PIPE ORGANS RANKED + REVIEWED (Suggestions Open)
The professional opinion of a non-professional organist. Please read the notes included with each entry. When suggesting an entry, please include the title of both the game and the track(s) that include a pipe organ.
Tracks: Opening Theme, Dancing Mad
This is easily the most famous instance of a pipe organ being used in game music, and for good reason - Nobuo Uematsu has not only created the single most iconic organ riff since Bach's (or at least, it's attributed to him) opening theme in Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but also presents us with a full-course meal of luxuriously decadent chorales that punctuate throughout an otherwise brain-thumping prog rock final boss track which never fails to impress any listener lucky enough to stumble across it, whether in-game or out. The full spectrum of the organ is found here, with its powerful, chilling howls, its gently caressing beauty, and its sacred, enlightened profundity. This is the height of the pipe organ's appearance in the history of the medium, and it's unlikely to ever be topped.
Tracks: Resurrection, Idol Collapse, Premonition of Revival
Shadow of the Colossus is the pipe organ of video games.
Tracks: Journey to the Demon King, Hopelessness, The Demon King Odio, Armageddon
Live A Live ranks so highly here almost exclusively because of the track Armageddon. This is just a phenomenal organ piece. All the other tracks utilize the organ excellently as well, but Armageddon is right up there with Final Fantasy VI's Dancing Mad as one of the absolute best organ pieces the SNES - and indeed, video games as a medium - has to offer. A chillingly captivating piece of music with a distinguished air of dignity and gravitas gushing with passion. Absolutely astounding.
UPDATE: The 2022 remake of Live A Live beefs up and expands upon the game's organ repertoire. I will not be listing the remake separately from the original game, so instead I will mention it here; the new and extra work done in the remake bumps this entry up from "GREAT" to "PERFECT." Thank you, Shimomura-san.
Tracks: Wedding at Tarrey Town, Hyrule Castle
As you can see from the rest of the list (yes, even including my beloved Final Fantasy VI), video games have a nasty habit of utilizing the pipe organ by pulling out every single stop and letting it rip - which is such a shame!! The instrument is so much more diverse than that. Breath of the Wild is the only game I can think of that so prominently favors the more gentle colors of the organ; the flute, vox, and string stops, as opposed to the typical diapasons. Hyrule Castle in particular uses these to incredible effect - the track is otherwise a pretty standard militarized-orchestra-march affair, save for these quiet solo passages from the organ which turn a typical Star Wars-flavored track into something with meaning. It's no longer just a plunge into an evil castle; suddenly the castle has a history, a humanity, a memory to consider. If the orchestra is the cold stone walls and the bloodthirsty enemies that patrol inside of them, the organ is the tattered books strewn on the floor and the unmade beds that used to belong to people who will never be able to see the world return to peace. It brings a distinctly human touch to the setting and completely re-contextualizes the storm through the castle to always bring forward its tragic history.
Tracks: Cathedral of Shadows (all instances), Battle b6, Reign
The culmination of all the strength, beauty, and profundity of Shin Megami Tensei's pipe organs, which will be chronicled further throughout the list. This series has an unrivaled relationship with the pipe organ, and this game establishes itself as the peak not just by introducing new gorgeous, majestic, innovative tracks of its own, but also by resurfacing some legendary pipe organ tracks from games past. A true celebration of the single video game series that consistently showcases the pipe organ with the most virtuosity and splendor. Few poor words can be uttered against any of this series' application of the instrument, and none could even begin to approach the general direction of this entry.
Tracks: Sacred Capital, Elraine, Ancient Relics, Invitation to the Sea, A Resolution, Holy Place, Fortuna Shrine, Eternal Paradise, Utopia, Sacred Judgement, Zealot, Crooked Sight, Dona Nobis
Pacem, Wheel of Fortune, Wheel of Fortune ~ Last Judgement
Pacem, Wheel of Fortune, Wheel of Fortune ~ Last Judgement
This game was originally going to be a lot lower on this list, but then I came across Fortuna Shrine. Good lord. This is what it's all about, people. This soundtrack uses the pipe organ a lot, even in places I didn't expect it to be; it obviously has a deep love for the instrument, but Fortuna Shrine is the track where that love shines through the most sparklingly. This is a thick, babbling soup of some of the largest, most expressively emotional chords you can find in game music. The rest of the organ tracks don't especially impress too much, but the fullness of this organ's tone and the voicings of the chords manage to match and maintain the precedent Fortuna Shrine has laid throughout the soundtrack.
Track: Heretic Mansion (Shining Heaven)
Gorgeous flowing passages that develop and expand on each other seamlessly. Some of the absolute best counterpoint video game have to offer, with a pipe organ or otherwise. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!
Tracks: Treasure Box, Theme of Kefin II, Crime and Punishment, Wicked Pleasure (Intro)
Once again, the SNES gifts us with one of the absolute best pieces of organ writing in the history of the medium. Crime and Punishment is a powerhouse of a track, constantly weaving between themes, tones, and emotions to build a sprawling tapestry of pure artistry and raw passion. The organ's role is less significant in the other tracks, but it's always beautifully incorporated, and Crime and Punishment more than makes up for those other less-substantial outings.
Track: A Fragrant Prayer, Raging Gajiru
I can't get my jaw up off the floor during either of these tracks. A Fragrant Prayer sends such red-hot chills with its delicate, warping harmonic motions, and Raging Gajiru is an onslaught of intense, swelling chords and runs that pierce through the punching, rhythmic orchestra ensemble like fireworks in an inky, cloudy night sky. Absolutely masterful arrangements composed of brilliant part writing that makes each organ appearance engrossing, enthralling, and exhilarating from the first note.
Tracks: Stand Up Strong, A Tiny Enormous Miracle
In the massive expanse of MOTHER 3's soundtrack, there are only two pieces that utilize the pipe organ (and one of them doesn't really, but it's written and structured exactly like one so for my purposes it counts). Actually, I just ran the numbers: these two organ tracks account for exactly 1.29% of the total soundtrack. The incredible thing is that MOTHER 3's soundtrack contains some of the most intimately human and evocatively emotional music in the history of the medium - which is to say, even just 1.29% of it is still gonna be some of the best stuff around, and indeed it is. This isn't anything that will impress the way Final Fantasy VI does, or take advantage of the unique characteristics of the organ the way Breath of the Wild does, but what's here is extremely efficient, accurate, poignant, beautiful writing that more than pulls its weight in helping to shape one of the most transcendental soundtracks of all time.
