The Video Game That Got Jazz So, So Right

For some reason or other, jazz soundtracks are a rarity among video games. Plenty of games feature heroic chiptune anthems, Hollywoodesque orchestral scores, and evocative sci-fi themes, but jazz, the oldest American art form, remains surprisingly underrepresented.

Though they may be few and far between, there are a handful of games that have used jazz to great advantage. Games like Earthbound, L.A. Noire and No One Lives Forever. But among even the swingin'est of them, one soundtrack stands apart: Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango's soundtrack was composed by Peter McConnell, and it remains as killer today as it was when the game launched in 1998. Each of the game's 32 tracks has a loose, street-band vibe, which makes sense, given that McConnell tracked down a group of San Francisco musicians and, in the jazz tradition, let them interpret his score with quite a bit of leeway. He even grabbed a mission-district Mariachi band give the score a South American flair to match its Aztec-inspired visual design.

Upon a recent replay of Grim Fandango, I was struck by just how much McConnell's soundtrack (which you can listen to in the player to the left) elevates the basic game. The game's clumsy tank controls and extraordinarily difficult (some would say obtuse) puzzles regularly slow things to a crawl, and long moments are spent wandering each environment, waiting for the protagonist Manny to turn his head and look at a clue or object that may have been missed the first time through.

There's nothing quite as flatly dispiriting as being stuck in an adventure game, puttering about the same three screens, cycling through inventory items while attempting to delay the inevitable, shameful visit to Game FAQs. It's a good thing so many adventure games had great soundtracks — without musical acompaniment, we'd be staring at a silent, motionless screen, flummoxed and frustrated.

Wow, you'd never guess that Grim Fandango is actually one of my favourite games of all time, would you? Behold, the power of a good soundtrack! (And great dialogue, acting, visual design, and storytelling.)

I was reminded of how well-played jazz can enliven unspectacular gameplay while playing L.A. Noire. It was far from a perfect game, and I couldn't help but be thankful for TK's kicky, diverse soundtrack. Every repetitive drive through L.A. was soothed by noble trumpets, every prescribed foot-chase spiced up by bass clarinet and baritone sax solos. The tedium of nosing around crime scenes while waiting for my controller to vibrate was greatly relieved by all those rich, soulful bass solos.

But even so, L.A. Noire's soundtrack doesn't come close to the variety and vivaciousness of McConnell's Grim Fandango score. From the dark, plunger-muted swing of "Swanky Maximo" to the mellow, guitar-accompanied lobby-trombone of the appropriately named "Frustration Man", it's simply good, video game-related or no. And man, don't get me started on the epic saxophone of "She Sailed Away," the chord-less free jazz of "Blue Casket Bop", or the menacing bari sax/bass clarinet duet of "Rubacava"... OK, pretty much the whole thing.

Grim Fandango's soundtrack was released as a CD in 1998, shortly after the release of the game, but as far as I can tell it's never made its way to digital release (a used CD can still be ordered from Amazon for a whopping $US63.97). In this way, it's actually similar to the game itself, which for some unknown reason still can't be purchased anywhere online.

Fortunately, the entire soundtrack can be found online in MP3 form at grimfandango.net. Video game soundtracks as creative, organic and distinctive as this one don't come along very often, so pour a martini, turn up the speakers, and drink it all in.

Track Listing:

01 - Casino Calavera 02 - Swanky Maximino 03 - Smooth Hector 04 - Mr. Frustration Man 05 - Hector Steps Out 06 - Hi-Tone Fandango 07 - She Sailed Away 08 - High Roller 09 - Domino's in Charge 10 - Trouble with Carla 11 - Blue Casket Bop 12 - Manny's Office 13 - Rubacava 14 - Blue Hector 15 - This Elevator is Slow 16 - Domino 17 - Don Copal 18 - Neon Ledge 19 - Nuevo Marrow 20 - Gambling Glottis 21 - Raoul Appears 22 - Scrimshaw 23 - Talking Limbo 24 - Coaxing Meche 25 - Lost Souls' Alliance 26 - Los Angelitos 27 - The Enlightened Florist 28 - Temple Gate 29 - Ninth Heaven 30 - Compañeros 31 - Manny & Meche 32 - Bone Wagon


Comments

    It was an excellent soundtrack to an even better game.

    Lucasarts needs a kick in the head so they realise they can make money selling their older games, ideally on GOG they usually give you the soundtrack as a bonus.

    I want TIE Fighter too

    And X-Wing

    And The Dig

    And Afterlife

    De Blob has to be mentioned!!! Australian Pride!

      Skimmed over the whole thing, then did Ctrl+F "blob". Glad to see SOMEONE mentioned it.

      I have the soundtrack to both games crammed on a CD that plays continuously in my car.

    Would be great for Telltale to take a look at this and consider making a sequel. The mechanics look to be very similar, don't think they'd be able to retain the original voice actors sadly... It's been a while..

    Got this in 1999 when it first came out. It was the last of the Lucas art adventure games.

    My older brother got me into point and click adventures when i was in my early teens by giving me a copy of Full Throttle and I was hooked. I later played Grim Fandango and enjoyed it too. Great story, artwork, voice acting, puzzles etc. I still give some of these classics a go using ScummVM to run them on modern systems.

    "There’s nothing quite as flatly dispiriting as being stuck in an adventure game, puttering about the same three screens, cycling through inventory items while attempting to delay the inevitable, shameful visit to Game FAQs."

    Never a truer word was spoken.

      Yeah, I had a good chuckle at the truth in that sentence too, nicely done!

Join the discussion!