Game That Tune

Shadow Of The Colossus

Larger Than Life

An encounter with Shadow Of The Colossus’s grandiose orchestral score.

By Derrick Sanskrit • September 27, 2012

Game music has the power to earworm its way into your heart long after you put the controller down. Each week in Game That Tune, we highlight a great tune from a great game (or a great tune from a just-okay game).

Shadow Of The Colossus asks you to climb seemingly insurmountable monsters, easily 100 times your size, to stab the smallest of weak points with a sword, all in the name of reviving your lost love. It’s an emotional document of humanity and perseverance against impossible odds, of discovery and loss. As such, it’s heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, due in large part to its rich environment and deep sense of immersion—a sensation that would be impossible without its pitch-perfect sound design and orchestral score. It balances the quiet solitude of Wander’s quest with the foreboding pounds of the ageless Colossi’s fury.

“A Violent Encounter” sounds as though it should underscore two prima ballerinas—circling one another, sizing up their opponent’s strengths and seeking out cracks in their defenses. The strings are steadfast and determined, clearing the stage so that the piano and horns can strike with surgical precision. Crash cymbals and tympani build tension and drama. The sounds carried are heavy, but they are quick on their feet, as punctuated by the woodwinds at :50 that flitter just quickly enough to draw first blood. Everything about this piece is direct and resolute. There’s no mistaking: This is the music of grand, epic, romantic action.

Removed from its source material, “A Violent Encounter,” like much of the Shadow Of The Colossus score, encapsulates the thrilling excitement and desperation of the unknown.

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634 Responses to “Larger Than Life”

  1. Brainstrain says:

    Oh, I like this feature. VGM is my thing. Like half my YouTube subscriptions are people who post their favorite tracks weekly. SotC indeed has a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Looking forward to seeing World of Warcraft in one of these. It’s music is legendary, and a big part in making them far and away the best MMO as far as atmosphere.

  2. PaganPoet says:

    I’m sure I’ve had this discussion on GS before, but I’m of the ilk that prefers the video game music from the PS1/N64 era and earlier. Not that I don’t appreciate the artistry and talent behind tracks such as this (and the fact that Shadow of the Colossus is an outstanding gaming experience over all), but as consoles have advanced to the point where real music has replaced MIDI, I feel like game soundtracks, in general, strive for a movie score-like epicness.

    This wasn’t the case in the 8-32 bit days. There’s only so “epic” a MIDI orchestra can sound, because in the end, you’re just listening to something someone created using sound waves, not a real instrument. Video game music back then put a large emphasis on melody, and because of that, become more endearing and recognizable. Ask me to sing something from the God of War III soundtrack? You’ll get a blank stare. Ask me to sing something from Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger? I could probably sing 95% of those soundtracks from memory.

    Of course, to any young gamers, this probably just sounds like an aging gamer pining for the “good ol’ days.” Get off my lawn!

    • The pitch list for this column included plenty of 80’s-90’s chip music along with modern AAA orchestrals and indie games, so we should cover all the bases pretty well. That said, we always love to hear what you’re passionate about. Let us know what you want to hear!

      • PaganPoet says:

        Oh, that’s one of the reasons I love GS features such as On the Level and I’m sure this feature will be no different. You guys are great about featuring games from 25 years ago, recent games, and everything in between.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        Will do when I get home!  The guy who runs Square-Enix Music Online is a phenomenal resource, too, and check VGMDb and certain other sites for soundtracks/gamerips databases.

        In the meantime, here’s my YouTube channel: Lovedelic's 1st game had an incredibly innovative music system and top-notch songs.  I recommend Blue (MoonDisc Version), Warp Wet Woods (MoonDisc Version), Song Of Silver Tsumugi Threads (MoonDisc Version), and The Highest Level.

      • WorldCivilizations says:

        Looking forward to this feature. I’m gonna second @PaganPoet:disqus on Chrono Trigger – especially those closing credits, very stirring! Also gotta mention FFVII – yes, any mention of that game has a lot of baggage, but the soundtrack is, to me, the most beautiful out of the many nice FF soundtracks. Other obvious choices: Sonic 2, Zelda, Mario, Crash Bandicoot (Crash Team Racing has some great tunes, along with being the best game ever).

