Sometimes, you turn on a game with zero expectations. But as soon as you hear that first level music, you think to yourself, “Hell yeah, I want to play the rest of this game!” That first impression alone can hook someone into a game and unexpectedly result in a long play session. Sometimes, that one song can even represent a whole series (see the trope Level 1 Music Represents).
I find this happening more often in older games than new, though that could be because modern games tend to focus more on the storytelling and atmosphere. Whereas, a retro game that comes closer to an arcade style often starts off with catchy music. Not that I’m complaining, but it is a trait that I missed in newer games lately.
So let’s start with some guidelines to this list:
- In most action games, I’m only choosing the first level music.
- As an exception, some action games (like Mega Man) allow you to pick which level you want to play first from the very beginning. I may include those songs.
- In RPGs or strategy games, it may be one of the first places where you experience the main gameplay.
- This list isn’t absolute and may get updated time to time. In other words, a work in progress.
- This is not the “most iconic first level themes” list. This is a list of first level themes that I personally feel are the best that gaming has to offer.
So here is my personal Best Level Music in Video Games, in no particular order. I want to make that clear because I know someone in the comments is going to go, “Why isn’t Overworld Theme 1 from Jump Man Siblings on the list!?! You’re a piece of shit! I’m not reading you ever again!”
You got that? Personal. This isn’t an “objective” list decided by a poll of most popular or iconic songs. If you didn’t get that, chill out. Still don’t get it? Eat my ass while listening to this music.
Fair warning: I’m a ’90s kid. I’m going to have a lot of oldies here.
There are currently 23 games on this list.
Game: Age of Empires II (1999)
Composer: Stephen Rippy
Composer Stephen Rippy is known to give his Age of Empires songs some snide and weird names. The one that plays after “Shamburger” is called “I Will Beat On Your Behind.” I am dead serious.
Regardless, it’s great to boot up Age of Empires II and hear this one melody play. From the tutorial campaign to just a regular random map game, this song will always play first (unless you’re playing The Conquerors expansion, which featured a different soundtrack). It’s a pleasant tune to hum to while you’re spawning Villagers and hoarding as much food as possible so you can rush to the Feudal Age.
Name: Bloody Tears
Game: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987)
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Composer: Kenichi Matsubara
Out of all entries on this list, the Castlevania series is probably the absolute MASTER of badass first stage themes! There are some serious bangers like:
- Vampire Killer – Castlevania
- Beginning – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
- Theme of Simon – Super Castlevania IV
- Divine Bloodlines – Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
- Reincarnated Soul – Castlevania Bloodlines
- Battle of the Holy – Castlevania: The Adventure
- New Messiah – Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge
- Praying Hands – Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge
- Dracula’s Castle – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- Cross Your Heart – Haunted Castle
But if I must pick the best among the best, it’d have to be “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. While Simon’s Quest is most definitely a mediocre game, its music is far from mediocre. “Bloody Tears” is possibly the most recurring level theme in the series, as well as a hopeful theme that constantly pushes you forward to your next objective. Every time you hear this song, you just want to keep going. You want to push through the night, just so you can see the sun rise and start whipping monsters straight back to Hell.
Name: Turtle Woods/The Pits/Night Fight
Game: Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (1997)
Composer: Josh Mancell
You can probably tell that I’m a ’90s kid for including this game into the mix. But I feel like the Crash Bandicoot series does deserve a mention about its musical scores. The original trilogy on the PlayStation was composed by Josh Mancell, who also composed for the Jak and Daxter games.
This song in particular played during the introductory sequence of Crash Bandicoot 2, as well as two other levels in the first lobby room. I think calling it a “first level” song is fair game.
So what do I like about this song? Well, it’s playful. It’s catchy. It’s perfect for a stroll through a Tasmanian jungle., while there’s a downpour. And cyborg turtles patrolling the walkways. You know, normal stuff!
