October 17, 2021

Pure Moods music in '90s video games

The influence of the New Age zeitgeist touched so many areas of popular culture during its 1990s heyday, though one that I have noticed, and not found much discussion of, is the soundtracks to video games. This format is far less culturally important than pop music, movie scores, and so on, but it's worth documenting in order to show how broad the New Age spirit really was back then. Video game music was in fact just coming into being, as memory size increased dramatically and allowed for more than a 30-second ditty looped over and over, now longer pieces serving as a score for a movie.

What are the basic features of New Age and world music to qualify for inclusion here? Atmospheric and harmonic, though there must be some kind of melody or riff -- nothing too background-y. Beyond-ordinary tones and textures -- culturally exotic, or archaic / primitive. Specifically a breathy and resonant timbre, such as that of the signature instrument of the genre, pan pipes. The more resonant, the more it sounds like a deep sigh, embodying the ethereal mood. Organic and natural, rather than artificial and technological.

This post is not exhaustive. I'm not a gaymer, and have no encyclopedic knowledge. It's a neat topic, but not that important. In the comments section, I'll add to it over time if I find new examples. If you have other examples, feel free to leave a YouTube link, with a timestamp if it's in a long video.

Donkey Kong Country, "Life in the Mines" (1994)

By far the most New Age video game soundtrack from start to finish, fittingly for a game about retvrning to monke. The pan pipes are just as prevalent in "Voices in the Temple," and they also carry the infectiously upbeat melody for the "Bonus Room Blitz" (the most memorable tune if you haven't played it since the '90s).

Ecco the Dolphin, "Opening Theme" (1992)

Another thoroughly New Age soundtrack, also from a game where you play as a noble animal, hitting on the "save the dolphins" theme of '90s environmentalism. It is more of a minimal film score, but it has its melodic moments.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, "Lost Painting" (1997)

Usually the games in this vampire-hunting franchise aim for Baroque and Classical, mixed with rock and metal. And this soundtrack is no exception, but it does contain one gem of Pure Goth Moods that would've fit right in with Enya (one YouTube commenter mentions this stylistic similarity). No pan pipes, but there is a breathy organ-sounding pipe in the bass range, and synth bells that really ring out, adding to the lush, resonant feel overall.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, "Temple of Time" (1998)

This game not only has a New Age / world music score for each of the temples, representing diverse habitats of the Earth (forest, fire, water, etc.), it makes central use of the flute instrument named in the title. The ocarina was continued in the 2000 sequel, Majora's Mask, but was phased out after that -- no more New Age zeitgeist to work it into.

Flutes are the most primitive form of instrument, which is why this game could not have been about a Guitar / Xylophone / Drum of Time. Most of the songs you play on the ocarina are derived from Classical forms, not exotic ones, but the fact that you play them on a reedless woodwind instrument does give it that prehistorical back-to-nature feel, and resonant timbre.

The "Gerudo Valley" theme took part of a related '90s craze for Spanish / Flamenco music (Gypsy Kings, Azucar Moreno, and the "Macarena"). But that song is too melodic and energetic to belong on a Pure Moods compilation. Instead, I'll highlight yet a third '90s New Age mania that this soundtrack made use of -- the Medieval chant. It doesn't get more resonant, droning, slightly-melodic, and archaic than that.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elG4v4qs3cs

  2. The early (1990s) Internet was also much more enchanting.


    Far less corportized and commercialized. Less of a plastic, steel, and glass vibe.

  3. Super Metroid, "Brinstar: Underground Depths" and "Maridia: Swampy Caverns" both very New Age, and just rhythmic enough to put some tension in the pacing, like a stalker / slasher movie score.



    The first one appears in the new Metroid Dread game, although given a more technological arrangement that saps it of those lush, organic ethereal timbres from the '90s. No sighing choir or resonant flute.

    The Super Mario and Sonic platformers don't have New Age scores, not even a single song. They're in the jazzy genre, where melody, riffs, and syncopation are used to give it an action-driven, edge-of-your-seat sensation. Ditto for the Super Mario Kart / Mario Kart 64 racing games -- action, action, action.

    That makes Donkey Kong Country all the more exceptional, for being a fairly fast-paced side-scrolling action platformer, with a wacky / 'tude animal mascot as your character, like so many other '90s games. But aside from the signature "DK Island Swing," there's very little of the fancy-footwork jazz motion that characterizes the genre. It's all Pure Monke Moods.

    As for the 1v1 fighting games, Street Fighter II and its Super sequel are also action-driven. Mortal Kombat and its sequel are a bit more atmospheric, as they're meant to be part-action but also part-horror (all those gorey moves and spooky locations). Not quite enough of a melodic element in them, though, to be worth highlighting specific tracks.

    I'll get to the action-RPGs in a separate comment later. Much to wade through.

  4. Seems like video games are late to the trends in other domains of pop culture, because the most innovative people go into those others (pop music, movies, fashion, etc.).

    The earliest New Age soundtrack I've found is Ecco the Dolphin from '92, and the trend doesn't really take off until the end of '94 with DKC. That's a good 3-5 years behind the same trend in pop music.

    Hard to think of a case where the arrow went the other way, from video games to pop. And not just "electronic" or "synth" -- those were trending in pop before video games existed at all.

