How video games inspire popular music

Illustration: Filip Fröhlich

The cultural impact of video games can’t be understated.

From the explosive rise of Esports to individual titles like Among Us exceeding a staggering 500 million downloads, video games have evolved from being a niche hobby at their inception to a key piece of today’s cultural zeitgeist. The world of music production is no exception when it comes to absorbing their influence—after all, games have some fantastic soundtracks, sound effects, and narrative themes, so who wouldn’t want to try drawing on them for some creative inspiration?

Below, we take a look at a few ways video games have inspired popular music, examining tracks from some of the biggest artists from around the world and across genres.

Referencing melodies from video games

Great video game melodies have this unique power of instantly transporting listeners to vivid memories of how it felt when they first encountered them as they traversed a fantastical world. Let’s take a look at a few ways artists have referenced these melodies, from subtle sample flips to unmistakable rearrangements.

J. Cole and Kingdom Hearts

J. Cole’s “Dollar And A Dream III” samples the heart-tugging “Darkness of the Unknown,” a piece by legendary composer Yoko Shimomura that’s part of the Kingdom Hearts II soundtrack. While it’s re-contextualized in an entirely different genre, it still maintains its larger-than-life energy that J. Cole effectively leverages for his own storytelling.

Drake and Sonic the Hedgehog

Between collaborations with Ninja and tracks that heavily allude to games (see “Final Fantasy” on Scorpion‘s tracklist), it’s no secret that Drake is a video game enthusiast. In “KMT,” the beat from Ness and Chef Pasquale features a string sample that’s a slowed and pitch-shifted flip of the intro of Sonic the Hedgehog‘s theme, “His World.”

Eve and Pokémon

Over the last few years, Pokémon has been actively working alongside both Japanese vocaloid producers and music creators from across the world to celebrate their franchise, which has opened up entirely new doors for the intersection of video games and popular music. While there are many tracks to choose from, one standout is Eve’s “Glorious Day,” which remixes all of the champion themes from across the series, making it an apt finale to the 18-song project. It’s an absolute treat for anyone who’s a fan of the world of Pokémon, and also has an incredible music video.

Sampling sound effects from video games

It’s incredible how strongly even the simplest game menu bleeps can be burned into our memories. In the following examples, we look at how music producers have used all sort of video game sound effects as one-shots in their tracks, in both expected and unexpected ways.

BTS and Super Mario Bros.

While it may sound distant from their more recent releases, “War of Hormone” is a track from BTS’ earlier days where they had just debuted as a hip hop group. The bombastic intro makes use of a succession of coin and power-up mushroom sounds from Super Mario Bros. to create some playful hype that leads into the verse.

Skrillex and The Legend of Zelda

Navi incessantly telling Link to “Hey, listen” is a staple part of the Legend of Zelda experience. In “Tears,” Skrillex uses Navi’s demand as a pre-drop sample, which does a stellar job at focusing the listener’s attention while also giving a nod to the beloved series.

Lil Durk and Super Smash Bros.

In “What Happened to Virgil,” the home-run bat sound from the Super Smash Bros. series is used throughout the track, filling a similar role to a cymbal or impact. It’s interesting how the sound, which feels lighthearted in the context of the chaotic fighting game, is re-imagined in a song that’s somber and emotive by comparison.

Finding lyrical inspiration from video games

The creators of Pong would have probably never imagined that games like The Last of Us and Undertale would tell incredibly nuanced and compelling stories that leave many feature films in the dust. Today, no one can deny that video games excel at creating highly immersive universes, and just as books and movies have sparked countless songs, games are also inspiring lyrics for songwriters everywhere.

Chevy and Genshin Impact

Written as a fanwork in celebration of Genshin Impact‘s second anniversary, Chevy and Luxid’s “Bubblegum Party” is full of lyrical nuggets that hint at the game without saying it outright—”Just waiting for something to spark” feels like an ode to Klee, and “We’re just a call away” could be inspired by Xiao’s signature ability of showing up on command to help. The opening motif also draws on Klee’s cheerful demo OST.

Shawn Wasabi and Animal Crossing

By contrast, this one couldn’t be more obvious—Shawn Wasabi and Sophia Black’s “ANIMAL CROSSING,” is inspired by, to the surprise of no one, Animal Crossing. From collecting shells to laying with the leaves, the song depicts all of the wholesome activities that one can enjoy in Animal Crossing.

Stray Kids and Pac-Man

Last but not least, in “ITEM,” Stray Kids use Pac-Man as a motif for the song’s explosive hook, which also incorporates some playful homophonic work (“Item, item, I ate them, Pac-Man“). While the song isn’t chock-full of game references otherwise, it demonstrates how flexibly video games can be used as a source for lyrical inspiration.

What are your favorite video game references in music?

And there you have it! Which of the tracks that we featured is your favorite? Are there any gems that we missed? Start a conversation with us and an active community of other music creators via the Splice Discord.

Explore more articles on the world of video game music:

April 18, 2024

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.