Name: Clip Joint Calamity
Game: Cuphead (2017)
System: PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Composer: Kristofer Maddigan
A game like Cuphead is an enormous achievement for indie games. Its development started all the way back at 2010, but it took a whole 7 years for it to finally be released as a complete game. Mainly because it went for old-fashioned cel animation combined with 1920s rubberhose animation to give it the most authentic look possible. What would happen if one of these old cartoons is an actual playable video game? You get Cuphead, and by golly it was well worth the wait.
The soundtrack inspired by old jazz and swing music also really ties things together. But out of the few stages you start with in the first section of Inkwell Isle, “Clip Joint Calamity” stood out to me. In this battle, you fight against two frog brothers: Ribby and Croaks. And the stage? A club owned by flies.
Frogs and flies… huh…
And this song captures that feeling of a real high-class bout at an old-fashioned nightclub. Where you beat up frogs wearing boxing gloves.
Name: DK Island Swing/Jungle Groove/Jungle Hijinxs
Game: Donkey Kong Country (1994)
System: Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Composer: David Wise
Easily the most famous and iconic song from the Donkey Kong Country series. It starts up with some atmospheric percussion and animal sounds, then breaks down into a funky jungle beat. Then it transitions into an atmospheric downtempo song. A perfect theme for the jungle.
This song was straight up an incredible achievement for its time and it really shows just how capable the SNES’s sound chip is. Though I can debate that there are even better songs in this series, I’m just focusing on the first levels for this list.
Name: City Slum/Mission 1
Game: Double Dragon (1987)
System: Arcade, Nintendo Entertainment System, and various other systems
Composer: Kazunaka Yamane
Being one of the pioneers of the beat ’em up genre, Double Dragon starts off with a rocking tune reminiscent of ’80s synth rock music. It’s the perfect backdrop as you utilize your martial arts skills to beat up a bunch of gangsters who kidnapped your girlfriend. And smack ’em with baseball bats. And whip their faces.
Name: The Mines of Narshe
Game: Final Fantasy VI (1994)
System: Super Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Final Fantasy VI has one of my favorite beginnings to a video game ever: invading a small snowy town while attempting to seize a mystical power. While it is technically a town theme, it also plays in the coal mines where you fight strange monsters and vagabonds. Unlike most starting town themes in JRPGs, this one is more sullen and mysterious. And it makes sense, seeing as how this town is one of the most important locations in the game’s story.
There is true beauty in this song, representing the cold and bleak life at Narshe. It is a town that tries to not get involved in a war between an empire and a rebel faction, but circumstances pull it into the conflict anyway. It’s a song that reflects the current state of the world. And soon, a terrible series of events will occur…
Name: Beyond the Distant Skies
Game: Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade (2002)
System: Game Boy Advance
Composer: Yuka Tsujiyoko
Seeing as how I did go through the older Fire Emblem titles, I can say for sure that the series has consistently great music. Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade is an important entry in the series’ history. It is the first game to not be directed by Shouzou Kaga, the creator of Fire Emblem. It is the first of the Game Boy Advance trilogy. It is the last Japanese-only entry before the Fire Emblem series finally gets an English localization, starting with Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade. And of course, it stars our boy Roy, who appeared in Super Smash Bros. Melee alongside Marth.
“Beyond the Distant Skies” makes for a great nostalgic song, as it sets you up for a long and arduous journey across the continent of Elibe. And if you know this game continues the story of The Blazing Blade years later, it’s also a melancholic song that gives you a subtle reminder that many of the characters from that game are either missing or dead. Roy and his friends take up the mantle of heroism against the tyrannical kingdom of Bern, as they save their homes from complete domination.
Name: Full Tilt
Game: Gotta Protectors (2016)
System: Nintendo 3DS
You might be asking, “What in the hell is this game?” Well, I’m glad you asked! Gotta Protectors is an indie game for the Nintendo 3DS that combines tower defense and action RPG mechanics, presented in an 8-bit style. Also makes for a really fun and chaotic multiplayer game.
And it’s brought to you by Yuzo Koshiro, the main composer behind the Streets of Rage trilogy. “Full Tilt” is the most frequently played map music in Gotta Protectors, but it also sets the stage for the rest of the game. It’s a fun and frantic adventure where you’re fighting off hordes of monsters. With an ’80s anime vibe and lots of cheesy humor.
