Favorite Video Game Soundtracks Pt. 1: Danny Baranowsky

It’s no surprise that the composer behind my most-played video game ever (besides League of Legends); the Binding of Isaac; is the first person that comes to mind, when I think of genius video game soundtracks. For the past 9-10 years, Danny Baranowsky has been at the forefront of indie-game music. From his start on Team Meat, with Super Meat Boy; to his involvement with the first release of the Binding of Isaac; and finally, to his recent cooperation with Nintendo on Cadence of Hyrule, he’s consistently created amazing work. In fact, I don’t know of a single soundtrack he’s been involved with, that is not fantastic. He made the soundtrack to a mobile Rocky-inspired game, that I haven’t listened to much of, but the parts I have enjoyed the parts that I’ve heard.

Because he’s worked mainly with indie developers, with more retro-inspired styles, a lot of his compositions take after old, 8 to 64-bit pieces. However, he often uses very intense and epic, well-produced, rock and roll, or even orchestral sections. Each and every one of these soundtracks I’m about to discuss features a little bit of everything. For example, Super Meat Boy is primarily guitar and drum-driven; however, it is mainly composed of electronic sounds; either mimicking these instruments, or accompanying them. On top of that; each main overworld theme comes with a “RETRO” version (which has to do with the design of the game as well, but…) that takes either an 8 or 16-bit form.

For these reasons, and many others, I find Danny Baranowsky to be one of the more flexible, and tenured composers in the indie genre, but also in the big picture of video game music. I think most people would find his work to be enjoyable; particularly in the game; but outside as well. As everyone is probably aware; music can play a pivotal role in the environment and overall quality of a video game, much like a score for a movie or musical does. However, to me, it does so more than a score, because it sets the pace and tone for the gameplay itself, immerses you within the game, and creates emotion that is lacking in a lot of narratives.

For example, in none of the games Danny has composed for, has dialogue taken much, if any, focus. These indie game are almost entirely centered around the gameplay. This take on game development is fine, but without dialogue, there needs to be something else to fill the void, or no emotion will be brought forth while playing the game. This is where the genius soundtracks take the stage, and put all of the pieces together. This differs from most movies, because creative usage of cinematography, acting, and writing can portray emotion and immerse people. There are simply more tools in the tool-belt, to help create the environments and messages desired.

So without further ado, I would like to go over most of Danny’s scores: why they are so good (first within the game, and then even potentially, outside of it) certain tracks that help illustrate this (or even ones I just particularly enjoy); and finally, why these things help make the scores, and the man himself, noteworthy.

Super Meat Boy

Speed and intensity are the names of the game, when it comes to Super Meat Boy; and the soundtrack exemplifies that to an extreme extent. It’s a high-octane platformer, famous for its difficulty, and relentlessness. It never gives up; and neither does the music. As I said before, the tracks are often driven by rock-esque instrumentals, and it’s certainly easy to see Danny took a lot of influence from harsher, maybe even metal genres while making this. The beats are hard, and fast, granting you much needed energy and focus, as you maneuver through endless saws and enemies.

But it’s not just the speed and volume of the tracks that are impressive and fitting. Much like good metal, they’re filled with amazing compositions and melodies. In many ways, mindless punk could back the video game, and it’d be perfect as far as simply accompanying the gameplay. However, it’s the catchy and unique qualities of the individual tracks that make it so enjoyable, in and out of the game.

The popularity of the game would signal that people enjoy it; but most of the game ends up being constant death and repetition; so why would that be? I personally think it’s the soundtrack that gives in the liveliness necessary for people to keep going, and not consistently rage quit. It has a brightness to it, much like an old, SNES Mario score. A good example of this can be found on “Fast Track to Browntown” (yes, the titles are interesting). Its vigor is complimented by its bouncy, almost danceable qualities, making it just as fun as it is head-banging. He tends to add a lot of electro-funk elements to make it more interesting, and less bland, or anxiety-inducing.

Overall, the soundtrack is packed to the brim with fast, hard, but most-of-all, enjoyable tracks. The level design and gameplay are both infamous for their borderline-masochistic qualities, and the music provides ample background to this, with its never-ending energy. The only breaths you can take are during simple, quick intros toward the beginning of certain overworld themes. But as I said; it’s not suffocating. Its vibrance makes it fun to play and listen to.

