Heroes of Might and Magic II Soundtrack (PC), Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero, 1996
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 create 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 added 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 – and probably a bit mad.
Calling the Heroes of Might and Magic II soundtrack ‘revolutionary’ requires some qualification though. It’s not like the composers were 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 apply it in a new context.
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 run the gamut of emotions. They range from the ethereal, almost new-agey soprano strains of “Town – Sorceress” and the sinister bass bombast of “Town – Necromancer” and “Town – Warlock (Expansion)” to the restrained elation and triumph of “Town – Barbarian (Expansion)”.
The romantic era-styled 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. His wonderful vocal melodies are backed by an orchestral backdrop that is as marvellously lavish and emotional as the arias. Romero layers the instruments in ever more colourful textures that demand repeat listens to discover all of the music’s subtleties.
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 in Western game music. The score moves through an amazing 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 swirl 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 their monotonous (if brief) battle cues, but instead what would become another staple of Heroes of Might and Magic games: terrain tracks. Underscoring different landscapes within the game, these pieces are far sparser, less attention-seeking affairs. They almost take the opposite approach to Romero’s cues. King and Baca only require 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 video game. Its aspirations to be high art may feel overwrought to some, but the score’s audaciousness only reveals an artistic triumph.
- 01 - Main Menu (Midi Version) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:15
- 02 - Town - Sorceress Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 4:10
- 03 - Town - Warlock Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:58
- 04 - Town - Necromancer Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:23
- 05 - Town - Knight Baca, Steve / King, Rob / Romero, Paul 2:28
- 06 - Town - Barbarian Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:04
- 07 - Town - Wizard Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:04
- 08 - Terrain - Lava Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:58
- 09 - Terrain - Wasteland Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:08
- 10 - Terrain - Desert Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:57
- 11 - Terrain - Snow Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:07
- 12 - Terrain - Swamp Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:28
- 13 - Terrain - Ocean Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:50
- 14 - Terrain - Dirt Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:00
- 15 - Terrain - Grass Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:10
- 16 - Roland Theme Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 0:54
- 17 - Main Theme Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:18
- 18 - Scenario Victory Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 1:14
- 19 - Town - Sorceress (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:51
- 20 - Town - Warlock (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:37
- 21 - Town - Necromancer (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:35
- 22 - Town - Knight (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:25
- 23 - Town - Barbarian (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:32
- 24 - Town - Wizard (Expansion) Steve Baca / Rob King / Paul Romero 2:54
Rhetta Fae Gibson says
I loved listening to this music when I was in my early teens, like I had to be 13-15 when I was playing this game and it was so awesome! Your article does it great justice!
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for your comment and glad to hear you enjoyed the review! Yeah, that must have been an awesome experience, playing the game when it was released and hearing this fantastic music that hadn’t done before in that sort of way in video games before… Have you listened to the other Heroes of Might and Magic scores?
Rhetta Fae Gibson says
I played a lot of HoMM2 and 3. The music in 3 was pretty good too but the opera in 2 really just blew it away. It was so authentic and real! ♫ sorry it took so long for me to get back to you, I hadn’t thought about it in a while.
Tristan Blanchard says
I just found this wonderful site while searching for the MIDI version of the HoMM II main menu.
I must say I was truly captivated by the way your describe this wonderful soundtrack. This is exactly the kind of review I am looking for, when I need my occasional nostalgia rush. So well documented, passionate and digging deep into the details.
I read the HoMM III review with the same enthusiasm (as well as Diablo, Secret of Mana and Total Annihilation, all of these games I played when I was a kid). Fantastic work !
I am looking forward to reading about more, mostly games from the nineties ^^
Have a good day !
Simon Elchlepp says
Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment and I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed those reviews! I need to focus most of my coverage these days on current releases – however, once I get back to tackling my backlog, I need to prioritise those 90s releases, they seem to be the most popular reviews on the site. That Final Fantasy series focus will come one day 🙂
Peter Cohen says
Thank you for this.
In my youth I had been exposed to opera badly, it was forced upon me in unfortunate circumstances. I thought for the longest time that I loathed opera.
Then I played Heroes of Might and Magic 2, and I was truly instructed as to my error. These operatic tacts completely changed my mind about opera and opened me up to a wholly new appreciation for not just opera, but music as a whole.
It does my heart a world of good to be able to hear those so formative bits of music that so transformed my experience.
Simon Elchlepp says
Thank you for sharing your story Peter! That’s amazing that HoMM 2 managed to bring you back to the wonders of opera (and music itself!) Yes, opera can be an acquired taste and there’s something in your story about how important it is to introduce children to things on the kids’ terms – no matter how keen the adults are. I am in awe not just of the composers’ audacity to use operatic vocals in the first place, but also of how well they managed to do it and how emotionally powerful the music is as a result. Opera does really have the potential to move us so immensely and I’m so glad that the review gave you an opportunity to revisit some of those happy memories.
