There’s nothing wrong with musicians being inspired by other musicians’ music. The Rolling Stones owe a hefty debt to the blues and roughly 97% of hip-hop samples originate in George Clinton funk records, after all.
Video game composers have been particularly liberal about taking their cues from popular music of all eras. As more people pay attention to games, and more specifically people with lawyers, this magpie tendency has diminished, but in previous decades shameless lifting went on all over the place. Sometimes amazing new music came out of it, but not always. Here are 20 examples.
Doom is one of the most heavy metal things you can imagine—a video game about shotgunning demons on Mars. Doom is so metal it eats motorbikes and shits leather jackets. When it came time to create its soundtrack, designer John Romero gave composer Bobby Prince a stack of metal albums and told him to go to work.
Romero has famously said, “Bobby Prince was a lawyer before he was a musician. He knew the legal amount of sampling that he could do without getting into trouble.” Metallica, Slayer, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Pantera all unwittingly contributed to both Doom and Doom II, but most blatant is the Barrels o’ Fun level, which straight-up lifts “Them Bones” by Alice In Chains.
In Earthbound a bee from the future tells you to collect melodies to stop an alien invasion, but apart from that it’s remarkably down to earth. The main characters are suburban kids and the setting a regular town brought to life with familiar background music.
There are songs that sound like Beatles classics including “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Good Morning, Good Morning”, and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, the cafe music samples both the theme from The Little Rascals and “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and when you name your character a distorted version of the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus plays.
18. ‘PARAPPA THE RAPPER’
When you borrow from a band as big as The Beatles you have to be a little surreptitious about it. When your game about a rapping dog uses music by a 1970s post-rock act from Germany, apparently you can just lift it wholesale.
Compare “Turtles Have Short Legs” by krautrockers Can with the Parappa level where a moose driving instructor named Mooselini teaches him how to drive through the medium of rap.
17. ’DEAD RISING 2’
What would be the perfect soundtrack to accompany the slaughter of a hundred zombies in a casino? If you answered “the deedly-deedly guitar bit from AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ but with violins and talkbox and synth” then you and the composer of Dead Rising 2 are on the same page.
So were the composers of Pokemon: Diamond and Pokemon: Pearl, who used it to accompany the walk down Route 209.
15. ‘CHRONO TRIGGER’
Chrono Trigger has a score so popular it’s been released in orchestral form, as acid jazz, and as a greatest hits compilation. Everyone who listened to any of those versions has been rickrolled, because the instrumental “Robo’s Theme” is pretty much just “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda claims to have never heard the Rick Astley original, which means he either lived a blessed life or is telling a fib.
In addition “Ayla’s Theme” sounds a lot like “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones and the music that plays during the game’s trial scene is an obvious homage to Pink Floyd’s song “The Trial”.
14. ’CONTRA: HARD CORPS’
Sometimes a game borrows from a song that’s relevant to its themes in some way, and then at other times you get a game about army dudes shooting up aliens that recycles “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Unless there’s a secret move where Contra: Hard Corps lets you press B to shake that healthy butt, this one’s baffling.
13. ’JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH’
To finish Commodore 64 game Journey To The Center Of The Earth you have to overcome a lot of challenges, including vampire bats, bottomless pits, and what the introductory text calls “a large but stupid troll at the very center of the earth.”
Perhaps the most difficult challenge is listening to a squelchy instrumental version of “House Of Fun” by English ska band Madness the entire time.
12. ’NINJA GAIDEN’
If you are going to rip off “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath in your ninja-stabby arcade game calling your version “I Am Man” isn’t going to help hide it.
11. ’QUEST FOR GLORY III: WAGES OF WAR’
Every fantasy game has a potion-brewing herbalist who stocks “the good shit” but only Quest For Glory III: Wages Of War makes it explicit that character is actually a drug dealer with a big old bong in his head shop. Take three tokes from that thing and you’ll become addicted, ending your days as a penniless hobo and then it’s game over.
The music that accompanies this scene is a chipped-up version of dopefiend anthem “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
10. ’JET SET RADIO’
Jet Set Radio is set in the future but the fact that it’s about roller bladers fighting the system with graffiti marks it as one of the most 1990s things ever to exist. It’s a miracle it hasn’t appeared in a Buzzfeed list about things only ’90s kids will remember between Pogs and the dot-com bubble.
