Checking the Score: 2020 – The Best Year for Vaporwave in Game Soundtracks

While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.

Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.

The vaporwave genre is nothing new, but it has begun makings its way into video game soundtracks. Some games are all about that vaporwave aesthetic, from visuals to audio. Others only include a few tracks in much larger, multi-genre soundtracks. Whatever the case may be, 2020 video game music saw a strong influence from the vaporwave realm. Some excellent indie titles utilized the genre to great effect. A few of the best were Paradise Killer, A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986 and Umurangi Generation.

Paradise Killer is the type of game that oozes vaporwave before you even hear a sound. The world is vast and futuristic, while also full of retro polygonal objects. Pastel colors, palm trees, and a killer vaporwave soundtrack made this game stand out from the crowd. The soundtrack pulls everything together, feeling at times like easy listening tunes you’d hear in a mall. At other times, it turns a bit more sinister and serious while keeping a retro flair.

“Leaving” – Barry “Epoch” Topping

If you’re looking for songs dripping with synth, look no further than the vast majority of Paradise Killer’s soundtrack composed by Barry “Epoch” Topping. One excellent stand out track is “Leaving,” which immediately hits players as they explore the unique landscape. The song sounds excellent right from the start, but evolves as it progresses without overwhelming the underlying synth chords that hooked listeners in the first place.

“The Sarcophagus” – Barry “Epoch” Topping

“The Sarcophagus” is a much darker track that starts up as players enter a new area. The shift from softer vaporwave to this is a bit of a shock, but it’s also intriguing. Once you start to get accustomed to this song’s vibe, it totally shifts with a synth breakdown in the middle. This meshes the song’s initial beat with something a lot more uplifting. This is by far one of the most unique songs on the entire Paradise Killer soundtrack and deserves more attention because of it.

Unlike Paradise Killer, A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986 is not set in a neo-retro future. As the title suggests, it takes place at a very specific time and location. The music and mood of the 1980s were the clear inspiration for vaporwave to begin with, so its inclusion in the soundtrack is a perfect match. It feels retro, but intentionally so to assist with world building. The mood of the tracks perfectly complements the storyline, shifting from dance floor fun to intimate intensity.

“Eighties” – PengusStudio

“Eighties” by PengusStudio was the song used for the A Summer’s End – Hong Kong 1986 trailer. When this track first kicked on, it sold myself as well as many others on the visual novel. The tune is catchy and upbeat to start which lures listeners in. Once the song finally kicks into high gear it maintains that same tempo but adds an additional complexity which is both unexpected and exciting. It’s a shame that this song isn’t included with purchase of the soundtrack, as many fans desperately want an MP3/FLAC version.

“2:30AM (VHS skyline)” – Crystal Cola

“2:30AM (VHS skyline)” from Crystal Cola is super steeped in the vaporwave sound. The entire track has a dreamlike sound to it with its ethereal, almost washed out quality. This track, which you first hear when Michelle enters Sam’s VHS store, complements the mood perfectly. The song feels inviting, nostalgic and like the start of a journey — mirroring Michelle’s first steps toward falling in love.

Umurangi Generation is different from the previous two games in that the soundtrack actually mixes a wide variety of genres. While there are clear vaporwave tracks included, genres such as trip hop and drum and bass are also explored heavily throughout. This mix of 90s and 80s-styled songs compliments the Dreamcast-inspired visuals and gameplay. The music never calls attention to itself and yet is an incredibly strong component of the complete package.

“Haven” – ThorHighHeels

The entire Umurangi Generation soundtrack from ThorHighHeels is worth a listen. “Haven,” in particular, lets the composer dig fully into vaporwave. You have to love a song with a good, solid clap on the beat. The synth is strong and there are a lot of fun flourishes as the tune progresses over the course of just two minutes. It’s a fun, poppy track that feels right at home alongside the Jet Set Radio-styled visuals of the game.

“A Glimmer of Hope in the Darkness” – ThorHighHeels

Unlike the previous track, “A Glimmer of Hope in the Darkness” strikes a different tone despite also falling straight into the vaporwave genre. It feels much more wistful or even somber. This song, as well as others on the soundtrack, showcase the breadth of ThorHighHeels’ compositions. Of course, those who listen to the entire OST will find a wonderfully eclectic mix of tracks to savor.