Track: Mansion of Heresy, Mesia Cathedral
Absolutely astounding, breathtakingly beautiful, completely consummate. Shin Megami Tensei impresses again, and far from the last time. Unmistakably, unbelievably, unspeakably incredible. It's unfair to other games just how constantly these games use the pipe organ so immaculately...!!!
Tracks: Organ Style, Horror
Organ Style is just a performance of the fifth movement from Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony for Organ No. 5. And a damn good performance at that! Bravo to Peter James Adcock for a brilliant interpretation of a brilliant piece. Is it unfair to have actual organ repertoire so high on a list of video game music? Only as unfair as it is to include this as part of a game soundtrack in the first place. It was French composers around La Belle Époque like Widor that really drove my interest in music to be something I pursued as significantly as I do now and I can't hide my biases. Top of the list just on principal. (Widor was never one I was specifically interested in though - hit me up if you want to hear more about French composers that actually inspired me, I've got a lot to say and not many people to say it to!!)
Oh uh, and Horror is alright too. It's an original piece and it's got some neat ideas. But I mean, come on. We're all here for Widor.
Tracks: Perverse Religion, Who is Good or Evil?, I Miss You
One of the most shrill, unrefined organ tones on the Super Nintendo surely, which is why the absolute majesty and power of Perverse Religion in particular is so surprising. I'd have a hard time pointing you towards a worse organ sample in such a mainstream game, but I'd also have a have a hard time pointing you towards too much video game organ music better than this (though of course, by looking at this list, I suppose that's exactly what's happening). There's a lot of love being shown to the pedal board here, which is great to see - this pipe organ might be a little tinny but the sound down in that lower register is full and rich and massive. Perverse Religion is also one of the more technical pieces on this list, taking full advantage of just how much mobility an organ player has on such a large instrument. Magnificent.
Track: Pray for the People's Joy
One of the most pure, crystalline, beautiful organ pieces I've heard in a game. This piece isn't technically demanding, it doesn't use a unique combination of stops, it doesn't break genre conventions or use intense chromatic chords with tons of extensions, but it does have a heart the size of the moon and weeps with devastating compassion. There's an emotional honesty here that resonates so strongly because of its simplicity, not despite it. Simply put: a masterpiece.
Track: Deacons of the Deep
I've regularly said FromSoftware games are doing more to keep classical music traditions alive and relevant than actual classical music establishments and initiatives; tracks like this are what I'm talking about. There's a beautiful darkness that's exclusive to the languishing, dramatic elegance of something like Fauré's masterwork requiem that not many games have the confidence to approach. Dark Souls III not only has that confidence, but also the skill to back it up. This is just actual classical music and I'll eat it up every time.
Track: What Lack
It feels weird putting my own music so high... but the fact of the matter is, I mean, of course I'm making the kind of music I'd want to hear! And of course I'd write for the organ the way I want organs to be written for. I promise this isn't coming from a place of ego or nepotism - it's just that the same mind who is constructing this list also constructed this organ music, so of course it checks the necessary boxes.
I will, however, refrain from being so vain as to review the reasons of why I think it's good. I'm not here to suck myself off. What I can do instead is offer some insight into the actual writing process.
This is a piece I had actually written back all the way in 2017 - well, "written." I sat at a little electronic organ one day and just kinda played around. I liked some of the chords I was using and the meter I was using them in, so I eventually developed it out into a more properly structured and defined piece. It was about half the length it currently exists as now in this soundtrack; in 2021 I decided to bring this piece back and flesh it out for this game. The 2017 lyrics have remained perfectly in tact, but I did write more to extend the voice further into the piece. A fun game for you to play might be trying to see if you can tell where the 2017 ends and the 2021 begins. It's been a long journey, but now in 2022 it's finally released. Shout out to my friend Tia for lending her amazing voice and providing an incredible performance.
Track: Marriage & Cohesion
Similar to Xenogears, this is just such a beautifully heartfelt work. It doesn't need to be anything flashy; being honest means so much more.
Tracks: Hey You, What Time Is It?, Come Here! I Defend You, The Absence of My Father from My Childhood, This is Also Training, Of My Life I Regret Nothing, Winged Maiden
Another SNES game that absolutely knocks it out of the park. All of the organ music here is positively lovely - including Come Here's surprise appearance which shows up completely out of nowhere, bringing out this gorgeously lush solo in the middle of a piece that otherwise has absolutely nothing to do with the pipe organ at all, complete with exactly the kind of sparkling writing I'm always looking for. Whether the pipe organ is the main focus of a track or a background texture, its inclusion is never off-handed and always brings something to chew on. Every instance of it in the soundtrack is a delightful surprise that constantly indulges itself by doing things a little differently than how you'd expect, mirroring Treasure Hunter G's position in the SNES RPG canon.
Tracks: Prologue, Moonlight Nocturne, Requiem for the Gods, Finale Toccata
If Final Fantasy VI introduced the pipe organ/prog rock marriage into video game music, Symphony of the Night is the next step in its evolution. I only wish it used the organ as effectively as Final Fantasy VI did; it often winds up being more of a background texture for other instruments to project on top of. There are some novel implementations of the organ here though, especially Requiem for the Gods' lowering the attack on the beginning organ chords so they gradually fade forward in a way that a real organ would not be able to do. When the organ does take center stage it's absolutely masterful; I just wish it did so more often.
Track: Thee Houses Main Theme, The Crest of Flames, Arcana Code, Life at Garreg Mach Monastary, Scales of the Goddess, Garreg Mach Cathedral, The Archbishop, At What Cost?
A lot of the pipe organ's use here is to invoke this ancient, sacred sound of the past. And well, they do it in a really boring way!! The writing is flat and lifeless - which yes, that kind of stasis is exactly the kind of emotion this context calls for - but it makes for horribly dull organ writing. Fortunately, that's not all this soundtrack has to offer; whenever the organ is used outside of these situations (save for the splash of unconvincing half-committed pop flavor of Life at Garreg Mach Monastary), there's a switch that gets flipped which decides if it's going to be Poulenc/Duruflé-flavored impressionism or Franck/d'Indy-flavored Romanticism, showcased excellently in Garreg Mach Cathedral which tends to flip between them throughout the piece. The careful, considerate, conscious bridging between these two styles is the organ's stand-out moment in the soundtrack and basically the sole reason this game ranks so highly. I get the feeling this composer is just kind of showing off their vocabulary of repertoire here - but unlike most showcases of talent for the sake of itself, this one is actually grounded in some kind of genuine artistry. There's a reverence for the history of the organ and it's being applied to create something new and beautiful.