So yummy sound! For me, aside from the Barbarian castle theme, those terrain characterizations so excellent. What a big add to the game(s). HOMM my fav game series ever, and the sound for sure gave it part of that edge. So so good!
does anyone has the lyrics of those operas
i dont know what they are singing
Simon Elchlepp says
Yeah, I’d love to find those lyrics too! The ones for “Town – Barbarian (Expansion)” are from the sixth movement of Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem – would love to know why the composers picked that one.
If someone doesn’t know, there is a channel Heroes Orchestra on youtube – it’s full blown orchestra playing pieces from different HoMM games. Paul Romero himself played with them!
Paul actually had a number of concerts featuring live performance of different HoMM soundtracks around Eastern Europe, and he talked there about classical composers who inspired him and about his thought process during creation process. For example, Dungeon in HoMM3 was inspired by Mussorgski’s Pictures at an exhibition, as far as I recall.
Simon Elchlepp says
Awesome, thanks so much for sharing this Timur! I had read about these concerts and orchestral performances, but it seemed hard to find a way to purchase them outside of Poland – will need to check you that Youtube channel.
The review is five years old. Still, I’ll comment. The reason the style of music found in this game has produced no imitators and developers is not that it was a dead end – not any more than nature is one, but that truth – of art, but also the greater truth behind art – is not the sort of thing that can be developed. It has nowhere to go but to itself. It has already arrived. Concepts like improvement, setting a trend only apply to second-hand stuff produced by replication. The worst thing that could happen, and likely will happen, to the Heroes games would be the development of an algorithm to churn out melodies “in the style of” Romero, Baca and King. Mix and match the chords, the approaches, and even though an opera can’t be conjured up so easily, a nice track would be produced, ready for insertion into something with dwarves and elves. The reason today’s games use a completely different style – and the common denominator of that style – is that music’s modular, interchangeable character. The tunes are built up like Lego toys and serve definite, predetermined functions. Their combined function is to sell.
Here, on the other hand, Romero and the others do things that might not have sold well. The risk was not perhaps so great for them, the audience in the middle 1990s was better educated, at least obliquely, still resided in the continuity of the classical tradition, more eager for bold actions, tougher, less peevish, natives to ecstasy, owners of their money. In any case, risk or no risk, Romero and Co go here into the territory of nature, that is, permanent surprise. When composing these, I’m sure none of them quite knew what would result. The cauldron of creation was even closer in Heroes I, where the choice of music was nearly random. The tunes were so assigned that anything could be the theme of anything else. This flooded the mind with interpretative possibilities, but made no sense. Honestly, the composers were probably just slapping around automatic writing, putting in everything they liked. That sort of atmosphere is hard to take, which is one of the reasons I don’t like the first Heroes much (the other is right silly graphics). It takes some very serious girding of one’s loins to adapt to that level of chaos, and when one has acclimed, there may be no going back. As it happened, I came to the Heroes series at part two, even the expansion pack. For a long time I did not have the original CD and could not play the Ironfists campaign, nor did I hear the town tunes from the main game until years later. I don’t regret it, the expansion pack’s melodies are both better and more appropriate. The series always developed in the direction of greater intelligence, and I caught it right at the crest, before logic began to block the way of creativity in Heroes III. But had I began at Heroes I and accepted ITS style of music as right and free, I might have become indifferent to everything more coherent and therefore smaller, more modest, more rational. I might have been turned off on all but the wildest music altogether and snub videogames and most “cultural products” (ugh), tame and rationally appropriate as they are. What could I become? Where would I be today in that case, I wonder?
The music of the Price of Loyalty was in good form, it made sense. But it was not stale or deductive. The choices of town melodies there must be surprising to players of today. The identities within are not predictable. Today players would expect savage and crude tunes in a barbarian town, with some blared tally-ho for accents, perhaps, a necromancer’s town would be just sinister and so on. Reared on the ideas of consumption, they come to games knowing what to expect, and they are lost when they don’t find it. In Heroes II entering a town of a type for the first time and building up over the weeks and days its structures, hiring its soldiers is a revelatory experience. One’s ideas of what it means to be a “barbarian” are not affirmed, they are augmented, expanded and challenged. The mental quotation marks appear around the word after this kind of introduction. And I have never heard a tune as sorrowful, wise, powerful and infinitely committed as the music of the necromancer (it’s too bad that Romero, who played the piano himself, was not quite quick enough with his fingers everywhere). Other town tunes are less remarkable, like the knight’s, but all add up to the original and vivid unit graphics, pictures of the artifacts, heroes’ portraits, even the small drawings of resources – crystal, gems and the rest – for an overall impression of a world that can be lived in. The map of a Heroes II game is flat, but as those images sparkle and move and the tunes play, it seems open on every side to endless adventures. It is the world of imagination itself, and there can be no such thing as progress here. Another expansion, more of everything, new tales, new mechanics – those would be possibilities, but there is no moving a world like that AHEAD. In other words, it is the real world in its complex eternity of things seen by day and those dreamt by night.