Soundtracks can make or break video games—if you don’t believe me, put on a 'best polkas' playlist and try to play The Last of Us. Video game music sets the mood, whether that mood is upbeat and in 16 bits or full of terror and misery in high definition.
Every great game needs a solid soundtrack, but there are a few games that are remembered for particularly fantastic music—so I set out to pick them best of ‘em for The Portalist.
A couple of ground rules: I tried to pick video games from a few different genres, and I only allowed one entrant per series. Also, we’re talking only about the music here—I tried not to take the quality of the games into account (except insofar as, you know, they had to be decent enough for me to have heard of them).
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Original soundtracks get most of the attention here, though I made exceptions for two superb compilation soundtracks. Alright, on to the list!
Disclaimer: This is obviously a subjective list, and the opinions in this article are only my own. If you disagree, feel free to yell at The Portalist on Twitter!
Video game soundtracks come in a few types. There’s the peppy bleep-bloop sounds of a platformer, the bold adventure music of a big, bright game like Zelda, and the epic, emotive, and sometimes over-the-top music of a big ol’ nerdy RPG.
The last type tends to dominate lists like this. I won’t let that happen, but I also won’t overreact and start pretending that Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is not extremely dope. Listen to it! It’s on another level. Last of the Mohicans had worse music, man. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’m just writing a list of the best video game soundtracks, and I’m putting Chrono Trigger on it.
Final Fantasy VII
I could probably fill this entire list with just Final Fantasy soundtracks. Even if I did, though, Final Fantasy VII would stand out.
Final Fantasy VII was a high water mark for the series in a lot of ways, and its music was certainly one of them. Final Fantasy VII’s tone veers from deadly serious to highly goofy, and the soundtrack manages to cover that whole spectrum while feeling like a cohesive whole. I might be a little biased on this one, because on the list of reasons I didn’t have any girlfriends in middle school, Final Fantasy VII finishes second only to my personality.
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Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
This is one of only two entries on this list that get in for compilation soundtracks rather than original music. Is that cheating? Well, maybe, but it seems fitting to break the rules with a Grand Theft Auto game. GTA’s radio stations have been a highlight of the series from the start, but Vice City is my pick for the best of all. That’s because Vice City’s radio stations play a key part in creating its super-stylized 1980s setting.
The Grand Theft Auto games allow you to choose your own musical adventure by swapping stations (I recommend the country stations, which provide beautiful accompaniments to felonies), but in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, that only goes so far.
No matter which station you’re on, you’re going to end up hearing distinctly 1980s music that is in keeping with the carefully stylized setting of this ridiculous and wonderful video game.
Vice City is tiny and blurry by the standards of modern Grand Theft Auto games, but it still feels like one of the most fully realized. That it is so instantly recognizable and fondly remembered by gamers all these years later is thanks to the details, the design, and — in no small part — to the music.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The theme music from the Zelda series has always been a personal favorite of mine, but Ocarina of Time has a lot more to offer than just the title theme. As you’d expect from a game named after an instrument, Ocarina has the player jam out with various songs that help him or her progress through the game.
The five different warp songs are beautiful, while various other songs are lighthearted, simple, and even funky.
The soundtracks that play over the various Hyrule locales are varied and beautiful. The flamenco-tinged theme of the Gerudo Desert is a particular highlight.
Mass Effect 2
The Mass Effect series has fantastic music. It’s moody and atmospheric when it needs to be, and exciting when it has to be. At times, it pays homage to 1980s sci-fi with some cool synth work. Within the series, Mass Effect 2 is the musical peak: The influences are still readily apparent, but the whole soundtrack is a bit tighter and more accessible than the first time around.
The synthesizer work is a highlight here, but the synth lines aren’t working in isolation.
Mass Effect 2’s soundtrack features orchestral swells, too, and the classical choices mesh with the electronic influences in ways that evoke classic 80s films like Blade Runner. Among others, the composers of Mass Effect 2’s sound track cited the revolutionary German electronic music group Tangerine Dream. Put everything together, and you have one the best video game soundtracks of all time.
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Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Today’s best chiptune artists draw heavily on spacey RPG and sci-fi styles, but their instrumentation remains rooted in the 16-bit era (if you don’t know what chiptune is, it's a musical genre that sounds exactly like you think it does).
And as bleep-bloop 16-bit soundtracks go, Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s is a masterwork. Sonic’s title music is nearly as iconic as his rival Mario’s, and on top of that, each of Sonic’s “zones” (remember those?) has its own memorable music. If I ever get very wealthy, I will demand that the Bellagio play the theme from “Casino Night Zone” while I play baccarat. That’s the mark of a real high roller.