This being towards the beginning of the recent indie-revolution, inspired many OSTs after it, such as Undertale. And for those of you who enjoy that game’s score, I imagine you’d enjoy a listen to SMB’s as well. Many of the tracks are very reminiscent of “Megalovania,” and other boss themes. It doesn’t quite have the emotional dichotomy, and flexibility of Undertale, due to its narrative being pretty simplistic, and forward-moving, but I don’t think Toby Fox could do what he did without Danny’s work coming first. The only criticism one may have, from the outside, is that it lacks contrast, but if you play Super Meat Boy, you’ll realize there isn’t much of that needed, if any. I think it’s one of, if not the best indie-game soundtracks ever created, and would recommend anyone listen to it; as well as buy the game! If you play video games, of course.

Favorite Track(s): “Forest Funk,” “The Battle of Lil’ Slugger,” “C.H.A.D.’s Lullaby”

The Binding of Isaac (and its Expansions)

After a strong, and power-filled debut with Team Meat, on Super Meat Boy, Danny once again worked with Edmund McMillen on his next creation: the Binding of Isaac. This apparently began as a short side-project, but it quickly turned into maybe Edmund and Danny’s most well-known and received product.

While the intensity is certainly there in Isaac, from both a game design, and accompaniment standpoint, the fast pace and aesthetic have calmed down quite a bit. There are certainly similar influences on the tracks, providing a solid amount of that metal-based sound, and using comparable instruments/tools, but the music itself is quite a bit different. Instead of being a relentless force, consistently moving forward, Danny definitely took a step back to provide more of an encompassing experience, and create a new, much more subtle world. This of course isn’t entirely based upon Danny’s preferences; and probably had a lot to do with Edmund’s say; but nonetheless, the end-product is an entirely different journey, bringing with it the contrast I said the previous soundtrack could potentially be lacking.

Once again, Danny’s influences certainly run back to early console, and arcade games as well. Certain songs like “$4cR1f1c14I_” show off his chip-tune skills and inspirations, for sure. But many tracks on the Binding of Isaac don’t feature these old styles, or the same rock and roll, guitar and drums style of music from Super Meat Boy either. Instead, they focus on more orchestral elements. There are several piano and string parts layered throughout just about every track: as an example, listen to “Divine Combat.” The melodies are just as catchy, and there is an intensity to it, but you’ll notice a lot more breaths of fresh air throughout. It’s a slow, building strength rather than a blunt and in-your-face one. “Peace Be With You,” is basically just a slow, and soft alternation of the same 4 chords, for 2 entire minutes; something you would’ve never seen on SMB.

This stylistic change can be boiled down, potentially, to the thematic change, to a more religious-related setting and story. The narrative is a bit more evolved this time, and portraying the feelings and emotions that come with Isaac in this environment are a bit more important. There are actually vocal parts for the first time ever (I don’t know if they’re actual vocals, or mimics using technology) that imitate hymns you might here in a choir. And you’ll also notice a crap ton of echo effects, simulating the sounds you might experience in a tunnel, because Isaac is slowly journeying through the underground. As a whole, the collection of songs on here is incredibly different in its style, aesthetic, and emotions from Super Meat Boy; going from a rock-filled, high-octane bonanza, to a more tame, ballad-filled, religion-infused epic.

But as I said, it’s still very much a Danny Baranowsky product. Boss themes, like “My Innermost Apocalypse,” (which to me, is maybe the best song on this tracklist) are definitely very similar to the boss themes in his previous work. However, they’re a bit more complex, sampling previous tracks on the soundtrack, and layering a lot more things in general. That electronic and funky elements are there as well, just hidden between certain other pieces. The beginning of “Repentant” is just several synth chords, with a fast and glitchy beat behind it.

As a whole, I think Isaac gives exactly what someone would potentially be missing from the Super Meat Boy soundtrack; contrast in each and every way. It’s less one dimensional, and therefore more complex and interesting to listen to; at least all the way through. However, I don’t know if it’d be as enjoyable as Super Meat Boy’s OST, outside of the game itself, as it features a lot of ambient music, that isn’t as actively entertaining. But if you’re into ambient music, I think you’d like Isaac’s tracklist quite a lot. In my opinion, this is the best soundtrack Danny has ever created; juuuuust above SMB. The sheer length, flexibility and world-building it provides all combine to make it more impressive than anything else.

