Best of Western Game Music: Might and Magic

Heroes of Might and Magic (Paul Romero, 1995)

Heroes of Might and Magic Soundtrack Album Title:
Heroes of Might & Magic Soundtrack
Record Label:
Catalog No.:
Release Date:
May 22, 2009
Purchase on GOG

Few game scores start with a gesture as confident as the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack. Opening “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)”, a harpsichord presents an almost rushing motif that already creates a dense soundscape. But clearly, the composer wants to take things further. Soon, a growing number of instruments join the harpsichord figure, playing the motif or variations of it as a fugue. This continues until a whopping five different voices simultaneously perform in counterpoint. The resulting passage is of a structural complexity previously unencountered in Western game music.

On a purely musical level, it makes for a striking start to the album. But this display of compositional bravado is even more important from another point of view. This is a composition that wears its ambitions proudly on its sleeve. The piece doesn’t waste a minute to proclaim that this is music of substance, demanding to be taken seriously. In other words, this is a game soundtrack that self-consciously styles itself as “Art” – one of the very first to do so.

Looking at the history of orchestral Western game music, this ambition distinguishes the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack further than one might think. Certainly, there were already many ambitious orchestral Western game scores out there. However, their role models usually came from within film music. This goes back all the way to 1990’s Wing Commander, whose soundtrack emulated the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises’ music. Heroes of Might and Magic looks elsewhere for inspiration, and arguably sets its sights even higher – classical music and its time-honoured, hallowed aura of gravitas and import.

To be more precise, composer Paul Romero draws upon Baroque music to convey the game’s heroic fantasy universe. Mind you, it’s not a strictly authentic affair. The soundtrack includes a fair number of charming medievalisms. Romero also liberally deploys harmonies and orchestrations derived from romantic-style classical music. Still, as the opening of “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)” shows, this score’s incorporation of Baroque characteristics isn’t superficial pastiche. Instead, Heroes of Might and Magic also shares Baroque music’s structural inclinations, particularly its reliance on counterpointal constructs. What’s more, the music’s Baroque inspirations give Heroes of Might and Magic‘s fantasy world a greater degree of individuality. Compare this to the vast majority of game fantasy scores, which usually dabble in late-romantic, film score-style orchestral sounds.

Where did this outburst of ambition come from? As it turned out, from a both expected and surprising place: Paul Romero. Before he was introduced to Heroes of Might and Magic‘s Sound Director and future serial collaborator Rob King, Romero had never played a video game. A former child prodigy, Romero had already performed around the world as a classical pianist before the age of 15. Graduating from the world-famous Conservatoire de Paris, Romero had however dropped out of music performance after finishing his musical training. It was Heroes of Might and Magic that brought him back to music after working in various random jobs.

Romero’s background easily explains the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack’s character. Few artists had previously thought of applying classical music’s conventions to the realm of video game music. But Romero – deeply knowledgeable about classical music composition, and refreshingly unaware of game music conventions – was clearly happy to merge games and classical music. The result set a new benchmark for sophistication, density and maturity of orchestral writing in Western game scores. It also helped immensely that Rob King provided Romero with amazingly life-like sounding samples. Romero certainly relishes using the entire orchestral palette, with prominent solo parts for oboe, clarinet, flute, bassoon, harp and acoustic guitar that all add splashes of warm, rich musical colour.

But that wasn’t the only reason that the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack kicked off one of game music’s most revered franchises. There are two other elements that are crucial to the immense appeal of Romero’s score. Firstly, drop-dead gorgeous melodies that would become the calling card of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise. The score’s melody lines are a constant pleasure, as elegant, refined and graceful as one would hope for, considering Romero’s classical inspirations.

His melodies are also catchy. That’s not a characteristic one would usually associate with classical music, where melodies don’t often present themselves as hummable tunes. But it’s again Romero’s Baroque inspirations which make themselves felt, if maybe this time in a slightly unexpected way. Heroes of Might and Magic‘s melodic material usually consists of relatively short figures, as is common in Baroque music, helping the melodies to instantly hook themselves into listeners’ memory banks.

And thankfully, Romero makes the most of his beguiling melodic creations. He structures his longer tracks around variations of a melody particular to each cue. Romero treats these variations with as much meticulousness as all other aspects of the music. They are not just repetitions of a once established motif, but instead rework and elaborate upon the original material. Once more, it’s a procedure derived from classical music and when implemented as well as on the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack, it imbues the music with a sense of continuous development previously not found on Western game music compositions.