        My favorite game soundtrack of all time is probably too obscure for a column, but it’s Unlimited: SaGa on ps2. The game was a bit of a mess (ok, a complete mess), but damn, that soundtrack was just gorgeous. So good that I still occasionally revisit the game, despite its horrible suckage as a game. Take a listen, and you might want to do the same:

        • PaganPoet says:

          Did you ever keep a save in Chrono Trigger right before meeting Schala, just so you could listen to her theme music anytime you wanted? That was a big frustration for me, back before you could hop on youtube and pull up any game’s soundtrack: an awesome track that was used for only one or two scenes or a dungeon that you couldn’t return to.

          I agree with FFVII for sure–the actual MIDI instruments used are quite harsh and ugly at times, but the compositions themselves still hold up well.

        • WorldCivilizations says:

          @PaganPoet:disqus – well, now you’ve sent me to youtube to listen to the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. Man, it really is awesome… Well, now I have to play through the game for a 4th time. You just cost me 40 hours of life, thanks a lot.

        • Citric says:

          I think I posted suggestions that were way more obscure, and I’d argue that obscure things are best because it brings us new things.

          Also, the US soundtrack made me get the game (which was cheap as borscht at the time, which helped). I never got anywhere in it though. The Saga series in general has great soundtracks though, whether it’s Ito on the early ones or Hamauzu on the other ones. Also the games are all pretty messy from what I’ve played, but they have their obsessive fans.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Nah, the series is well-known for its director, quirks, and music.  Plus, Masashi Hamauzu was, for a lot of people, 1 of the only people who came out of Final Fantasy XIII unscathed.

      • boardgameguy says:

        soundtrack to THE DIG.  that was some nice stuff that i  even sought out the CD.  perfect mood-setter for exploring alien worlds

        • Kilzor says:

          This is one of my top three scores of all time.  Something about the cracking rocks in the beginning asteroid piece sets the perfect mood for the rest of the equally excellent score.  I even wrote Lucasarts in the 90’s to see if they were going to release it as a stand alone soundtrack.

      • Citric says:

        Alright, eventually you have to do something on a Hiroki Kikuta soundtrack if you’re going to do something 16-bit. He did two games on the SNES – Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, which was the sequel to SoM – and they sound like nothing else on the console, whether it’s the percussion-heavy action songs or one of the piano tracks in SD3 – Innocent Water’s piano is so good – that make you sit up because the samples sound almost live. It’s a fascinating crossroads of technology and art.

      • Citric says:

        Since I feel like continuing to talk, I got into fan translation in high school, so I was constantly listening to stuff from games that weren’t released here – sometimes for good reasons, admittedly. So while I might be a big fan of, say, Front Mission: Gun Hazard’s soundtrack – with then-current and future Square soundtrack all stars like Masashi Hamauzu, Yasonori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu and Junya Nakano all on the same thing – I can freely admit it was on nobody else’s radar in this continent. Same deal with Ryuji Sasai’s work for Rudra no Hihou, which I’ve been enjoying immensely as I work my way through that game. I also found the soundtrack to Soukaigi (Kikuta again) long before I played the game due to someone raving in that community, and it is amazing. I attempted to play the game, it is not.

        I’ve also become incredibly fond of the Armored Core series’ music recently, especially For Answer, for something that is recent and is a game released here. Nier is another one with a soundtrack I fell in love with.

      • Electric Dragon says:

        The Grim Fandango soundtrack fits superbly with the ethos and design of that game. Heavily jazz/big band oriented, in keeping with the noir themes – but my standout tracks are the slow tango Manny & Meche and the Link Wray surf guitar influenced Bone Wagon.

    • George_Liquor says:

       Chiptunes are a lost art to be sure, but I think it’s important to remember that, while many 8- & 16-bit games had good, catchy background music, many more had music that ranged from mediocre to irredeemably awful. “This game’s music sucks, and it drives me crazy!” was a common complaint in the game reviews of yesteryear, but these days, it just doesn’t seem to be an issue.

      • PaganPoet says:

        That’s very true. Not to mention that most tracks were pretty short, and looped endlessly, so many times even the good music got annoying. The dungeon music together with the low-life alarm from Zelda are the soundtrack to my nightmares.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      I’ve had this conversation too often, too, but 1. I disagree with the premise, that the focus can’t remain the same as technology expands 2. games with limited technology that have good music don’t exist.

