All We Hear Is Radio Ga Ga
I’ve been on a music binge lately. For anyone that knows me, this comes as no surprise. Another unsurprising fact about myself: I have an undying love for Saints Row 3. I introduce with this seemingly random blurb because Saints Row 3 employs—undoubtedly—two phenomenal, licensed songs in memorable set-piece moments.
The first being Kanye West’s “Power,” blasting in one of the most adrenaline-pumping missions of the game: parachuting into a rival gang in a penthouse for a stylish conquest—unbeknown to Kanye West—exactly what the song was made for. The second being a notably less intense employment of a charming singalong to “What I Got.”
Coincidentally enough, we just wrote a piece about the brilliant use of “Stand By Me” in Final Fantasy XV, yet another example in the long list of applicable moments.
This made me wonder. What other songs would lend themselves so perfectly to games, it’s a crime that they weren’t included? For example, IGN’s Max Scoville tweeted a pretty hilarious remix of the initial Switch trailer set to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” I definitely recommend checking out if you haven’t already. This will be a strange list, so strap in and discover if Metallica has a place in Zelda.
A few things to note:
- I am excluding games like Rock Band, Life is Strange, or GTA V as they heavily feature licensed music. Any selections I make would be petty complaining at best.
- I want to stress that I am in no way implying these games have lackluster soundtracks. I’m not railing against indie developers for “cheaping out” on expensive licenses, either. This is merely a list of some all too perfect musical mashups that would have been fun.
- My taste in music is far from limited, same for my catalogue of games. That said, there’s only so many songs I’ve heard. Respectfully inform me of good combinations I’ve missed in the comments section. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to explore a new artist.
- There will be some spoilers (the biggest being for Breath of the Wild), so please be warned.
With the groundwork set, let’s dive in.
The Sims – “Once in a Lifetime” – The Talking Heads
The trailer for the (unforgivably bad) movie Downsizing used this song to a very similar point. This Talking Heads classic explores the existential nightmare of mundane life. With a playful tone, each verse progressively turns darker and twists into something ugly. The music lends itself well to the calm atmosphere of the Sims. Yet, at the same time, what Sims player hasn’t said to themselves, “Where is my large automobile?” “That’s not my beautiful wife.” Or, “My God! What have I done?”
The Sims began as a “real life simulator,” yet has since devolved into an absurdist, lab-rat murder-sim. After all, who among us hasn’t gotten bored enough to delete the swimming pool ladder? But there’s something to say about this omnipotent, God view on the lives of bumbling, middle-class dorks. Set these concerns to the blissful synth of this 1980s gem and you get the most delightful existential crisis you’ll ever have.
We’re always at Death’s door. Our actions have no real meaning. The Sims proves this. The Talking Heads rock.
Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was.
Red Dead Redemption – “Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash
Even if you never heard the song, its title and the name “Johnny Cash” already argue a good case for its inclusion in a Red Dead game. This could be a reality with a new entry dropping this October. Apologies in advance for embedding a version with lyrics, but listen to the song and notice the heavy Red Dead Redemption atmosphere.
Genre checks out, themes checks out, what else do you need? I’m not picky; whether this plays during some bounty mission or simply as background music while John Marston rides across desolate plains, I’m shocked that Rockstar missed such a relevant song.
Red Dead Redemption is about redemption (obviously). Marston searches for his place in this ever changing world, coming to terms that his ride-and-die lifestyle is left by the wayside as the “modernized” society spreads as West as its people. Cash paints a similar picture in “Folsom Prison Blues,” a Western lament of a man off to jail. The lyrics would feel nearly perfect coming from Red Dead‘s grizzled protagonist. While, in the game’s case, Marston fights for freedom, the idea of playing loose with the law resonates in both works. Fingers crossed Rockstar realizes this for Red Dead 2.