I don’t know if Koshiro himself composed this specific song, seeing as how “Hiro” appears to be a pseudonym. Plus there’s another pseudonym called YK-2 who did the most compositions in the game, so that one could be him?
There is also a 16-bit rendition of this song (which, in my opinion, is even better), but I couldn’t find it on YouTube. But I definitely recommend getting Gotta Protectors while the Nintendo 3DS eShop is still up! If not for the gameplay, then for the catchy soundtrack!
Name: Stage 1
Game: Holy Diver (1989)
System: Nintendo Famicom
I actually talked about Holy Diver before. It’s one of those tough-as-nails NES platformers with gameplay that combines aspects of Castlevania and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. But oddly enough, it didn’t get an English localization until 2018—long past the discontinuation of NES consoles.
This game is hard. REALLY hard. I’m talking about on par with Ghosts ‘n Goblins hard. But hoo, that soundtrack is fire! Much of this game, even its music, looked heavily derivative of the Castlevania series, except the creatures of the night are demons from Hell instead. If you haven’t tried this game yet, I recommend giving it a shot. You most likely won’t beat it on the first run (or the second or the third…), but the graphics and music alone are worthwhile.
Name: Stage 1
Game: Journey to Silius (1990)
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Composer: Naoki Kodaka
Originally intended to be a video game adaptation to the movie The Terminator, Journey to Silius is yet another underrated NES gem. Ironically, this game is much better than the actual NES adaptation for The Terminator.
And surprise, surprise! It has a phenomenal soundtrack. No, really, this first stage theme alone demonstrates just how far you can push the NES soundchip to make it sound like real electronic music! It’s a robust and fast-paced song about a gunman in a futuristic setting destroying robots and and Terminator-esque androids. Now isn’t that kickass?
Name: Motion of the Ninja/Act 1-1
Game: Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (1990)
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Composers: Ryuichi Nitta, Mayuko Okamura
The Ninja Gaiden trilogy on NES can probably be best described as a faster-paced Castlevania with more precise controls. But with ninjas vs. demons instead.
The first stage of Ninja Gaiden II starts you off on the rooftops of an urban city at nighttime. “Motion of the Ninja” also plays at various points of the game, including being a random song at the final level. To me, this song is one representative of the entire trilogy, though some may say that “Unbreakable Determination” from Act 4-2 in the original Ninja Gaiden is more iconic. While this game has a dark (but cheesy) story, the first stage’s music fits with its melodramatic and suspenseful tone.
Name: Geometric City
Game: RayStorm (1996)
System: Arcade, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PC
RayStorm is a shoot ’em up by Taito Corporation and the second entry in the Ray trilogy. The entire soundtrack was composed by Taito’s “house band” known as Zuntata. And I could best describe this soundtrack as electronic/synth music with bits of jazz, downtempo, and symphonic.
The first stage of RayStorm takes place in a futuristic urban city where you destroy various enemy aircraft, tanks and mechas. Compared to the rest of the game, this stage is relatively easygoing and this song reflects that. Only in a game like this could you play a joyous and chill tune over pure chaos, under the stress that a single attack will cause your spacecraft to blow up.
Game: Re-Loaded (1996)
Composer: Neil Biggin
Re-Loaded is an example of a video game with a soundtrack that’s too good for the actual game. This game serves as the sequel to the original Loaded, a top-down shooter with over-the-top violence and dark humor. The premise is that you’re playing as a bunch of criminals and psychopaths. And you’re trying to take down a more powerful supervillain called F.U.B. (Fat Ugly Boy). This concept is pretty much like DC’s Suicide Squad.
In Re-Loaded, F.U.B.’s body was destroyed and he somehow got a new body and started calling himself C.H.E.B. (Charming Handsome Erudite Bastard). So now you’re in this new adventure, going through frustrating labyrinths filled with cheap enemies, annoying puzzles and game-breaking glitches.