Tracks: Jakyou, Fusion
Breathtakingly beautiful swirling counterpoint that restlessly pushes forward, ever-growing, never halting its momentum even for a second. Phenomenal.
Tracks: Sky Palace, Fillmoa
Some of the juiciest chords you'll find for the organ in any game. Yuzo Koshiro really knows how to squeeze the sound out of this thing - the organ's place in this soundtrack is meaningful and deliberate. Incredible and effective writing.
Track: Tainted Lovers
The interplay here between the pipe organ and the guitar is seriously incredible - maybe the best actual blending of traditional organ writing and rock music I've seen yet, which is something a good amount of games tend to try for. The pipe organ isn't around for nearly as long as the electric organ is, but it uses its limited time on the stage to blast out some absolutely show-stopping riffs that perfectly blends the inherently technical run-on nature of both Baroque music and guitar solos without ever feeling disingenuous to either of them. Really, these are two styles that have a lot more similarities between each other than differences, but somehow a lot of games tend to get too stuck on those differences; this game understands their similarities in a gorgeously authentic way and lets it rip in one of the most exciting entries on this list.
Tracks: Koopa Castle, The Dungeon Is Full of Monsters, Geno Awakens, Celebrational Melody, Fight Against Smithy
What's incredible about Super Mario RPG is that, even back on the SNES, it utilizes a different combination of stops for every track the pipe organ is used in (several different combinations in Fight Against Smithy)! One of them is even exclusive to a quick little jingle - I have a sneaking suspicion Yoko Shimomura is an organhead just like me. Hell, composers now in 2022 hardly take the time to use different organ stops throughout their soundtracks! This alone would be enough for me to put this pretty high in this ranking of pipe organ representation, but on top of this, the music written for the organ is also sublime. It's not particularly prevalent throughout the entire soundtrack, but whenever the organ does show up it's always a treat - well, more like a meal, and let me tell you, we're eating good.
Track: Shadowlord's Castle / Memory, Shadowlord
Similarly to MOTHER 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shadowlord's Castle / Memory does not actually use a real pipe organ, but the synthesized sounds are so clearly evocative of one and written in such exactly the same style that for our purposes it counts. Also similarly to MOTHER 3, this is one of the most incredible soundtracks of all time, in which every instrument is used with a thoughtful, considerate, deliberate hand to squeeze out the maximum expression at any possible moment. As such, the organ writing here is predictably exquisite. My only complaint is that I could have sworn it was used more often - and I wish it was with how glorious its inclusions are!! Please, Okabe, I'm starving!!
Positively chilling. Much of the work is being carried by the choir, but the organ's got a towering presence here that shades the entire piece in this cloak of austerity. This is another instance of an organ in a video game that feels more like authentic performance repertoire than video game music (well, more like choir repertoire than organ repertoire, but one tends to beget the other). Marvelous.
Virgo is the only track in Ace Combat 3's soundtrack that uses a pipe organ, but it's used in the single most unique way I've found in a score yet. The organ itself isn't playing anything particularly incredible, but the way it's spliced and remixed re-contextualizes the sound of an organ to be something completely new. Being so big, organs ring out in the space of the room they're in, so splicing between samples also means cutting between different points of reverberation in the room. That physical continuity of the space (or lack thereof), matched with some twisting harmonic sequences crafted by jigsaw-puzzle-shuffling-around different points of the recording, results in a fascinatingly disorienting track that only manages to remain so meticulously cohesive thanks to an astoundingly delicate hand of an obviously experienced artist. One of the most innovative sounds I've heard not just from a pipe organ, but from a video game in general.
Track: Theme of Simon (Stage 1), Entrance Hall (Stage 6-1), Dracula's Death, Ending
Conventional, but lavishly decadent writing. Entrance Hall in particular stands out, with punching staccato phrases utilizing the whole range of the organ, weaving around steadily growing layers of secondary harmonic functions that creep with a breathless anticipation. Evocative, exciting, excellent.
Tracks: Daeq Fazol, Cutscene #9
Wow... Daeq Fazol is gorgeous. One of the more atmospheric applications of the organ I've heard. It's easy to say that and think back to the many other low-ranking entries that just sit on chords for a long time, but this is more than that. These delicate, colorful chord stabs puncturing through the fuzzy blanket of the rest of the arrangement adds a real, tangible, recognizable atmosphere in a very literal sense, as opposed to how people tend to use the word "atmospheric" when talking about music. This isn't "atmospheric" because it's slow and quiet; it's really and truly building an actual atmosphere by playing with the physical structure of when, why, and how certain sounds happen at certain times. This is beautiful.
... Oh!! And I didn't even talk about Cutscene #9 yet!! I have no idea where this plays in the game, and the name certainly doesn't help give any context (I'm referring to an unofficial upload of the soundtrack) but this is an absolutely fantastic piece of organ writing.
Later on in this list I'm going to get horribly emo about the state of pipe organs in Tales soundtracks. If only I knew how much things would improve. Tales organs are more than alive, they're thriving baby!!
Tracks: Joyous Promenade, Caute Cave Mortem, Baking the Wondertart
Nobody needs me to say just how unbelievable Cuphead's music is. I've called it "one of the single most impressive audio/visual experiences since the turn of the century" and I really truly believe that. We didn't get much organ music in the base game, but the DLC manages to pull it out just a few more times - and thank goodness! What a treat. That Kristofer Maddigan manages to work impeccably with every style he tries. The organ music is just as wonderful and just as authentic as the big band stuff, which is to say, it's damn good.
Tracks: Holy Radiance, Fallen Angel, Caught Between Hope and Despair
Nearly every instance in which a pipe organ simply squeezes out a melodic line and nothing else ranks considerably lower on this list, but Holy Radiance is such a beautiful melodic line that suits the tone and playability of the organ unbelieveably perfectly. The organ only playing a melodic line here does not diminish the instrument's use in this track at all since the part is so immaculately suited for it. All other organ tracks in this game are similarly incredible - and they apply more of the organ's full utility as an instrument, as well. It's tough to choose a favorite or say one is particularly better than the other; this is just a game with incredible music across the board, and every use of the organ is inspired and effective.
