One of my favorite review introductions comes from Todd in the Shadows. Todd is a music reviewer on YouTube that delivers critical, insightful, and hilarious videos about pop songs… at least, about pop songs he thinks are worth talking about. Sometimes the charts let him down on that front. At the beginning of this particular video, he laments his writer’s block to a friend. The friend (Kyle Kallgren, another reviewer whose videos you should watch) speaks to Todd about letting creativity come through the heart and trusting his instincts. Renewed with inspiration, Todd proudly declares, with the passion of a man declaring his purpose to the world, his latest video subject: The Top Ten Groin Shots in Movies.
That’s kind of where I’m at right now. Yeah, I’m a writing blog, but sometimes you gotta break the formula, you know? Plus, I think the reason I’ve spent so much time thinking about the writing in Undertale is because I want to listen to the soundtrack again and again. For those uninformed, Undertale is a good video game created and soundtracked by Toby Fox that got kickstarted on the premise that no one has to die during the game and it justifies video games as an art form and can be played by almost anyone and reads like an 80s fantasy movie and oh god I’m going to spoil it all. I implore you: this is a game best experienced blind if you can. This is your last warning.
Undertale runs through a huge gauntlet of emotions and scope, and its soundtrack really captures that variety. I waned to make a list so I can express 1) how much I love Toby Fox’s compositions, 2) how much I need to get these songs out of my head, and 3) that “MEGALOVANIA” deserves to be knocked down a peg. You heard right: it’s not making the list. Oh, it made honorable mentions, because it’s still kickass, but you might as well call this list “Top 15 Undertale Themes That Are Better Than “MEGALOVANIA” Get Over It.” They say talking about music is like dancing about architecture. And I might as well be doing that, since I know nothing about musical theory and have no musical talent. I just know what’s good. I suppose that’s a decent writing goal for me: to explain how these 15 dances are better than “MEGALOVANIA”’s Hagia Sophia. I think that’s how metaphors work. Anyways, without further ado…
THE TOP 15 SONGS FROM THE UNDERTALE SOUNDTRACK
I put this one low on the list because there is a bit of a buildup you have to sit through. The chiptune sounds blend a bit, and the first 15 seconds basically repeat themselves. But when it hits its stride? Oh man… there’s a reason all the spiders are clapping to the music during this boss fight. For such a pointless moment in a story built on tight character interactions, “Spider Dance” makes the Miss Muffet fight memorable. It manages to be sinister and dangerous while also being fun and catchy. One of the many cases in Undertale where the soundtrack does the heavy lifting.
“Spider Dance” isn’t the only song that captures a contradiction well. On the surface, “An Ending” is just that: the piano piece that plays during one of the game’s many neutral endings. But here’s the thing: none of those endings are actual endings. They represent a point of great uneasiness in the Underground, a time where no one’s better off and few can change that state. The only reason these moments are considered endings is because you’ve been removed from the story. And even that’s not true: you can reset the game and go back to ensure everyone’s happiness. This reset is more of a continuation of your story instead of a true undoing of progress. “An Ending” reflects that ambiguity. “An Ending” is an uneasy, somber, poignant, yearning, quiet finale of a piece: I’m hard pressed to think of anything better suited for one of the neutral endings.
This song’s not on the soundtrack. I have no idea why, it’s easily the scariest piece of music in the game. Undertale has some frightening moments in it, but even if you take the Genocide route and become the scariest living thing in the Underground, this terror track plays and reminds you who the scariest thing in the game is. And the music here’s so simple! It’s just high-pitched strings and two timpani beats. And yet, if I gave you this 15-minute version to listen to, you’ll find yourself nervous about pushing that pause button, even though 15 minutes of this would be all buildup and no payoff. But that’s what horror’s all about: the buildup. Seriously, Toby, you couldn’t put this in? You just had to make room for “Dogbass,” didn’t you? This is one of the many examples of Toby Fox accomplishing a whole lot with the bare minimum needed to make a song— I’d say it’s his best example too.
Man, what a contrast to the last song, huh? We’ve gone from a world-destroying, possessive manifestation of your dark soul, to watching the snow fall outside your window. But as much as I like “The Fallen Child”… I admit it, it’s not really what you’d call a song. But as for “Snowy”? Any pianist and violinists out there, play this for your family at Christmas, and you’ll have an instant holiday memory. This is the music for the next area after one of the more traumatic moments in the game (how traumatic it is is up to you), and also right after some of the game’s silliest moments. It instantly sooths the soul and reestablishes atmosphere. Worried about a stalker? Accidently killed your adopted mother? No worries— “Snowy”’ll set you straight. Video game soundtracks accomplish a lot of things: a relaxing mood usually isn’t one of them. And even in that small number, none of those songs are as comforting as this.
