One of the most overlooked aspects of a game experience is the music. Sure, it gets mentioned, but it's always the least talked about thing in any review or preview. There's a bold statement that needs to be made about this and about how important sound is to a game. I would go as far as saying sound is the single most essential part of a game's immersion, after gameplay.
A perfect example of this problem is putting The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks up against The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. There is hardly one or two tracks from Phantom Hourglass that I would call memorable, and the ones that are memorable are just re-used themes from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Within the first hour of Spirit Tracks, I was already hooked into the story and game world due to how excellent the soundtrack was. Entering Hyrule Castle for the first time brought a smile to my face. The music that played when I first talked to Zelda in Spirit Tracks immediately rushed back nostalgic moments from when I first met Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
As I continued with the game, things like this kept happening. Even when gameplay moments were identical to Phantom Hourglass, I found myself enjoying it more, because I was further immersed in the game world. Now, the whole point of this article wasn't to talk about Zelda, it was just the basis for the rest of this conversation.
I might be in the minority here, but I tend to wear headphones when I'm playing my DS at home. It's way too easy for distractions to take you out of a game experience on handhelds and wearing headphones does an excellent job at keeping the game experience more focused. I've recently been heavily playing Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes for the DS. I won't go as far as saying that the sound is outstanding, but it's above average in almost every way. Yes, the gameplay in Clash of Heroes is wonderful, and could carry this title without sound. However, the addition of a very good soundtrack has pushed this game near the top of my favorite DS games.
This obviously extends past handhelds as well, but Spirit Tracks and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes happened to be the most recent games that have reminded me how important of an aspect sound is to a game. For anyone who's played Mirror's Edge, you may have completely overlooked the fact that the game uses ambient music to capture the feel of the game perfectly. In moments of exploration the sounds can be barely be heard, instead focusing on Faith's interaction with the environment. The ambient sounds are soothing, but as action and tension pick up, the ambient sounds follow suit. It's used to increase panic and heighten the feel of being chased.
This all also applies to voice acting. It's no secret that even the best game can be ruined by bad voice acting. On the flip side, a mediocre game can reach the upper tier if it has good voice acting. Please don't light your torches Kingdom Hearts fans, but I think the Kingdom Hearts series is a perfect example of this. Sometimes the gameplay in these titles gets stale. That's not to say they aren't excellent games, as I do enjoy them quite a bit. It's more or less the idea that when the gameplay shows its shallow colors, the characters are enough to keep people coming back for more. Every role in the Kingdom Hearts universe is sincere and believable. It allows the game to excel in character development and reaches out to the player to grow attached to who they relate to.
I believe this to be the single biggest flaw of the current generation of gaming. We've made enhancements to every form of gameplay. Graphics are approaching a form of realism that is beyond belief (which, in my opinion, is just as evil as it is good... but that is an argument for a different day.). New ways to play have been designed, and the online space is constantly evolving and growing. While all this is well and good, some of the most memorable moments from past generations come down to music. Who doesn't hum along to almost every tune of Ocarina of Time? Can you honestly load up Mario 64 without smiling when the music first starts up? The original Mario and Zelda themes are some of the most recognized things in the world, so why exactly is it still being ignored?
This all came up because a song from Wind Waker popped up in my music player today. As soon as it started, I immediately remembered exploring the island in full detail (It was Windfall Island for those wondering). This was followed by "Chemical Plant Zone" from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. After that played, I was inspired to write something out of disappointment. Almost all of the best moments I've ever had with gaming are directly related to the music and how it made the game world more extraordinary than it already was. All I can hope is that The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is just the beginning of a re-focus on this aspect of gaming. I know Mega Man 10's 8-bit music will ease some of the pain, but I can only hope that Super Mario Galaxy 2 tries to live up to the soundtrack of the first.
I want to be able to recall a song from a game and immediately recognize the area it's associated with. As cool as explosions and gunfire might sound, sometimes you need to prove just how amazing this form of entertainment really is. This is my formal call out to the gaming industry. Prove me wrong, guys.