Anyways, the soundtrack was inspired by The Prodigy, an EDM group that pioneered the breakbeat/big beat genre. I can also see influences of industrial music.
“Limey” is something that I would expect to hear from a movie soundtrack, like something with a cyberpunk or sci-fi/action theme. The intense, chaotic percussion really adds to the gratuitous violence of the game. A shame that the game itself isn’t all that fantastic.
Name: Stage 1
Game: Shadow of the Ninja/Blue Shadow (1990)
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Composers: Iku Mizutani, Kouichi Yamanishi
Shadow of the Ninja is a game that has a lot in common with the Ninja Gaiden trilogy on NES, being that you’re playing as a ninja in a modern technologically advanced world. The first stage starts you off on a ship during a stormy night, then continues onto a dock and into a warehouse.
I don’t think I really need to go into detail on just how much this song adds to the atmosphere of the entire stage. You’re a ninja badass taking on the forces of an evil dictator who has taken over the United States of America. And what better way to start things off than to break into a warehouse on a stormy night?
Name: Burning Town
Game: Shantae (2002)
System: Game Boy Color
Composer: Jake Kaufman
This track is fire. Literally. It’s even in the title. See that? Burning? Ssssssssss~
The original Shantae was an example of a game that missed an opportunity and came out too late. It’s a game about a cute half-genie who fights the forces of a pirate queen with her hair whip, magic spells, belly dancing and animal transformations. This song plays during the introductory sequence, where Scuttle Town is under siege by the forces of the pirate Risky Boots.
The game, especially its soundtrack, was very impressive for the Game Boy Color. And this song playing throughout the tutorial stage shows just how hot the soundtrack is.
Name: Kinshicho – Kinshi Park
Game: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (2016)
System: Nintendo 3DS
Composer: Ryota Kozuka
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a turn-based RPG that I have mixed feelings about. The story and characters can be straight up childish at times. And the linear progression and lack of interesting side quests do bring down the sense of discovery and wonder I had with its predecessor, the original Shin Megami Tensei IV.
But I can’t deny that the area where you first fight demons puts me in a mood. The soundtracks of Shin Megami Tensei IV are phenomenal, and Apocalypse’s was no exception. Imagine entering a park trapped in an eternal night, with street lamps lighting the way and demons running amok. Pair that off with a soundtrack inspired by 1980s synthwave music (the kind you hear in a cyberpunk movie), and you can expect to have a chill time.
Name: Terran Theme 1
Game: StarCraft (1998)
Composer: Glenn Stafford
It’s no secret that StarCraft dominated the real-time strategy genre for a time, especially in the country of South Korea. It was so popular that it became something of a national sport. Or an e-sport, if you will.
As soon as you boot up this game and start the story from Episode I, you play as the Terrans (basically, humanity with a different title). This song kicks up and you can’t help but go, “Aw yeah! Let’s shoot some aliens!”
This song contains elements of progressive rock, country and ambient. It’s like something straight out of an old action/sci-fi movie and it gets you pumped for the challenges ahead. In fact, I’d nickname this song “Get Shit Done!” Because that’s what you’re going to be doing while it plays. You’re going to be building your SCVs, Marines, Medics, Siege Tanks, Battlecruisers! And of course, burn down some settlements a few miles away.
Name: Go Straight
Game: Streets of Rage 2 (1992)
System: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
Composer: Yuzo Koshiro
The Streets of Rage series is probably what you get when Double Dragon transitions into the ’90s. But instead of trying to rescue your girlfriend from some gangsters, you’re taking on a crime syndicate that has complete control of a city. And you’re playing as ex-cops taking to the urban streets to beat the shit out of punks and violent thugs.
And what kind of soundtrack you get from fighting in these brutal alleys? Bopping, pulsing techno that makes you want to dance! Yeah, enjoy the city night life as you smash a punk’s skull in with a steel pipe!
