admit that i'm starting to become less and less fond of the idea of a traditional game soundtrack, and more into things interactive audio, that directly speak to the way the player interacts with the game, instead of awkwardly looped and sandwiched in. i'll mention a few examples of this later. really, my interest in a lot of old game music now has very little to do with "nostalgia" or any associations i had with the games, and much more to do with the way the different kinds of hardware used created interesting compromises for composers that led them making some really interesting sounds. if you can divorce the music from the game, often you will hear things or look at it in a way that you wouldn't otherwise.
(i'm not including Mother 2 by Keiichi Suzuki and Hip Tanaka on this list because it's so well-known, but it is probably my favorite game soundtrack. it goes without saying that it is a work that both stands completely outside the game, and enhances it in every way.)
but anyway, without further ado:
Equinox (SNES) by Tim & Geoff Follin
Tim Follin is the well-known hyper-prolific wizard of a billion different game soundtracks on all kinds of different hardware. his music is usually pretty free-associative, heavily prog inspired stuff that contains all kinds of sound manipulation. the one big complaint that is often leveled at him and his brother's music is that it doesn't fit the games it's, and that he's just doing whatever he feels like doing (which he admits himself in this interview). still, when you're commissioned to do soundtracks for the amount of total shitty games as he was, i can see why he just chose to entertain himself instead.
Equinox is an exception, though, and what i consider the peak of him and his brother's work. his usual propensity to show off is toned way down, and the technical wizardry is channeled into establishing a consistent mood and feel. it's really a remarkable piece of work and shows how great of a composer he and his brother could really be, game music or not.
here's a link to the soundtrack (in MP3).
Animorphs (GBC) by Randy Wilson
i was pointed out to this soundtrack recently by my friend J Chastain. i really don't know anything about it, other than Randy Wilson was a likely collaborator with the famous japanese noise group The Boredoms, which goes a long way in explaining the sound of the music in this game. there's really no adequate way to explain the sound, but there's nothing really like it. you'll have to take a listen to the link above (which is one of the most subdued tracks in the game, really) to see for yourself.
the really peculiar thing is that when i was looking up gameplay videos on youtube, i found that the music plays at half-speed of the GBS rip i had, throughout the game. this really changes the feel of music and lessens its bludgeoning impact drastically. i thought whoever ripped it from the game on zophar's domain must have made a mistake, but i found a different rip in a different place and the music was the same speed. my only guess is that it was intended to be that way (given the Boredoms association), but upon implementation the game developer freaked and slowed it down to half speed so it wouldn't be so grating to the target audience of young kids playing the game.
here's the rip of the soundtrack on zophar (you will need some kind of plugin to play .gbs files).
Dune (Amiga/DOS) by Stéphane Picq
i discovered Stéphane Picq's work through seeing gameplay footage of the amiga game Extase. i was really blown away by what i saw of that game, but the audio in particular is wonderful. the only reason i didn't include it here is because it's apparently fully interactive within the context of the game, in the vein of David Kanaga's recent work.
Picq worked on a lot of game soundtracks through the late 80's and 90's, and i have to admit i'm still not terribly familiar with most of them. from what i've heard, though, he has a great ear for sound design, even when his music is full of cheesy cliches. the limited set of sounds on the DOS version of Dune mitigates a lot of the datedness and is definitely the best and most interesting use of the adlib soundcard i've ever heard (which btw, i've found that a lot of game composers who did really interesting things with limited sets of sounds tended to pick pretty boring, awful sounds when they were given the choice to choose whatever sound they wanted to) but it's also missing a lot of the range and charm of the original Amiga version. there was also an enhanced soundtrack released of the Amiga version, but i prefer the sound of the original better.
my favorite version i've heard by far, though, is the one featured in the video i embedded above, that uses the reverb feature on the not-so successful adlib gold soundcard. it really brings the adlib sounds out in the best way possible. you can download all of that soundtrack here (scroll about halfway down the page).
Recca (NES) by Nobuyuki Shioda
Recca is an (apparently) mega-hard bullet hell game made late in the NES's lifetime that takes a lot of advantage of the hardware, both in the hyper-fast visuals and the extremely agressive sound.
Nobuyuki Shioda is a composer i really know nothing about. he composed a few different, fairly conventional game soundtracks in the early 90's, but he apparently found his voice emulating the popular club techno music of the time on the NES soundchip. while the music is very much in the club vein, it really doesn't sound like anything else. the limits of the soundchip really bring it out in a way i couldn't describe. if you don't like repetitive music you probably won't like this, but the really interesting and unique sound more than makes it worthy to include here.
you can download the NSF rip of the soundtrack here. the game's music was also released separately, but i can't find any of the mp3s anywhere.
Last Bible 3 (SFC) by Hiroyuki Yanada
Last Bible 3's music is very much in the vein of a traditional JRPG soundtrack (for a game released only on the Super Famicom, that has still yet to be translated to english) and as such covers all of the different cliche JRPG range of moods and settings you'd come to expect from a game soundtrack like this. these days, those kinds of soundtracks are only the mildest curiosity to me, but this one stands out for me. what makes it unique, i suppose, is how personal and warm it feels. the sound of it is i guess what people often call "quirky" - likely inspired by Earthbound (especially because i can hear one or two Beatles references), but it's still kind of its own thing. it's not the feat of sound design of the other games i listed, but the use of sounds is generally very good and this is an obscure game soundtrack that really deserves more recognition.
you can download the SPC rip of the soundtrack here.
as i mentioned in a previous post, check out my tumblr SOUNDS FROM THE ABYSS for much more strange/unusual/unique/interesting game music.