“Snowy” takes a land with a bunch of snow and makes a beautiful moment out of it. When you actually have a beautiful moment on hand, you’ll have to up the heartwarming. “Reunited” is the only song that will play (save one room) in the Pacifist route post-game. That is, after you’ve saved the Underground and redeemed even the most damaged characters. There’s just the right diversity of instruments in “Reunited”: sometimes the blend of 16-bit notes and regular instruments doesn’t work in the Undertale soundtrack, but not here. And the song just keeps the mood going, like an actual reunion with everyone you’ve ever loved. Which is just as well, since the game hopes you’ll keep backtracking to see everyone’s happy face again. This is the game’s true finale, and the music lets us know that.
Ok, scratch what I said earlier: this is what a finale should sound like. This is probably the point of the game where I was the most involved and invested in what was going on: where you finally break free from the villain’s extradimensional clutches and start fighting back. The last fourth of Undertale is a buildup to a grand finale, and this song plays for the home stretch. It just becomes bigger and more epic sounding as it goes along… and then, during the fight at least, it loops and still keeps getting bigger and more epic. We may have found the key to infinite energy here. Maybe this song’s missing a little something in the soundtrack version without Flowey’s grunts of pain. But “Finale” sells what’s arguably an easy and repetitive final confrontation with such conviction and passion that it’s impossible to not press ‘z’ with greater force each time you press the ‘Fight’ button. I’m actually at kind of a lost for words, it is that good.
You Undertale fans out there have probably heard this a million times: “I don’t know if Toby Fox is really smart or really lazy.” If you’re wondering how that question came to be, here’s why: nearly every song in Undertale is a sped up, slowed down, re-orchestrated, or remixed version of another motif in the game. Everything. No, seriously. It’s a little disorienting. It makes creating a list like this a little difficult. Am I representing all the leitmotifs? Should I put two similar songs on the list close together? If I put two similar songs far apart on the list, what does that say about Toby? Or about me?
But if I’m going to represent the entire practice of Inceptioning your soundtrack, I’d say this is the best example of it: “It’s Raining Somewhere Else.” You heard this earlier in the game: it’s the same melody as “sans.” “sans.” is quirky and silly and uses funny instruments. But slow it down and put a jazz band behind it, and “sans.” becomes “It’s Raining Somewhere Else.” The songs are as different as 🙂 and :(. And that’s why it’s perfect. Sans the skeleton is also 🙂 and 😦 (a moment of silence for the English teachers I gave a heart attack to in this sentence). “sans.” represents Sans’ goofy, relaxed side, while “It’s Raining Somewhere Else” is his somber, melancholy side. And, between the two, “It’s Raining Somewhere Else” is the one I want to hear on repeat. Play this in a fancy restaurant, and no one will be able to tell it’s from a video game. If you go down the same rabbit hole I went down of spot-the-other-songs-in-Undertale-songs, this’ll be the one that blows your mind the most. The fact that this song is great is almost incidental to how cool its own existence is.
Undertale has a lot of unique moments in it, but none of them hold up to the final boss fight of the Pacifist run. It’s less of a fight and more of an intervention. You know there’s a good person inside of the villain, and you’re trying to save him. Expecting something hopeful here, like “Reunited,” or touching like “It’s Raining Somewhere Else”? Guess what? With “Hopes and Dreams,” you get something hopeful, touching, and kickass. We went metal, son. And why shouldn’t we? All your character’s good deeds and merciful actions have been building up to this moment. While the rough chords of “Hopes and Dreams,” capture the fight’s intensity, the simple and earnest melody (another one you’ve heard before) shows how innocent and trusting your character is at this point. It really is a true hero’s fight song (Sorry Undyne— yours is good too.)
I spent a lot of time building up how appropriate and meaningful the other songs are, but here… I got nothing. That sure is a dog’s song, all right. Undertale has a super silly sense of humor, and “Dogsong” is the theme for those moments. But talk about a perfect encapsulation of the friendly energy of a dog. It’s impossible not to smile at this one.
Ummmm… did you know that “Dogsong” was composed entirely in Mario Paint? Ok, I’m moving on before I further embarrass myself.
You know what’s another big emotion for Undertale? Wonder. For a game with retro graphics and not always the best art, there are times you just have to step back and appreciate the atmosphere. “Another Medium” does just that. Without words, it says, “Hey this little kid you’re playing as is seeing things that they never imagined they would see!” And in a soundtrack encompassing a buffet of standout tracks, I think this one might stand out the most.