The focus on melodic variations also allows Romero to develop his compositions’ textures and moods in masterful fashion, while maintaining their structural coherence. For example, “Knight”’s opening maintains “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)”’s light-hearted Baroque attitude and adds a more regal, stiff attitude. A beautifully long-spun oboe solo develops the track’s melodic material. After that, the melody passes to the uillean pipes, calling from a far-distant hill top above the moors. “Sorceress” almost plays like a miniature harpsichord concerto, mixing the playfulness of earlier pieces with a dash of mystery. “Warlock” is just as elaborately constructed, but its woodwind soli and string harmonies are sharper and harmonically more ambivalent.

Things cheer up just in time for the final track “Campaign”. Within just a minute, it convincingly works its way from a droll bassoon solo to a stirring orchestral flourish, replete with triumphant fanfares and bell strikes. No wonder that this piece would return on following franchise scores as the victory theme. It’s a wonderfully fitting close for a work that doesn’t outright revolutionise the Western fantasy game score genre, but certainly takes it to the next level. That is, before Heroes of Might and Magic II would magnify almost everything that is great about this soundtrack, and land in unprecedented territory.

Heroes of Might & Magic II (Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero, 1996)

Heroes of Might and Magic II Soundtrack Album Title:
Heroes of Might & Magic II Soundtrack
Record Label:
Catalog No.:
Release Date:
August 20, 2009
Purchase on GOG

Even decades after its release, the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack stands apart as a unique experiment. The score for Heroes of Might and Magic had clearly articulated Paul Romero and Rob King‘s immense ambition to write game music with the gravitas and impact (and cultural cache) of classical music. The result was a resounding artistic success. It’s no surprise then that Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s music amplifies its predecessor’s already lofty aspirations. But how do you make convincingly symphonically-styled music like that of Heroes of Might and Magic even more grandiose?

Romero and King – joined by King’s band mate Steve Baca – found a logical answer. They need to vocals – and not just any sort of vocals. In other words: a large part of the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack consists of full-blown opera arias. These days, underscoring a game with opera arias would be highly unusual. Proposing such a thing in 1996 was revolutionary. It was also fairly risky, as King recalled in interviews how he had to fight for this new musical direction. But once more, the composers’ willingness to take risks paid off. Operatic soli became one of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise’s musical trademarks.

Calling the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack ‘revolutionary’ requires some qualification though. In some ways, treating the game’s music like an opera score is a conservative move. It’s not like the composers are striving to create any sort of previously unheard, original music style. Instead, what Romero and King are doing is to take an existing form of (high-brow) artistic expression and to apply it in a new context. Of course, no one had previously thought of using this particular mode of artistic expression for a video game.

Arguably, there are predecessors to Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s use of operatic voices. Examples include the opera scenes in Final Fantasy VI and The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. However, in both these cases the use of operatic music was dictated by the game’s narrative. That means their respective composers had little choice but to write opera-style music (rather underwhelmingly realised on The Beast Within). On the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack, Romero and King are unencumbered by such story requirements and still decide to go with an operatic score – and that is why their choice is an entirely more daring and ground breaking one.

It’s tempting to say that the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack was ahead of its time. However, considering how very few game scores followed in its footsteps, it feels more like a work that exists outside of game music conventions entirely, unlikely to ever spawn a legion of imitators (as opposed to another conservative revolutionary, Michael Giacchino‘s Medal of Honor). Stylistically, Heroes of Might and Magic II might have been a dead end. At the same time, it also signalled that from now on, the sky was the limit. If you can score your game with opera arias, what music could possibly be out of bounds for game composers?

It’s one thing to have grander ambitions – it’s another thing to pull these off successfully. But considering how intricate and refined Romero’s orchestral pieces on Heroes of Might and Magic were, it’s little surprise that his operatic compositions here feel like the real deal, and never like mere pastiche. The vocal melodies, all found on the score’s castle tracks, are impeccably composed. They possess a real sense for operatic flair and deep understanding of this musical expression. And there’s no doubt that the arias are performed to an impressive standard and that they run the gamut of emotions. They range from the ethereal, almost new-agey soprano strains of “Sorceress Castle” and the sinister bass bombast of “Necromancer Castle” and “Warlock Castle (Expansion)” to the restrained elation and triumph of “Barbarian Castle (Expansion)”.

Just as important to the successful realisation of King and Romero’s ambitions is the fact that these wonderful vocal melodies are backed by an orchestral backdrop that is as marvellously lavish and emotional as the arias themselves. On the castle tracks, Romero makes full use of every single orchestra section. He layers the instruments in ever more colourful textures that demand repeat listens to discover all of the music’s subtleties. Extended parts for often melodramatic solo piano underpin the music’s journey into Gothic grandeur and are integrated seamlessly. Should you wonder why the composers added an alto sax, head straight to the six last tracks. It’s impossible not to marvel at how perfectly its soulful, sometimes almost spiritual sounds enrich the compositions’ mood.