Track: The Sanctum
Emancipate the dissonance, baby. Where so much of this list is swallowed up by Baroque- and Romantic-flavored music, this is something a lot more modern. It's not like we're on the verge of Ligeti here, but this certainly is along the lines of the kind of stuff contemporary organists would be playing in our current post-Dupré world. Uematsu's got his pulse on a lot more music scenes than he lets on, it seems!! That, or contemporary organ music has a lot more in common with other contemporary music genres than we (I) give it credit for, which is also strikingly likely. Either way, this rules. Thank you.
Tracks: Theme of Sparda, Cathedral, Magic Sword Sparda Acquired, Hell's Great Temple, Awakening, Collapse of the Demon Emperor Mundus, Demon Emperor Mundus Again, Demon Emperor Mundus Battle 3 Underground
Simply looking at that track list should be a pretty good indication of how well the organ is being treated here. The writing is good and it is frequent; someone rented out a cathedral and wanted to get the most bang for their buck, and now we're the ones benefiting from it.
Track: Ultimate Koopa
This is a classic. It'd be easy to write this off as a generic pipe organ track being used for an evil character simply for the sake of itself (as I will often be doing further down this list), but the writing here is incredible! The motives are all clearly defined, developed on masterfully, and effectively utilizes the full extent of the instrument's range. As far as pipe organs being included just for the sake of the villain is concerned, this is as good as it gets.
Track: Palace of Peace
One of the first instances of truly great organ music in a video game. The immaculate counterpoint and development of themes makes the underwhelming Genesis sound chip sing with an unmistakably Baroque sensibility, and it is beautiful.
Track: Actos Shrine
Remarkable track that weaves in and out of languishing darkness and triumphant grandeur with a precise flippancy I've never quite seen before. Utterly entrancing and gorgeously structured.
Track: Granas Sanctuary
An otherworldly pristine beauty. Not even disappointed that the organ is absent for half the track, because the half it is there for is positively mystifying. Cold and withdrawn, yet reflective and sensitive.
Tracks: Sacred Space, Separation With God
I think it's up for interpretation whether or not Sacred Space is an organ piece (I could also see it being a string ensemble), but Separation With God is absolutely a pipe organ and it's downright incredible. Lovingly, hauntingly, atrociously emotional work that continues to unfold and reveal more of itself as it keeps pushing forward.
Track: Water Prison, Movement of Wicked Energy, The Last Moment of the Dark
It's Ys Origin, dude. We all know. I don't gotta say nothing we all know this shit goes crazy. Moving on.
Tracks: Title, The Great Union, Tranquil Hill, Servants of Granada, Staff Roll
I've been vindicated! Further down this list, I mention Paladin's Quest (or Lennus 1) had the potential for incredible organ music, but it just wasn't applying itself enough. Well, now in the sequel, here we are!! The organ music here is serviceable at worst, and stunning at best. Tranquil Hill blew me back in my seat with how ethereally dazzling these chords are. For my money, it's the most unique chords to come out of an SNES pipe organ - and hopefully you can tell by this list I'm saying that with an intense familiarity in that particular subject. There's never been anything else quite like this on that console. What an absolute pleasure to discover something so pristine hidden and tucked away in a game like this.
Track: Soul Sanctum
Excellent use of the organ's many sounds and expressions. Intimate, introspective, intense, it's a deeply thoughtful piece that necessitates reflection. At least, this is true when the organ is on its own - the bulking brass hits and stabbing string ostinatos that show up after a while kind of undo a lot of what the organ was building towards. Fantastic organ writing that unfortunately winds up getting talked over right before it's about to say what it wants to say.
Track: MISSA Requiem
If Dark Souls III is like Fauré's Requiem, this is more like Mozart's. Which shoot, I mean, what a compliment!! I'm not huge on Mozart but I do love that requiem, and similarly this track is phenomenal. Video games love to throw around the word "requiem" just for fun, but this is the first time it seems like it's being used to recall the historical significance of what requiems really are. Would never have expected music so accurate to the late Classical/early Romantic era to wind up in a rhythm game. Magnificent.
Track: Mirror of Judgement
That classic Baroque balance of dignified, brilliant counterpoint and flowing passion finds its way into yet another climactic moment in a video game. Gorgeously weaving and interlocking phrases that expand on each other wonderfully. Such a tightly structured piece of music is a surprise in the Planet Laika soundtrack, and that sudden juxtaposition to the rest of the game scores its scene perfectly.
Tracks: The Prayer of a Tragic Queen, Pressure, Theme of Simon
I'll admit that these organs are not quite so clearly defined as Crusader of Centy's - they sound as if they could just as well be replaced with strings or a harpsichord or whatever else. With Crusader of Centy as a comparison, we can know this falls not on the Genesis' sound chip, but with the way these pieces were written. The music is great, but for this to have ranked higher they would need to be written and structured in a way more authentic and unique to an organ as opposed to anything else.
Track: Smooch of Divine Protection
Gorgeously honest little gospel-flavored organ playing. Fun harmonic movements, fun little performance flourishes - would easily skyrocket higher up the list if not for how solidly conventional it is. When I hear the name Hirofumi Taniguchi, "conventional" is the last word I think of - would have loved to see him push it a little more here!
Track: Battle! Dr. Tomouki
Surprisingly intricate contrapuntal writing flying over top an uncharacteristically straight (for Soichi Terada) hip hop beat. There's a lot of confidence on display here, as well as a lot of technical accomplishment; the harmonic places the two organ lines wrap around to are incredibly inspired, and the two distinct tones being used for the two lines compliment each other charmingly. There's a lightness both in both flavor and performance that allows this piece to float around to wherever it wants - organs rarely feel so playful!
A premonition of great things to come when the first thing you hear upon booting a game up is a massive chord on a pipe organ! An even greater premonition when it develops into an absolutely show-stopping cantata with choir and string orchestra, with the pipe organ taking a commanding lead. Unfortunately, that premonition wound up being a lie - the pipe organ is absent for the entire rest of the soundtrack. However, this can be forgiven by just how powerful its presence is here right at the start. If only the actual game was as good as this...
