When a game sucks, it’s usually pretty bad through and through – lousy visuals, grating sound, and a horrible play experience are frequently seen occupying the same game discs, like a group of stoner buddies squatting together in a squalid apartment. This certainly isn’t always the case, though – sometimes you’ll have titles with a slick graphical exterior to lure in those wowed by eye candy, the visuals masking a rotten core of gameplay underneath.
But far more rare are the games where the music grossly outshines everything else the title has to offer. Most producers of half-assed game efforts will either cheap out and buy licenses to generic tracks to score a title, or simply commission an inexperienced musician whose compositions sound like they were laid out in Mario Paint‘s music maker. Every now and then, though, you’ll still manage to encounter a terrible title – one that you only keep on trudging through to hear more sweet, sweet tunage. Here are seven totally awesome soundtracks attached to games we’d really rather forget.
7) Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner
Out of all the games on this list, Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner is probably the best – it’s an aggressively mediocre RPG heavily inspired by other, better monster-battling games. But even tolerable mediocrity, when dragged out to great lengths, becomes less and less bearable as time wears on. And when you throw in some of the most annoying and unlikable characters to ever grace an RPG (who never ever shut up in excruciatingly lengthy voiced cutscenes), you wind up with a title that’s probably going to put aside well before completion in favor of better PSP RPGs, perhaps reluctantly revisited after other options have been played to exhaustion.
But if you were only looking at the roster of A-list composers who worked on Jewel Summoner, you’d think that this was one of the biggest RPG releases of the past decade. Among the contributors to the soundtrack are Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears), Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy XII, Radiant Silvergun), Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Street Fighter II), Masaharu Iwata (Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics), Kenji Ito (Romancing Saga, numerous Mana series games), Shinji Hosoe (Ridge Racer), and several other up-and-comers in the Japanese game music composition scene. With talent like that behind the soundtrack, it’s not surprising that the often by-the-numbers cockfighting RPG combat gets frequently upstaged by the background music.
6) Guilty Gear Isuka
You can’t fault Arc System works for wanting to try new things with their most valuable franchise, even if it doesn’t come together very well. Most fans are aware of Guilty Gear 2: Overture, a game that was allegedly, in part, created as a way to cast of part of Sega-Sammy’s legal hold over the Guilty Gear IP and jump-start a new chapter that Arc owned full rights to. It took the fighting game into a strange hybrid of action and RTS gameplay, which some fans loved while others despised.
Much less divisive (and even more obscure) is Guilty Gear IsukaaArc’s attempt to take the fighting gameplay of Guilty Gear X2 and change it up with four-player simultaneous matches. But this isn’t a Smash Bros. type of multiplayer fighter – there’s only one level (with two planes) that everyone is fighting on, and most all of the Guilty Gear movelist (save the instant kills) has been retained. Considering how much crazy stuff goes down in a one-on-one GG match, the four-player combat works out about as well as you’d imagine. Oh, and there’s yet another button added to the mix – since there’s four characters rather than just you and another guy, you have to press “Turn” in order to turn around.
It’s a mess, but Arc doesn’t write it off as a complete failure – you never learn things if you don’t at least try, right? And hey, at least we got another totally rockin’ soundtrack by series overlord Daisuke Ishiwatari, whose excellent composition has become one of the series’ trademarks.
This one’s the most obscure entry on this list. Soukaigi never got a U.S. release, despite being a fairly high-profile Square-published title in Japan and boasting cinematics and graphics that were fairly ambitious for the PS1. Many players coming off the highs of Final Fantasy VII were convinced that everything the company produced would be solid gold, and did not hesitate to import Soukaigi when they learned a Western release wasn’t in the cards. When they spent their $70, however, they found out exactly why the localization team passed it over – it’s a pretty poor action/RPG with frustrating controls and horrible pacing.
The music, however, is phenomenal. Composed by Hiroki Kikuta (best known for Secret of Mana), the soundtrack is a unique and varied mix of styles, running the spectrum from fast-paced progressive rock to hauntingly beautiful vocal and orchestral themes. Kikuta’s mostly retired from console game music (his only other PlayStation game score is the forgettable Koudelka), and he’s doing music primarily for MMORPGs and PC H-games. For many longtime game music fans, he’ll always be fondly regarded for the sheer heights of awesomeness the Soukaigi score reached.
4) Castlevania: Judgment
Castlevania, as a series, has faced numerous ups and downs over the course of its existence. The lowest point is probably the late-’80s Haunted Castle arcade game, which is awful in almost every single way (even a fan-oriented retro re-issue of the title wound up totally half-assed) – save for some excellent tunes that eventually turned up again in later Castlevania games.
But Haunted Castle is pretty old, and it’s basically off the radar to most Castlevania fans. Meanwhile, last year’s Castlevania: Judgment is a far fresher (and perhaps still stinging) wound. A fighting game featuring Castlevania‘s vast stable of multi-generational characters sounds great on paper, but the fact that it used the notoriously imprecise standard Wii Remote to execute moves killed its appeal to anyone who appreciates the fined-tuned gameplay of the best fighting titles. A lot of criticism was been levied at Takeshi Obata’s “imaginative” character re-interpretations, as well, but even those probably be more liked if the game’s gimmicks didn’t wear completely stale after half an hour. And let’s not even get into some of the game’s story mode scenes. It’s pretty clear that nobody on the development team quite knew what to do in order to make an enjoyable Castlevania fighting game – and, if popular rumor is correct, nobody on the team even really wanted to do it.