      I run this with Nert at NeoGAF.
      My recommendations, especially, go toward your taste. I listen to about 125 a year, I think.

      I’m way behind on my listening for this year, so I have to start catching up this weekend to make the end of December.  If anyone’s on NeoGAF, join in!  Otherwise, I’ll probably make a post on this feature as the year ends.

    • JokersNuts says:

       i pretty much agree with you, i can hum any of those old scores that you mentioned, but newer games are a blur to me.  Also, as for those younger gamers your mentioned, they better play the games of the NES and (pre nes) – PS1 days, or else they really can get off my lawn! 

    • caspiancomic says:

       I’ve always felt the same way, and I too have always worried that I’m merely in the early stages of curmudgeondom. I really do think there’s something to be said for 8-32 bit music, and not only because that’s the period in which I grew up and was most impressionable (also, though, for that reason). Note that I know basically nothing about music, but the explanation I read once was that particularly back in the NES days, the soundboards could only produce three notes at once- exactly enough for a chord. As a result, the soundtracks all focused on simple, catchy melodies, since that’s what the technology was good at delivering. Now that there are basically no technological limitations on sound fidelity, the scale and scope of soundtracks has increased, but not necessarily the memorability. I suppose I’d have to admit it’s not technically worse: just different. The more modern tunes have a completely different goal (creating atmosphere versus pure earworming), and in fairness, accomplish that goal admirably. But I think we’re still totally within our rights to prefer one to the other.

      In fairness to modern game scores, a lot of modern games do have relatively catchy tunes, particularly on the handhelds. I’ve got Professor Layton’s theme in a readily accessible compartment of my brain, Yoko Shimomura has a beautiful melody driven style that perfectly suits Radiant Historia, and while I’ve never played the actual game, FFVII: Crisis Core has a spectacular score heavy on simple, soulful piano and acoustic guitar ditties. That’s actually probably the ultimate compliment you can give a game score: to be addicted to the music even without having played the game.

    • Citric says:

      While I’m sure some of it can be partially attributed to that era being part of your formative years, there were some fantastic composers from that time who kind of faded away for a few years after that era. Yasonori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) kind of went underground post-Xenosaga, Uematsu inched towards retirement, steadily scaling back, Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana, Soukaigi – which is a terrible game from what I’ve played but sounds amazing) flamed out after Koudelka failed and went off and composed soundtracks for porno (seriously). Those are three examples, I’m sure others have more.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        I’m on board with the premise, but the extent was slightly exaggerated there.

        I’m not saying that they haven’t taken less on, but Mitsuda has upped his workload after founding his company and took on the 1st 3 games in the awesome/mega-popular Lightning/Inazuma 11 games (check my link!), Uematsu’s workload through IX was unsustainable, and 1 big soundtrack a year is still a lot (it helps when he does throwbacks like his Akira Ueda game), and Kikuta has SAID that he’s back after Shining Hearts and Soul Calibur V.

        I agree that consistent ones like Koshiro and more active ones like Shimomura have drawn the attention and accolades, however.  I really respect those people for sticking around in a era with slightly less good music.  I’m baffled by people like Will Wright and the Bioware folks who have all of the tools to continue to foster good games and relinquish them.  The same goes for composers who don’t share soundtracks with proteges to raise the next generation of composers.  Sakimoto should turn out an Opoona every year with his staff.

        • Citric says:

          Mitsuda seemed to disappear for a while though, perhaps it was less underground and more behind the scenes but he wasn’t really at the forefront. Kikuta is finally coming back, but he was in the wilderness for a while.  

          There has been the odd comeback, some new guys and gals I’ve become fond of (Hamauzu counts, I’ve enjoyed Takeharu Ishimoto’s work, Go Shiina’s pretty great) but it has seemed like the old guard is kind of being less prominent and if they defined game music for you that could be a bit of a blow.

    • Bad Horse says:

      The final battle music from FFVI is almost definitely my favorite 4 pieces of video game music ever. So freaking epic.

  3. blue vodka lemonade says:

    Listening to the piece above, I heard “zippy adventure”–right around the 1:08 mark, it reminds me of nothing so much as the theme music to Pirates of the Caribbean.

