Lately, all of the pop culture I consumed as a kid is being reimagined in new and sometimes terrible ways. But for every weird Sonic or Fresh Genie Prince there is a feminist sisterhood She-ra and a spectacularly campy Sabrina The Teenage Witch. So rather than participating in melodramatic wailing about “ruined childhoods,” this nostalgia boom is instead inspiring me to look back fondly on the nineties, a time when I spent days laying on my belly with a Sour Patch Straw dangling out of my mouth battling Majora, moving through time as Crono, or trying desperately to prevent Sonic from drowning at the bottom of the Aquatic Ruins Zone. The music featured in these games has stuck with me, but replaying some of my old favorites, I’ve rediscovered some more obscure soundtracks from the era that you, like me, might have forgotten.
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1. ToeJam & Earl and ToeJam & Earl: Panic on Funkotron (1991 & 1993)
The first groundbreaking installment of Sega’s ToeJam & Earl was a rogue-lite adventure game to which many other open world games owe a considerable debt. The first game allowed two players to wander across Earth searching for endless prizes and experiences. The sequel returns the titular aliens, tri-pedal alien worm ToeJam and his best buddy Earl to their home planet of Funkotron. Panic on Funkotron was a more genre-friendly platformer and something of a disappointment to many who loved the first game’s cooperative split-screen and open world wandering. But the Herbie-Hancock-Meets-G-Funk soundtrack can be found in both games, and it slaps.
For most of Funkotron, a mellow bass plunks along as you amble across the planet past alien flora and fauna capturing unruly humans in jars, but one of my favorite features in this game (and all games) is when the soundtrack picks up speed to create a sense of urgency as you are rushing to complete a timed task. For this game, the tempo change manifests in a blistering speed run bonus level known as the Hyper Funk Zone. Here, the game’s chill groove is replaced by a frenetic hi-hat and what can only be described as a Peter Frampton-inspired whammy bar.
ToeJam & Earl’s soundtracks were shaped in tandem with the early days of the new wave of hip-hop. The composer John Baker contributed music to other games like Slam City with Scottie Pippen, and returned to Funkotron in 2019 with the music for the teaser trailer for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove. It is no coincidence that Toejam and Earl came out the same year as Warren G’s pivotal “Regulate…G Funk Era.” It seems g-funk transcended the West Coast, made a pit stop in the living rooms of suburbs and cities across America, and flew beyond our galaxy to the planet of Funkotron.
2. Puggsy (1993)
I guess aliens were constantly crash-landing their ships in the nineties? Puggsy, the titular little orange bugger with some sweet sneakers (if you entered the cheat code), crashed his spaceship onto a mysterious island full of imaginative levels featuring steampunk set pieces like Racrock Forge, Splinter Town and Badger Mill. Developed by Liverpool-based Psygnosis, Puggsy was the thinking kid’s side scroller with plenty of complex puzzles and items you had to carry and use. Psygnosis made a smart marketing move in the nineties, investing in visual designer Roger Dean to create gorgeous and elaborate box art to grab the eyes of kids like me boggled by a wall of games at Software Etc. or Blockbuster.
Puggsy features one of my favorite game soundtracks of all time, with compositions that are expertly paired to each level. From the calypso steel drum of the opening on The Beach to the sweeping darkwave-inspired sound of levels like Darkblade Forest, Puggsy is one of the forgotten gems of the early nineties. The composer, Matt Furniss, has a prolific resume with some other nineties classics and deep cuts including the Alien games, The Incredible Crash Dummies, the arrangements for Mortal Kombat II, and a game that I have never heard of called Hard Drivin’ II: Drive Harder, which I must find and play because the name is so stupid it can’t possibly be real.
3. Ecco The Dolphin (1992)
Easily the best game ever featuring time travelling sea mammals, the music of Ecco The Dolphin was inspired by Pink Floyd because of course it was. This title was one of the truly original games of the nineties, taking on the traditional platformer, adding fluid dolphin mechanics and setting it to a sonic landscape that immersed the player in this undersea world. The creator explained in an interview marking the game’s 20th anniversary that in order to capture the sound he was searching for in each level he would get in a room with the composer and play through each level while listening to the Pink Floyd songs he felt reflected the spirit of that stage. The most difficult level is even named “Welcome to the Machine” in an overt nod to Pink Floyd.
