?It takes balls to put a song-and-dance into a videogame, not to mention money, time, talent and a whole lot of other tricky things many developers can’t be bothered with. If there’s one lesson we’re only now coming to learn, it’s that videogames are not movies, no matter how much they seem to have in common, so even a game driven by its story has to express that story in a way that doesn’t undermine its purpose as an interactive work. The musical number flies in the face of all that. If it’s hard to get some people to sit and watch the most basic of cut-scenes, how presumptuous is it to think they’ll want to watch your characters sing in-between levels, boss battles or fetch quests? In a way, any game with the orbs to attempt something as cinematic as this deserves some sort of credit. But unfortunately, a lot of the time songs that are not just played in the background but performed in a videogame tend to suck, for various reasons, usually having to do with budget but sometimes just because.
The good news is this makes those games that do this well stand out all the more. Now to be clear, a few rules to help narrow things down: we’re not talking about sequences from music games like Elite Beat Agents or Parappa the Rapper: instead, I’d like to focus on musical performances from games that are otherwise mostly unmusical-like. And I’m talking about original material, not covers or re-imaginings of famous songs from other sources. Got all that? Good. Let’s see which games managed to reach for those shiny, shiny stars without embarrassing themselves or boring us to death.
10) “You Are Dead,” Total Distortion
It’s hard to get excited about losing a videogame, especially if it happens many times. The infamous ’90s RPG/music video maker/general CG eyesore Total Distortion helped soften the blow with this humorously blunt death song, which played when you were killed by an evil guitar warrior demon robot thing, of which there were many. It may be dumb, but you can’t help but love it. In fact, I’m a little surprised a song this stupid is as well-developed as it is: it lasts a couple minutes, has verses and choruses, and even a harmony part. It almost sounds at times like some lost Tears for Fears B-side, or would if it weren’t for the kind-of-but-not-really rap vocals. As cheap as the production values are, it’s undeniably catchy, not to mention its killer reverb. The whole game kind of has the same “so bad it’s awesome” vibe, and if you don’t believe me track down footage of the pre-fight argument with the first warrior, which mostly consists of him calling you a turd over and over in his absurd modulated voice. And speaking of which…
9) “The Great Mighty Poo (Sloprano),” Conker’s Bad Fur Day
God help me. I know it’s been quite a while, but I still can’t believe they made Conker’s Bad Fur Day at all, let alone populate it with such gleeful filth and juvenalia. But that’s what Rare did, of course, and somehow the project of making “a dirty platformer” resulted not only in a bunch of boner and alcohol jokes but also in surprisingly grandiose scenes, like this boss fight with a giant singing bowel movement. I’m not really sure how it came about, what changes this scene went through during production, or what the developers told their husbands and wives when they went home at night, but I do have a guilty affection for it. Maybe it’s because the humungous crap is so jolly in its “clagginess,” or maybe it’s just that the song is pretty damn irresistible. The remake for Xbox Live (Reloaded) spruced up all of the graphics considerably, and makes this part in particular look positively demonic. I think maybe what bothers me the most, though, are the shudder-inducing references the GMP makes to its “chocolate starfish”: can a being made of shit shit? What would that shit consist of? I mean, we do see him eat “sweet corn” and cockney dung beetles, but an anus made of shit just fucking boggles the mind, though not as much as why I’m still talking about this.
8) “Death to Squishies,” Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal
Hmm… I wonder who homicidal robot pop star “Courtney Gears” is based on. She may not be the main villain of the third Ratchet and Clank game, but she does get her own intimidating music video, complete with robo-backup dancers, and thereby overshadows the real ultimate bad guy by quite a bit, if I must say. Using an android singer to spread your message of world domination seems to have been a pretty solid move in Dr. Nefarious’ case, as nothing sells the masses on destruction like a music video. Whatever songwriter-bot she uses seems to have a little trouble rhyming, however, at least at the end.
7) “Klogg is Dead” and “Little Bonus Room,” Skullmonkeys (tie)
Skullmonkeys, the not-so-classic sequel to the undeniably classic claymation point-n-click The Neverhood, is definitely not as widely loved and remembered as its predecessor. That could be because it departed from its adventure roots to become a Rayman-esque PlayStation platformer, or because it was kind of impossibly fucking hard. Regardless, it at least continued building on the unique visuals and music from the first game, the latter provided by the wonderful Terry Scott Taylor. Vocally, most of his soundtrack songs consist of hilarious mumbles, grunts, and sneezes, but the hidden finale cut-scene, which features a well-coiffed Skullmonkey pianist and others rejoicing in the death of the villain Klogg, gives us the rare example of a Neverhood/Skullmonkeys song with actual lyrics (there’s even a bouncing ball).
That may be the game’s big showstopper, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another, even better ditty with words we can understand, “Little Bonus Room”, which plays whenever you stumble upon a secret area. It may start out as gentle and reassuring but becomes increasingly creepy as the singer starts comparing himself to both of your parents and swearing he’ll never leave your side. I always thought Klogg was the one singing this to torment you, which makes it even creepier, so I’ll count it, although it doesn’t really explain why he gets residuals.
