Soundtracks can make or break video games—if you don’t believe me, put on this 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). 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.
Final Fantasy VII
I could probably fill this entire list with just Final Fantasy soundtracks, which is why, for diversity's sake, I'm only including one entrant per series. 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 Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The theme music from the Zelda series has always been a personal favorite of mine, but Ocarina 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.
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.
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.
Featured image of Mass Effect 2