Hello again, dear reader. Welcome back for some more retro ramblings from yours truly. This week is going to be another one of my “famed” music list articles.
Opening levels/stages in games are sometimes ones that are the most remembered. This is usually down to a few reasons. Firstly, as it’s the beginning of the journey, every player of the game gets to see it. If you’re rubbish and can’t even scrape your way to level two, you’ll at least get a goosey gander at level one first.
In addition, seeing as game creators want to hook you right from the off, a lot of effort is usually thrown into the first level to get any potential player nice and excited. One way of doing this is by giving the level a catchy piece of music in the background to get the player jazzed up the minute they start it.
Today, I’ll be running through my own personal top ten favourite opening level themes. As always, this isn’t meant to be an objective list or anything like that, it’s just my own personal preference. There are some ground rules though, which I’ll cover below:
- The game must be at least ten years old to qualify as “Retro”
- I can only use one theme per each video game series; otherwise, half the list would be Mario and Sonic related
- I have to have played the game in question. So if your favourite turn-based elf-em-up isn’t listed, that’s why
So, without further ado, here are my top ten favourite opening level themes!
Number Ten – “Level 1-1” – Super Mario Land (Game Boy)
I know it will be immediately controversial to pick this over the far more notorious and popular 1-1 theme from Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I know it may generate sustained fury in some circles, but I’m afraid I just have to be honest here and say that when I think of an opening Mario level theme, then this is the one that always pops into my head first.
I’ve said in the past that Super Mario Land may as well take place in some sort of alternate reality, and in my “head canon” it pretty much does, and this theme personifies that. It’s familiar, but it’s different all at the same time. There’s no doubt that it’s definitely a piece of Mario music, but it also has an otherworldly quality to it as well that makes it extra special for me. 1-1 on the NES is still great, of course it is, but it’s time Nintendo’s portable beige slab got some love as well!
Number Nine – “Loader Theme” – Rise of the Robots (Multiple Platforms)
Rise of the Robots is a disgustingly awful game that was sickeningly overpriced and miserably overhyped. Little more than a sluggish and unimaginative fighting game with a limited cast of characters and an even more limited selection of moves, ROTR would be a heavily favoured contender for the “worst video game of all-time” award.
The only area of the game that has any redeeming value is the soundtrack on some of its ports. In particular, the CD-i and Super Nintendo versions had a fine collection of tunes to go alongside the turgid “action” taking place. The Loader is the opening robot you do questionable battle with in the game and, despite the fight being about as fun as dipping one’s nether regions in jam before throwing a cricket bat at a beehive, there’s no denying that the music is very catchy and enjoyable. Every cloud, eh?
Number Eight – Wave Trouble – James Bond 007: The Duel (SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis)
I personally thought Timothy Dalton was an excellent Bond and think that he kind of got shafted after two decent efforts in favour of Pierce Brosnan. I will concede that Brosnan’s video game outing with GoldenEye 007 is certainly better than Dalton’s The Duel, but I have to say that I think the Mega Drive/Genesis release just edges out the N64 when it comes to which game has the better level one music.
What I like about “Wave Trouble” is that it has the inescapable 80s Bond feel to it, and I quite enjoyed the 80s Bond films once Roger Moore finally decided the series just wasn’t for him anymore. Composer Matt Furniss does an excellent job capturing the feel of an 80s Bond flick whilst giving it some early 90s pizazz as well.
GoldenEye 007’s “Dam” level perfectly captures the darker mid-90s feel that Brosnan’s first outing was going for, so ultimately I guess it comes down to a case of personal taste and preference. Both pieces of music are great, but I’m hanging my hat on Mr. Dalton. If “Facility” had been GoldenEye’s first level, then this may have gone differently.
Number Seven – “Corneria” – Star Fox/Starwing (Super Nintendo)
If you could decant my childhood memories into a tasty yet reasonably priced beverage, then it would most certainly have the flavour of Star Fox to it. I played the absolute apple sauce out of this game during my youth. Released as “Starwing” in Europe due to licensing reasons, Star Fox was a game that utilised Nintendo’s nifty “Super FX” chip to present polygonal graphics.
As a youngster, the graphics and gameplay blew my tiny little mind, and I was thoroughly entranced. Another area of the game that caught my ear, however, was the soundtrack. It’s almost orchestral sometimes, and it really adds to the overall experience. The music for the opening level of “Corneria” is both catchy and also gets you fired up for some Arwing combat. Let’s all do a barrel roll to celebrate!
