To preface this list, I decided to define a world map, or “overworld,” as any area where you can walk around with a character and also acts a central hub for other areas within that game. I decided not to count games such as Secret of Mana and the 2-D Zelda games because they are essentially composed of one large overworld. Also, “Peaceful Days” from Chrono Trigger and “Crossing Those Hills” from Final Fantasy IX would have made the list, but unfortunately I have a one entry per series policy!
World map themes are some of the most important tracks for a video game because more than likely, you’ll be hearing them more than any other piece of music (except maybe the battle themes). They also help to set the mood for the entire game. They can be adventurous and cheerful, ambient and calming, or even harsh and suffocating, depending on what emotions are meant to evoked.
#5 The Departure – Terranigma (SNES), composed by Miyoko Kobayashi
In Terranigma, you play as a young boy named Ark who has known of nothing outside of his little village of Crysta. However, when he accidentally unleashes Pandora’s Box and freezes everyone in the village, he’s forced to leave the sanctuary in order to find a cure. This is the track that plays out on the overworld, or perhaps I should say underworld since Crysta happens to be the only human settlement left on Earth, located underneath its surface. With ever present arpeggios and tubular bell hits, this track primes you for the unknown and really lets you know that you’ve just embarked on something monumental. There is a slight hint of foreboding in the music, but it’s covered with a pulsing bassline and determined strings, reflecting Ark’s conviction as he departs on his odyssey.
#4 The Angarian Journey – Golden Sun (GBA), composed by Motoi Sakuraba
What’s three words and rhymes with “epic”? The answer’s “The Angarian Journey” from Golden Sun, a game that utilizes a soundtrack that really pushes the limits of the system. Like Terranigma, you play as a boy who is thrown out into the wild world on a mission as his hometown is met with tragedy during the game’s opening. When you first step out onto the world map, you’re greeted with this beauty of a track. It’s very cinematic and energetic, fitting of the style of Sakuraba (who’s composed for many of the Tales games). Despite the GBA’s poor audio capabilities, Sakuraba goes all out with his pseudo-orchestral arsenal. Driving bassline, sweeping strings, triumphant brass, not to mention a rockin’ timpani part, this track’s got it all.
#3 Hyrule Field – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GCN), composed by Toru Minegishi & Koji Kondo
For me, Twilight Princess is the quintessential Zelda game, and the “Hyrule Field” track is perhaps the magnum opus of Zelda overworld themes as well. Exciting, blood-pumping, and larger-than-life. These are qualities that are demanded from a piece of music that is required to fill the wide space created by this game’s massive overworld map, and Twilight Princess’s “Hyrule Field” does not disappoint. An aspect that I really enjoy is the prevalence of solos from the woodwind samples, particularly the bassoon sample which has a nice dark, woody timbre and fits the dusk-filled atmosphere of the game nicely. This track has changes in personality over time, from a playful staccato, a bombastic marcato, to a grand legato, making it feel like it doesn’t loop at all. Riding Epona through the field and slicing up monsters, with this music playing is one of the more gratifying gaming experiences to be had.
#2 Main Theme – Final Fantasy VII (PS1), composed by Nobuo Uematsu
I had a fairly difficult time deciding on my favorite overworld theme from the Final Fantasy series because I really enjoy “Crossing Those Hills” (FFIX), as well as “Terra” (FFVI). In the end, I felt that the one from VII had the most to offer in terms of emotion and stylistic variations. Like the game itself, this theme undergoes several shifts in character. After trekking through the dank, dirty Midgar for a couple of game hours, Cloud and company finally make it onto the world map and are met with a complete change in scenery and mood. A vast world stands before them, along with a delicate, yet mysterious, yet powerful overworld theme playing. Uematsu seriously does an amazing job of capturing the feelings of the entire game and compressing them into a single track.
#1 On the Beach of Dreams – Chrono Cross (PS1), composed by Yasunori Mitsuda
Chrono Cross actually has four different world map themes, and all of them deserve to be on this list. However, “On the Beach of Dreams” stands above them all and is one of the best tracks on the already amazing soundtrack, as well as one of the best pieces of video game music ever. Seriously, just listen to it. Towards the beginning of the game, our silent protagonist Serge finds himself mysteriously transported to a strange alternate version of his world – a world in which he had actually died ten years prior. Even though our hero is unable to verbally express his emotions, we can get a sense of how he must feel through the music. This track, which plays on the overworld of this alternate dimension, contains a milieu of different emotions: uncertainty, sorrow, confidence, and even hope. While many will criticize the use of silent protagonists, I will make the case that their use encourages the player to focus attention on everything else on a much deeper level (be it the music, visual surroundings, or the other characters). To be in such a familiar world, yet still be all alone: that is the idea that this track encapsulates.
I think I’ve rambled enough, so now I shall pose the question onto you: what are your favorite world map themes?