Far Cry 3 – “White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane
“White Rabbit” is likely another song average readers have passed by. To bring us up to speed, Jefferson Airplane was a Psychedelic Rock, Acid Rock band from the late 1960s. They played the same Woodstock as Jimi Hendrix’ National Anthem. Psychedelic Rock is exactly as it sounds, with Jefferson Airplane acting as one of the best. But Far Cry 3 a game about gunning down cartel members and exploding tapirs with C4 (with just a hint of problematic “White Savior” themes). How does a groovy, LSD encouraged track like “White Rabbit” play into things? Quite well, actually. Give it a listen:
“White Rabbit” isn’t (just) some metaphor for cocaine, it’s a blatant allusion (reference) to Through the Looking Glass. You know? Alice in Wonderland? Guess what else is packed with allusions to Alice in Wonderland. Far Cry 3.
Far Cry 3 uses direct quotes from Lewis Carroll’s work as markers showing Jason Brody’s growing insanity. How well it does this is a discussion for another article; but these themes are undeniably present. What else is present? As many drug trips as rhetorical questions in this article.
Jason Brody, much like Wonderland’s Alice, often ingests “herbs” granting him vivid hallucinations. While he may never see the “Hookah Smoking Caterpillar” or the Red Queen that Jefferson Airplane explicitly cites, this Acid Rock classic would find a perfect home in one of these Far Cry 3 sequences. It would be a nice nod to Woodstock 1969 while also serving as compelling gameplay. For a game as unique as Far Cry 3, I’m surprised Ubisoft missed such an opportunity.
PaRappa the Rapper – “Gucci Gang” – Lil Pump
I’m totally kidding.
PaRappa the Rapper – “Rapper’s Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang
This entry worries me. I completely agree with everyone’s love for this quirky, original soundtrack (see rule number 2 in the intro). I’m not suggesting that this game would be better if PlayStation chose recognizable tracks over PaRappa’s catchy beats. I am acknowledging, however, that “Rapper’s Delight” launched the genre into mainstream America while simultaneously being a family friendly-enough track to find a nice place in this series. Though, I would definitely appreciate PaRappa covering Outkast’s infinitely more mature “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1).” But here’s a refresher on our chosen song:
For a fun fact to impress no one at all, this rap classic lifted its iconic bassline from the equally groovy Chic song “Good Times”—granted, slowing the tempo to fit the Sugarhill Gang’s conversational delivery. Multiplayer-potential separates this song from any other, age-appropriate rap. “Rapper’s Delight,” by its basic foundation, is a “pass the mic” hit. Figuratively passing the controller to a Player 2 would add such an interesting element of emergent gameplay in this classic gem—well, as emergent as shuffling plastic can be. It worked for the Wii.
F-Zero GX – “Hysteria” – Muse
Many songs and many games could fit this purpose, but GX and “Hysteria” do so the best. Gamers fondly remember F-Zero, even if Nintendo has not. After Captain Falcon’s many appearances in Smash, it would be reasonable to expect an update to this franchise, but no. GX holds up tremendously. Potentially controversial, but it races far better than any Mario Kart I’ve ever played. The game boasted unbelievable speeds and innovative, gravity-optional track designs. Also, no blue shells.
Here’s what I’ll ask you to do. Fire up both these videos at the same time. For the first lap, I totally get the criticism. The whole endeavor just seems like an over-enthusiastic Muse fan trying to plug his favorite song (I’m not and it’s not). Wait until the second lap and see how the boosters change everything.
Mute the actual gameplay as the video jumps to 15:50
Convinced? I hope so. The crunch-distorted bassline perfectly compliments a high energy racer. I don’t mean to exclude the incredible vocals and guitar riffs either; they only add to the overall picture in a way that furthers my point. Most Muse tracks fit GX, but the playful intro of “Hysteria” leading into an explosive punch, matched up with the pre-race counter, delivers an unbeatable rush of adrenaline.