The score was composed by Spencer Nilsen, who also did the soundtrack for the Sega Mega- CD version of Batman Returns, another exceptional game of this era. A best seller at the time, Ecco’s fortunes have faded since the 90s, but Ecco the Dolphin is a game that I can play right now and still find enjoyable and difficult. The music goes beyond ambiance and sounds integral to the story. Also, fans of Ecco definitely grew up to be the first of their friend group to dabble with experimental drugs.
4. Aaahh! Real Monsters (1995)
Based on the Nickelodeon television series, Aaahh! Real Monsters followed the exploits of three student monsters, Ickis, Oblina and Krumm, and their principal The Gromble, a drag-inspired headmaster in heels and one of the most overtly queer-coded characters in a children’s cartoon I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The spectacular, Burton-esque intro theme for the show was composed by Drew Neumann (who also composed the music for MTV’s Aeon Flux animated series and a few episodes of the short-lived Re/Visioned: Tomb Raider Animated Series) and the spirit of Neumann’s sound is retained in the Aaahhh! Real Monsters’ game score by composer Greg Turner. This is a soundscape that swoops between nightmare lullaby and eerie carnival that will steal your soul.
The game is your standard mid-nineties scavenger hunt/platformer, with imaginative levels bolstered by compositions featuring big brass, tinkling pianos and windy flutes. The music of the Natural History Museum level is one of my favorites, creeping along to match the “night at the museum” vibe. The thing that stands out the most in this game is the sound effects, also by Greg Turner — they’re fantastic, evoking the foley artist skills of the animated series and the TV intro itself, which was sprinkled with effects like a creaking door, a slamming piano, and skittering cockroaches. Like most mid-nineties platform games, the gameplay eventually becomes repetitive, but the emphasis on effects and the great music makes Aaahh! Real Monsters an enjoyable and nostalgic playthrough.
5. Comix Zone (1995)
It is such a shame that Comix Zone didn’t become a massive Sega franchise like it deserved. In addition to the fantastic storyline, great characters, unique graphics, and punchy gameplay (complete with two possible endings), my original cartridge came with a uniquely nineties perk, a free CD! The American Records Sampler included my introduction to Danzig, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Beastie Boys ripoff Lordz of Brooklyn, whose appearance on this CD and in another video game, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, could be considered a prelude of the terrible rap-rock era we were so unprepared for. I’m not blaming Lordz of Brooklyn for Limp Bizkit… but… yes I am. They’re so bad that in a 1997 episode of Beavis and Butthead the two call them out for being derivative of House of Pain. Little did they know…the nineties had not even BEGUN to define what it meant to be derivative! See the downward spiral: Nirvana (great!) to Silverchair (ok, good I guess) to Puddle of Mudd (Stop.)
In addition, Comix Zone was featured in the short lived Sega Tunes CD series, which added some grungey instrumentation and painfully generic anthemic rock lyrics to the existing score. Comix Zone’s soundtrack had gritty, cyberpunk Trent Reznor vibes, and there was something deeply satisfying about punching through the comic book pages to the music as Sketch travelled from platform to platform, stomping aliens in his Doc Martens while his mullet ponytail blew in the wind. You can listen to the songs from the free CD that came with Comix Zone here.
6. Perfect Dark (2000)
Though not as obscure as the previous games on the list, Perfect Dark is often overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, GoldenEye 007. Perfect Dark was the spiritual successor of the iconic Bond game, and it truly pushed to the bleeding edge of the genre, debuting a more recognizable format for modern shooters with now-standard features like an advanced HUD and the expansion of multiplayer options beyond deathmatch to include objective based games like capture the flag. While Perfect Dark mirrored many of the gameplay elements from GoldenEye, it offered a graphically superior game, and true to its name, featured a dark and moody soundtrack to match the stark, futuristic design elements. While GoldenEye had the luxury of working with John Barry’s iconic theme song, Perfect Dark started from scratch, and with the help of its Dolby surround sound capabilities, delivered some incredibly atmospheric music.
The Carrington Institute level epitomizes the Perfect Dark aural experience, setting a heartbeat rhythm as you creep through a spectacularly difficult stealth mission. I also love the music for Chicago, a hardboiled jazztronica beat with big, mournful horns that nod to Chicago blues, perfect for tackling objectives in ghostly lit streets of Chinatown. The soundtrack was composed by Grant Kirkhope of Banjo-Kazooie fame, and featured pieces by Graeme Norgate, who wrote the music for GoldenEye. Also, Joanna Dark is voiced by video game music composer Eveline Fischer, who composed the soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong 64.
Love videogame tunes? Add your favorites to my collaborative Spotify playlist and play forever!