These last few months have been quite special for Kingdom Hearts fans. With the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III finally hitting store shelves, there was cause for celebration. On top of that, there is new story DLC for the game also on the way. As someone who has been with the franchise since his childhood days, looking back on the series is something I find enjoyable.
Music in Kingdom Hearts is something I can always come back to. Yoko Shimomura is one of the greatest composers to grace us with fantastic soundtracks. While it might be a bold statement, I would rank her right at the top alongside legends like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu. Her music has a distinct flavor that is instantly recognizable and pleasing to the ears.
At first, I thought this would be a difficult list to compile. Almost every single track in the entire franchise is good. Very rarely is there a piece of music which you would consider to be bad or unappealing. However, after listening to some of the songs, I found it incredibly easy to narrow down the list to about 15. As a side note, I did try to consider the moments that occurred alongside the songs. This wasn’t a huge factor but still something worth thinking about.
10. Traverse In Trance (Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance)
This pick feels a little out of left field, but I believe it’s a beautiful song. Now, Traverse Town is still way better in Kingdom Hearts. The Dream Drop Distance version of the world is a slap in the face. Yet, they gave it some stellar music to compensate for that slap.
The song starts out with a completely different tune. Then it goes for the classic bait and switch. The tune leads into a slower and jazzier version of the classic Traverse Town tune. It’s such a relaxing song that somehow manages to trigger my nostalgia despite being so different. There isn’t much else to say other than “listen to this song right now."
9. Black Powder (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep)
This epic track plays during the battle between Terra and Xehanort. The song starts off small but then explodes into a symphony of powerful instruments. For one of the last bosses in the game, you would expect the music to be fitting for the spectacle, and Black Powder manages to deliver that in spades.
This could’ve been much higher on the list, however, the song is very short. It loops at around the minute mark. There are plenty of songs from the SNES era that was longer than a minute. That makes this song a little more on the repetitive side. Since the song is good, I can forgive the repetition.
8. Keyblade Graveyard (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep)
While the updated version in Kingdom Hearts III is great, the original version from Birth By Sleep wins this match. The newer rendition starts off very different before finally moving into the main melody. It’s still a good song but feels a bit busier than the original. Which doesn’t fully capture the bleakness of this world.
The song itself is somber and reflects the tragedy of the Keyblade War. It’s a soft tune that is more ambient than the usual tracks you hear in Kingdom Hearts worlds. Once again, Shimomura highlights the violin and uses it throughout the song. The simplicity of the Keyblade Graveyard makes for a beautiful and melancholic atmosphere as you edge closer to the final battle.
7. Unbreakable Chains (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep)
The Kingdom Hearts series actually has other composers who worked on a few tracks here and there. One of those composers is Takeharu Ishimoto. The song we’re featuring plays during the last battle between Ventus and Vanitas. A long-awaited encounter between two halves of the same person with awesome music.
This is an enhanced version of Vanitas’ regular theme. It’s also easily distinguishable from the rest of the soundtrack since a different composer worked on it. The best part of this song is the guitar that plays during the “chorus”. It comes as a shock at first since the soundtracks usually have songs made with violins and pianos. This isn’t just different for the sake of it though. It’s a genuinely great battle theme that stands out as the most unique piece of music in the series.
6. Hollow Bastion (Kingdom Hearts)
Finally, a song from the main series. Both the Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II version of this song is wonderful. However, I decided to go with the original for a few reasons. The most obvious is that it’s more fitting music. You’re climbing up a massive castle which was built up as the final world of the game. Compared to Kingdom Hearts II where Hollow Bastion is pretty much a regular town.
Another reason is the tempo of the song. The original version is faster paced which is a better fit for the world. It’s a tense build-up to the climax of the story and the speed of the music makes you feel that pressure. While the Kingdom Hearts II version is certainly grander, the original is still what I go back to the most.
5. The Other Promise (Kingdom Hearts II)
Now we’re really getting into the top tier stuff. This theme plays during Sora and Roxas’ fight in Kingdom Hearts II. Let me get something out of the way here. If not for the Final Mix version that actually made Roxas a boss fight, this song would not be here.
It’s a great song but the moment just elevates it to the top five. This is an emotional song that prominently features a piano. While it starts with a simple tune, it eventually turns into a complex rhythm that leaves the player in awe of Shimomura’s talent. Every time I play Kingdom Hearts II, this battle is always something I look forward to, and the music is one of the reasons why.
4. Rage Awakened (Kingdom Hearts II)
The Birth By Sleep version of Rage Awakened is good but the Kingdom Hearts II.5 remaster elevates to the next level. This song is hype in musical form. It’s one of the best battle themes I’ve ever heard in any video game. And we still have three more songs to go through after this.
A version of this played in Kingdom Hearts III, but it didn’t feel as epic. It shows that the moment the music plays is an important factor. The boss fight against Lingering Will in Kingdom Hearts II is the best optional fight in the series. And you get to hear this epic song while getting your butt kicked by a metal man.
3. Dark Impetus (Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance)
Take one of the best songs from Birth By Sleep, amplify the hell out of it, and play it during the final fight between Riku and Young Xehanort. You have an instant classic that puts other final boss themes to shame.
The highlight is that legendary violin solo that is intact from the original. Yes, that bit is so good that even Shimomura couldn’t find a way to make it better. The fast pace of the song keeps you on edge throughout the entire fight. The battle themes in Kingdom Hearts never leave you disappointed. They always have the right amount of energy and sophistication for the given moment.
2. Darkness of the Unknown (Kingdom Hearts II)
The final boss theme for Kingdom Hearts II is one of the most amazing pieces of music I've ever heard in a video game. It's a stunning song that completely leaves you in awe of what's happening on the screen. There aren't any adjectives that can do this particular song justice. It's just really good.
Every time I replay this fight, I can't help but get a little emotional hearing the music. When I started thinking about this list, Darkness of the Unknown was the first song that came to mind. Yet, here it is in the number two spot. What could possibly be better?
1. Scala Ad Caelum (Kingdom Hearts III)
Chances are most people who played Kingdom Hearts III barely got to hear this song. It plays during a single cutscene and for a few seconds afterwards. A complete disgrace to the best song in the entire franchise. It's baffling how they tried so hard to hide away this masterpiece.
Even without a special moment to accompany it, Scala Ad Caelum is a beautiful piece. Perhaps I am being a bit bold in my praise, but this song reminds of great works of classical music. The ability to be moving without the context of a narrative that the other songs on this list depend on. This is Yoko Shimomura at her peak and I hope she gets to compose for another game very soon. Hopefully, the next game will actually make the most of her talent and not let it go to waste.
GameLuster’s Tuesday 10 is a weekly column that highlights memorable, light-hearted facets of video games or the industry at large. The No. 1 is a hill no one should die on, but it’s a hill that should be admired from afar.