It’s sort of the cousin of “Snowy.” Both songs reestablish atmosphere after silly moments, but “Another Medium” takes you to a new world unlike anything your character has seen, with its opera singer and constantly changing themes and tones. You’ve probably seen something like it before— video games, by law, need at least one lava level. If some Undertale tracks try to fit the moment, and other try to elevate the moment, “Another Medium” does both effortlessly.
Oh hell YEAH “Death by Glamour”! This is the music of the best boss fight of the game, and it’s the extra edge that makes the Mettaton battle the best boss fight in the game. This is what “Spider Dance” was trying to be: an instantly catchy, intense buildup to an unforgettable climax. “Spider Dance” makes the spiders dance, and “Death by Glamour” makes you dance. It takes three motifs you’ve heard before (“CORE,” “Metal Crusher,” “It’s Showtime!”) and puts them in an electronic mix so electrifying that you stop questioning the fact that your goal in the fight is to boost your opponent’s TV ratings. The dance beat grounds everything so that the showbiz-influenced parts of the song can go as crazy as they want and never make the song feel frantic or desperate. The saxophone solo… oh, what the hell am I doing? This song doesn’t need defending, just listen to it! Cherish it! Cherish harder!
I didn’t think it was possible, but this song is actually more of a pump-up workout track than “Death by Glamour.” In a game where you’re not supposed to hurt anyone, “Stronger Monsters” sure makes you want to beat up some monsters. That’s probably why this song only shows up in Hard Mode instead of the game proper: it’s so good at boosting energy. I think this is one of the rare instances where a song is too good for this game. You heard right: “Stronger Monsters” is arguably too good for one of 2015’s most beloved games… and it only takes #4 on this list.
Where “Death by Glamour” is frenetic, “Stronger Monsters” is breathless. Where “Hopes and Dreams” is hopeful, “Stronger Monsters” is empowering. And just try to think of “Enemy Approaching” while beholding how awesome this song is. Work out, keep appointments, dumpster dive, whatever— put this song on, and you’re invincible.
I gave these two the same slot for a number of reasons. One, they’re basically the same song (surprise!). Two, they’re the score for some of the game’s best moments.
Watching people react to Undertale on a Let’s Play is fun: it’s a game full of surprises. One of these great moments is when “Nyeh Heh Heh!” plays and Papyrus arrives to banter with Sans (Papyrus is my favorite character, by the way; a weaker-willed version of me might have put these songs at #1 just for that). “Nyeh Heh Heh!” captures the scheming and humorous nature of Papyrus so well that it makes other leitmotifs look like slackers. But let’s be honest… that’s not the star on the #3 spot.
The other great “I can’t wait to see their faces!” moment in Undertale comes from the Papyrus boss battle. You think he’s still a harmless, if amazingly lovable, fool at this point in the game. Then comes his fabled “blue” attack. And then his real blue attack. And then… “Bonetrousle.” Trust me on this. You should’ve seen your faces.
I recommend listening to “Nyeh Heh Heh!” once, followed by immediately listening to “Bonetrousle” for all eternity. Everything “Nyeh Heh Heh!” did right— its great theme, its disarming simplicity, and its fun-loving nature in the guise of a temporary villain theme— “Bonetrousle” somehow does 10 times better. “Nyeh Heh Heh!” sounds like it’s impossible for shit to go down with Papyrus. “Bonetrousle”… shit goes down.
You know how I know that “Bonetrousle” deserves to be up there with the all-time great examples of video game music? Nearly every single cover version of this song is a failure. The only good ones I’ve heard are this symphonic metal version, “Symphony of Bones,” and, of course, the kazoo version. The other remixes either amp up the stomp-stomp beat to unbearable loudness, or don’t give the melody the energy it deserves. They don’t get it. “Bonetrousle” is tight, man. It’s Goldilocks. You have to get the ingredients exactly right for it. And thank god that Toby Fox did so. This is by far the Undertale song I’ve listened to the most, and maybe I’m biased, but I don’t care. The scenes with Papyrus are the best parts of the game, and if “Stronger Monsters” is too good for fighting monsters, “Bonetrousle” may be better than even the game’s greatest creation.
One of my pet peeves for Best Of lists concerns the creator saying something along the lines of “Remember, this is all my opinion, so please send your negative thoughts on my list elsewhere!” To which I often reply: no duh it’s all just your opinion. There are no mathematical equations that can compute what “right” answers for art are. What makes a good list is how well each entry is defended. I can see why people do this, though. Music is something a) very subjective, and b) something people are extremely passionate about concerning its highs and lows. If you pretend to host an “objective” ranking, not only will people disagree with you, but also it’ll be people who also fall for the fallacy of “objective criticism.” But yeah, if there’s anything that reveals how un-objective this whole enterprise is for me… there’s “CORE.”
