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Songs in the Key of Panic
A timer reaches 100. Suddenly the music picks up.

A frequent trope in video games.

There are three main types:

  • Hurry Music: Plays when the time to do something is running out, meaning the player has to hurry.
  • Song in a Key of Warning: Music speeds up when a player is in a disadvantageous situation of some sort, such as low health.
  • Nearing the End Music: Music speeds up when nearing the end of the task/level or some other progress in the game. Usually the situation gets tenser in this case.

See also Boss Remix, Variable Mix, Critical Annoyance, Theme Music Power-Up, Musical Spoiler, Near Victory Fanfare.

Examples of Hurry Music:

  • The Super Mario Bros. series does this frequently when the timer reaches A HUNDRED SECONDS?! In this case, it's a mix of Hurry and Nearing-the-End, as first a little fanfare is played, then followed by the sped-up music.
    • For that matter, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel both have this type of music for the Speedy Comet challenges.
      • This music is also used for other things (like if the thing you're standing on is starting to sink into quicksand).
    • The music also gets faster when you damage most bosses enough. Naturally, they get harder.
    • Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon does this all the time. The bonus missions all have three versions of the theme, with the last being at three times the speed to go with the increased number of ghosts and tense atmosphere. And the bosses do this too, with the last phase having super sped up music to go with the Turns Red feel. There's also the 'you are going to die soon' music used in the multiplayer's Rush Mode, which feels even more urgent as the timer goes down. The one odd subversion is the Tough Possessor fight, where the music actually slows right down for the final phase to go with the Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever feel.
  • Final Fantasy V has the theme appropriately named "Hurry! Hurry!" that most memorably plays during the timed escape from the burning Karnak Castle... and when you're starting to run out of time, the already frantic theme speeds up even further, thus also making this an example of Song in a Key of Warning.
  • Bubble Bobble
  • Mappy
  • Sonic the Hedgehog does it with the drowning music. Said music has been known to scare a surprising number of people.
    • Also played if you're nearing the 10-minute time limit, or if you're in a 2-player match in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and the 1-minute time limit that plays when one player finishes the stage is down to 12 seconds.
    • Also, Sonic 3 And Knuckles does this again in The Doomsday zone, speeding up the music when your rings run low as Super/Hyper Sonic.
    • The Blue Sphere minigame doesn't have a traditional time limit, but has two hidden time limits that cause Sonic to speed up, with the music getting faster as well.
  • The infamous underwater dam stage of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where you're trying to disarm the bombs, has two increasingly frantic variants of this as the timer gets closer to zero.
  • TMNT Tournament Fighters on the NES
  • Mendel Palace
  • The New Zealand Story
  • The player has ten minutes to defeat the final boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The first five minutes are silent, after which the instrumental of the Snake Eater theme kicks in, and with three minutes to go, the full bombastic song racing you to the end.
  • A Metroid game isn't complete without at least one of these.
  • Knights in the Nightmare does this when the time is running out, under fifteen seconds of time remaining makes the music plays faster.
  • In the level "No Fighting in the War Room" in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a different version of tracks from previous levels are played out as the time runs out. The very last track before the timer reaches zero is, for example, reminiscent of the intro to "Crew Expendable".
  • In Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the music intensifies as the timer runs down during timed missions.
  • One level of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, where you have to disarm Time Bombs, integrated the beeping of the bombs into an increasingly frantic techno piece.
  • In the 3D Legend of Zelda games, music will speed up in minigames when time is almost out. Similarly, timed switches in many of the games emit a series of rhythmic clicks or ticks which gradually become faster until the switch deactivates itself.
  • In Battletoads' Rat Race level, the music speeds up as Scuzz gets closer to the bomb.
  • Inverted in Spelunky where the music slows down when you have only 30 seconds left to finish the level before the ghost appears.
  • In The Journeyman Project's Mars Maze, the music creepily slows down and fades to a heartbeat and heavy breathing sounds as your oxygen supply depletes.
  • In the Super Mario World ROM hack A Super Mario Thing, this trope gets taken to a bizarre extreme with 'Puzzle Panic,' a level that immediately starts the player off with 100 seconds remaining (thus triggering the speed-up), and playing an already rather frantic-sounding tune. Whenever the player enters a pipe, the time resets back to the 100 seconds, and speeds the music up even further. The nature of the level's puzzle means that this has to happen multiple times throughout the level, rendering the music a chaotic mess by the time the player reaches the end. Best demonstrated here, in raocow's original playthrough.
    • This was also present in the original Super Mario World. In the Special Zone's "Funky" level, you can allow the timer to run down low enough for the music to speed up, then use Yoshi to eat one of the green berries that give you extra time. Rinse and repeat.
  • Blast Corps has the music speed up and change to a more dire tone whenever the runaway truck with unstable nuclear missiles is about to crash into something if the path is not cleared in time.
  • In Kirby's Return to Dream Land and Kirby's Dream Collection, there are special Challenge Stages that must be completed within a time limit. If less than thirty seconds are left, in most cases the music simply speeds up. However, in the last few challenges of Kirby's Dream Collection, this situation causes the music to change to a remix of Heavy Lobster's theme from Kirby Super Star Ultra.
  • When only 30 seconds remain, the retro Mushroom Kingdom I and II stages in Super Smash Bros. Melee switch the audio themes to, respectively, a faster-paced version in the former, and a boss theme in the latter. This also happened in the original Nintendo 64 game with the retro Mushroom Kingdom stage.
  • Halo4 has two examples - "Gravity", which plays when the shipwreck that the Master Chief is on is being drawn into / torn apart by a gravity well, and "Escape", which plays when the Chief has to drive a permanently-boosting Ghost through Requiem's core level as it is torn apart around him by a slipspace-induced spatial anomaly.