The romantic-style opera soli carry a fantastic emotional charge and urgency with them, and Romero’s fittingly tumultuous Sturm and Drang orchestrations merge with the vocal melodies to create a work of tremendous symphonic depth and richness. It feels like Romero strives as hard as he can for truly classical scale. In the process, he once more sets a new standard for orchestral writing, probably not just in Western game music. Heroes of Might and Magic II moves through an incredible number of moods and tone colours during its relatively short compositions. Its compositional and emotional complexity is nearly unparalleled among Western game scores. It’s a testament to Romero’s compositional skills that he harnesses the torrent of musical ideas which swirls through his pieces and shapes them into strident, coherent pieces.

Let’s not forget King and Baca’s contributions to the success of the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack. Mind you, not so much through their monotonous (if brief) battle cues, but instead through what would become another staple of Heroes of Might and Magic games: terrain tracks. Underscoring different landscapes within the game (indicated by their programmatic titles: “Snow”, “Desert”, “Lava” etc.), these pieces are far sparser, less attention-seeking affairs. They almost take the opposite approach to Romero’s cues. King and Baca only require only a few solo instruments on each composition to paint vivid images of various locations.

This kind of music has no lavish orchestrations or emotional outpourings to fall back on. There are only simple melodies and carefully wrought, minimal background instrumentations – and yet these are spellbinding compositions. The fact that Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s composers are able to master two very different registers of emotional expression – operatic bombast and reflective restraint – finally cements this soundtrack’s status as one of the best orchestral scores ever composed for a Western video game. Its aspirations to be high art may feel overwrought to some, but the score’s audaciousness only reveals an artistic triumph.

Heroes of Might and Magic III (Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero, 1999)

Heroes of Might and Magic III Soundtrack Album Title:
Heroes of Might & Magic III Soundtrack
Record Label:
Catalog No.:
Release Date:
August 25, 2009
Purchase on GOG

After Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s unprecedented operatic splendour, the composing team of Paul Romero, Rob King and Steve Baca faced a problem when they tackled the franchise‘s next soundtrack: where to go from here? Heroes of Might and Magic II found its approach by amplifying its predecessor’s ambitions and scale. As a result, it rocketed past other Western game soundtracks at the time into uncharted territory. Repeating the same strategy – going grander – for the Heroes of Might and Magic III soundtrack wasn’t an option. Had the music turned any more grandiose, it might have well slipped into overblown bombast, despite the composers’ artistic talents.

What was Romero, King and Baca’s answer to this dilemma then? In a nutshell, they play it safe on the Heroes of Might and Magic III soundtrack. This is not an envelope pushing work like its two predecessors. Instead, Heroes of Might and Magic III is nothing more and nothing less than a really great fantasy score, with all the stylistic trappings one would expect from the genre. It’s a less dazzling, extrovert work than Heroes of Might and Magic II. However, its melodic beauty and orchestrational finesse still tower above the vast majority of Western fantasy scores.

This elevated position is largely due to the same strengths that already characterised Heroes of Might and Magic II. Orchestral textures are lush and lovingly shaped with an acute ear for effective counterpoint. Cues develop marvellously well and pack stunning amounts of diversity into two minutes of running time. And above all, the score’s greatest strength is its ever reliable, never ending flow of beautiful melodies. It’s all these qualities that make Heroes of Might and Magic III‘s adherence to genre stereotypes entirely forgivable. At every turn, it fills the fantasy formula with life and excitement.

It helps that the music’s textures feel a bit less crammed than on Heroes of Might and Magic II. Romero tempers the youthful exuberance that saw him tossing as many ideas as possible into the castle themes on Heroes of Might and Magic II. This time around, he sounds more relaxed and self-assured. Equally, he’s keenly aware of how to create elaborate compositions that give their ideas and melodies enough room to breathe. Romero also returns to a methodology used on Heroes of Might and Magic. Once again, he structures his castle themes as variations of a motif or melody. This helps to further smoothen out the compositions’ flow.

This less agitated mood is of course due to the lack of emotionally charged arias. However, it also reflects the score’s warm atmosphere – another trait that makes the soundtrack such a wonderful experience. In its mostly sunny nature, this soundtrack reaches back to the first Heroes of Might and Magic score. Right away, “AI Theme I” and “AI Theme II” illustrate this orientation with their idyllic cello and clarinet soli.  “Main Theme” is another clear indication of the soundtrack’s optimistic disposition. Here, it’s a cheery harpsichord melody and soli for cello and woodwind welcoming the player into the game.