Sonic Adventure 2: Battle – “Money” – Pink Floyd
I worked in reverse for this, believing “Money” deserved a place on this list. Eventually, I landed on Sonic Adventure 2. I wrote about how amazing the game’s Alt. Rock/Punk Rock aesthetic captures the essence of Sonic, citing the songs “Live and Learn,” “Escape from the City,” and “Rhythm and Balance,” specifically. But I wouldn’t classify Pink Floyd (while often genre-bending) as Punk. They’re definitely rebellious and experimental, but not Punk. The beauty of SA2’s design allows “Money” to work well.
The campaign shuffles you between six characters, each accompanied by their own musical genre. Sonic is Alt. Rock, Knuckles is Hip Hop (“A Ghost’s Pumpkin Soup” would also be a great PaRappa cover), Rouge the Bat is Jazz. Here we have our entry. “Money” is a lot of things, but Jazzy is obviously one of those. The iconic bassline in infamously terrible 7/4 time has unbelievable swing. You don’t need to know what 7/4 means, only how to enjoy this rock staple.
This song plays into everything Rouge represents. While I’m not arguing SA2 has impressive characterization, I am arguing “Money” is a stylish song. It’s sexy, impossibly hypnotic, and rhythmic in every way; it’s a masterclass of Jazz-Rock fusion.
As a character theme, “Money” fits so well. As a level theme, there’s even a place for it. Rouge bills herself as a spy. One level has her breaking into a desert layer. I replay SA2 often. Hearing this song play as I hunt for keys in the vivid Egg Chamber would provide added incentive to replay this poorly-aged, Dreamcast-Swan Song.
Infamous: Second Son – “Heart-Shaped Box” – Nirvana
I really like this one for a few reasons. Second Son places us in the shoes of Delsin Rowe: a new protagonist for the series and notable departure from Cole MacGrath. Delsin is far from the hyperbolic Cole. One of people’s biggest complaints people had with Infamous 1 and 2 was how comically large the differences between opting for “Good” or “Evil” choice became. I once heard it described as “Save a doctor or kill a puppy.” I can’t remember where I heard it, but that sums up Cole’s moral choices well.
Second Son amended this by firmly characterizing Delsin as your standard burnout punk, especially when compared to his Police Officer brother. He wears a chain, beanie, and denim vest. He’s the picture of the 1990s TV bad boy. Good or bad paths aside, Delsin never shifts from this attitude. In comes Nirvana.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is infinitely more popular than my choice, but this song works itself into the game better. I’ll admit, there’s nothing particularly significant about the lyrics of “Heart-Shaped Box” when discussing Second Son, but it compensates in other unique ways. Primarily, the contrast between mellowed out verses and intensely aggressive choruses parallels the good-bad dichotomy of Delsin. Similarly, it highlights the two main styles of gameplay: tranquil exploration and fluid, action-packed combat. Nirvana brings two interesting points to the table as well. As the founding fathers of Grunge and a shining example of counterculture, this would absolutely be on Delsin’s playlist.
We’re still missing the elephant in the room. Second Son takes place in Seattle, Nirvana’s hometown. Both Nirvana and Grunge owe Seattle a great deal of respect. With Delsin traveling the very streets Cobain and Grohl walked, this would have been a prime opportunity to include an entry from the band that defined the 90s.
Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – “The Foggy Dew” – Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains
While getting a second life as Conor McGregor’s entrance theme, “The Foggy Dew” holds several major themes. It’s a ballad preaching about unwavering bravery against assaults from the British Navy. Sure, it takes the perspective of Irishman, not pirates; and yet, Edward Kenway constantly sails into impossible odds against British Imperialists.
The song over-romanticized what, in practice, is a far more complicated history than “Ireland good, England bad;” but it’s inspiring nonetheless. “The Foggy Dew” sounds in pale with Black Flag‘s stellar sea shanties. The prominent tin whistle and lack of modern accompaniment maintain that 17th century atmosphere.
Picture this, the entire game has built to a final stand off. Kenway and his men pillaged, fought, and journeyed across the Atlantic. Now, tasked with assassinating some historical figure for a vaguely-Christian artifact, Kenway sails towards an impossible wall of British frigates—barely visible on the horizon, coated in a vale of mist. This song comes on.
Easily the greatest video game moment that never happened.