Song in a Key of Warning:

Music speeds up:

  • In Street Fighter II (all five of them), the music becomes more urgent when one of the fighters' health bars is low.
  • In Tetris NES version, the music speeds up when the stacked blocks are nearing the top of the screen.
    • Columns does the same thing.
    • As did both Blastris games packaged with the Super Scope.
    • Some versions of Tetris actually change the song when you're near the top. If the threshold for the warning music and the threshold to switch back are the same (or too close to each other), the song can switch back-and-forth a little too much.
      • Tetris DX's music has three levels of speed. the type B track has an entirely different second part which can only be heard on the second level of speed.
  • An interesting subversion: in Mother 3, when you are trapped by the Ultimate Chimera, the music doesn't change, but Lucas's heartbeat, which you can hear over the music, goes faster and faster as his situation becomes increasingly dire.
  • Banjo-Kazooie has a maze in a desert level with music that gradually increases in speed, and goes up a pitch or two every so often to boot.
  • Win Back does this at 50% health, then again at 25% health.
  • As mentioned above, the Final Fantasy V example doubles as this once the timer hits one minute.
  • The danger/panic themes in the Syphon Filter series were usually faster remixes or Variable Mixes of the level themes, although sometimes completely different.
  • Golden Eye 1997 did this in Timed Mission or high-alert situations. Perfect Dark takes it even further with every stage's track having an alternate "X" version that plays when an alarm is triggered or you are at a mission critical point.
  • Star Trek: Bridge Commander has a very good version of this. The battle music comes in 3 distinct flavors, though it's still the same tune: Optimistic, Neutral, and Danger. The game keeps track of your shields, weapon status, and hull integrity compared to the enemy. So you can be at 100% health, but if you're facing half a dozen Romulan Warbirds, you get the Danger music.
  • Chunky's rematch with Dogadon in Donkey Kong 64 is already set to a pretty typical Rareware over-the-top Boss Remix, but when the boss slams the platform and makes it start sinking into the lava, it starts speeding up and going into a demented and very minor key fanfare.