However, despite its less dramatic air, this soundtrack doesn’t give up the sense of scale and emotional diversity that Heroes of Might and Magic II had accomplished. On the Heroes of Might and Magic III soundtrack, Romero, King and Baca manage to seamlessly mix a wealth of disparate atmospheres and colours into coherent compositions. Yet another sign of the compositions’ excellent development, this trait is particularly obvious on the album’s darker tracks. These pieces, despite all their Gothic demeanour, have an underlying playfulness that ties them in with the soundtrack’s bright mood. Even the gloomy depths of “Town – Dungeon” remain quite light-hearted with their traipsing string and brass rhythms, and a moody oboe melody on top. Similarly, “Town – Inferno” does a tremendous job at balancing the blithe sounds of a music box and a bouncy woodwind melody with the requisite ominous string tremoli and commanding brass.

This absorbing melange of moods is evident on many of the less sombre compositions as well. “Town – Fortress”‘s charming opening escalates unexpectedly into a grandiose episode. Full of building horn chords and driving violin and woodwind figures, the piece capped off perfectly by a soaring motif. “Town – Tower”, the soundtrack’s longest composition, is even better. In fact, it’s the entire franchise‘s best developed composition, and the apogee of the variation form Romero deploys. Taking elegant triple meter rhythms as its basis, “Town – Tower” moves through a ravishing wealth of melodies, moods and textures that makes the piece a wholly convincing miniature tone poem.

Where the Heroes of Might and Magic III soundtrack manages to surpass its brilliant predecessor is with its terrain tracks. These are now more similar in style to the castle themes – lavish and full-bodied rather than sparse and introvert. This makes for a more seamless, if also more surprise-free album flow. Once more, the melodies and textures never cease to amaze. “Terrain – Underground” and “Terrain – Water” are impressionistic tone idylls, completely enrapturing and addictive in their sheer beauty and lushness. “Terrain – Swamp” features a cheeky, tumbling bassoon figure that remains charmingly unfazed by the oppressive, humid string atmosphere around it. Similarly, “Terrain – Rough”‘s flute melody has an intensely yearning, aching character that highlights how much more melodically focused the terrain tracks are this time around, more clearly defined and less drifting – if at the same time also more indebted to fantasy scoring conventions.

If there are any real complaints to be made against the Heroes of Might and Magic III soundtrack (apart from the as usually tedious battle tracks), it’s that Good Old Game’s album release makes some curating necessary before one can enjoy the music properly. In slightly overgenerous fashion, the album also includes the music written for the Legend Chronicles game. Those were a kind of physical DLC titles released at low cost to bring casual gamers to the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise. They only end up adding a lot of short, less noteworthy cues to the album. But once you’ve pruned back the album release’s 50+ tracks to only keep the more substantial compositions, you are left with what might be the perfect starting point for any score fan new to this venerable franchise, a must-have for every lover of gorgeously orchestrated game music.

Might & Magic VII: For Blood and Honor (Paul Romero, 1999)

Might and Magic VII Soundtrack Album Title:
Might & Magic VII: For Blood and Honor Soundtrack
Record Label:
Catalog No.:
Release Date:
March 10, 2011
Purchase on GOG

By the time of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor‘s release, Paul Romero and Rob King had firmly installed themselves as the Might and Magic franchise’s go-to composers with Heroes of Might and Magic and its exceedingly ambitious sequel. They had also written the music for Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven. That score was curious if not entirely successful hybrid of fantasy and science fiction elements. However, it fitfully mirrored the game’s narrative. It also established Romero and King’s Might and Magic scores as the quirkier cousins to their steadfastly classically-inspired Heroes of Might and Magic works.

The Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack continued this inclination for experimentation and eclecticism. It turned out to be the best Might and Magic score, including the many Might and Magic console ports. Interestingly, Might and Magic VII ran on its predecessor’s engine and didn’t make many changes to the gameplay formula. For Blood and Honor‘s music, on the other hand, is a quantum leap over The Mandate of Heaven. In fact, in its seductive lushness, Romero’s score almost feels like a mismatch for the game’s blocky 3d graphics.

Music as sensual as the Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack lends itself to descriptions via imagery. To borrow a track title from Chance Thomas‘ Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, labelling For Blood and Honor a dance of mystery and intrigue does a good job at summing up the music’s particular and irresistible appeal. Following Paul Romero down the dimly lit maze that is this score does feel like a journey. It’s a trip through a demi world of lights flickering on the decadently gold-encrusted walls of an ancient underground temple. Everything is cast in flitting half shadows – and then seemingly out of nowhere, blinding white light fills the halls and grants visions of a strange, great beyond.

