Composers are the unsung heroes of the video game industry. With graphics and gameplay setting the foundation, the iconic tunes these artists create are what ultimately breathe life into a truly great game. Video game composers can complete a game’s atmosphere with a moody background track or create a catchy theme that seamlessly loops forever without becoming stale.
But, for all that these VGM composers are remembered for inside of video games, few are remembered for the music they create outside of video games. That fact changes today. We’re going to look at a few examples of the most interesting, impressive, or perhaps laughable music our favorite game composers have created for non-game pursuits. If you’re looking for solo albums, side-projects, and media tie-ins, you’ve come to the right place.
Jun Senoue has served as the composer for main series Sonic the Hedgehog games for over 20 years. His hard-rocking music has effectively defined the speed and attitude that are now synonymous with the Sonic series. Some that are already familiar with Senoue’s career will know that he is the guitarist and primary songwriter for the hard rock band Crush 40 (formally Sons of Angels). Crush 40’s songs have been featured in games like NASCAR Arcade and Sonic Adventure, but the band also has a collection of songs not seen in any video games.
In addition to Crush 40, Senoue has also contributed to a few other musical projects. In 2005 he teamed up with Japanese vocalist and voice actress Junko Noda, releasing a Japan-only EP titled “Ready!” The track eventually found its way to the West, so we can now all enjoy it. “Ready!” retains the melodic guitar prowess heard in Crush 40 songs, but Noda brings a level of softness to Senoue’s traditionally hard rock sound.
Another of Senoue’s projects is Bubblicious Blvd, a rock band with a noticeably 80’s sound. Joining Senoue in Bubblicious Blvd is C.J. Szuter, former guitarist and vocalist of American rock band Magna-Fi. The parallels with 80’s megaband Journey are completely evident in Bubblicious Blvd’s sound; much to my surprise when researching this article, Bubblicious Blvd even performed a Journey Medley live in 2010. There you go: a concrete connection between Sonic the Hedgehog and Journey. You’re welcome.
Kazumi Totaka has worked on a slew of Nintendo games over the last 20 years, including Yoshi’s Story, Luigi’s Mansion, and Animal Crossing. He has even provided the iconic voice of Yoshi and serves as the inspiration for KK Slider in Animal Crossing. Totaka is also well-known for a little tune (known as “Totaka’s Song“) that is hidden away in almost every game the composer has worked on.
With such a prolific career, you’d be surprised what kind of music Totaka creates in his free time. Totaka is a frequent collaborator with Japanese musician Nobukazu Takemura, who is well-known for his jazz and electronic compositions. For example, Totaka wrote much of the music for Takemura’s Spiritual Vibes project, a Nu-Jazz collective that included a 1994 release titled Newly. These songs reflect some of the musical themes Toaka has explored in his games, but they are noticeably jazzier than anything I’ve heard from Nintendo. As far as I know, “Totaka’s Song” is not featured on this album, but who knows, maybe he hid it away deep within the music.
Alexander Brandon is most known for his work on titles produced by Epic Games, such as the highly popular Unreal series. He also composed music for PC classic Deus Ex and has served as audio director for several Obsidian Entertainment games. His unique blend of electronic sounds and cinematic scores set the games he composed above others in terms of presentation. There are many reasons why these games are well-regarded, and Brandon is one of the most important.
Throughout his career, Brandon has gone by several stage names such as “Chromatic Dragon,” “Siren,” and “Sandman.” Brandon’s edgy, but beautiful electronic sound in his video games is retained in his extensive solo work. His music is admittedly influenced by progressive and virtuoso acts like Peter Gabriel, Dream Theater, and Steve Vai. Brandon’s original music carries the same genre-bending experimentation that can be heard from these other musicians.
By exploring Brandon’s Bandcamp page, one can find some of the most beautiful electronic music around the internet. His 2008 album Era’s End is just one example of the artistic expression this musician can create. With such a fantastic mix of synth, piano, and strings, I’m surprised Alexander Brandon isn’t well-known beyond his video game music.
Norihiko Hibino is known for his work in some of Konami’s biggest franchises, including Metal Gear Solid and Zone of the Enders. He has also worked on other high-profile Japanese games like Bayonetta, Ninja Blade, and The Wonderful 101. As an avid jazz saxophonist, Hibino frequently mixes jazzy tunes and filmic movements in his compositions, giving a high-paced intensity to the games he works on. In terms of stand-out hits, Hibino has admitted that his favorite composition is the theme to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. He even performed the song live on saxophone during a Video Games Live event.
Hibino has of course carried his musical proficiency into a few solo releases. In 2005, he released a solo album titled AKASHI, which retained the fast-paced, tense nature of his work in Metal Gear. The second track “Survive Now” is extremely reminiscent of songs from Snake Eater, and may have very well served as an unreleased composition from that game.
The track “Against this World” demonstrates Hibino’s more jazzy sound and includes one of his smooth sax solos. This track also features Japanese vocalist Harario, who sang on much of the AKASHi album and in the Japanese version of Snake Eater. Hibino has continued to produce solo albums over the last decade, with the most recent being 2010’s Gentle Love Vol. 2.
Grant Kirkhope was one of the key members of Rare during the company’s heyday, composing music for such classics as Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Viva Piñata. Since leaving, Rare has worked on other titles like Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, and is currently working with Playtonic Games on Project Ukulele. His achievements include several industry awards and recognition from the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Well-known for his bouncy, quirky, but altogether beautiful tunes, Kirkhope remains one of the most well-regarded game composers in the industry. But what music does he create outside of games?
As evidenced by the shredding metal guitar in the main theme of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Kirkhope is an outspoken fan of rock and metal music. In fact, before working in the games industry, he played guitar in several Heavy Metal bands. He, of course, looked the part of a serious metalhead.
One such band to feature Kirkhope’s guitar prowess was the 80’s British Heavy Metal band MainEEaxe. Active from 1981 to 1986, MainEEaxe released a few albums including 1985’s EP The Hour of Thunder. Kirkhope is in-part responsible for the impressive guitar shredding heard in tracks like “No Foolin;” it’s a shame this band never reached the mainstream, because I love their face-melting sound.
In addition to being a rockin’ guitarist, Kirkhope is also a trained trumpeter. For many years, he was a member of “The Big Bad Horns,” a brass band that played with UK Rock band Little Angels. During the Little Angel’s performance at the 2012 Download Festival, one can spot Kirkhope rocking out with his trumpet on stage. He is certainly the most metal trumpet player I’ve ever seen.
So there you have it: the non-game music from just a few video game composers. There are still so many composers that we can highlight, so comment if you’d like to read more.