What is a video game battle theme?

What is a video game battle theme? Do only certain genres of video games have battle themes? Can stage themes or character themes count as battle themes?

The theme for the Pixel Mixers February 2017 Cover Contest is for fan musicians to cover video game music from the ’90s that were used as battle themes. (If you are a musician and would like to participate, click that link for more information about our monthly contests.) But within just a few days of announcing this theme, I received several questions about what counts as a battle theme in a video game.

What are obvious choices for video game battle themes?

Typical battle, Final Fantasy 6 (1994)

When I first received suggestions for the February contest of music from 1998 video games and battle themes from PrjzCalavera and SwigglesRP (1st and 2nd place winners of the January cover contest, respectively), I knew that I wanted to combine these two themes. However, Prjz suggested that perhaps only having one year of game selections for battle themes might be too limiting. So, we increased the range to any game from the 90s.

If you google for “battle themes”, most of the first page results will relate to battle themes for popular RPG series such as the Final Fantasy and Pokémon series. This makes sense because RPG battle themes are clearly set for battles — so many RPGs (especially in the 90s) featured combat appearing on a separate screen with its own particular music that only played in that screen. This is true for every main Final Fantasy game from the 90s, all main Pokémon games from the 90s, as well as countless other RPGs.

But I wanted people to be more creative than this, and so I wrote the following on the Reddit announcement for the contest:

The theme means that you can pick any theme from any game released in the ’90s as long as it plays during battle or combat. This is broadly defined: it can be an RPG battle or boss. It can be a FPS stage. It can be an RTS stage. It can be a fighting game, shoot-em-up/beat-em-up. It can be a bullet hell. As long as there is combat/battling (and the game was released in the 90s), it counts!

Everything made sense in my head, but this was just the start of controversy.

Guile’s theme goes with everything, but is it a battle theme?

RPG battle themes are obvious because battles are separate from the rest of gameplay, and battle themes play specifically in those separate scenes. So, perhaps battle themes are specific to gameplay scenes where battling occurs?

However, this leads to several questions:

Does Guile’s theme from Street Fighter count as a battle theme? As the name implies, it’s really Guile’s theme — it is the theme associated with Guile’s character. It plays on Guile’s stage. Can music that is a “stage theme” or a “character theme” also be a battle theme?

Guile's Stage, Street Fighter II (1991)
Guile’s Stage, Street Fighter II (1991)

To me, if you look at where Guile’s theme plays in Street Fighter II (or in any Street Fighter game, for that matter), the fact is that it only plays on stages where you’re fighting. It does not play on any cutscenes that have no combat, or elsewhere in the game that has no combat. So, to me, Guile’s theme would be a battle theme.

Is the battle the most important thing to the stage or game?

Music from fighting games allow us to broaden the scope of what is a battle theme while still having relatively easy cases. Things get even harder when you think about platformers, sidescrollers, and Metroidvania games.

Does the stage music for a Mario game count as battle music? How about stage music for a Mega Man game?

Mario drops penguin, Super Mario 64 (1996)
Does dropping a penguin off a cliff really count as battling? Super Mario 64 (1996)

In both games, the stage potentially features violence and battling. The goombas are out to kill Mario for his money, and you can choose to jump away, or to jump on them. If robots are living, then Mega Man’s blasting them surely kills them.

But is the music more about the stage or the battling?

Here’s a question: is battling integral to winning the stage?

In games like the Mario and Mega Man games, you actually don’t have to battle most enemies. To beat a stage, you really just need to make it across to the end of the level. Defeating certain enemies is helpful to reaching that goal, but it’s not essential. So, Mega Man’s typical stage music or Mario’s typical stage music are not battle themes. However, to the extent that Mega Man bosses have different music, and to get past those bosses, you must battle the boss, those themes could be battle themes.

Other questions about what is or is not a battle theme

This theme is already very expansive. It should allow for a variety of genres other than just RPGs. However, there were still questions about a lot of questionable genres.

  • Does Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing count as “battles” because you can hit people with items?

I do not think so. The goal of Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing is to beat opponents to the finish line. Items are just a tool to help you do this. However, there is no win condition for “knocking the opponent out.”

  • Do you have to kill, or intend to kill an opponent for it to count as a battle theme?

To address the Mario Kart and DKR question, I originally proposed there needed to be death and killing. However, this goes too far in the other way — as mentioned before, if you search for battle themes, the Pokémon games show up very high in the rankings, and yet Pokémon games feature no deaths! Plus, should Mortal Kombat count as battle while Street Fighter is excluded? These counter-examples show that death probably should not be a requirement for a battle theme, even if many video games do feature death.

  • Can alternative forms of battling count?

So far, we’ve focused on physical battling. What about other battles? Is a match in Pokémon Trading Card Game a battle even though no Pokémon are actually hurt in that game? What about a battle of the minds?

I am open to be persuaded.

Please comment with your thoughts on anything that was discussed! And if you would like to write a guest blog post on this topic, please send a PM to me on Reddit (I am /u/subversiveasset) or reach out to me on Discord if you’re already a member of the Pixel Mixers server.


2 thoughts on “What is a video game battle theme?

  1. What an interesting topic!
    Thank you for this nice brainstorming moment.

    The thing is that, although pretty subjective, the majority of people (even search results) have a very specific thing when thinking of “battle theme”, be it a “boss battle” or simple “random encounter”.
    You could argue some platformers like Blasto (a great one from my childhood) that have a variation of the actual “stage theme” if and only when you encounter enemies in the levels and ends when you eliminate them (kill or else), is that a battle theme or not?
    But then, at least for me, you don’t go thinking “hmm, maybe Mario Kart has some nice themes” when the contest is actually about “battle themes”, since the first thing that comes to mind when thinking “battle” surely isn’t a kart race. That feels more like a competition, a game of some sorts, not a battle.

    Like I said on Discord, I really felt that some tried to find every possible way to bend these rules, finding the odd game that hasn’t really got “battle themes” and tried to make it count or something. A legitimate question is cool, but when you try to argue again and again that “this counts because…” it feels more like “to me battle theme is this and I want to do it so I’m going to find a way to make it count”.
    But hey, that’s just an opinion.

    If I’ll ever get to a point where I can help decide the next month’s theme I’ll try to find one that has these kinds of brainstorming possible, they’re really fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dacian,

    Thanks for commenting! I would DEFINITELY say that when/if platformers have a different stage music for when enemies are on screen that goes away when those enemies are defeated, that’s a battle theme.

    But I also agree with you that to me, Mario Kart doesn’t really fit — precisely in that a competition or game or race are a bit different than a battle. (However, I know that other people disagree, and there might be a blog post about a different perspective on Diddy Kong Racing…)

    But even though there’s one interpretation to see that it was just certain people trying to bend the rules, I think that there’s another way to interpret even that — it’s to point out that our conventional understandings can usually be challenged. Even if “battle theme” has a normal definition, there’s enough ambiguity that we can question that normal definition. I’m more interested in understanding why people think “to me, battle theme is this” than in saying, “well, i disagree and am not wiling to listen at all.”

    That being said, if people have controversial choices, then they really have to convince all the voters at the end of the month, not just me.

    Liked by 1 person

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