Tracks: Jakyou no Yakata, Devils Fusion, Terminal Point
Rich, powerful, profound counterpoint as expected of a Jakyou track in a Shin Megami Tensei game. The other two tracks unfortunately, while carrying an appropriate gravitas, are just a little on the grating side. Something about the tone of the organ and the pitches being sustained for so long just doesn't sit perfectly well.
Track: Hotel Gomaden
As always, gorgeous counterpoint being displayed in a Shin Megami Tensei game. Something about this feels a little more dry and academic compared to other Shin Megami Tensei titles, it doesn't tug at the heart as much as the others, but it's still beautiful and impeccably structured.
Tracks: The GOD bites own lip in chagrin, The Cat Attached to the Rust
Interesting genre combinations here! The Cat Attached to the Rust uses the pipe organ alongside a folksy combination of acoustic guitar and whistling to invoke this kind of mish-mashed Americana style, half-parts bluegrass and half-parts gospel. It's really pretty! The organ writing here is simple but effective, and its place in the ensemble is unique - one of the more inspired creative decisions on this list!
Tracks: Tower of Spirits (Dungeon), Tower of Spirits (Staircase), Final Battle: Malladus
The pipe organ is a very evocative sound in this soundtrack; the tone being used here is a more gentle assortment of principal stops than the typical full-stop video game organ, but not reaching such a delicate color as Breath of the Wild's flutes. It also tends to be pretty quiet in the mix; this results in a sound that, while powerful, has a smoothness to it that compliments the naturalistic folk sounds of this game. It's an inspired choice that plays an actively engaging role in this game's already unique sound profile.
This track in Sanitarium is at once comforting and disquieting, warm and cold. It's one of the more nuanced emotions I've heard come out of an organ and greatly uses the sensitive characteristics of the instrument to its benefit in achieving this.
Track: Lurking Enemy Castle 2
In a soundtrack so steeped in traditional Japanese culture (which is rendered lovingly even with such limited technology), I was surprised to find such a bouncy, authentic, Western-classical-styled toccata for what surely must be a pipe organ! Three-part counterpoint flying by and weaving around itself, each voice tossing points of interest between each other, this is just a wonderful piece of organ writing.
Tracks: Thou Shalt Play, Demon Fusion
It's starting to become unfair just how incredible Shin Megami Tensei's pipe organs are... And it's cool that the Nohobino plays! Just a shame that he can't scrounge up any actually engaging repertoire when he's got a full series worth of options to choose from. That little riff he plays is pretty cheesy, but Thou Shalt Play prevents this game from losing its Shin Megami Tensei Pipe Organ prestige.
Tracks: Safety in the Sanctuary, Yuga's Plan, Osfala Captured, Zelda's Portrait
Safety in the Sanctuary is a gorgeous development of Link to the Past's iconic track, which introduces a pipe organ to the choir and gives that organ a marvelous little phrase of its own separate from just doubling the choir parts. The rest of the pipe organ music in this is acceptable bordering on pretty good, but really this just gives me an excuse to rank Link to the Past's sanctuary music on this list, since the pipe organ is not present in the SNES release. One of my favorite pieces of Zelda music, and now it has an organ in it!!
Tracks: Light Force of the Gods, Disciple of Darkness, The Dragon God and the Shrine Maiden, Advent of the Demon Beast
Positively beautiful and surprisingly melodic organ writing here despite always being an accompaniment texture, with the highlight being Light Force of the Gods. The organ isn't even present for about two-thirds of that piece, but when it shows up it sure makes a hell of an impression. Full and rich, and effectively saying exactly what it needs to say.
Track: Watch Out for the Giant, Perplexing Dungeons
Surprise banger out of nowhere from a silly little Data East platformer on the Genesis - this shit rules!! It's no Crusader of Centy but the pipe organ in this is not only clearly identifiable, it's also used a lot more dynamically here than a lot of other games manage to eke out. The music in this game is unreasonably impressive and it finds some real sweet places to employ great organ writing.
Track: Funerary Services
Beautiful chords with a sprinkle of that classic Taniguchi quirk - the organ may just be just be pure block chords, but when the chords are so fascinating and expressive, it's hard to complain.
Tracks: Solemn Castle, Sanctuary, Leon ~Victim of Fate~
Solemn Castle really takes the cake here; Sanctuary is little more than a bunch of scale runs and Leon's sitting on our tried and true long, stagnant block chord accompaniment technique. It's a good thing, in that case, that Solemn Castle is absolutely gorgeous; a little simple and predictable, and not really doing much that utilizes any unique qualities of the organ, but this little motive of constantly landing on then resolving off of non-chord tones really helps lean into the heart-squeezing largeness of this organ's sound.
Tracks: God's Baptism, Shrine
Wow! Surprisingly intricate, authentic pipe organ music on this very early Genesis game. It's nothing that especially blows me away, but it is very pleasant and excellently arranged - especially considering the hardware.
Tracks: Watchtower, Mysterious Coffin, First Struggle, Underground Waterway, Malus Reappears, Toothed Wheel, Third Struggle - Dance of Illusions, Melodies of Castlevania
Further down on this list I'll be complaining a lot about the pipe organ being used purely for accompaniment purposes - I need to express that those are examples of the pipe organ being used as an accompaniment instrument poorly. This is how to do it right. It's rare for the organ to have any solo segments for it to show off here (though they're great moments the few times it does happen) so most of the time it's simply a part of the larger ensemble. Though even when it's relocated to just these background textures, it still finds ways to poke through and add something to the conversation. Sometimes it's a strangely produced tone, sometimes it's rhythmically slamming down on chords to provide an extra layer of forward driving momentum, or sometimes it really is simply sitting square on some block chords - which still finds a way to be interesting just by the virtue of how the rest of the ensemble dances around the organ being so firmly planted in the ground. Oftentimes the pipe organ being in situations like this winds up feeling bland and inconsequential, but here it always plays a vital role and helps add to a sound that winds up being more than the sum of its parts. Some of the later entries in this list might make it seem like I despise the pipe organ being stuck as a supporting role - this is not true. It simply needs to be treated with the same consideration and respect in that role like any other instrument would be shown, as it is here in Castlevania 64.