Name: Wreck of the Concepcion
Game: Treasures of the Deep (1997)
Composer: Tommy Tallarico
Treasures of the Deep is one of those underrated gems on the PlayStation, as it has never received any kind of followup or sequel. Hell, I’ve never seen a game try a similar concept since then! Basically, Treasures of the Deep is a vehicle simulator where you pilot a miniature submarine while killing pirates and fending off wildlife. Furthermore, you dive into the darkest depths of the oceans to find valuable treasures.
If you want a simple example on what the gameplay is like, imagine Ace Combat. However, you’re Indiana Jones and you’re underwater. And not gonna lie, this game did scare me quite a bit back in the day.
As for the song that plays in the first mission, it’s just a fantastic way to start up the game as you search for a sunken Spanish galleon in the Caribbean. What other video game do you know of has both calypso steel drums and Spanish guitar in a song?
….Exactly. It’s a unique specimen. And apparently, so is this game, which is a real shame because I would like to see more games done in this style.
Name: The Port of Adia
Game: Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (1998)
System: Nintendo 64, PC
Composer: Darren Mitchell
Turok 2 is a dark, grim first-person shooter that is borderline nihilistic and Lovecraftian. It’s not like its predecessor Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was all puppies and kittens either. But Jesus Christ, I remember how gruesome this game can get. It gives you that feeling that no matter what you do, there’s a greater cosmic threat waiting out there to undo every single one of your accomplishments. Even though the protagonist Joshua Fireseed is tasked to defend the world, he is still one man against many horrifying monsters.
And it really shows from the very first level you play, the Port of Adia. It’s a large walled city invaded by dinosaur-alien hybrids out to exterminate humanity. And Lord knows what they’ll do with all those little girls they kidnapped…
The theme of the Port of Adia is a powerful piece of music that demonstrates humanity struggling to survive against a more powerful race of intelligent creatures. Creatures far stronger than an average human and can wield alien weaponry with ease. But it’s just the beginning, for there are far greater threats ahead…
Name: Pushing Onwards
Game: VVVVVV (2010)
System: PC, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch
Composer: Magnus Pålsson
Six V’s in total. That’s how you know the name of the game. VVVVVV looks like something that you’d see from a gaming computer from the 1980s, such as the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. But its presentation definitely shows that of a modern indie game. It comes to show that the simple pixel art isn’t just a sign of age; it can also be used as a primary art style.
Imagine techno music. Now make it sound like chiptunes from old 8-bit games. That’s what the entirety of VVVVVV sounds like. And by god, did it do wonders to keep you playing. This is a tough game where you will die A LOT, but the catchy music is well worth the punishing difficulty. This particular level theme also plays in an area where the most difficult “shiny object” is located, so chances are that you have listened to this one song for 30 minutes straight just trying to get the damn thing!
Name: Desert Zone 1
Game: Warhawk (1995)
There are times when I feel that the soundtrack of Warhawk for the original PlayStation is far better than the game actually deserved. Or it’s possible that the boisterous nature of the soundtrack fits with the hokey premise of a madman gaining ultimate power and trying to conquer the world.
It’s not like the game itself is bad, but it did age like sour milk in some respects. For one thing, it still used password saves and couldn’t use a memory card. That’s how old we’re talking about.
But to be fair for a moment, this is a PS1 game released in 1995. In North America, it released shortly after the PS1’s launch. So yeah, this game’s pretty damn dated.
While Warhawk is a short game and it can be really frustrating at times, it managed to have a powerful soundtrack that would rival action movie soundtracks at the time. In fact, it sounded like it could be lifted straight from Star Wars. That is quite a feat from a 1995 video game, now forgotten by time.
Name: Colony 9
Game: Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
System: Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
In a setting where people literally live on the bodies of giants, there is life and civilization. In the vast open-world wilderness of the Bionis is a small human colony, filled with strange animals, giant bugs, powerful beasts and humans with thick English accents. And tutorials. Lots and lots of tutorials.
But at least the music is fantastic enough to help you work through the tedium. This intricate and lively song helps set the stage for the rest of Xenoblade Chronicles, complete with acoustic guitar, violins, accordion, piano and pan flutes. It’s the beginning of a (very) long and eventful journey.