Different tune is played altogether:

  • When the player is spotted by a monster in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this delightful little number plays on top of whatever theme or motif the monster has.
  • In Gauntlet, ominous music plays when a player's health is 200 or less.
  • Puyo Puyo uses a frantic recurring theme whenever your screen of Puyos is filling too close to the top. The edited Kirby's Avalanche variant borrows this tune for same gameplay scenario, while Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine uses another, even more hectic theme (which is in fact a remix of the original Puyo Puyo's final boss theme). Less advanced gamers were most likely completely screwed at this point in gameplay, so usually hearing this music basically informs "YOU LOST"!
  • Shadowgate plays a song when your torches are about to run out of light.
  • Banjo-Kazooie also has this sort of example: whenever you jump into the sea in Treasure Trove Cove, a song similar to the Jaws theme starts playing as the unkillable shark living there appears to take a bite out of you.
  • Whenever the Tall Man appears in Chzo Mythos games, a rather distressing piece of music will inform the player of how screwed they are.
  • Phantasy Star III changes the battle music depending on if you're doing well or poorly, and switches to a somewhat sinister-sounding theme if you're at a disadvantage
  • Wizards And Warriors has a different, more sinister song that starts playing when you're low on hit points.
  • Anarchy Online switches between different themes considering how well you are doing in combat.
  • In Panel de Pon/Tetris Attack, the "panic" theme varies depending on what stage you're playing on.
  • In the Metal Gear series, fitting music plays if you trigger an alert. The first Metal Gear Solid deserves special mention, as it provides one of the more (in)famous examples of this trope.
  • In Pokémon Trozei, as the screen fills up, dramatic music starts to play.
  • In most Pokémon games, hitting low health caused a constant, incessant beeping. In Pokemon Blackand White, they actually turned the beeping into a new battle theme that plays at low health.
  • In the original MSX version of Valis, the music turns ominous at low health.
  • The Söldner-X series plays a different, more frantic track when the player is below 25% health.
  • In the 3D Zelda games, a dissonant music piece segues in when enemies are nearby.
  • In X-Wing, the music switches to a more intense one when enemies arrive, and calms down when enemies are gone. This was dropped in the collector's edition, which played music from the CD (and only changed on victory/loss) instead of synthesizing it.
  • Total Annihilation was one of the first RTS games to implement this with CD music. However, the unpatched version always played the same battle track; later versions chose from a set of tracks instead.
  • When the music starts to change in FEAR, you know something big and/or bad is about to happen.
  • Zok Zok Heroes, an obscure Japan-only Gameboy Color RPG, changes to a different battle theme when your hero is at critical HP.
  • In Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, when Nemesis appears in the vicinity, "Feel The Tense" overrides the normal music.
  • The game show The Cube switches the music to a more intense track when the player has only one life left.
  • In the .hack//G.U. Games, if you stay out in an outdoors area for too long, a Doppleganger will appear on the map. If it notices you nearby, it deliberately invokes terror as it slowly and implacably walks towards you. The music will change from a generally calm and serene tune into something that can only be described as exceptionally scary and fear inducing. It also speeds up the closer it gets to you. Activating a Battle Zone in order to engage another monster will not stop it from following in after you.
  • Punch Out has a dire "GET UP!" music play if you're knocked down. You only have 10 seconds to get up from the mat or you will be considered KO'd and lose.
  • Left 4 Dead has a basic Scare Chord play when your survivor is down and the chords get increasingly more frightening as they bleed out more and are close to death. The same also happens if a survivor is hanging from a ledge and their grip is slipping.
  • Whenever a monster or other hazard appears in Alone In The Dark 1992, a Scare Chord plays and the music changes.
  • Sinister music changes in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas indicate nearby enemies or being spotted and engaging in battle.
  • In The Oregon Trail II, the trail themes have more grim arrangements when one or more party members is in poor health. However if one dies and there aren't any other sick members, it resets to the normal variation.
  • In Super Solvers: Gizmos & Gadgets, the background music for the race will turn into a darker theme if Morty's vehicle is ahead of the player's. The opposite occurs if the player is ahead.
  • Hellsinker's Scarlet Queen is fought to the time of the Segment 1-2 boss music. Unlock her Spirit Kernel form and a fast, berserk-sounding arrangement of the boss theme plays.
  • In Octodad, if your Suspicion meter goes up too high, the music shifts to an off-key arrangement.

