Video game soundtracks can touch us in ways that leave them playing in our minds and hearts, long after we save and quit.
Video games are a special medium in how they allow us to escape reality and explore alternate selves, worlds, and realities. Often times, their music plays a critical role in emotionally immersing us in the virtual universes we’re visiting; in fact, good video game soundtracks allow us to forget, for a moment, that we aren’t actually experiencing what’s unfolding on the screen.
When a game synergizes with its soundtrack to provide us an emotional, meaningful, or just genuinely fun experience, we associate the music that was playing in that moment with that magic. As a result, video game soundtracks regularly achieve the same degree of popularity and adoration as the beloved titles that they belong to (and many also stand their own as amazing collections of music, regardless of their association with a particular game).
A few of us at Splice recently came together to attempt to identify the top 20 video game soundtracks of all time, including everything from the classics to some deeper cuts. We held ourselves to a maximum of one entry per franchise to keep the list diverse, and because ranking them would actually be impossible (picking them was hard enough), we’ve arranged the games in chronological order.
Though the franchise itself had already been around for five years, Tetris’ Game Boy release in 1989 was the first to contain “Type A,” a song that single-handedly puts the puzzle game on this list. “Type A” is the track that’s widely recognized as Tetris’ main theme; some may be surprised to know it’s actually a rendition of “Korobeiniki,” a nineteenth-century Russian folk song. Love it or hate it, the simple tune has played a key role in shaping the larger culture of video game music — and thanks to newer releases like Tetris 99, continues to be an earworm for countless players today.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
While Super Mario Bros. may take the cake for having the single most influential video game soundtrack of all time, Super Mario 64 is another Mario game with a (much larger) collection of music that has defined the childhoods of countless players. Spirited orchestrated interpretations of the franchise’s most popular themes were composed by Koji Kondo, as well as all-new standouts including the elegant “Inside the Castle Walls” and the dreamy “Dire, Dire Docks.” Super Mario 64 is the Nintendo 64’s best-selling title and is revered as one of the greatest video games of all time, and Kondo’s music undoubtedly played an imperative part in bringing its awe-inspiring 3D world to life.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
It would be impossible to discuss the best of video game music without celebrating the work of Nobuo Uematsu. His compositions for Final Fantasy VII (and numerous other games in the series) have been loved and celebrated for over two decades straight, experiencing multiple releases and re-imaginations. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that pieces such as the pastoral main theme and the “The Rite of Spring”-inspired “One-Winged Angel” played a critical role in establishing video game music as a medium that’s as equally legitimate as film and absolute music. The upcoming 2020 remake of Final Fantasy VII has many of us excited, and it’ll be interesting to see how the latest rendition of Uematsu’s timeless score is incorporated into the game.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Ocarina of Time inspires wonder from the moment it’s booted up, with its gentle title theme and the imagery of Epona galloping through Hyrule Field hinting at the expansive scope of the game. This fifth installment to The Legend of Zelda series was revolutionary in many ways, and its bold re-imagined approach to the franchise was reflected in Koji Kondo’s score; he abandoned the iconic main theme for the first time, replacing it with the equally epic “Hyrule Field” theme.
Ocarina of Time was also innovative in how it made the player an active participant of its music — Link’s ocarina plays a key role in progressing the game’s story, and the player is tasked to learn how to perform 12 unique melodies on it. Interestingly, in order to work with the Nintendo 64 controller’s finite number of buttons, each theme was centered around just five notes. Though Kondo recalls this as a major creative challenge, the resulting songs are all distinct and beautiful, including absolute classics such as “Zelda’s Lullaby,” “Saria’s Song,” and “Song of Storms.” The score is the final Zelda soundtrack that was fully composed by Kondo, and while subsequent releases are also well-deserving of being on this list, Ocarina of Time is a series and cultural staple that can’t be overlooked.
Jet Set Radio (2000)
With a soundtrack as ambitious as its design, Jet Set Radio is packed with hyper-detailed tracks that boast a very distinct attitude. Its blend of techno, hip hop, and J-rock makes for a blistering soundtrack that feels as iconic as the game’s art direction. Although the soundtrack features a variety of genres, the true heart of Jet Set Radio is Hideki Naganuma’s frantic anthems that flip nonsensical samples, funky guitar and bass loops, and drum and bass percussion into pure 160 BPM bliss. In a way, his songs forecasted the mashup boom that came not long after Jet Set Radio was released, but without the cringe-factor. The songs capture the vibrant feeling of the game’s world, characters, and art style to a near-perfect degree, providing the perfect soundtrack to paint the town red, orange, purple, and whatever other color your heart desired.
Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
Sonic Adventure 2 is a time capsule of a bizarre time in video games. Perhaps the final marquee release on the Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure 2 signaled the end of an era that embraced the weird, the wild, and the unorthodox in gaming and gaming technology, in place of the modern era of the console wars and AAA franchises. While there are varying opinions on how the game has aged since its release in 2001, one thing that’s undeniable is the game’s soundtrack. Sonic Adventure 2 features six playable characters, and the soundtrack sonically reflects the variety, covering genres like bossanova, rap, pop-punk, techno, bubblegum pop, nu-metal, drum and bass, and even classical.
