Video game music is an interesting thing, mainly because of its diversity. In fact, there is so much diversity in it that just describing something as “video game music” says essentially nothing about what it actually sounds like. There is certainly plenty of chiptune-ish music that clearly sounds like it came from a game (such as the soundtracks of Shovel Knight and Undertale), but games also cover pretty much every other genre as well; in all my time playing video games, I’ve heard everything from techno to orchestral symphonies and everything from tracks that could double as lullabies to ones that rock hard enough to be a Dragonforce song. In fact, I’m sure I’ve spent significantly more time listening to music from video games than I have actually playing them. With all that variety, it stands to reason that there would be some variety in the time signatures as well. If you have more than a passing knowledge of music theory, you’re probably familiar with at least the most common time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, maybe 2/4, 2/2, 12/8, and so on. You might even have noticed patterns to their use, especially where games are concerned; for instance, most tracks are in 4/4, underwater themes tend to be in 3/4 (and that isn’t always true; Super Mario Bros. 3’s underwater music is in 4/4, for instance), militaristic and dramatic tracks as well as ethnic-sounding ones can be in 6/8 or 12/8 (and those that bring to mind sailing or the sea, such as Jib Jig from Donkey Kong Country 2, which is in 12/8), and whatnot. But there are also those with time signatures or patterns of time signatures that are noticeably out of the ordinary (unless you’re a Rush fan), and that is exactly what I’m here to discuss right now. These are ranked roughly by both how much I like them and how “weird” their meter is.
These are tracks that I felt were at least worth mentioning but not really putting on the list for various reasons.
Touhou 6 – U. N. Owen was her? – This is a good song, but most of it is in 4/4 time; only the intro is in 5/4.
Klonoa – The Windmill Song – This one is similar, where there are parts of it in 5/8, but most of it is in 6/8.
Touhou 11 – Hellfire Mantle – And again. This song is partly in 5/4 and partly in 3/4, but it’s mostly the latter.
Final Fantasy 8 – Don’t be Afraid – Okay, this one is in 5/4 all the way through, or at least mostly. Beyond its time signature, though, it’s not particularly remarkable, just another JRPG battle theme.
Tales of Symphonia – Keep Your Guard Up! – Another 5/4 track, and I’m leaving this one off merely due to lack of familiarity. I haven’t even played enough Tales of Symphonia to know where this plays.
Yoshi’s Island DS – Castle Boss – This is admittedly one of the better tracks in Yoshi’s Island DS, and in 6/4 all the way to boot, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as the ones on the list.
Mega Man X7 – Burning Water – Yet another one in 5/4 and yet another one that is decent but not as good as what I have.
Now, on to the real list.
10) Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex – Coral Canyon
Time signature(s): 5/4
I’ve always thought Crash Bandicoot 4’s soundtrack was rather underrated, and I also think more underwater themes should be in 5/4 time. This is the only one I can think of, and it’s pretty decent, though it seems a bit too subdued in parts. It also overuses those background synth noises, but that’s true of a lot of tracks from Crash 4 anyway.
9) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd – Golden Road, Silver Road
Time signature(s): 5/4 (mostly)
This is the third dungeon theme from the third Trails in the Sky game, and it’s also pretty decent. The unusual time signature is still the most memorable thing about it, but it’s a pretty okay theme in its own right, fitting for such a bright, shiny dungeon as this one.
8) Final Fantasy 6 – Dancing Mad, part 5
Time signature(s): 15/8, 4/4, possibly others
This one might be higher on the list if I were more familiar with it, but I lost patience with Final Fantasy 6’s random encounters and battle system long before making it anywhere near the final boss, so I’ve never heard it in the actual game. In its own right, though, this is a delightfully chaotic boss theme (aside from that organ section in the middle, which also probably drops its ranking a bit), fitting for a maniac bent on destroying everything. In fact, I’m not even entirely sure what time signatures it has in all because it’s so syncopated.
7) Mickey’s Magical Quest – Pete’s Peak
Time signature(s): 6/4, 4/4, 3/4
This track, which plays in stage 4 of the first The Magical Quest game, is in fairly syncopated 6/4 for most of it (not the last section or the intro). Uncommon time signatures are something of a rarity in the series (the first final boss theme from the second game is in 7/4, and it’s the only other one I can think of), but this one does a pretty good job with it while also being quite fitting for this airy mountain level. (It’s a shame the stage had to be so short…)
6) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – Tetracyclic Towers
Time signature(s): 6/4
This plays in the gem-themed colored towers of the first (and second) Trails in the Sky games, as well as a few cutscenes. It’s another nice dungeon track, fitting for a feeling of exploring a colorful tower one floor at a time.
5) Touhou 12 – Provincial Makai City Esoteria
Time signature(s): 11/4
I’m sure this isn’t the only Touhou theme that’s entirely in a time signature like this, but it’s certainly the first one I’d think of. Not that I’ve ever heard it play in the game; this is the theme for stage 5 of Touhou 12: Unidentified Fantastic Object, and I don’t get that far in most Touhou games (for good reason).
4) Donkey Kong Country – Bad Boss Boogie
Time signature(s): 29/8
Donkey Kong Country games don’t do a whole lot of unusual time signatures, but then you have this. It’s rather different, but it’s a good boss theme. (Not that you’ll probably get to hear the whole thing given how easy most of this game’s bosses are…) I can practically picture getting attacked by a giant hopping beaver right now.
3) Mega Man X2 – Sinister Gleam
Time signature(s): 13/8, 6/4, 4/4
Found in Crystal Snail’s stage in Mega Man X2, this track spends a good amount of time in 13/8, switches time signatures a few times, and sounds very unlike anything else in the game, or the rest of the series for that matter. Mega Man games, especially the older ones, tend to stick pretty closely to 4/4 time. Still, though, this sounds pretty cool, and despite its unusual rhythm, suitable for the stage it’s in. I especially like the vibraphone (as if there would be a crystal-themed piece of music without mallet percussion in it somewhere).
2) Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga – Bowser’s Castle
This is from the final dungeon of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and I’d say it’s suitably epic and dangerous-sounding for a final dungeon. The remix from Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions is even better, not being held back by the GBA’s audio quality. The irregular meter combined with the instrument choices make it sound frantic yet climactic, like you know that this is where you’ll finally face off with the major villain, but you still have a lot of deadly traps to get through first that should not be underestimated. I think the intro might be in a different time signature, but I can’t place it.
1) Super Mario RPG – Weapons Factory
Time signature(s): 13/8
This is it: the best video game track with an unusual time signature ever, or at least the best out of the ones I’ve heard. And surprisingly enough, it’s another final dungeon theme from a Mario RPG, found in Smithy’s factory in Super Mario RPG (or at least the outside area of the factory). This chaotic yet ominous theme has it all…a haunting string melody and harmony, heavy synth backing, echoey mechanical clanks in the background, and a syncopated drum beat. As is appropriate for mechanical monsters invading from another world, this track sounds relentless, menacing, and otherworldly, which the unusual time signature also helps to convey.
Huh, I just noticed that both of my video game music-related lists were published in November. Anyway, what are some of your favorite music tracks from video games (or otherwise) with unusual time signatures? Feel free to mention them in the comments.