Nearing the End Music:

  • Battletoads does it in several levels, including all the levels on a vehicle. For example, during the super-fast final stretch of the Turbo Tunnel, the music speeds up accordingly.
  • In Super Mario World, the music speeds up when fighting against the last phase of Bowser.
  • In the Mario Kart series, when you get to the final lap, the music speeds up (referencing the main Mario franchise's "hurry music" example above; the music sting that transitions between the normal and increased tempo is similar).
    • From Double Dash!! onwards, the music pitched up a notch in addition.
  • In Super Mario 3D World, in the level 'Tricky Trapeze Theater', the music changes very slightly when you are in the same area as the Goal Pole.
  • As an early example: In Asteroids, the blip blop gets faster as the number of asteroids decreases.
  • During the Wii Sports Resort Swordplay gauntlet, the music slowly adds more instrumentation when you get close to the end of the course.
  • Skies of Arcadia does this during boss battles.
    • It does it two separate ways, the theme turning more dire if the player is on the verge of defeat, and more triumphant if it's the other way around.
  • Seth's stage music in Street Fighter IV becomes more urgent as the fight goes on.
  • During the final lap in races in Split Second, the background music will swell and become more tense. The effect is handled nicely as its crescendos happen after a bullet-time show-off of a wreck, which are usually triggered by the player.
  • Tetris DS uses the Death Mountain music for its Level 9 stage. As the player approaches Level 20, the music changes to a completely manic scherzo.
  • Boss music in An Untitled Story speeds up once the boss is down to 1 HP and he Turns Red.
  • In the Ace Attorney series, as you wear the witnesses down in cross-examination, the music becomes more urgent and elaborate. This is actually a separate track on the soundtrack, the 'Allegro' version. In Investigations, a 'Presto' version is heard during the final testimony of any of the antagonists. And it is epic.
  • When you are on the Gym Leader's final Pokémon in Black and White, this remix of the main theme starts playing, practically screaming "You can do it! You're almost there! Victory is within your grasp!"
  • The latter two Sonic Advance games, as well as both Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure, have extra-tense remixes of the boss fight tunes for when the boss's health gets particularly low.
  • In F-Zero GX and AX, the music changes when you're on the final lap.
  • Donkey Kong Country, as a part of its very wide compendium of Nightmare Fuel, gives us this example of "don't think you'll get out of this place easily".
  • The Halo series usually intensifies the music towards the climax or end of a battle. For example, on the second and third levels of the first game, the "Brothers in Arms" music goes into its climax section when the Covenant bring in reinforcements. When you reach the toll plaza at the end of the bridge on Metropolis, rock drums and bass guitar are added to the Halo theme music, and when you go into the tunnel, the music quiets down. While riding the second gondola on Regret, the first part of "Leonidas" plays on a loop, then when you reach the end, it segues to the awesome climax of the piece, which loops until you defeat all the enemies. "Blow Me Away" also does this for the Mausoleum battle. In the second half of Tsavo Highway, the Halo theme changes to the "Rock Anthem for Saving The World" variation in the area with all the Choppers and Wraiths. The first and third installments both apply a Theme Music Power-Up during their final escape sequences.
    • Also in the first game's third level, the percussion of "Enough Dead Heroes" starts up as you get closer to the gravlift, and when the Hunters arrive, it goes to full instrumentation. Same with "Covenant Dance" during the cargo bay battle immediately after.
  • In Left 4 Dead, at the end of the finale level when you must make a dash for the rescue vehicle, the track Skin OnOur Teeth will play as the Survivors rush towards their escape.
  • In Goemon's Great Adventure, the music becomes more tense as you further progress through a castle level.
