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.
Sea of Stars released last month after much anticipation from fans of classic JRPGs. Receiving critical acclaim, the title has been praised as a modern classic inspired heavily by predecessors like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. From charming pixel aesthetics to combat mechanics and more, Sea of Stars has synthesized major classic elements for a new generation. Its soundtrack is at the heart of its thematics, as it covers a lot of nostalgic inspirations. Sea of Star’s soundtrack follows gameplay’s lead by transforming classic sounds into a unique identity by mixing them with modern composition. Arcade sounds help the title feel fast paced and upbeat during combat. Certain compositions of themes directly nod to pop culture to create ambiance for different areas. Music within the game closely aligns with the overall celestial themes — featuring twinkling chip tunes and electronic noises to mimic stars. Day and Night cycles within the game not only affect gameplay, but also dictate how background music sounds using parallel composition. It’s a soundtrack that’s robust in composition and knows how to achieve the nostalgia factor the game represents. It’s also full of references that pay homage to well-known compositions, even to prior musical works from the development studio’s previous game. Let’s take a listen at the sea of sounds found within this hefty score.
Sea of Star OST immediately sets the tone early in the game. The title page opens with a familiar melody made up of a medley of twinkling sounds that hearkens back to the opening for Chrono Trigger while staying on theme with the starry motifs. Arpeggiated electronic noises along with percussion are almost directly in line with the beloved JRPG. It makes sense considering one of the guest composers for Sea of Stars is Yasunori Mitsuda: the master responsible for the classic sounds of Chrono Trigger and the Xeno series. The added musical layers within the “Title Screen” theme uplift the sound for modern day interpretation to give depth beyond the 16-bit sound of retro titles. Through the entirety of the soundtrack do we hear prominent sounds that could be in an SNES game to represent the era. Mitsuda not only assisted with the overall sound, but there are ten tracks in the OST that are his own compositions. It’s a smart move by Sabotage Studio to work with Mitsuda, as it furthers the game’s goal of paying homage to classic titles.
Prominent use of arcade chip tunes and electronic percussion help give the title a “Saturday Morning Cartoon” feel during combat and exploration. For example, the theme “Battle On!” is composed in such a way that it loops seamlessly during combat encounters. When we’re done with combat, the melody cuts to a flourish within the track for an optimistic fan-fare. The tempo, melody and structure make sense for combat as well since gameplay can ramp up quickly. Sea of Stars’ combat does include real-time input for extended combos and more powerful attacks which are complimented well with this kind of arcade-fighter tone. It also speaks to how well the track is composed when it still flows well regardless of when combat ends. Its fanfare ending is catchy and reminiscent of classic titles as well. We hear a deeper tone shift when encountering deadlier enemies as the “Encounter!” theme hits harder with percussion and tempo that soars with the action on screen. This fits perfectly with how battle in the game can snowball if you let it. There are a plethora of themes that are inspired — from town themes to character themes, even themes meant to convey emotion. And while sometimes this does step into overly-familiar territory, it fits with the game’s goal of creating a time-capsule that is reminiscent of the classical era of gaming.
Where Sea of Stars feels most interesting is in some of its environmental compositions that help give life to exploration. A notable track that also takes inspiration from well-known compositions is “Across the Moorlands.” This dry, desert area feels even more so thanks to this melody’s homage to spaghetti western music. Use of a more hollow flute sound conveys an arid climate, but fans of the late Ennio Morricone may recognize a piece of this melody that comes directly from the main theme in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Yet, the track still creates its own melody built off this as inspiration. It’s different enough to be unique while calling back to a recognizable motif. These environmental tracks are pushed further through parallel compositions directly impacted by the day and night mechanics. Throughout the game, we are able to change the time of day to help solve puzzles and traverse the world. This unique mechanic also extends to how the soundtrack plays, as there’s a dual composition for each environmental track. Changing to night creates richer tones and introduces new electronic noises to carry the starry leitmotif throughout the entirety of the journey. This thoughtful composition uplifts themes and creates more dynamic gameplay as well. It’s hard to move on in the game when it’s so entertaining to change from one time of day to another just so the change in soundtrack can be heard as well. The story is further complimented with the use of parallel tracks with the introduction of “bardcore” — the pirate version of some tracks in the game. This marries beautifully with the story to create more world building within the universe.
While Sea of Star’s OST nods to major inspirations in pop culture and classic gaming, it also beautifully connects to Sabotage Studio’s first title: The Messenger. In what feels like the creation of a Sabotage Studio universe of sorts, remixed tracks can be heard that come directly from The Messenger. For players that have played the title, there are various other references in Sea of Stars that deeply connect the two games’ storylines. A standout track that recalls The Messenger is “Mesa Island.” This is a beautiful remix of The Messenger’s ninja village theme with a fantasy twist that feels poignant for the story. It’s amazing to hear these tracks in a softer, emotional tone that greatly compliments the area. Additional connections in Sea of Stars’ “Crone of the Marsh” can be heard that sounds like the Quillshroom marsh theme in The Messenger. The remix of the Bamboo theme in Sea of Stars is so breathtakingly serene — it doesn’t even sound the same, save for the melody. The Messenger’s Bamboo Creek theme is so rapid and high energy to compliment the gameplay style. It’s amazing to believe the two games are connected when they can sound and play so differently. Yet that’s the beauty of how this soundtrack elevates prior work. What’s also poetic is how main composer Eric W. Brown made parallel compositions for this first title as well for the past and future timelines. Through purposeful remixing, these tracks feel unique to create this title’s own identity while still bridging time and space to The Messenger.
The sound team at Sabotage Studio has created a smartly inspired soundtrack for Sea of Stars. These inspirations can be heard from a variety of media, as the OST synthesizes them to create a unique sound that still reminds you of the classics. The title makes use of guest composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s mastery to create a retro-modern feel. Composition references to pop culture mix beautifully with gameplay for a dynamic sound in parallel compositions. Not only do sounds take on a richer, more whimsical tone at night, but there are even parallel tracks composed in “bardcore” that amusingly compliment the story later on. The use of these complimentary tracks basically makes two OSTs within one that also pays homage to The Messenger in many ways. The remixing of previous tracks from Sabotage Studio’s first title shows dedication to building a shared universe. Because these two games are connected, it makes sense for them to musically compliment each other as well. While there are moments where the OST can feel formulaic, it stays on theme with being reminiscent of the era. Take a peek at some behind the scenes work with the soundtrack on the audio site. Sea of Stars features a robust soundtrack that helps complete the masterful blend of classic and modern influences.