Indeed, For Blood and Honor fuses two very different moods into a coherent whole. In the process, it allows Romero to display an expert’s judgement in the subtle manipulation of atmospheric tones. What’s more, the instrumental palette he deploys on For Blood and Honor is surprisingly different from the strictly classical content of his Heroes of Might and Magic scores.

No matter which of its manifold sides the Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack presents, what stylistically unites the album is the sense that Romero casts it all as one big expression of otherworldliness. There’s a real sense that this is adventurous music underscoring unknown realms, creating a unique musical world in the process. In this sense, For Blood and Honor is a more original work than Romero and King’s Heroes of Might and Magic scores. It is also more creative than hundreds of other fantasy soundtracks that largely take their cue from romantic classical music. As a result, their musical universe often feels less fantastical and far more earth-bound in its familiarity.

What will initially strike listeners most about the Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack is how glowingly seductive it sounds. As his foundation, Romero uses luxurious string textures and decadently chromatic melodies. Within this stylistic framework, he fuses the sensibilities of tonal early 20th century classical music with middle-eastern scales, waltz rhythms, tasteful hand percussion and drum kit inserts, and an occasional serve of electronica. The result is a heady brew that’s in equal parts mysterious and bewitching. Throughout its running time, For Blood and Honor bathes listeners in the elusive, golden glow of its compositions. In their chamber music-like orchestrations and surprising intimacy, these pieces play like a more luscious version of Secret of Evermore.

Among other things, it was the first three Heroes of Might and Magic scores’ gorgeous melodies that made these works so outstanding. Thankfully, Romero brings the same instinct for delectable tunes to the Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack. True, his melodies here are more repetitive this time around, but this only adds to the music’s hypnotic spell. On this foundation, Romero builds a colourful construct that’s impressive in its versatility and emotional effect. For example, acoustic guitar and wordless, siren-like solo soprano lines join the orchestra on “Bracada Desert, Deyja”.

The score’s beguiling rhythmic lilt is helped by the inclusion of light drum kit and hand percussion sounds. And the chromaticism of the melodies isn’t limited to the strings, but also extends to the woodwind soli. They often turn out to be mischievous, cunning creatures that destabilise the harmonic structure of a piece just enough to make the listener wonder where the composition might be headed next. Take “Tularean Forest” and its wild, jagged string figures. They interfere with the soft waltz rhythms and cheeky woodwind melodies, keeping the piece’s atmosphere fascinatingly ambivalent.

But at times, Blood and Honor‘s shadows retreat and allow for a surprisingly eerie vision of yet another world. That realm is brighter and more distant, gleaming with choir vocals and electronic sounds. What makes this music so fascinating though is that it’s too uncanny to be an elating image of celestial fields.

Take “Light Theme (Celeste, Castle Lambent)”, where tinkling and swooshing sound effects open up a vast spectral space that is filled with the electronically manipulated sound of a male choir and deep string chords. This ethereal soundscape is completed by a soaring violin solo and glistening violin ensemble textures. It all creates an unearthly atmosphere of impressive emotional fervour that contrasts with the soundtrack’s usually dark-hued atmosphere. On “Evenmorn Island”, the male choir’s material ventures into spiritual realms, coupled with a similarly-natured violin solo. Soon a light electronic beat kicks in while the choir retains its solemnity. The resulting mixture is a much more convincing Enigma-inspired New Age track than The Mandate of Heaven‘s “The Hive”.

As is often the case, Good Old Games’ album release doesn’t present the compositions in chronological order. This means for example that the Title Screen and Credits cues are sequenced back to back, opening the album’s homestretch. But wonderfully, that doesn’t interrupt the album flow at all. In fact, the Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor soundtrack doesn’t lose its spellbinding effect for a second. True, “Emerald Island” doesn’t feel like the show stopping album closer one might expect from a fantasy game score. However, its nervy string jabs and agitated melodies are brilliantly in tune with the mood of the entire soundtrack. “Emerald Island” ends For Blood and Honor on a tentalisingly open note. It hints at answers and allows glimpses, but ultimately retreats from view to preserve its mysteries, still hidden away in subterranean twilight – and entices listeners to repeat the trip.

Posted on January 26, 2015 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on July 18, 2016.

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About the Author

A former German film student now living in Melbourne, Australia and working at the University of Melbourne's Architecture faculty - and a passionate music lover with an eclectic taste. Specialising in Western game music, I'm here to dig out the best scores Western video games have produced in the last thirty years.

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