5 of the all-time best Level 1 themes

When you’re playing a video game, the music can have a surprisingly strong impact on your enjoyment. It wasn’t always that way — prior to the NES, in-game music was relatively rare — but these days, when we play an arcade-style game, particularly from Japan, it’s unusual not to hear a musical accompaniment. And a crucial part of that musical accompaniment is the level 1 theme.

The level 1 theme sets the tone for the game. It establishes the sort of energy you’ll be feeling throughout — or perhaps sets a feeling up, only to knock it down later. It can inspire you to do your best, or make you feel like you’re fighting a hopeless cause. Regardless of the purpose in mind the composer had when they put it together, it’s of crucial importance in fast-paced arcade-style games to get the player immediately invested in the action and feeling excited about what’s going to happen.

So with that in mind, we’ve picked out five of our favourite level 1 themes. We’re steering clear of obvious choices like Super Mario Bros. and Castlevania here — instead, we’re focusing on some deeper cuts. If you like what you hear, consider checking out the games they hail from!

Let’s get started!

Burning Halloween Town (Deathsmiles)

The composers who work on Cave’s shoot ’em ups are pretty consistently good at level 1 themes, but this track from Deathsmiles has always particularly stood out to me. It features all the elements we talked about above: a triumphant feel to get you pumped for the action ahead of you, plus plenty of thematically appropriate sounds to go along with the gothic Lolita action of the game. Lots of piano, harpsichord and pipe organ — complemented by more modern sounds such as electric guitar and processed electronic drums.

Stage 1-1 (Gynoug)

This track is such a good level 1 theme that it was stuck in my head for a good 30 years before I remembered what it was actually from. I knew it was from a classic Mega Drive shoot ’em up — just not which one. Was it Thunder Force IV? Nope. Arrow Flash? Guess again. Gley Lancer? Close — it’s Gynoug, which, much like Gley Lancer, got a modern rerelease recently. And a very welcome sight it was, too — Gynoug is a challenging but top-notch shooter well worth acquainting yourself with.

Sitting Duck (Ace Combat 04)

While it’s not surprising that shoot ’em ups will dominate any list like this, it’s absolutely essential that we don’t forget about other types of game with strong openings — like Namco’s long-running air combat series Ace Combat. This level 1 theme from Ace Combat 04 really sets things up brilliantly — it’s a different kind of dramatic to the epic choral work “Megalith” that closes out the whole thing, but it gives a wonderful feeling of the seemingly hopeless situation you’re faced with as the game’s first mission begins, particularly with the klaxon-esque synth bass notes.

Lightning Unleashed (Azure Striker Gunvolt)

Inti Creates’ Azure Striker Gunvolt series is absolutely fantastic for those who enjoy 16- and 32-bit style platformers — and their soundtracks are excellent, too. This level 1 theme from the first Azure Striker Gunvolt game sets the tone brilliantly: it’s fast-paced, it’s energetic, it’s futuristic and you’d better be ready for some furious action. This series in general deserves a bit more love — so perhaps we’ll do a more in-depth feature on it in the near future, ahead of the third mainline installment. In the meantime, enjoy the music!

Silver Lining (Eschatos)

And we’ll wrap up for today with one last shoot ’em up — one of my favourites, in fact, and its level 1 theme is a big part of the reason why. Eschatos is a beautifully presented and brilliantly executed dramatic shoot ’em up featuring fast and furious gameplay, spectacular setpieces and an absolutely killer soundtrack, as this opening theme hopefully demonstrates. Just you wait until the re-arranged version of this comes back in the final stage — you’ll get goosebumps for sure.

Well, there’s five of our picks — how about you? Let us know some of your favourites down in the comments, via the usual social channels or via the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!

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Pete Davison
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