Earworms I Have Known and Loved But Mostly Hated
I'm unsettled by the term "earworm," as it conjures that scene from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" where the mind-control eel tunnels into Chekov's brain through his ear. But that's what earworms do. They're annoying songs that burrow into your mind and refuse to be shaken loose.
Videogames provide an ideal habitat for an earworm. They have many hours to fill, and in earlier decades, memory constraints meant that songs couldn't be too elaborate. The upshot: repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Put a song with a catchy (and/or grating) tune on a loop, and it's no surprise that it sticks with you. Here are a few songs -- some beloved, some reviled -- that are chiseled into my gray matter for life.
Bayonetta: Hiroshi Yamaguchi, "Fly Me to the Moon"
The song that inspired this piece. I was stunned to learn that the Bayonetta soundtrack spans five CDs, as it felt like I spent 90 percent of this game listening to a single track, this J-pop cover of "Fly Me to the Moon." The first few times you hear it, this is a fun version of the song that Quincy Jones turned into a hit for Frank Sinatra. After the 150th rendition or so, its bubbly, tinkly sound prompts hallucinations of rage. I really did want to fly Bayonetta to the moon, so she would die of asphyxiation and nobody would have to hear her theme song ever again. Anyway, click this little YouTube bar to hear her theme song!
SSX Tricky: Run D.M.C., "It's Tricky"
Here's another case where a fine recording has been turned into tooth-grinding agony by misuse in a game. SSX and its sequels were rightly praised for their soundtracks, but the turntablists made a serious misstep when they decided to make the chorus of "It's Tricky" start up every single time you filled up your power meter. Thanks to SSX Tricky, the song's refrain has been popping up on my cranial jukebox for the last decade, screaming those brilliant lyrics: "It's Tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time / It's Tricky ... it's Tricky (Tricky) Tricky (Tricky)." It's tricky, and the game is called Tricky! Get it? DO YOU GET IT?
Final Fantasy X: Nobuo Uematsu, "Battle Theme"
After serving as the main Final Fantasy maestro for more than a decade, Nobuo Uematsu was ready to pass the baton by the time Final Fantasy X was made. This was his last battle theme, a driving melody that consists mainly of variations of the first eight-note phrase. In hundreds of hours of FFX, I heard this song countless times, and it still makes me smile. That should tell you why Uematsu is a legend.
Katamari Damacy: Yu Miyake [composer], "Katamari Nah-Nah"
You might have noticed by now that most of the games on this list have pretty good soundtracks, and Katamari Damacy's indie Japanese tunes might be the best. That doesn't mean I was happy to find myself humming these a-capella bars for weeks after I'd moved on (or so I thought) to other games.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village: Tomohito Nishiura, "Puzzles"
On the Professor Layton soundtrack, this song is called "Puzzles," but it should rightfully be called "Sweet Mother of Christ, How Do I Get That Red Ball to the Other Side of This Freaking Box?" Though he seems like a friendly sort, this song is Professor Layton's way of turning the psychological screws. You'll do anything to solve his puzzle and keep any more of this song from whimpering out of the DS' tinny sound system.
Tecmo Super Bowl (SNES): Pre-Game Theme
I have spent more time playing Tecmo Super Bowl on the Super Nintendo than any other videogame. My close relationship with my cousin is founded on the many seasons of Tecmo we've played together. And because we have a tendency to leave the game on its menu screen while we grab snacks, I find this song elicits a Pavlovian response compelling me to eat another sleeve of Oreos.
Mega Man 3: Yasuaki "Bun Bun" Fujita, "Get a Weapon"
In most Mega Man games, the post-boss fight sequence where you're equipped with a new weapon is not much of an event. A quick musical sting, Mega Man changes color, we're done. For whatever reason, Mega Man 3 has a whole little song for its new-weapon screen, and it captures that wisp of melancholy that the series' best songs all share. For me, it might be the earwormiest song on this list. Thanks to this feature, I'll be singing it in the shower for weeks. But you don't have to picture that. Aw, you just pictured it. Sorry.
The Battle of Olympus: Kazuo Sawa, "Phthia"
One of my favorite games on the NES, The Battle of Olympus has a beautiful soundtrack that manages to squeeze a Classical Mediterranean sound out of the system's bleeps and bloops. The Phthia theme isn't one of Olympus' best cuts, but it is the most insidious. (The theme for the land depicted above, Peloponnesus, is absolutely gorgeous.)
Mickey Mousecapade: "Fun House"
I don't know why I had this game. I was never a big Mickey fan. Maybe it was a gift, or maybe I wandered into the "World of Nintendo" section at Toys "R" Us, got overwhelmed, and groped for the most colorful box art on the wall. In any case, the music in the first level does a nice job of setting the scene for the rest of the game, as it prepares the player to be very, very annoyed.
Tetris (Game Boy): A-Type Theme
It's the earworm of a generation. The Berlin Wall fell the same year that Tetris came out on the Game Boy, yet this brain-hijacking theme assured that the Soviets would continue to haunt us for years to come. Press the "play" button below if you dare, comrade.
P.S. I'm sure you'll share some of your most memorable earworms in the comments. In putting together this piece, I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost every game theme imaginable can be found on YouTube. (I only had to make the Tecmo one myself.) So while you're reminiscing, give us a link!
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