Fittingly, the soundtrack contains a tribute to one of the decade’s biggest electronic musicians, Fatboy Slim.
9. ’SONIC THE HEDGEHOG’
Michael Jackson composed some of the music for Sonic The Hedgehog 3 but had his name taken off the credits. Sonic’s relationship with pop music goes right back to the first game though, which borrowed from Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” in its Spring Yard Zone and Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” in Final Zone. The theme from the credits of Blade Runner also inspired the music of Scrap Brain Zone.
8. ‘BOMB JACK’
In a rare example of a game licensing a pop song instead of just pinching it, the music from Round 2 of Bomb Jack sounds like a bleeped-up version of “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles because the creators paid to use it.
Why they thought a song about how hard it is being a working-class woman in Liverpool was a perfect match for a superhero defusing bombs in exotic locations is a mystery.
7. ’FINAL FANTASY’
On the one hand every wannabe Nine Inch Nails industrial band sounds the same. On the other hand “Sephiroth Theme (Phase 2)” from Final Fantasy XIV sounds so much like “When Worlds Collide” by Powerman 5000 that the band themselves noticed and wrote an angry Facebook update about its “unimaginative theft”. This riled up hardcore fans of the series so much they abused the band until Powerman 5000 responded by saying it was just “an observation” and they weren’t even angry in the first place, as everyone who gets called out for being angry on the internet must do by law.
6. ’MEGAMAN X3’
There’s no denying the Neon Tiger music from MegaMan X3 sounds a lot like “My Michelle” by Guns N’ Roses. There must be a few GNR fans involved with the series, because MegaMan X5 features animal-themed bosses named after band members.
For instance, Axle Rose becomes Axle The Red, Slash becomes Grizzly Slash, Duff McKagan becomes Duff McWhalen, and Steven Adler is Squid Adler. SQUID. ADLER.
5. ’SUPER AMAZING WAGON ADVENTURE’
Maybe when you were in school you played Oregon Trail, the vaguely educational game that explains to children if they had been pilgrims they would definitely have died of dysentery.
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a high-speed modern take on being a pilgrim with a lot more explosions, and for some reason “Turn The Beat Around” worked into its music.
4. ‘INTERNATIONAL KARATE’
“You know what the perfect music for kicking dudes in the face would be? The theme from David Bowie P.O.W. film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, of course!” Presumably that’s what went through the head of International Karate composer Rob Hubbard.
Hubbard has a bit of a history of odd choices like this. His music for I, Ball (which is about a ball with guns) was inspired by industrial mopes Cabaret Voltaire and Delta (which is about a spaceship with guns) by the work of minimalist composer Philip Glass and prog hippies Pink Floyd.
3. ’DOUBLE DRAGON 2’
What’s more 1980s than a video game about two muscledudes who kill a million bad guys because a lady got murdered, and then blow up a helicopter? The only thing more 1980s than that is Phil Collins, which is why Double Dragon II contains a nod to him in its soundtrack. Compare “Low Pursuit” (the music that plays at the heliport) with “Easy Lover”.
2. ’DONKEY KONG COUNTRY’
On the subject of Phil Collins, the composer of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest thought his song “In The Air Tonight” would be a perfect match for the game’s swamp level, which is kind of insulting.
The gorillas’ crimes against music don’t stop there: Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! uses “Fever” by Peggy Lee in its Mill Fever level and racekart spin-off Diddy Kong Racing scores its snow level with oompa wedding-ruiner “The Chicken Dance”.
1. ’AEROBIZ SUPERSONIC’
Aerobiz Supersonic is a very exciting name for a game about deciding where planes go. Released in Japan as Air Management II, it casts you as the CEO of an international airline in the cutthroat global travel business.
The music it plays for the North American segment of the game is an instrumental version of “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton, who is English. I don’t know either.
Jody Macgregor lives in Melbourne, Australia. He writes about games for PC Gamer, ZAM, and Rock, Paper Shotgun, and writes about music for The Big Issue, FasterLouder, and inthemix. He’s on Twitter at @jodymacgregor.
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