Town themes usually come in two varieties: Ones designed to put some pep in your step and invigorate you for the journey ahead, and ones designed to calm your nerves after a long adventure. The tune that plays in Kalm in Final Fantasy VII serves as the perfect cooldown after a frantic Midgar segment. Contrarily, "Town" from Wild Arms is meant to inspire the traveler in you. The melody is upbeat and busy, and the unrelenting battering of tambourine and drum, owing to the game's Western motif, takes on an almost ceremonial character. It's the case of a soundtrack that drops the player right into the setting.
If you can listen to the Fable soundtrack without hearing the disembodied voice of the Guildmaster nagging you about your health or combat multiplier, then Fable hasn't done its proper job. But if you've spent enough time questing Albion, you should immediately recognize some of the more outstanding themes from the game, one of them being the tune that plays in Oakvale. Shaw's fully orchestrated composition gets things off to a good start: An ensemble of chimes and reverb-saturated choir give Oakvale its magical feel; the horn section its regal importance; and the baritone, with its meddlesome melody, imparts a feeling of mischief that is most appropriate for the morally ambiguous narrative of a budding young hero who will one day wear the title of "Chicken Chaser" and decide the fate of Albion.
Disclaimer: Traverse Town isn't so much a town as it is a central hub that connects the player to the rest of the game world. I have allowed this and one other detail--the presence of enemy encounters--to slide because Kingdom Hearts is so different that it merits its own set of rules. Players will pass through this location numerous times on their way to new adventures, but that is not to say that Traverse Town doesn't hold its own secrets. There are shops, side quests, and tons of NPCs from popular Square and Disney franchises to interact with. The background music is a light, pleasant tune in a major key. The light instrumental accompaniment serves to highlight the expressiveness of the clarinet, which dances sleepily over a happy melody with playful trills and soft vibrato. It certainly is an instrument with its own romantic charm--most appropriate for the Disney connection.
Lavender Town is a place where Pokemon trainers gather to pay respects to their departed Pokemon. With that in mind, listen closely to the range of emotions being captured here: sadness, anxiety, a little fear. But there is a hint of childish playfulness coming through, as I happen to think the melody evokes the old schoolyard rhymes that we sang during recess. At the confluence of these emotions is Lavender Town: haunting and unnerving, but underneath the sadness lies the resolve to come to terms with the death of a friend. I think of a child mourning a deceased pet, facing the melancholy of the moment with an inner strength that belies his or her age.
If the incessantly unnerving soundtrack of Diablo is to be trusted, there is truly no rest for the wicked in Tristram. Even inside town walls, players are constantly reminded of the impending doom that awaits them: NPCs reveal grim details about the butchery of their friends and fellow townspeople; the scenery is washed out in a solemn palette of grays and browns; and the music--yes, indeed--provides a backdrop of eerie dissonance. A 12-string acoustic guitar is the star here. Heavily processed with delay and reverb, it strums and arpeggiates over various minor keys and is joined by a horn, double bass, and flute to heighten the tension of the track. The tune is foreboding, yet there's a strange quality about it that compels me to stay a while and listen . . .
This composition receives the most touching nostalgic responses from fans, and that's only appropriate given the story of Fisherman's Horizon. The mayor clings onto his traditions and principles, hoping against hope that his town will always remain a peaceful, charming hamlet. Then out of the blue, Balamb Garden crashes into the seaport and Galbadia's cronies show up. It's a rather fitting analogy for our lives as we're removed from our childhood securities and thrust into the dangerous world. Uematsu's composition, with its shimmering electric piano and Shearing-esque, jazzy block chords, modulates between major and minor keys and hits a full range of emotions before resolving in a way that leaves us with some hope for the future of Fisherman's Horizon.
It's difficult to determine exactly when a town theme should be upbeat and busy, and when it should be less so. The aptly titled "Lively Town" from Shining Force II falls into the former category: Takenouchi's composition is fully orchestrated, lush with counterpoint, and pushes the Genesis/Mega Drive chipset to its limits. Despite lacking a defined percussion section, the song is driven by a distinctive oompah-style bassline and syncopated chord stabs. Take note of the sheer variety and utility of instrumentation, and keep in mind the Genesis/Mega Drive could support only nine or ten sound channels at once. Takenouchi works around the hardware limitations by assigning the main melody to the PSG chip, which frees up the more powerful FM processor to synthesize a fuller and more lifelike rhythm section. "Lively Town" is an example of 16-bit sound design at its best, and is a testament to the brilliant resourcefulness of the composer.
Despite positive critical reception, the 1999 follow-up to Chrono Trigger hasn't produced the same fan fervor as its predecessor. The soundtrack receives universal praise and is considered to be among the best on the console, but fans find themselves divided on the plot and gameplay. One of the major plot devices of the game is the dual-world system, where every person and location has a counterpart in an alternate universe. This system challenged Mitsuda to create two distinct yet similar themes for each town, a feat he accomplishes by retaining the same melody while changing its key or tempo. As such, Another Termina is the happier version of the Termina that, in the other world, languishes under oppressive martial law. Its theme is lively and full of the elements we traditionally associate with festivals: an assortment of hand instruments, noisemakers, and castanets give off the impression that the people of Termina are actively participating in the music and the revelries. It's a folksy, delightful little cacophony held together by a joyful melody befitting a town with seemingly no cares in the world.
Whiterun lies at the heart of Skyrim and is likely the first major city your character will visit after escaping captivity. The background theme, with its delicate string section and soft piano ostinato, fittingly hits you like a breath of fresh air as you walk into this refuge from the dangers of the world. There is a tenderness and a majesty to this composition that is difficult to express in words, but I think the emotion of the piece is being dictated by the shifting of the bass section underneath the melody. This counterbalance gives Soule's score some movement and urgency despite the relaxing overtones.
Chrono Trigger's legendary soundtrack features many unforgettable pieces, but for me, the Kingdom of Zeal theme resonates the most. One accomplishment that cannot be overstated is Mitsuda's use of instrumentation in this track: Complementing the mystical nature of Zeal is an ensemble of hand and talking drums, sitar, and bonang (a kettle instrument), which impart feelings of distance and exoticism to the music. All these elements join together in a beautiful harmony that is not overcrowded, but tasteful, building slowly with strings until the main melody is introduced. If background music is an essential element in video game world-building, Mitsuda is considered one of the master architects, and his work here showcases his attentiveness to the needs of the project.
As stated before, there are countless opinions on the subject of the best RPG town themes. If you feel your favorite theme has been left out of the list, you have my apologies. There are so many fantastic tracks, though, that it was hard to choose only ten for the list. I can say that my journey into video game music has been empowering and instructional. I have to respect the efforts of these composers who worked long, difficult hours to craft meaningful music under strict deadlines. The ones who were the most successful to me were the ones who managed to balance the needs of the song with the restrictions imposed on them by hardware limitations. All the themes listed above showcase the technical mastery and ingenuity of their composers, who I have to thank for many unforgettable years of music and memories.
List by wyldephang (08/13/2018)
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