    That final boss music is just soul-devouring, though. It also works as a great replacement tune for any movie trailers that abuse “Lux Aeterna.”

    • PaganPoet says:

      I analyzed Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” for a class I took in 20th century choral music. If you think it sounds crazy, you should see the score. That piece must be a nightmare to conduct or perform.

      Funnily enough, the result sounds so aleatoric in the end, I think the same thing could have been accomplished with some more modern kind of notation.

      • Electric Dragon says:

        I think @green_gin_rickey:disqus is referring to Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna from the Requiem for a Dream OST, which has been abused to the point of cliché by trailers from Lord of the Rings on.

        • PaganPoet says:

          Ah, gotcha. My mistake.

          I thought he meant Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna…which totally seems like I’ve heard it in every outer space-horror movie trailer since the 70s.

  4. dmikester says:

    Shadow of the Colossus made such a strong impression on me that it’s impossible for me to separate the music from the game; listening to this out of context, all I can picture is fighting one of the Colossi.  That’s a great testament to Otani’s attention to the game’s specific atmosphere and general gameplay when composing the soundtrack, and it’s hard for me to picture this working as well in another game or movie.

  5. Leaving unsaid the obvious genius of Nobuo Uematsu, I wanted to mention that there are two publishers who consistently have just phenomenal soundtracks: Atlus (particularly in the Persona and MegaTen games) and the perhaps lesser-known Nippon Ichi (I think their flagship franchise is Disgaea).

    • PaganPoet says:

      Had to like this post for giving props to my two favorite JRPG series.

      In fact, I’m currently playing the PSP remake of Persona, and when I’m done with that, I’ll move on to the PSP remake of Persona 2: Innocent Sin; Preparing myself for the release of Persona 4 Golden.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      All of their games take place in the same world/series, so have you checked out the Marl Kingdom subseries?  La Pucelle was probably the biggest release over here?  It’s like if all of the sinister undertones were removed from their other games and all that you had left were the stage musical influences.

      Tenpei Sato’s so underrated, but my favorite from their developed games might not be from him. Basiscape’s composers NAILED Absolute Hero Modeling Project/Z.H.P.:

  6. The_Forgotten_Quill says:

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I have always felt in awe of games that allow me to experience the seduction of what I have come to call the “reveal.”

    It’s that moment when you leave the initial “base” of your home or villiage and set out either on foot or by way of steed into the heart of the game, where a once intimate world takes on a much grander scale. It’s where the game already has you enamored with a single city and then pulls back the veil to show you the true scope of the world you’ve discovered.

    In Shadow of the Collosus, it’s riding through the rocky terrain, searching through mist and canyons with help of a lone guiding light until you happen upon that first imposing, lumbering colossus, your feet dashing in time to the steadily growing menace within the music.

    In Ocarina of Time, it’s the experience of setting out from Kakariko Village for the first time after the dark moments of the death of the Deku Tree to the warm greeting of a jubilant brass-filled score and the sight of Hyland Castle in the far distance.

    And in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it’s emotionally moving to take off across the vast countryside on horseback, dodging travelling merchants, roaming theives and patrolling guards before cresting a hill and seeing the great Roman Colosseum rise before me to the sounds a full latin chorus and orchestra. (City of Rome – Jesper Kyd)

    And it doesn’t happen in a cut scene. It’s me, experiencing it, playing it, watching the “reveal” as it happens in my own time.

    And of course, there are games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution where I sit at the title screen for as long as possible, seduced buy the overwhelming power of the soundtrack (Icarus – Michael McCann). And Final Fantasy XIII where I will purposely extend a battle until the exact moment where the violin solo truly begins to sing. (Blinded by Light – Masashi Hamauzu)

    A good game is one thing, but a memorable, emotionally gripping score as well…there’s nothing more sexy than that.

  7. caspiancomic says:

    A weekly column about game music!? Did Christmas come early?

    First off: Shadow of the Colossus’ soundtrack is extremely righteous, and I’m glad it was used to christen the new feature. Derrick (who writes gorgeously about music by the way) really highlighted my favourite element of the score, how the coarse and the delicate sort of coexist. Obviously for a battle on this scale, with stakes this high, the obvious choice is to go for crashing drums, shrieking strings, and a bunch of latin gibberish. But in SotC, the intensity is tempered with a sort of reflective, almost sorrowful cooing and dreamlike violins. It creates a more textured atmosphere for the battle, and reinforces the game’s underlying conceit that killing the Colossi is, in all likelihood, not only not very nice, but probably a terrible idea.