Tracks: Black Feet, Empire, Boxship
Many instruments in the Panzer Dragoon Saga soundtrack are more like an approximation of actual instruments than always being perfectly identifiable. Most of what's included here is, like some other entries on this list, close enough to a pipe organ both in tone and in writing to be considered as such.
Try as I might, there's very little I can muster up to actually say about the organ in this. I feel the same way about the music as I feel about the game itself; it's a feeling, it's an understanding, it's one of the most honest expressions I've ever seen of anything. Maybe to someone else the organ here will not seem much different from the "boring, lifeless" organs I place further down the list, but here I can feel such a strong and deliberate intentionality. The slowness is the point. The heaviness is the point. It is exactly what it wants to be. It is exactly what it needs to be.
Track: A Prayer to the Road That Leads
Interact with the pipe organ in the cathedral and Chrono will play these quick little chords. Well, "little" - they're gorgeous. The organ tone is rich and full, the chords are thick and creamy, it's a delight. Obviously would have preferred this to be a full piece rather than a quick little idea (and indeed, an incredible piece could be developed off this single idea alone), but it's still an excellent display of organ playing.
Track: Drawcia Sorceress
The stereo panning of the different organ lines implies some kind of manual coupling, which would be the first time I've heard this as a deliberate structural decision in any game soundtrack. Here's a quick lesson for anyone unfamiliar with how pipe organs are built: every organ console consists of however many keyboards, or "manuals" as we call them (because they're played with the hands; the "keyboard" we play with our feet is the pedal board), usually ranging from 2-4. These manuals are not just for show; they each connect to a different set of pipes. We call these sets of pipes "ranks." Since these pipes are so large, they need to be set up all around a room, they wouldn't all fit in just one spot. So, let's say we have three manuals on a console; there's one manual that connects to ranks on the left side of the room, one that connects to ranks on the right side of the room, and one that connects to a few ranks on both sides. Playing just the first manual would only sound from the left side of the room, since that's where all its associated ranks are. HOWEVER, using a certain mechanism on the organ's console, we can "couple" manuals together - now when you press a key on the first manual, it will also trigger a corresponding key on the second manual without you actually touching that manual yourself. Now, by pressing a key on the first manual, there's sound coming from different ranks on both sides of the room. This is usually used for the sake of combining sounds that are not mapped to the same manual, but it can also be used for something like this that plays with the space of the sound. Whether or not that was the goal with this track, it certainly is happening - there's one organ line that only ever exists as a direct parallel to the other lines, panned to a separate stereo channel from the other organ lines, which certainly is exactly how coupling on an organ works. Cool!
Tracks: Main Title, Defeat, Medal of Honor, Of the Century, Seven Seas, Dawn of Empire, For The Queen!, Wild Frontier, Soldiers Grief, Obstinate Seals, Q.R.G. Guardians, Ardent Prince, Battle Steps, Burn the Floor!, At Advantage, Grand Troops, First Move!, Queen's Army, Fountain Keeper, Spirit's Calling, Take the Field, Dark Side, Willin' Delight, Another Day, Quick Suspicion, A.W.E., My Own Enemy, R.T.S.!
This one is interesting. It uses the pipe organ a lot, but it's an altered sample of one with no sustain and very quick decay, which allows it to be used in a lot more contexts than a normal pipe organ. It gets a lot of use in this soundtrack by doing quick flourishes and runs and arpeggios, but in a way that sounds more like a sparkling synthesizer than the typical heavy darkness the organ usually carries. Thanks to its short sample length, the pipe organ here is able to lend the color of its voice without necessarily muddying up the mix as it tends to do. This would be a wonderful excuse for the composer to have it start doing phrases the instrument would otherwise never do (a la Kirby's pan flutes, for example), but instead the organ is pretty much always played pretty straight and authentically (and just a bit too conventionally); it just sounds a little different than it normally does. Which is cool! The organ carries not just a lot of cultural baggage with it but also timbral ones. The organ can very easily paint a massive wall over the entire frequency spectrum, which can be troublesome for audio mixers (especially when the mix needs to accommodate something like the Nintendo DS speakers, as Ys Strategy does). I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of game composers tend to stay away unless they have a really obvious, clear thematic reason to use it. This is an interesting work-around that allows us to see the pipe organ used as a staple of the soundtrack in many more contexts than we normally would. Very cool to see so much pipe organ love in one place! It's just a shame that so much of it is standard arpeggios and scalar runs that wind up being background textures more than anything else.
Track: Ganon's Tower
Working up the tower to the score of this organ music, only to reach the top and find that Ganondorf himself was the one playing it is the best use of a physical organ in an actual video game environment so far. The music is only so-so, but we're getting actual on-screen organ representation here, and it's a great scene at that. Fantastic moment.
Track: The Hilltop Mausoleum
Wow!! This one leaves quite an impression pretty immediately. By now you must be familiar with how much I love "big, juicy chords" on the pipe organ - well here we are again, with some big juicy chords to blow me away right at the start. Great opening!! This only lasts so long though; once the organ is finished establishing itself, it spends the rest of the track just outlining accompaniment chords for the rest of the ensemble to play on top of. As far as "organ as accompaniment" tracks go (which is a significant percentile of organs on this list), this one at least keeps some sense of momentum, and even gives the organ a few extra measures to shine on its own once again before too long, but it never even comes close to the height of the introduction passage. Sure is a shame it couldn't maintain that energy throughout the entire piece, but even when it gets dialed back, this is still a completely worthy piece of organ writing.
Track: Cackletta Theme, Agony
Yet another villain with a pipe organ. This one at least has a pretty distinct flavor to it; it's got just a bit of a lilt to it which helps characterize Cackletta as less of an outright "villain" and more of an inconvenience. Tossing the theme around between the different registers is a great way to develop a piece that is used a lot in actual organ repertoire but not so much in games; it's nice to see it here.
Track: The Force of a True Ancestor
Nice!! Great interplay between the organ and orchestra, the melismatic runs are dynamic and exciting, awesomely large and powerful chords, this is delicious. It's just a bit typical and lacking in full-fledged part writing, but what's here is great for what it is.
Track: Crossbell Cathedral
Perfectly pleasant and authentic church music. Smooth, gentle selection of stops, delicately balanced part writing, if you told me this was actually a piece of Bach music I'd have no reason not to believe you (though only because for as great as Bach is, a lot of his music in major keys can be exceptionally simple, bordering on boring - this track is more like those than the Bach pieces that really impress me).