Favorite Track(s): “The Binding of Isaac,” “Sacrificial,” “Enmity of the Dark Lord,” “Atonement,” “Latter Days,” “My Innermost Apocalypse”

Crypt of the Necrodancer

I believe I have previously mentioned Danny’s usage of electo-funk, and other, similar dance music. Well, in the third large entrance on his resume, he is allowed to fully explore that sound, in its entirety.

Crypt of the Necrodancer; as you can probably tell by its clever title; is all about dance beats and rhythms. Its clever gameplay element is that you actually have to rely on the music to guide you through the battles; forcing you to move at the beat of each track; which changes on each consecutive floor. So as opposed to the music guiding the emotion of the game; as it did in the past two; it guides the actual motion of it as well.

This addition to the role of the music, forces Mr. Baranowsky to bring back the consistent intensity once again; giving it a bit more of that nonstop, punchy feel of Super Meat Boy. However, instead of sticking to a super hefty, in-your-face style of things, he brings out the liveliness in full force. As the aesthetic of Necrodancer’s cover, the game itself, and even the song names (like “Disco Descent”) might tell you; its main influences lie in electronic and disco, rather than rock and roll. While a few of those pieces still lie, hidden amongst the overall tracklist, they’re much less prevalent. Instrumentals are almost entirely electronic (mainly made up of synths and artificial beats); with the exception of those few metal-infused tracks, featuring FamilyJules7x (another incredibly talented musician I’ve followed for a while) on guitar. Similarly to the Binding of Isaac, this stylistic change is obviously due to the design changes within the game he’s accompanying; but the fact that he can make it at just as high of a quality, within an entirely different genre, is certainly impressive.

The tracks are probably the most melodic, fun, and accessible out of all of his soundtracks, making it the most enjoyable outside of the game itself. I would say this is true due to Super Meat Boy’s more straight-forward approach, and Isaac’s reliance on the game environment giving context to the music. But I would also say it’s my least favorite. This is for a few reasons. First, it’s simply within the game that I have least-played out of these three, so I’ve had the least experience with it. Second, I think its production quality is weirdly the worst out of his works. There seems to be a weird, almost-cloudy film over the top, making the sounds less crisp than any other. And third; I think it’s the least favorite of mine stylistically. It’s very similar to Super Meat Boy, as I said, but I’m a slightly bigger fan of rock and roll than disco. So most of this just comes down to personal preference.

Overall, the quality of the tracks is just as impressive as any other. As I said earlier, Danny doesn’t really have any failures that I’m aware of, and everything he makes is fantastic. So this is no exception. If anything, this is his most impressive creation; as the role of the music is so much bigger than his past two. And despite being my least favorite; I think this would be the one I would recommend the most to listen to, on its own. They’re fun. Most of these you could probably hear at a club or a rave and not even have a clue that they were from a video game.

Favorite Track(s): “Disco Descent,” “Stone Cold,” “The Wight to Remain,” “Deep Sea Bass”

More

Image result for cadence of hyrule soundtrack

His newest cooperation with Nintendo; Cadence of Hyrule; has received numerous amounts of praise, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Following in the footsteps as the aforementioned game; Crypt of the Necrodancer; Cadence has the exact same game elements, only this time he’s working with already-existing masterpieces of video game music. However, I haven’t played the game to give my full analysis on everything. Particularly with how it fits into the game itself. But hearing some of the tracks, I would say it’s pretty great, and if you’re a fan of Zelda, I would certainly say to check it out. And from the bit that I have listened to, I have given my few favorite tracks.

Favorite Track(s): “Main Menu,” “Gerudo Valley (Combat),” “Death Mountain (Peaceful)”

Final Thoughts

Danny is my shining example of a genius indie composer. I can’t think of anyone more worthy of a highlight than him. His work with different teams, different games, and different styles shows his enormous skill and flexibility as an artist; by maintaining his amazing quality. He somehow seems to meld his personality into each project he works on, while maintaining its strong relevance to whatever it’s accompanying. And Cadence of Hyrule shows just how true that is; taking old works that everyone knows, and making them his own. I would recommend a listen to everything this man has created, and probably will create.

Stay tuned for more video game soundtrack thoughts/highlights, coming soon!

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