    Also, since Derrick suggested that he’s relatively open to requests, well… okay, no, I’m not going to completely let the floodgates open, otherwise I’ll just be here all day listing games with rad music. If I can summon up a few particularly strong examples though…

    I’d say anything where music is truly central to the game’s thematic spine would make for a great article. Examples that come to mind are The World Ends With You and Jet Set Radio, which are basically inseparable from their iconic soundtracks. Also, Jim Guthrie’s soundtrack for Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery was rightly touted as a major selling point for the game, and the game’s relationship with music generally, and its own soundtrack specifically, could make for a pretty interesting read. I would also be betraying myself if I didn’t nominate Bastion, as every track on that soundtrack is a gem. Oh, and Austin Wintory’s Journey soundtrack is a no-brainer (promise not to laugh? I kind of tear up when I listen to that song).

    But really, the main reason I’m here is because I simply will not rest until Sonic the Hedgehog is visited in some form or another. I know the Mario/Sonic war is long finished and all-told reconciled pretty amicably, and these days I’ll obviously happily play a Mario game and recognize it for its quality and entertainment value and nostalgic charm. But I will honestly fight anyone who wants to claim Mario has better music than Sonic. That’s the last straw. Mario’s music is perfectly good: catchy and iconic and fun, but I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you, Sonic has always had the superior tunes, and on this final topic I simply will not budge. Even Sonic’s shittiest games have had consistently great music. (I could basically just name every track and call them all mandatory listening, but a chronological curated selection of my favourites would be this and this and this and !!!!THIS!!!! and this and this and this and this.)

    • Matthew Smith says:

      Bastion must and will at some point come up in this. However as you said, every piece is great so i’m not sure what would be picked. 
      The two (or three counting the end) lyrical pieces are something quite different from the norm, so they could come up but personally i’m partial to this track:

    • GhaleonQ says:

      When that day comes, AWY’LL FOYT YA. 

      Masato Nakamura: didn’t do anything that Katsuhiko Suzuki didn’t do better.

      Super Mario World: 1 of the best executions of a soundtrack in a platformer of all-time.  *puts up dukes all old-timey and such*

      I will say that the soundtracks are remarkably consistent for a series with so many entries, no question there.  What’s your favorite post-Dreamcast one?  Colors?

      • caspiancomic says:

         Favourite post-Dreamcast game is definitely Generations, but I didn’t include a track from it because they’re all remixes from previous games (although if you’re curious, this is probably my favourite track from Generations). If we’re talking pure soundtracks, then yeah, Colours is probably my favourite and the most consistently great. Unleashed has some killer tracks, but also some that are less memorable, while Colours is pretty much all rad all the time. The game itself is actually quite good as well.

  8. EmperorNortonI says:

    From the ancient days of yore, there are two soundtracks that I still remember, and either of them might be worth re-visiting.

    1 – StarControl 2  Each race had its own little 30 or 40 second ditty.  This doesn’t sound like much, but somehow the sound managed to really capture the personality of the various different aliens.  Particular standouts were the Ur-Quan and the Syreen.

    2 – Wing Commander – the Kilrathi song was just awesome.  Like most Origin games in that period, the soundtrack was technically and artistically ambitious.  Origin was one of the few companies that would provide a full MIDI score for its games, just in case the person happened to have a Roland sound mixer.  

  9. Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:

    I know I’m only going to re-affirm my FO3 fanboy status with this, but some of the music in FO3 is absolutely amazing in how haunting it is (and I don’t mean the radio stations).  The “action” music not so much, but the atmosphere music — especially the main title as well as what I personally refer to as “The Patriot’s March” (the beautiful vaguely fife-and-drum music that shows up at places like Arlington Cemetery and other monuments as well as Brotherhood of Steel locations).

  10. PhilWal0 says:

    Suggestions? I see Bastion, Super Mario World, Grim Fandango and Jet Set Radio have all been mentioned,but I can’t pass up a chance to promote “Life is Beautiful” from Deadly Premonition, one of the happiest tunes I’ve ever heard.