I had most of this list figured out a while ago, but postponed writing it (and postponed writing this section in particular) because I couldn’t wrap my head around just how much I like “CORE.” And yeah, this song reveals a lot about me as a music lover. You’ll notice that the last few songs were all exciting and catchy with a strong beat. Couldn’t I have been more varied in my favorite picks? Doesn’t the intro to “Death by Glamour” already sort of cover this one? Couldn’t I etch out a spot for “MEGALOVANIA” instead? No. I’m sorry. I can’t. “CORE” is just that good.
There are a lot of elements to “CORE” that make it the tension-building prelude to the finale it needed to be, and you’ll be able to appreciate every one of those in just one listen. Can you rally call Toby Fox lazy if he put so many great melodies in one song? With every new instrument introduced, you take in the excitement of the moment you’re playing. And like “Death by Glamour,” and “Finale,” this song gets even bigger and better on subsequent repeats. But it doesn’t have to try as hard to do so. I’ll put it like this: while listening to this, how many of you quit the game to do something else? There were points where you could. Do you think you could?
In the end, I couldn’t avoid putting this on the list: it was just too perfect. I can only think of one Undertale song that’s better. But before we do that…
So, so many. “Your Best Nightmare,” “Ruins,” “Quiet Water,” “Determination,” “Bring It In, Guys!” “It’s Showtime!” “Run!” “Battle Against A True Hero”… I could make a top 30 and not get to everything I love about this soundtrack. A few mentions in particular stand out:
- NGAAHH! /Spear of Justice: Consider this the unofficial #16. Undyne’s theme is just as heroic and bombastic as the head of the Royal Guard herself. Maybe I still should’ve put this in…
- Metal Crusher: Sometimes I have to step back and think, “Wow, a TV show host who’s also a killer robot is actually a fantastic premise.” This theme does justice to the menacing, yet loopy and cheesy nature of all that.
- MEGALOVANIA: No, I don’t hate “MEGALOVANIA.” It actually grew on me. I started out not really liking this and found out later that it’s exciting and does have a nightmarish quality of sorts. If I had to say why it’s not on the list, I’d say 1) It doesn’t really have a satisfying conclusion, and 2) It sounds like it could belong to just any old boss fight. “MEGALOVANIA,” was originally composed for an Earthbound mod. Other tracks here are also from other projects, but they fit better in the world of Undertale than “MEGALOVANIA.” Still, I’d prefer listening to this than “Song That Might Play When You Fight Sans.”
- CORE Approach/Small Shock/Oh My…: I refer to these three as “A Small Core…” since they’re all similar. Each one is only a few notes, and they all absolutely nail the vibe they’re going for. “CORE Approach” captures what it’s like to be on the edge of an exciting new world. “Small Shock” is pure and simple, the music for a small surprise. As for “Oh My…” how weird is it that we have 8 notes that signify “oh shit” and “this is actually kind of hot” simultaneously? I hope that track finds use somewhere else in your life, like maybe when you jokingly suggest to your friend’s mom a strip-off and she accepts. But enough stalling, it’s time for…
Not the entire album itself, though I was tempted. I’m talking about “Undertale,” the song that plays when you’re at New Home and you’re learning the story of Asriel. I’ve used a lot of metrics to judge songs in this list; how well they fit their moment, how they make me feel, what kind of statements they make; but I’ve never called any of them beautiful. This one is beautiful. If you need to convince someone that video game soundtracks can compete with music in other fields, “Undertale” will do it.
From the instant the acoustic guitar starts up the song, my heart melts. Every time it cycles back to the start and builds on itself, “Undertale” just gets more hopeful and touching and strong. If you were to read the story presented during this song without the music, you’d notice that there were some confusing, unexplained parts in it. But while “Undertale”’s playing? It’s the most heartbreaking story in the world. Every time a new instrument comes in, you just get more contemplative and emotional. It really does capture the center of what this game is. Strip out the cosmic horror and the silliness, and Undertale is, well, “Undertale.” This moment is where, upon hearing the music, I decided that “Undertale” wasn’t a part of a great soundtrack; it was the crown of one of the best soundtracks of all time. I like listening to songs on repeat, but this is one of those rare cases where you should listen to it once and then think about it for a few moments.
Music can make you do a lot of things, and rarely does that list include, “make you want to tell everyone how much you love them.” That’s probably something Undertale was going for. And it’s something “Undertale” accomplishes just by existing. This song does make me want to say, sincerely, thank you all. It may have been said before, but you really do fill me with determination. Thank you for indulging in my little list, and do yourself a favor by checking this soundtrack out.