Track: The Mausoleum
Quirky little waltz with a gorgeous organ tone and fun, dynamic writing. A unique angle of the organ we don't normally hear - just a good time!
Track: Dark Colossus - Kaiju
Similar use to Final Fantasy VI, where the organ is only introduced after the rest of the ensemble hangs back. It's a great little shining moment that adds a great texture to the piece, but unfortunately the actual organ writing itself is a little sparse. By no means bad, just lacking. It could certainly do with a more "full" sounding selection of pulled stops or a more dynamic part with more movement.
Tracks: Prologue, Successor of Fate, Epilogue
"Harmony of Dissonance" is right! Very very strange harmonies in this, but never feeling unnecessary. There's a thoughtfulness behind it all that makes the lack-of-relation between chords still feel like they click into a meaningful place. Where most video game organ music leans more Baroque, this leans more Expressionist, which is a side of the organ that doesn't often appear in games. Great to see it show up here!
Track: Tatsh feat. K. Nayuki
Wow! I've shamed other games on this list for unsuccessfully trying to merge organ music with pop music - while dance music and pop music aren't quite the same, I am impressed at how well they mingle here. The difference between this and the other games that try is that the organ here is not accommodating the dance music, it's an organic part that doesn't sacrifice any aspect of itself to belong in the ensemble. The organ is making great use of its full register, it's employing some great harmonic movements, but it's not doing this despite the dance music, it's doing this because of it. These two aspects are working together to support each other rather than trying to make one change to better suit the other. Games that try to use the organ for more modern pop-styled music should take notes.
Track: Bloody Tears
The classic theme from Simon's Quest is brought back, juiced up, and developed on gorgeously here. Gorgeous organ tone, excellent writing (as it was on the NES as well - the only reason the original Simon's Quest track is not present in this list is because the genre blending and limited NES sound channels make it difficult to discern what parts are really supposed to be an organ and which are not), just an incredible win for organ lovers. It's only a shame we don't see it much else in this soundtrack, they've obviously got a great hand for it!
Track: The Last Battle
As far as SNES organs are concerned, this one is pretty weak. The tone is limp and the writing is straight and utilitarian - not bad writing by any definition, but compared to its contemporaries in Final Fantasy VI and Live A Live, it can't even find a candle to try and hold in the first place. We do at least get some fun interplay between the organ and the rest of the orchestra here - usually these pieces are written in a way where the organ winds up being separate from the rest of the ensemble. It feels like it really belongs in the space here and is engaging with the material in some kind of meaningful way.
Track: Is it Love? A
Gentle yet oppressive, smooth yet unrelenting; a fascinating expression for the organ. Not a particularly engaging piece musically, but the feeling of it is remarkable.
Tracks: Boss Encounter (Gordor Version 1), Boss Encounter (Gordor Version 2), Battle! (Entei), Battle! (Arceus)
Wow! It's great to see so much solo organ music so front-and-center in a Pokemon game. And most of it is pretty good! Gorgor 2 seems more interested in showing off than constructing a meaningful piece of music, but the other ones are great. Arceus in particular really stands out. Gloriously majestic, yet in a way understated. A beautiful pairing with such a powerful being; this is the most reserved battle music I've ever heard from a Pokemon game and it's incredible that it plays while fighting God. Obviously God = religion = pipe organ isn't a terribly inspired train of thought to follow, but refraining from the typical Pokemon maximalism for this more honest refinement is an impeccable choice.
Track: Track 21
Intoxicating meandering that finds a direction in its own directionless to wind through some harmonic sequences that only seem to be concerned with one thing: is the phrase moving upwards or downwards? Conventional cadences and chordal relationships are foregone for surprisingly heartfelt passages that just seem to happen upon chords rather than intentionally arriving to them. A transient beauty that's characteristic of early FromSoftware titles.
Track: The Crime
Evocative of the playful sound of when organs were used to accompany movies and theatrical productions in the early 1900's - very very cute! That's a section of organ history that often goes unloved, so it's nice to see a callback to it in a video game cutscene - it's scoring the scene identically to how they would have back in the day. This is one of those things where I can imagine the composer having this epiphany moment of "Oh, it'd be really cute if we scored this part like this" - and it is!
Track: Octum's Desire
A gorgeous chorale that bookends an otherwise pretty uninteresting orchestra piece. Thank goodness the parts with the pipe organ are so beautiful!!
Tracks: Fade Into Darkside, Carpet
Fade Into Darkside has a great little opening phrase with the organ, but then it's dropped for the rest of the piece; meanwhile, Carpet is all organ all the time, but it's pretty standard fare of a bunch of chromatic mediants signposting the typical dark, oppressive sound expected of a pipe organ for a final boss. Luckily, the absolute impact of those organ chords at the start of Fade Into Darkside are such a shock at the immediate tone shift the game goes through that it still winds up being an inspired inclusion, and the chord voicings and extensions in Carpet manage to be considerate and fulfilling. Monster World IV's soundtrack is incredible and though the organ very nearly falls into the typical pitfalls, enough charm still finds its way into these to maintain character - and indeed, they're quite iconic in their own right.
Context: A puzzle near the end of the game
Koudelka, despite being a horror-themed RPG, does not feature a pipe organ anywhere in its soundtrack. Which is pretty funny - RPGs and horror games are the genres people probably most expect to be using those!! Well, not Koudelka - at least, not in its music. Towards the end of the game is a large, decrepit pipe organ that is used to solve a puzzle, which when solved rings out a single cluster chord slam that reverberates out through the room. The puzzle, as the game describes it, involves looking at the "keys" on the organ and "pushing" the ones that have specified markings on them. The reason I use quotation marks is because there are some pretty incredulous errors here: the "keys" they're referring to are the pipe organ's stops, and stops are not "pushed," they're pulled!! For how hyper-attentive the descriptions are for everything else in this game, I simply do not accept that the localization team saw the word "organ" in some compiled spreadsheet of text and assumed it was referring to the keyboard. The entire rest of the game could not have been written so intricately if this was the case. The only conclusion I have to come to is that they simply do not understand how pipe organs work. To make matters worse, the puzzle has to do with markings etched and scratched into the pipe organ's stops, which along with its decayed state is a tragic, gory sight for any organ aficionado. The thing is covered in dust, all the pipes are bent, there's a massive plant growing all around it so it must be horribly humid in that room, warping the wood and metal the instrument is made out of which at best would make it horribly detuned or at worse completely inoperable, plus the aforementioned damage on the stops. Human corpses are littered around Koudelka almost as commonly as the very walls and ceilings the rooms are made of, but I did not expect to be faced with a corpse of something even more morbid.