  5. Aimee grew up in a treehouse, no wonder the cozy groypers adopted her as one of their own. She was retvrning to monke when they were only playing a simulation of it through Donkey Kong Country.


    Although her dad hails from the Cradle of Civilization, he didn't want to over-civilize his daughter. Lots of ambivalent feelings in the Levant about sedentary vs. nomadic living, and favoring the latter (e.g., Cain and Abel).

    We have him to thank for giving us our beloved Noble Savage-ette, one of the few who is now welcome in the boyz' digital treehouse. :)

    Gen X doesn't have these kinds of divisions, though. All of us grew up climbing trees, swinging on vines, going barefoot outside, and carrying a lucky rabbit's foot. An entire generation of Noble Savages.


  6. Reminds me of these pics of mini Anna, where she could pass as a member of an Arctic hunter-gatherer tribe in her hand-made fur coat and wool cap, building things with snow. So wholesome, cozy, and primitive.


    No way parents would be this encouraging of small children to play out in a blizzard. But this was just before helicopter parenting really took off during the '90s.

    I like how her dad is dressed more sober, so he doesn't accidentally steal the spotlight from his precious little princess when she finally gets the chance to sport a patterned fur coat. Such a cute pairing. :)

  7. Janet Jackson - China Love (Legend of Mana, Moonlight City Roa)

    Wiz Khalifa - Never Been (Chrono Trigger)

    Eminem - Hellbound (Soul Calibur)

    Cam'Ron - Troublemakers (FF7, duh)

  8. As for FPS, Perfect Dark has a more atmospheric, moody score than Goldeneye, whose score is more action-driven (military march, techno-dance). Even the spare moments in Goldeneye are just minimalist techno. Perhaps because Perfect Dark is more sci-fi and noir, while Goldeneye is a straightforward spy plot from the movie.

    Only track worth highlighting as New Age-y is "Chicago: Stealth" from Perfect Dark.


    Enough of a riff / melody to make it sound like its own proper song, instead of just background soundscapes. Not as lush and organic as the '90s style of New Age, more like the '80s synth style (inspired by Vangelis' score for Blade Runner).

  9. Synchronicity alert: Anna mentions her fur coat on the latest episode of Red Scare, released just a day before I posted the comment from yesterday. I swear I hadn't heard the episode yet (otherwise I would've included the detail that it was made from squirrel fur).

    Neither one of us thought of it because of the weather -- it's not cold yet. She was mentioning Soviet breadlines (re: "treat" discourse), and standing in one while wearing her fur coat. And I was mentioning it after thinking of Aimee retvrning to monke in the treehouse her dad built for her, how Anna had also enjoyed a Noble Savage childhood by wearing a fur coat.

    Very powerful images, to have pulled both our minds to them from entirely different motivating directions, almost right down to the same day.

    "Arctic forager Anna" is way more iconic than "lasagna Anna" -- just goes to show what cretins the subredditors are, that the only aspect of human nature to be seen in pictures for them is "too fat or too skinny? let's dish".

  10. Those individual songs are sampled in other individual pop songs. What I mean is a trend within video game music that later became a trend in pop music or movie scores. Like New Age.

    Or something less holistic. Like if some weird time signature caught on among video game composers, and then it crossed over into pop music. Anything, really, as long as it was some kind of movement or trend, not just a self-contained song that got sampled by a DJ or something.

    This shows that the origin of new trends in music is pop, not video games.

  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7kpQoMKaN8

  12. Pure Moods from SNES RPGs, first pass. Overall this genre evokes majestic, triumphal, or high-pressure battle moods. And it uses Baroque / Classical, Ren Faire, even jazzy styles. Not very New Age-y, and more like the Castlevania series.

    Again it seems like New Age only caught on during the mid-'90s in video games, and was more likely if the composer was Western, since that's whose pop music and film scores were already developing the trend. Still, some of the earlier and Japanese-composed soundtracks may have one song or two that's New Age, or at least World Music.

    By far the most thoroughly atmospheric / New Age RPG soundtrack is for Secret of Evermore (1995), by an American, Jeremy Soule, who went on to compose for the Elder Scrolls series. Not too melodic on the whole, but a few standouts are "Horace Highwater" and "Hall of Collosia". The former also takes part in the Spain craze of the '90s:



    Final Fantasy VI (1994) shows how much things had changed by the mid-'90s, since there's more of a New Age influence here compared to FF IV (1991), where there's none. Mostly it's Ren Faire music, with a few exceptions, "Shadow" and "Searching for Friends" (groyper ban evasion theme):



    Chrono Trigger (1995) has very little New Age, but it's the mid-'90s, so a few exceptions were inevitable, "Schala's Theme" and "Singing Mountain".



    Illusion of Gaia (1993) is a bit too early to have much New Age, except for "Signs of the Past".


    Secret of Mana (1993) is also too early to be very New Age, although it hints at what's to come with "Phantom and a Rose".


  13. Soul Blazer (1992) came too early to have any New Age, just like FF IV.

    Terranigma (1995) came at the right time, but is more of a basic sampler of world music, such as "Lhasa" and "Neotokio". Another instance of the Spain craze in "Nomads in a Desert".





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