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The 20 most memorable portable gaming tunes

Aurally good
Product: Retro gaming features | Format: DS, GameBoy, iPhone, PSP, iPad, 3DS, PS Vita
Retro gaming features DS, thumbnail 1
Music has been described as the universal language. Two people with vastly different cultural backgrounds and upbringings can be brought together by their hatred for the Titanic soundtrack, for instance.

Gaming tunes are no exception. Music plays a vital part in any game, from rhythm-action to survival-horror.

And so we've conducted a thorough survey encompassing iconic verve, atmosphere, and nostalgia to gather all the best handheld game music together in one place.

Everybody has his own favourite tunes, so if you think we've missed something out let us know in the comments below.

Tetris – Song A (Korobeiniki) – Game Boy

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It was Hirokazu Tanaka who took the 19th century Russian folk tune called 'Korebeiniki' in Russia ('Peddlers' in English) and turned it into a piece of video gaming history.

Thankfully for Tetris, Tanaka-san saw fit to remove the original lyrics - a love story set in pre-revolutionary Russia about a peddler and the village girl he attempts to lead astray.

Chrono Trigger – Frog’s Theme - DS

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It’s a tough ask to isolate one song from the exceptional soundtrack of Chrono Trigger, but 'Frog's Theme' wins out for us.

Perhaps it’s got something to do with the eponymous Frog's emotional journey to avenge his fallen comrade in arms? More likely it’s because it reminds us of an anthropomorphic frog knight wielding a sword and slicing mountains to dust.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition – Main Theme – iOS

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We're lucky that mobile technology has taken so many massive steps forward in recent years, not least because we get the opportunity to revive all the point-and-click adventures of yesteryear without having to swap countless floppy discs.

King of all of these must surely be The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, the most polished version of the game to date, with a main theme which immediately evokes the raucous pirate adventure and its cast of bumbling seafarers.

Ocarina of Time 3D – Lost Woods (Saris’s Song) – 3DS

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It’s impossible to whittle Zelda's musical excellence down to just one song (see farther down this list). However from Ocarina of Time’s remastered 3DS version I’ve plumped for 'Lost Woods'. Its sprited tone, energetic melody, and ability to pester Saria anywhere in the gameworld can't be beaten.

Angry Birds – Main Theme - Various

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Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the permeation of this tune into your psyche. Will future generations hold this tune to their hearts the same way 'Mario’s Overworld Theme' brings a nostalgic sigh to the chest of any discerning modern gamer? Time will tell.

Duck Tales – The Moon Theme – Game Boy

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While not immediately hummable like the main Duck Tales theme, the Moon levels theme music is undeniably cool. So cool, in fact, that various mixes and cover versions have sprouted up all over YouTube. Complete with some pretty epic guitar solos. Don’t believe me? Check it.

Sword & Sworcery – Dark Flute – iOS

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Sword & Sworcery
did two things. Firstly, it delivered a dynamic and fresh take on the tired fantasy-adventure genre. Secondly, it proved just how deeply music can penetrate the human soul.

In 'Dark Flute', composer Jim Guthrie takes the dulcet tones of contemporary bands like Explosions in the Sky and mixes them with a dash of Blade Runner-esque futuristic electro filth. Tasty.

Donkey Kong Land 2 – Stickerbush Symphony – Game Boy

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Innumerable tunes have beeped out in 8-bit form through the ancient Game Boy’s speakers. 'Stickerbush Symphony' from Donkey Kong Land 2 rubs its catchy melody and undeniable retro charm in the face of much of today’s pap.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Objection Theme – DS

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Whilst there may be better music in the Phoenix Wright games than 'Objection Theme', this is the one that players are most glad to hear.

After constantly failing to choose the ‘right’ option, finally catching onto an often ludicrous gap in a witness testimony and triggering 'Objection Theme' is video game’s version of mayonnaise on chips. It just feels right.

The World Ends With You – Déjà vu – DS

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Criminally forgotten Shibuya-based RPG The World Ends With You took a ton of Tokyo teen street cred and mashed it into an existential purgatorial battle royale.

As Neku, you had to battle ‘Noise’ to save their souls from being erased in a series of seven day-long 'games'. All to an upbeat J-Pop soundtrack featuring 'Déjà vu', a cracking tune with sweet vocals by J-Popper Joanna Koike.

Sonic The Hedgehog– Green Hill Zone – Game Gear

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Much has been made of the fact that Sonic The Hedgehog turned 20 recently. Most of those 20 years have been spent looking back at what was, rather than forward to what will be. It’s no different with tunage, as the instantly recognisable Green Hill Zone music proves. Ah sweet, sweet nostalgia...

Dragon Quest IX – Main Theme – DS

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The ninth game in the lengthy Japanese RPG series may have changed considerably from the age-old format of previous iterations, with online features and quest-giving NPCs reminiscent of a full-blown MMO.

One thing that thankfully didn’t change was the gut-busting orchestral main theme. Literally every Japanese person in the world can identify this tune. And you should too. Give it a whirl.

Patapon 2 – Opening Theme – PSP

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I defy you to listen to this song without tapping your foot or shaking your shoulders. Pata-pata-pata-pon will also be rolling around in your head for ages afterwards. Whether you find it endearing or rage-inducing, it has an undeniable lure from which you can't escape.

Mirror’s Edge – Main Theme ‘Still Alive’ – iOS

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Swedish pop star Lisa Miskovsky’s ‘Still Alive’ is arguably the best thing about Mirror’s Edge, taking what was a decent free-running game and lending it an air of sexy floatyness.

Okamiden – Opening Music – DS

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is a game that could have been so much more than it ended up being. Anyone who’s played it will tell you that they can feel the DS groaning at the seams as it grinds the game through its dual screens.

Regardless, it features some of the most atmospheric music in all of game history, setting the stage in ancient Japanese mythology with its use of traditional instruments but giving it an air of contemporary energy with its fast-changing tempos and rip-roaring balls.

Deathsmiles – Banquet of Madness and Blood Covered by a Lovely Voice – iOS

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'BoMaBCbaLV' (as I shall now abbreviate it) takes the bullet-hell genre by the unmentionables and takes us on a ride through intense electro-goth lunacy. With guitar solos and an occasional whispering woman. Why not?

Valkyria Chronicles 2 – Main Theme – PSP

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At its very core a game soundtrack has the job of making us truly fall into a game's world. That’s why, even if you played Valkyria Chronicles 2 on PSP, you probably can’t remember a single song.

In VC2’s case, that means that it’s done its job perfectly. It evokes all the physical military sensations with brass marching sections whilst sweeping through goosebump-inducing Jurassic Park-esque melodies.

Link’s Awakening – Tal Tal Heights Theme – Game Boy

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Like I mentioned farther up the page, it's impossible to mention only one Zelda refrain. 'Tal Tal Heights Theme' makes the grade, taking the original Zelda main theme and pumping the tension up to 11, making sure that the Link's Awakening endgame was as epic as it could be.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village - Professor Layton's Theme – DS

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Level-5 recently released Ni no Kuni in Japan, a studio Ghibli collaboration which, had it been released in the west, would doubtless have made this list (check out some of the cracking orchestral juice here).

While Level-5 thinks on that, we can savour the musical talent on display in any of the Layton games.

Dr. Mario – Fever Theme – Game Boy

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I wasn’t really going to get through this feature without a certain Italian water displacement technician getting a mention.

'Fever Theme' gets the nod. Give it a listen and you’ll be blowing the dust out of your old Game Boy cartridges in no time, if you ever managed to put this incredibly addictive classic down in the first place.

Reviewer photo
Matt Sakuraoka-Gilman 16 November 2011
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