So, then, you may be wondering: why is something so inhumane ranked so highly on the list? Well, the answer is quite simple. It's a really cool set piece!!
Tracks: The Nexus, Old King Allant
Oh this is what I like. I love the room to breathe in these, the silences punctuating such powerful bellows is excellent. Gorgeously colorful yet dark writing, deliberate with its sparseness and squeamish harmonies. Despite this, the tracks are quite simple and quite short, so it's nothing that'll stick with me, but the tracks are wonderful while they're around.
Track: Prayer for Love
These PC-88 games are pretty tough to pin down as far as their uses of the pipe organ (I decided to omit Ys I and II from this list because they were just a bit too vague) but this one feels pretty clear. The writing here is emblematic of typical pipe organ fare, though with the distinction that it was doing them before other video games had much of a chance to! Organ writing doesn't seem to be Yuzo Koshiro's particular strong suit, but he's such a phenomenal composer that this track wind up being great anyways even if it's not especially authentic or showcasing the nuance of the instrument.
Tracks: Standing in Pain, Untold Despair, Tethe Alla Castle, Rest of the Heart, Mithos, Beat the Angel, Derris Kharian (Appear), Derris Kharian (Shrine), It Can Waver and Fight, Final Destination
Shockingly and disappointingly, the most popular Tales game does not wield the organ nearly as prolifically as some of the lesser-known titles. Other Tales games have the organ incredibly close to the heart and use it to play critical thematic roles in their soundtracks; Symphonia only brings out every now and then to play a couple simple accompaniment chords or loose melody lines. Tethe Alla Castle is a competent piece of organ writing, but otherwise this is a shameful showing compared to the absolutely legendary pipe organs of the earlier Tales games.
Tracks: The Hierophant’s Palace, Unwavering Spear - Roland’s Battle
I was immediately disappointed by Hierophant's Palace - an astoundingly gorgeous piece of music that treated the pipe organ with less dignity than background furniture - only to be immediately won back over by Unwavering Spear. It's not a particularly intricate piece, but it is a beautiful use of the instrument and engages heartily with the rest of the ensemble. Pristine and majestic if not especially impressive.
Track: Thus Spoke an Alchemist
Gorgeous selection of stops here, but the writing and playing is just a little too dry for me. Not so dry as to call it "academic" but certainly leaning more that way than anything terribly expressive.
Track: Magical Holic, God Bless Prier!, A Heart Filled With Thought
A soundtrack where the organ is - like usual - playing a supporting role, but its texture and charisma are critical to the tone and structure of the pieces it's included in. Gorgeous music with the kind of organ excerpts that perk my ears up and make me say "oh, cool!"
Track: Zod's Blessing
There's some neat harmonic motions and cute melodic phrases, but nothing too poignant outside of that. Just some solid, pleasant, non-challenging organ music. Gets the job done and has a pretty fun time doing it.
Tracks: N's Castle, Rayquaza Appears!
- Standing in for all generation 5 Pokemon games -
Another game where the organ is used as a quick shorthand for power and majesty. It does a good job in really utilizing that grandeur, but to me there's just a little something missing. Neither of these instances of the organ are even remotely bad, in fact they're exceedingly competent, but I can't bring myself to feel especially passionate about such small applications.
Track: The Corrupted Black Bowser Battle, Black Bowser's Castle Revealed!, Black Bowser's Castle Lobby, Thing Card - Electric Battery, Blackout
Similar to Super Mario 64, this game simply does a great job of actually defining and developing its villain's theme, though the writing here is simply too conservative and typical to warrant any higher placement.
Track: Ancient Disputation
@ all you video game composers who want to use a pipe organ just for insanely fast Baroque/rock-fusion licks: this is how to do it right.
Track: Boss Battle
A pretty, floating chorale opens way to a toccata-styled groove. It's light on anything too intricate or engrossing, but there is a a fun honesty to it and it's well-executed for what it is.
Track: The Dark Church
A quiet, tranquil little ostinato figure shimmering around some soft synth pulses. Not much to say, it's just some pretty playing.
Track: A Messenger
Another piece where the organ doesn't have much going on, but I sure am a sucker for big, thick chords. The writing here isn't anything particularly special, but there are some attention-grabbing harmonic shifts that utilize the darkness and the fullness of the sound well. Ultimately, the only real reason the organ is here is because the piece needs to sound vaguely spiritual; otherwise it could be replaced handily with just about any other sustaining instrument. Far from the worst but far from the best.
Quick little tune that sets the tone of the game with a delicious chorale obviously invoking the distinguished sound of Baroque organ music. Liturgical, yet dramatic - yep, that's a pipe organ on the NES!
Tracks: Unused Track 7, Unused Track 8
I really wish I could rate this higher! These are two great pieces of organ music, but as you can see they're not actually used anywhere in the game. This poses an interesting question: can I really consider a game to "have" a pipe organ if its only inclusion is in tracks that are not in the final game? This is the first instance of needing to consider such a quandry for this list, and as such will set a precedent going forward. Since the organ music does indeed belong to the game I think yes, the game should be included in this list, though the fact that it doesn't actually exist in it means it can't contend with much fervor. Such a shame - I'm sure the composer of these must have been disappointed in their exclusion as well. It's clear some real passion and consideration went into these.
Track: At The Great Cathedral
There's some neat ear-catching harmonic shifts, but the plodding introduction featuring the organ which quickly is swept underneath a larger ensemble to continue just laying out some chords doesn't take advantage of what intrigue the piece is close to having. I can tell there's some kind of inspiration here, it's just not a whole lot.
Track: Karazhan (Opera House - Organ)
Wow! This one's really interesting. I'm not sure what its context is in the game, but it's obviously calling on some theatrical/carnival performance traditions, and pushing it really far into some bizarre harmonic and timbral places. Cool use of the instrument, if not something I'd necessarily go out of my way to listen to all the time.