Now there’s a ballsy title. “Greatest” by what metric?

Don’t get me wrong; on the whole, I’ve enjoyed both volumes of “The Greatest Video Game Music” by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But that title always irked me. Sure, you have the classics like “Super Mario” and “Zelda”, but does “Modern Warfare 2” really need to be included?

I suppose it’s a simpler, easier-to-market title than “A Selection of Popular Themes from a Variety of Video Games”.  I have plenty of favorites from both, but a few made me scratch my head why they were even considered.

You needn’t have played the games to enjoy the Philharmonic’s covers of their music. With many of the modern selections, there’s not much distinction between the OST and the orchestral arrangement, so you’re not missing much.The Greatest VGM Vol 2

Speaking of covers, the album art is… perplexing. On the Vol. 1 cover, the soldier on cello was appropriate for the abundance of war-related game music. But Vol. 2 doesn’t have any tracks from modern shooters like “Battlefield” and “Call of Duty”.

I have a feeling it was more a calculated marketing decision than an artistic reflection of the album. I mean, just look at the “stoic badass” trend in current gen box art. I can see how non-gamers might confuse this for a military-themed album. In fairness, there could have been difficulty securing the rights to show specific games, characters, or hardware. Give the dude from CoDBLOPS2 a trombone and call it a day.

In any case, it’s not like you’re buying the album on vinyl (only hipsters do that, silly), so the art isn’t a big deal. What’s important is the quality of the music. I don’t know enough about mastering and production to tell you if the sound quality is good; there certainly wasn’t anything that stood out, for better or worse.

  • Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – Main Theme
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Far Horizons
  • The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker – Dragon Roost Island
  • Final Fantasy VII – One-Winged Angel
  • Mass Effect 3 – A Future for the Krogan/An End Once And For All
  • Halo – Never Forget/Peril
  • Sonic the Hedgehog – A Symphonic Suite
  • Chrono Trigger – Main Theme
  • Luigi’s Mansion – Main Theme
  • Kingdom Hearts – Fate of the Unknown
  • Super Metroid – A Symphonic Poem
  • Diablo III – Overture
  • Batman: Arkham City – Main Theme
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Icarus Main Theme
  • Fez – Adventure
  • Portal – Still Alive
  • Little Big Planet – Orb Of Dreamers (The Cosmic Imagisphere)

While I enjoyed many tracks, it’s disingenuous to say this album is comprised of “the Greatest”. Not only is that a highly subjective term, but not all the tracks have had time to enter the fabric of our culture the way classic games have. I think we latch onto the old Nintendo and Sega game music because they are our oldest, fondest gaming memories.  There’s also the simplistic elegance of the 8-bit and 16-bit style; they had to be tight and catchy, because you’d be listening to it for hours on end.

Where the “Greatest” albums really shine is their take on the classics. Old chiptunes provide a very solid base to start from, allowing for more flourish and interpretation. Not to say modern game music is without merit, but it can easily get too dense and ponderous. I think the “Call of Duty” themes from the first album, and “Mass Effect 3” in Vol. 2 suffer from this.

Unlike the past, 20-odd years of games in the series, “Sonic the Hedgehog: a Symphonic Suite” is just plain delightful. I currently have it in my “Minecraft” playlist that I listen to while crafting and dodging Creepers. It’s diverse and cheery, a pleasant change of pace from the dreary war themes from the first volume (“God of War”, “Call of Duty”, “Battlefield 2”).

I was really excited to see “Super Metroid: a Symphonic Poem”, because I loved the “Metroid” series’ music. Seriously, when I attended Video Games Live a few years back, I literally cried when they did a “Metroid” suite. It’s an excellent medley of the main theme and various levels like Brinstar. As awesome as this track is, I was really hoping for orchestral arrangements of Lower Norfair  and Ridley’s Theme/Boss Battle, but I guess there’s always Vol. 3 for that. Not the nerdgasm it could have been, but I’ll take it.

Who doesn’t love “Still Alive”? It might have been played to death and meme-ified in 2007, but it’s still a great song (I have the Jonathan Coulton mix in my Rock Alternative playlist). But I’m sad to report that the Philharmonic just didn’t do it justice.

For one thing, it isn’t really all that orchestral. There’s a vocalist, percussion, and a few instruments, but nothing really new or different. It sounds… weak, like a cover an aspiring artist posted on YouTube. I’m really disappointed how phoned-in this one was.

It pains me to say that everything in between these highs and lows is a resounding Meh. Make no mistake; this is a cover album, and a competent one at that. However, there isn’t enough differentiation between these versions and the originals to make TGVGM2 anything special. Not to impugn the skill and professionalism of the London Philharmonic, but it’s almost like listening to a college orchestra covering John Williams. Good, but pale in comparison.

I feel the same when listening to remixes from OC Remix (warning: if you haven’t been there before, prepare to spend a few hours browsing, trust me). Most are weak and uninspired, but there are a few nuggets of musical genius. To me, the whole point of covering music is to give it a unique twist. Simply imitating it is a waste of effort when a superior version already exists.

If you’re even remotely interested in video game music, “The Greatest Video Game Music” albums are still a worthwhile purchase. At $5.99, they’re a great price, and are easily available on iTunes and Amazon. I just wish they had been a bit more ambitious.