  • On the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, everything but the drumbeat in the background music would almost drop out entirely on the million-dollar question, leaving only a tense, heartbeat-like "BOOM...BOOM-BOOM..." on a loop.
  • In Twisted Metal: Black and Head On, the battle music changes when you're down to one opponent.
  • The Think Music on the Japanese game show Time Shock (hear it here) starts becoming increasingly tense starting at 30 seconds left. Also qualifies as the Hurry Music variant, as the same music is used in the "12 Answers" rounds, where a single contestant has only one question with multiple answers and 60 seconds to rattle off as many of them as they can (up to a maximum of 12).
  • In a similar vein, on Late Night Liars, as your 43 seconds counted down (and, no, that's not a typo), the music sped up, eventually reaching a really frantic pace in the last four seconds or so.
  • And then there are the Nickelodeon game shows of the late 80s/early 90s, where in the Bonus Round, the music changes keys (going up) every few seconds. Finders Keepers combined this with the Hurry Music variant, since the Room-to-Room Romp music moved to a "double time" feel in the last 30 seconds of the round.
  • On Burgo's Catch Phrase (in Australia), during the 2000 series, the contest music for the Bonus Round used a fusion of this and the Hurry variant. Here's a clip of one bonus, to help you get the idea. The music (already written to be tense-sounding) moves into a double-time feel at 30 seconds to go, and also becomes louder and more insistent as you get down to the end, with the last five seconds culminating in the strings moving up through a scale before you're finally met with a sound resembling a computer powering down.
  • In Perfect Cherry Blossom, once you got to the last phase of the Final Boss fight, a tenser remix of the Final Boss theme would play. It's timed to hit a climactic guitar solo as the attack times out and explodes around you.
  • In Wario Land Shake It, the music picks up at some hard to judge point in the middle of the third boss battle. Then even later it speeds up again to the point the creepy circus music is going by at mach speed.
  • The music in Resident Evil 4's shooting gallery minigame speeds up at the halfway point of a round.
  • In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, after the boss health decreases into certain point, the instrumental stage song turned into full blown Image Song, with mentioned lyrics.
  • In the first Serious Sam, the Great Pyramid starts out in a giant arena where enemies spawn. The music starts out leisurely with a few weak enemies coming out you, but it speeds up every time you kill off a wave, sending stronger and more difficult enemies at you each time. By the end, the music is ridiculously fast, and the arena is filled to the brim with powerful enemies. After killing the last wave, the music stops completely...time to fight the Final Boss.
  • Super Spy Hunter does this halfway through each stage.
  • The Modern Warfare series intensifies the music in multiplayer when a player is approaching the score limit.
  • In Star Wars Episode I: Racer, "Duel of the Fates" plays on the final lap of each race.
  • As the boss fight against Chortlebot in Wario Land Shake It gets nearer the end, the Creepy Circus Music gets faster and faster to go along with it.
  • The Game & Watch Gallery series typically has its background music speed up along with the action as the player's score increases.
  • Eggerland Mystery speeds up its music when every Diamond Framer has been collected, meaning all that is left is to reach the exit, but also warning that any Gols or Skulls are now active.
  • League of Legends combines this with Song in the Key of Warning variation in Dominion mode, where the music undergoes several changes during the match - starts off rather calmly, becomes tenser once one team's Nexus drops under 75% health, then changes to a whole different theme under 50% and gets much more intense under 25%. If the match is very close and both teams end up under 15%, it changes once again to even more epic version.

Other:

  • Pinball machines of the late 1970s-early 1980s often had the music rise in pitch and/or tempo the longer the ball was in play in an attempt to distract the player. It rolled back around to the original tune after a while. This 1979 Flash machine is a good (annoying) example.

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