Music can change a tense moment into a full-on stress-crying session. Whether it’s a repetitive drone, a melancholy cacophony of sound, or simply the original tune but at hyper speeds, you can easily hear when the game is about to take a turn for the worst. Below are my Top Ten instances of anxiety-inducing music in video games! As a fun comparison, I’ve included the general key centers for each tune as well as their specific tempos. Will we notice any similarities? Let’s find out!
10)Increasing Tempo of Space Invaders (Arcade 1978)
Key: A minor
Starting Tempo = 70 bpm
Space Invaders was one of the first games, if not THE first, to use music during gameplay that would not only establish a mood, but it would also interact seamlessly with the player based on what was happening on the screen. As more and more enemy ships are destroyed, the tempo of the music increases with the speed of the remaining baddies. Games prior to Space Invaders would generally only have a short musical intro at the start of the game and maybe some music on the game over screen (the original Donkey Kong is a great example of this). If it weren’t for the brilliant mind of game designer Tomohiro Nishikado, games might not have incorporated these musical elements, and I wouldn’t have been able to come up with this Top Ten list!
9)Endless Stairs – Super Mario 64 (N64 1996)
Key: C minor-ish
Tempo = 190 bpm
You’ve collected 50 stars and you’re ready for the third floor of Peach’s castle! But what’s this? Another star door? And you need 70 stars??? Hey, wait a second… it opened anyway! Wow! You can beat the game early!!!! Hold up…..what….are these….stairs??!?! OMG THEY ARE INSANITY.
If you try to run up the endless stairs with fewer than 70 stars, you will never reach the top unless you know some fancy tricks. The music that accompanies your never-ending journey to the not-top is this weird chromatic line that seems to be cycling higher and higher driving you closer and closer to the edge of madness. You know what? Maybe you should just go get those 70 stars before you need to be committed.
8)Ground Theme (Hurry Up!) – Super Mario Bros. (NES 1985)
Key: C major
Tempo = 300 bpm when sped up
100 seconds left!!! When the music in Mario speeds up, it’s time for you to speed up, too! When I was a kid, it was pretty common for me to hear the “Hurry Up” music as I plodded through levels not yet fully understanding the function of the B button. I’m certain that as soon as the music sped up, I would immediately jump into a pit from the added tension. This was definitely my first experience with anxiety-inducing video game music, and I’m sure the same can be said for many of you!
7)Theme A – Tetris (NES 1984)
Key: C# minor
Tempo = 300 bpm when sped up
Interestingly, the music from Tetris has an extensive history! According to an article from tetris.com, the theme is actually called “Korobeiniki (the Russian word for peddlers), and it was initially created as a poem by Nikolay Nekrasov in 1861.” So, now I know who to blame for the sweating when my blocks start to get a little too close to the top.
6)Chozo Ghost Battle – Metroid Prime (Gamecube 2002)
Key: C minor-ish
Tempo = 160 bpm
I never played Metroid Prime (sadly) so I can’t speak to my own experiences about this music. BUT, when searching the comments section of a walkthrough video, a lot of people had something to say about their trauma with these sections of the game. Here are a few of my favorites:
5)Encounter – Metal Gear Solid (Playstation 1998)
Key: A minor
Tempo = 142 bpm
Snake… Snake… Snaaaaaaake! After painstakingly sneaking around for way longer than you would have liked, someone finally noticed that you’re not “just a box,” and now your cover is blown! Depending on your location in Metal Gear Solid, this can prove to be a disastrous mistake that will have enemies swarming all over you within seconds. Or, if you’re lucky, the AI can be really dumb and not be able to see you hiding just around the corner. If that happens, congrats! You just have to wait for this song to finish, and you can start stealthing around again!
4)Escape Theme – Final Fantasy IV (SNES 1991)
Key: E major
Tempo = 162 bpm
If you’re hearing this music, then something CRAZY is surely happening. One of my favorite moments from the DS version of the game is where Cid ::SPOILERS:: sacrifices himself so the group can escape from the underworld. See it for yourself here. Final Fantasy IV is one of my favorite games of all time, and I’ve written about it quite extensively already (for example, check out my Moons in Games article!). The classic soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu has certainly added to my love for the series. His music is perfect for tugging at our heartstrings, invigorating our excitement, or, of course, building our anxiety.
3)SA-X Approaches – Metroid Fusion (GBA 2002)
Key: E minor
Tempo = 120 bpm
Nightmares. Have you ever had a nightmare where you’re hiding in your room and there’s a monster or a bad person who is looking for you and you’re positive they’re going to find you? That’s what this theme invokes. I never thought a 2D Metroid game would be able to instill so much fear, but when I heard the footsteps of the SA-X heading my way along with the dull drone of this music, I knew I needed to make sure I had a pair of clean pants nearby.
Fun fact – one of the game’s composers, Minako Hamano, did the voice of the warning announcements in the game!
2)Guardian Music – Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch 2017)
Key: B minor
Tempo = 186 bpm
You’re calmly running through the expansive lands of Hyrule, taking in nature, picking up some wild fruits, and eyeing up a potential horse to steal when all of a sudden…. ::HIGH TINKLING PIANO PITCHES!!!!:: A red dot has appeared on your back and if you don’t move NOW, you’ll be blasted into oblivion! One of the most terrifying things about encountering a Guardian in Breath of the Wild is how quickly they’re able to run up to you and ruin your life. For a good majority of the game, Link is too weak to take on these mechanical nuisances. So, hearing this music usually results in a game over until much later in the game (unless you happen to get really good at parrying). Breath of the Wild is known for using its music sparingly and mostly as ambient nods to your surroundings. But when this music begins, you know it’s business.
As a side note, I think it’s interesting that this piece of music is the only track on the entire list that’s in 3/4 time!
Jason Attacks – Friday the 13th (NES 1989)
Music notes: F moves to A while a D minor diad moves up and down by half step…
1)Drowning Music – Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis 1991)
Key: C minor (C in octaves moving to D in octaves)
Tempo = starts at about 150 bpm before immediately speeding up
I’m done. I can’t hate this music enough. The underwater sections of Sonic the Hedgehog gave me so much anxiety that I wouldn’t even want to play the game. I swear, I avoided this series (not just because I didn’t have a Sega) because I didn’t want to have to deal with the everlasting dread of drowning. Furthermore, how many times have you been standing right next to where an air bubble is SUPPOSED to appear only to be shafted by the gods of oxygen? Truly, the Sonic Drowning music is the most anxiety-inducing video game music of all time!
Do you agree with my choices? What are some pieces in other games that have given you anxiety? Let me know in the comments! Also, be sure to subscribe to my blog via e-mail to get posts delivered directly to your inbox!