Bloodborne – “The Sound of Silence” – Disturbed
I’m not a fan of Disturbed—nothing against them, just something I have little experience with. I also am fully aware that “The Sound of Silence” is a Simon and Garfunkel song. This entry was pointed out to me by our editor Kei. After consideration, I couldn’t help but agree. It took me a while to realize this, but placing this song in context of some build-up to an unwinnable boss fight would grant the despair-filled Bloodborne tremendous weight. As always, here’s Disturbed’s cover:
Before I talk more on this, I want to add a quick aside about Pyre. Pyre features one of my favorite gaming memories of 2017. The game is simple enough, but cutting to the important moment, your bard sings an emotion-packed, sorrowful tune as you travel to the climactic “final boss.” Your team knows that several are condemned to eternal damnation, yet they decide to fight. That simple moment of sitting with the gravity of what’s to come left such a huge impression on me. The game as a whole is phenomenal, filled with very difficult, emotional decisions at the strength of brilliant narration. But we’re here to talk about Bloodborne.
Place yourself in the shoes of someone who’s about to face death at the sake of accomplishing their task. Failure is more than likely; it’s a near-guarantee. With such a morbid, gothic-inspired game, Disturbed’s “The Sound of Silence” carries the same weight as the aforementioned Pyre song. With Bloodborne’s incredibly morose boss fights, nearly any one would suffice.
Imagine the simple duet between the piano and vocals beginning during the ascent of some lone cathedral, undoubtedly housing a warped, towering boss. Let the guitar and other string instruments pick up as the fight begins, and you’re met with an incredible blend of futility and hope, not unlike the Stone Tower Temple theme, yet more appropriate for Bloodborne’s mature atmosphere.
Breath of the Wild – “Orion” – Metallica
I initially wrote that joke in the intro as “Zelda and Iron Maiden? Maybe?” My mind wondered from there. Could I actually find a classic Thrash Metal song that would fit into Zelda? Yeah, this one. Metallica’s “Orion” is something truly special, particularly in the world of Bass. As an eight-minute, instrumental ballad—this song off Master of Puppets was one of bassist Cliff Burton’s best. He’s a very big deal in the world of bass, rock, and music as a whole. One of the best works by one of the best bassists makes “Orion” a song to know.
Interesting enough, like many other instrumental pieces (here’s looking to you “YYZ”), “Orion” finds itself segmented into different “stages,” almost like the stages of a boss fight.
Hop over to right before the 4:00 mark to see for yourself. We’re treated to an incredible bass riff high on the neck, creating a melodic line that talks beautifully with the inbound guitar solo.
Why Zelda? The final Ganon fights have always had an unparalleled level of intensity for Nintendo games. This is especially true for Ocarina of Time. Just look at his towering frame, demonic stature, and lightning.
But I’m choosing Calamity Ganon because he’s just so metal. It’s one of those things you can’t define. You just know it when you see it. The half-robotic/half-organic character model contorts into horrifying poses as it scuttles across walls. That’s as Rock and Roll as anything I’ve ever seen in a game. But that’s only half the fight.
We soon enter Ganon’s malice unleashed, taking the form of that classic boar. The battle drastically changes to an open air bout as Link bombards the beast with arrows. Lucky for us, “Orion” changes too. The more optimistic, latter-half of the fight syncs up thematically with the shift in “Orion” I just described. Leaving that heavier intro for the more intimidating force fought in the castle’s cellar.
I never would have guessed Koji Kondo should have taken notes from Metallica. Yet I can’t imagine a better way to close out 2017’s best release.
How’d I do? Like I said above, let me know what pair-ups you would love to see. There’s obviously plenty more. I adore talking about music, so I’m hoping to make this a regular series, polling our editors and you all for the best licensed tracks to never grace games.
The Punished Backlog has great content, ranging from reviews to absurd features (I ranked literally every character in Breath of the Wild and bring that up as often as possible).
Do you like music? Well, you clicked this link. Check out what we say are the greatest video game soundtracks ever.