6) “Good for You, Good for Me (The War Song),” Sam & Max: Freelance Police: Abe Lincoln Must Die!
Telltale’s successful episodic Sam & Max series has got a lot of mileage out of incorporating unexpected musical sequences into its gameplay, from the C.O.P.S. “motivational song” to a Mariachi number about time-traveling soul thieves (Sam & Max Hit the Road also had a couple toe-tappers of its own, courtesy of its villain, a larcenous country-rock singer named Conroy Bumpus). But in terms of sheer craziness and spectacle, you can’t top this catchy and completely ridiculous Charleston scene instigated by Special Agent Superball and his identical fellow g-men in anticipation of glorious, glorious war: there’s even a kickline in front of the American flag. And then, in fitting with the best random musical outburst tradition, they all sashay out of the Oval Office and, per Max’s observation, we never speak of it again.
5) “That’s Death!,” Discworld II
As we’ll see, one foolproof way to work a musical number into your game is to put it in the credits, opening or closing: not only does it spice up a normally monotonous moment, it’s a great opportunity for a grand entrance or exit. This somewhat choppy but entertaining little opening number from the fun-when-it-isn’t-trying-too-hard Discworld II game (known as either Mortality Bytes or Missing: Presumed…? depending on where you bought it) benefits from some cheerily morbid lyrics and vocals written and delivered by a Mr. Eric Idle, who also voiced Rincewind and is easily the best part of both games. Death is of course a major figure in Discworld lore, and he is a central character to the plot of Discworld II, which, to those in the know, is sort of a Reaper Man/Mort/Moving Pictures mash-up with elements from Pyramids, Lords and Ladies, and the other novels thrown in for flavor. The character singing, Bone Idle, also appears in the game, played by Idle with a voice changer, where he and his entourage must be freed from crucifixion in order to provide the music for Death’s feature film debut. If only all the dialogue in this game had been as funny and well-written as this opening sequence.
4) “A Pirate I Was Meant to Be,” The Curse of Monkey Island
Turning a song-and-dance into a puzzle is just one of many clever touches that make The Curse of Monkey Island one of the best games of all time (and, in this reporter’s humble opinion, easily the best of the series). It’s true, the second game featured the well-known dream sequence where the ghosts of Guybrush Threepwood’s parents give him advice through a rendition of “Dry Bones,” but it’s not nearly as much fun as this scene, coming shortly after Guybrush has finally put his crew together and set out to save his bride. He is almost immediately boarded and defeated by the evil French pirate Rottingham, and for some reason this launches his shipmates into a sea shanty not 1000 miles away from a certain famous Disney ride and movie franchise (although Ron Gilbert has said that the 1987 novel On Stranger Tides was more of an influence). Like a band of bearded musical Andre the Giants, they continue the song as long as they can rhyme with whatever you say. The solution? Start talking about oranges.
3) “There’s a Zombie on Your Lawn,” Plants Vs. Zombies
For many, Plants Vs. Zombies was a surprise hit, a tower defense game that brought a fresh and peppy aesthetic to the genre, even in an age when zombie-mania has become increasingly hard to escape and even harder to top. Something about the bright, sprightly cuteness that overwhelms the graphics and soundtrack seems to demand a song, and the developers addressed this need by giving us this catchy dance tune. Laura Shigihara, who composed all of the game’s music, makes a vocal appearance here as the pop-singing sunflower, though I think we can all agree that whoever sang “there’s butter on my head” gets the award for best line. Even the evil giant robot digs it.
2) “Opera,” Final Fantasy VI
Before you start a crazy foamy frenzy about how “Eyes on Me” or one of the other musical interludes from the Final Fantasy franchise deserves to be on here instead, take a deep breath. It’s the fucking Final Fantasy VI opera. How could we not? The scene that sums up the greatness of not just this game but every SNES RPG, this moment has become part of the lives of so many of us, even those who would rather have our ears scraped off with grapefruit spoons than listen to actual opera. And it’s not just empty spectacle. This scene was an important part of the plot and even incorporated gameplay aspects, requiring you to pay attention and come into it prepared (or at least keep a walkthrough handy). In most cases I would disqualify this for not having actual voices, but I’ll make an exception because COME ON.
1) “Still Alive,” Portal
What people seem to forget, since this song, GLaDOS, Jonathan Coulton and Portal have all shot off into the stratosphere, is how surprising hearing this sweet and sinister lament was the first time. You’ve finished the game, the villain has exploded, and then, out of nowhere, comes that sad little computer voice: the impact is enough to compensate for any flash. In fact, it’s made better because it’s sort of an anti-musical number. All we get in terms of visuals are the scrolling text and flashing icons, and yet these are laced with microscopically subtle jokes that suit the stark computerized loneliness of the game’s aesthetic perfectly (“makes me GLaD I’m not you”, for example). As good as “Want You Gone” is, there was never a chance that it would have the impact of this stick of genuine cut-scene dynamite.