Before huge RPGs started to pay composers big bucks for Hollywood-style soundtracks, there was Tetris: a deceptively simple puzzle game with an endlessly looping Russian-style theme song.
If the measure of a good video game soundtrack is that it suits the game (and I’d say it is), then Tetris is the ultimate video game soundtrack.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
I was originally going to ban all non-original soundtracks from this list because I figured that all of the sports games that use popular songs in their soundtracks would end up dominating the list.
But then I realized that every football and baseball game ever made is just full of terrible dad-rock (not to be confused with good dad rock), and that the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was the only sports series to ever really make the most of compilation soundtracks.
There are some silly songs on here, sure, but this is a fantastic soundtrack on the whole. Makes me want to get there and connect a bunch of flips with about 80 manuals. SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME, MOM.
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Super Mario Odyssey
Mario’s adventure on the Nintendo Switch is one of his most enjoyable ever, and the experience is improved immeasurably by the music. The classic themes of the earliest Super Mario games resurface in this modern installment, but that’s not all — there are references to later Mario games, too, including the beloved and all-too-often forgotten Super Mario 64.
Plus, there are a bunch of new tunes. In what is perhaps Super Mario Odyssey’s most memorably sequence (spoiler alert), Mario finishes assembling a rock band in New Donk City and then proceeds to transform into his two-dimensional self, hopping and jumping through a nostalgic obstacle course while the bank provides a bumping background track.
It’s a music high point in a game full of awesome audio.
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The professional composers who make music for video games have a passion for what they do and a ton of knowledge to draw on. That helps them make memorable music even when the game is the umpteenth entry in some played-out genre like the military or paramilitary shoot-em-up, the fantasy RPG, or the sports simulator.
L.A. Noire puts real musical talent to work on a different sort of video game. This game makes the player a gumshoe in post-World War II Los Angeles, and its Dashiell Hammett-style hardboiled detective tale demands an era-appropriate soundtrack.
Game development studio Rockstar went with a mix of licensed and original tunes and drew on a mix of jazz and movie soundtrack styles. Playing L.A. Noire, you’ll hear classic vocal jazz from Billie Holliday, hard bop from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and brand-new tracks inspired by and adhering to period-appropriate musical styles.
The only trick is listening to it all; some of L.A. Noire’s tracks appear in the game but not on the soundtrack album, and a separate “remix” soundtrack album features tracks of jazz greats remixed by modern DJs which are not played in the game itself. All of it is worth listening to.
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Die-hard RPG fans love the Persona series. The Persona games are sprawling and complex, full of role-playing minutiae and lots and lots of gaming hours. These are serious, serious games that can run longer than 100 hours — in 2016’s Persona 5, it can take 20 hours or so just to get through the introductory and tutorial portions.
Once Persona games get going, though, they do a little bit of everything; there are in-depth dungeons and combat sequences, but also plenty of role-playing that is more character-focused and even, at times, downright domestic.
The soundtracks to the Persona games are appropriately eclectic. That’s thanks to Japanese composer Shijo Meguro, who has been providing the Persona series with its tunes since 2006’s Persona 3. The music of Persona 4 is the high point (so far) for Meguro’s work on the series, full of tunes that twist together jazz, electronic music, classical, hip-hop, and more.
Meguro always seems more willing to be over-the-top and silly than timid or forgettable, but most of the stuff in Persona 4 is none of the above. Instead, it’s wild, beautiful, and nearly always perfectly appropriate for what’s happening in the game.
PaRappa the Rapper
PaRappa the Rapper is a PlayStation classic that’s all about music. It’s a hip-hop themed video game that encourages players to hit buttons along with the beat of a rap.
It’s a bit like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, except that PaRappa the Rapper came out before either of them and is “considered the first true rhythm [video] game,” at least according to what I just read on Wikipedia. But even putting aside this stuff about historic significance or the implied existence of fake rhythm games, PaRappa the Rapper belongs on this list. The reason is simple: It’s got good music!
It would have been easy for PaRappa the Rapper to use existing rap tracks to create a jukebox type of video game experience (or maybe it wouldn’t have, I don’t know — I have no idea if they had the budget for that).
For whatever reason, though, the game’s developers choose to create entirely original tracks. The songs are adorable and endlessly catchy, and the lyrics fit into the plot as our hero PaRappa (who is, as the title suggests, a rapper) tries to win over his crush and defeat his rapping rivals, all while living a pretty normal life plagued by unglamorous everyday problems.
Featured image from "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" via Nintendo.