Number Six – “Big Apple, 3AM” – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (Multiple Platforms)
Despite this game also seeing an arcade release, I actually prefer the Super Nintendo version of this theme above all the others. It could be that because I grew up with the SNES version, twangs of nostalgia have become the deciding factor, but regardless, it is my favourite version.
The arcade version sounds clearer and is made with superior tech, but it just doesn’t tickle my fancy like the SNES version does. This is another game that I loved growing up, and I sunk many an hour into it. Any Turtles fan who hasn’t had a chance to play this should do so as it captures the humour of the show very well and is still eminently playable even to this day. So pick up a copy and go kick some shell!
Number Five – “Pirate Panic” – Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest (Super Nintendo)
This was a very close battle between DKC and DKC2, with DKC2 just edging its way onto the list. Both opening level themes are truly excellent, with the first two Donkey Kong Country games probably being the reason you’re even reading this right now. Yes, Super Mario Bros. got me to first pick up a controller, but the DKC games connected with me in such a way that playing them convinced me I never wanted to put the controller down again.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest is probably my favourite video game of all time, and the amazing soundtrack plays a huge part in that. It’s both wonderfully atmospheric and deeply powerful. Seeing as we’re now battling a nasty assortment of pirates who have kidnapped the titular character of the series, level one immediately sets the scene with this enjoyable sea-themed track. Hearing the ship creak with waves splashing off the side transports you straight to the deck with a death-defying journey waiting ahead. This is a classic piece of video game music.
Number Four – “Entering Doom” – Doom (Multiple Platforms)
I’ve gone with the PC/DOS version here because I personally think it sounds the best, although I will throw some love to the 3DO version which is practically a full-fledged song. Doom is a game that is all about atmosphere. You see through the eyes of Doomguy as you do battle with a constant stream of hellspawn in claustrophobic levels.
Doom was meant to be scary and foreboding but not so much that you didn’t want to keep playing. The adding of high tempo and blood-thumping music cuts through the fear and introduces a welcome shot of adrenaline into the proceedings. The word “iconic” is often overused in relation to this medium, but I can honestly say that the first level of Doom deserves that tag, and the music is a core reason for that.
Number Three – “Green Hill Zone” – Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis)
“Green Hill Zone” from Sonic the Hedgehog is a truly tremendous piece of music. It’s optimistic, catchy and perfectly personifies what the Sonic series is all about it. Sonic is renowned for having some of the best opening levels in all of video gaming, and the very first game doesn’t disappoint on that front.
Whereas later levels require platforming precision in a game that wasn’t really designed for it, the opening level is a veritable orgy of speed and excitement. Designed to be as different from standard platforming fare as possible, “Green Hill Zone” is all about taking non-linear paths and running as fast as you possibly can. All this is accompanied by a jaunty tune that will stick in anyone’s memory after they hear it.
Number Two – “Stages 1 and 6” – Batman: Return of the Joker (Multiple Platforms)
I’ve gone with the Nintendo Entertainment System version because, despite having inferior sound technology, it still somehow manages to sound so much better than the Mega Drive/Genesis version (titled Revenge of the Joker), which sounds like it was made with a flatulence machine.
To be completely honest, I haven’t ever managed to get that far in this game due to it being absolutely nails, but I can’t deny that this piece of music is utterly outstanding. It’s so good that it’s inspired countless cover versions by people using tech from different machines and consoles. It’s required listening if you’ve never heard it before.
Number One – “New Junk City” – Earthworm Jim (Multiple Platforms)
This theme was ultimately the reason why I decided to do this list. I never owned a copy of Earthworm Jim back in the day, but I had played it briefly in my youth on my friend’s Mega Drive. I’d also watched the utterly grotesque cartoon of the same name, so I was familiar with the character. Going back and playing it years later, I discovered that I quite enjoyed it but also noticed how memorable the opening level’s music was.
“New Junk City” is fantastic because it’s completely different from the music found in other platformers of that time. It’s got a gritty and almost rebellious feeling to it, and I like that a lot. However, you’ll see that I’ve posted four different versions of the theme. This is because I’m genuinely undecided on which one is better. All four of them are good in their own unique ways.
The Mega Drive version has a dirty and almost gravelly sound to it, whilst the SNES version feels more spacious. There’s no doubt that the SEGA CD version is the cleanest, but I also quite like how the Xbox HD remix goes for less bass and does something different with it.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one you prefer, but I think we can all safely agree that the Game Boy Advance version is the worst.
Thanks for reading
Until Next Time;