Hosting a bunch of characters from different Castlevania installments does give the game one good aspect, however. Once again, the music is the only thing that redeems this otherwise awful Castlevania title is its excellent soundtrack, which features numerous re-done versions of classic tracks. By all accounts, the game tanked pretty terribly in Japan, where the market for game music is a more established niche, so it doesn’t look like an official soundtrack release for Judgment will ever happen, Castlevania fansite Chapel of Resonance might know a place where you can listen to the game’s rockin’ remixes without having to suffer the actual game.
3) Earnest Evans
Wolfteam is one of those companies whose fan following is almost inexplicable. Most of the games the company developed for Nihon Telenet (and their former U.S. subsidiary, Renovation) were nothing short of awful, and even their better efforts are merely scraping mediocrity. The company’s fans will readily admit this (well, most of them will, anyway – a few are still amazingly deluded) but still cling to their love for the heavily anime-styled action and RPG titles that were the company’s forte. They’re only around in spirit these days – Wolfteam eventually struck a deal with Namco to make the excellent Tales of Phantasia, and now operates under the name of Namco Tales studio, which produces a steady stream of mostly excellent RPGs. A few other former members went over to form Tri-Ace, who also makes games of a far superior quality to anything Wolfteam ever cranked out. I’m not sure how such a lame company managed to spawn two good ones, but I suppose fate just likes to screw with our heads sometimes.
For all their (many) flaws, Wolfteam’s games at least had one thing going for them: consistently good music, composed primarily by then-upstart game music maestro Motoi Sakuraba. While Sakuraba’s more recent stuff can be hit-or-miss at times, he’s undoubtedly at his best when the soundtrack in question primarily consists of his signature fast-paced, progressive-rock-inspired tunes – which was mostly what he was doing over at Wolfteam most of the time. While many of his Wolfteam soundtracks are excellent, my personal favorite is Earnest Evans‘ music, which is attached to an ugly-looking mess of an action game featuring poorly designed levels, a never-ending barrage of cheap hits, and one of the most egregious Indiana Jones knock-offs ever. There’s a CD and cartridge version of Earnest Evans, the former of which has a redbook audio soundtrack. I must admit that I prefer the latter – I’m a big ol’ sucker for the Genesis soundchip used well.
2) Silver Surfer
Tim Follin isn’t exactly a household name, but to many early computer and console gamers – particularly in Europe – he’s one of the all-time greats of video game music. Follin was very well known for being able to create sophisticated-sounding compositions in spite of the often weak sound hardware of computer and console systems during the mid-late-’80s (though we won’t argue that the Commodore 64’s SID chip kicked all sorts of ass).
Tim worked at a developer called Software Creations from 1987 to 1993, and during his time there, he (often co-composing with his brother Geoff) bestowed some fantastic musical scores upon pretty good games like Solstice and Plok. By and large, however, most of what the firm made was okay at best and pretty goddamned awful at worst. And while Silver Surfer certainly isn’t the only painful Software Creations title Tim gave a great soundtrack (Treasure Master is another abysmal effort with noteworthy tunage), it’s probably the most memorable in its sheer badness, ranking among the worst comic-book based games, worst NES games, and worst shooting games of all time. Considering the stiff competition in all of those categories, that’s quite the accomplishment.
1) Any Recent Mana RPG
Besides Sonic, it’s hard to think of another series that’s taken as serious a quality nosedive as Square’s formerly beloved Seiken Densetsu/Mana franchise. Final Fantasy Adventure was a fun Zelda knock-off when those weren’t terribly common, Secret of Mana is a bonafide action/RPG classic, and Seiken Densetsu 3 continues to be a worldwide favorite despite never receiving an official English translation. Something happened after the sun set on 16-bit, however. Legend of Mana on the PSOne has as many spiteful haters as it does devoted fans, and almost everything to come from the series after that is best relegated to Gamestop’s used bargain bins. Even the most recent Mana game, Heroes of Mana, is noteworthy in that it’s just an okay game rather than an actively bad one.
But what’s perhaps most heartbreaking about the poor quality of the gameplay in these most recent titles is that there’s still genuine quality in other areas of the game. The graphics and art direction remain consistently whimsical and appealing throughout the series, and the game’s music is even better. While Hiroki Kikuta left the series after Seiken Densetsu 3, other composers have stepped to the plate and hit the ball out of the park every time. Children of Mana, and Heroes of Mana offer up some of the best music on the DS, courtesy of Kenji Ito, Masaharu Iwata, Takayuki Aihara, and Yoko Shinomura.
Dawn of Mana, the series’s nadir, is particularly painful at points where it actually uses remixes of music from the older, far better Mana games. And did we mention that it also has an amazing piano theme done by the world-famous, Academy Award-winning Ryuichi Sakamoto?
The Mana series looks to have gone back on extended hiatus after the poor performance, critically and commercially, of Dawn and Heroes of Mana. While I don’t want to see the franchise get dragged through the mud any more than it already has, I’ll certainly miss the incredible scores that always accompany them.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.