Music supervisor Jun Senoue didn’t want his soundtrack to feel like background music, so he made sure that the songs could stand on their own as great pieces of music while still supporting the gameplay and themes of the story. “Live and Learn” and “Escape from the City” are obvious standouts and are absolutely still stuck in your head if you played these games back in the day. That said, deep cuts like “Believe in Myself” and “Fly in the Freedom” shouldn’t be overlooked either. Every song, regardless of the overwhelming camp factor on a few of them, feels urgent, fun, and unique to every character and stage, and the unlikely harmony between genres earns Sonic Adventure 2 a spot on our list.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire (2002)
Released for the Game Boy Advance, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were the first main-series Pokémon games that departed from 8-bit audio and entered the world of 16-bit orchestration. The soundtrack took full advantage of this evolution, conveying the joys and perils of adventure with colorful arrangements, upbeat rhythms, and a lot of horns.
The scope of the game’s plot also expanded massively compared to previous generations, going from Gold, Silver, and Crystal’s primary storyline of becoming a Pokémon master (while stopping Team Rocket’s mischief on your way) to saving the world from ancient beasts that threaten the balance of nature and all life on earth. The music reflects this change, with the pounding timpani of “Battle! (Super-Ancient Pokémon),” the celestial harp arpeggios of “Cave of Origin,” and the delightfully lengthy “Ending Theme” reinforcing the larger-than-life character of Ruby and Sapphire. The games made their mark in history as the best-selling releases on the Game Boy Advance, and their music lives up to the title without a doubt.
Katamari Damacy (2004)
By this point, it has been well established how wacky, weird, and just plain mind-boggling the Katamari series is. Yet, for all its quirks, it’s important to acknowledge that this game has some flat-out gorgeous music. Yes, there are the out-there ballads about rolling up your lover into a star, but as a whole, the songs in the first game of the series are stunning in their complexity and distinct character. The melodies are infectious and will stay with you forever, from the legendary main theme to the stunning “Cherry Tree Times” (lead composer Yu Miyake claimed that it was his favorite in the franchise). Every song is full of pop melodies, glittering instrumentation, angelic vocals, and a healthy amount of happy-go-lucky. It’s the perfect soundtrack to roll up cats, dogs, humans, skyscrapers, and every last thing in between for hours on end. It has one of the most unique and beautiful soundtracks in the history of gaming without a doubt.
Kingdom Hearts II (2005)
One could make the argument that Kingdom Hearts simply wouldn’t work without Yoko Shimomura. On its surface, it’s quite a difficult brief for a composer. Scoring one of the very few gaming franchises that actually follows a (somewhat) linear story across years, consoles, gameplay styles, and characters, Yoko Shimomura’s compositions do a tremendous amount of work to anchor the series in spite of its wacky plot holes and, at times, goofy writing. From “Dearly Beloved” to iconic battle themes like “The 13th Struggle” to her reworks of Disney classics, every song in Kingdom Hearts II is masterful, capturing the story’s sweeping and massive scale. Yet, the primary reason why Kingdom Hearts II won out over the numerous other titles in the series is “Sanctuary.” Utada Hikaru’s theme song for the game is not only a perfect pop song, but it also seamlessly weaves in themes from the game like growing up, loss, and identity into the fiber of the track.
The World Ends With You (2007)
The World Ends With You is a vibrant and highly-original JRPG helmed by Square Enix auteur, Testuya Nomura. Set in modern Shibuya, its gameplay style, narrative, and art direction are distinct and imaginative, building out a robust world full of detail. Every district in the game has its own musical themes, visual aesthetic, and fashion trends, and its music reflects that depth and variety. Composer Takeharu Ishimoto helmed the eclectic soundtrack, capturing a variety of genres while still injecting his own spin on all of them. What makes this soundtrack special is how well it reinterprets modern popular music for its own universe. The World Ends With You’s Shibuya has such a vibrant feel to it, and the way Ishimoto crafts music that reflects the real world while still maintaining the distinct art direction of the game is a wonderful balancing act. Everything sounds just enough like pop music that could be heard in the streets of Tokyo, yet every song unmistakably belongs to the game’s universe.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
The Team Fortress 2 soundtrack is a perfect fit for the quirky military shooter. The score, composed by Mike Morasky and performed by the Valve Studio Orchestra, features a blend of big band horns reminiscent of Americana spy movies and driving drums that sound like they’re performed by a military marching band. The main theme uses the sound of a ticking clock to establish a groove that’s marked by tension and competitiveness, which are feelings that are also very effectively captured by the rest of the score. For example, “Playing with Danger,” another standout on the soundtrack, makes prominent use of a restless snare pattern, and its ascending half step motif communicates a sense of peril without taking itself too seriously. Though not as iconic as some of the other titles on this list, Team Fortress 2 gets a spot for its ability to convey danger while still keeping things fun.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2011)
The gaming community’s excitement and expectations skyrocketed when they first heard that LEVEL-5’s Ni no Kuni would feature animated sequences by Studio Ghibli and music from the renowned Joe Hisaishi — and they weren’t disappointed. Hisaishi brought the same degree of attention and spirit to Ni no Kuni’s soundtrack as he did to the most popular Ghibli films; the main theme, “Kokoro No Kakera,” and “Miracle – Reunion” are particularly breathtaking, but there’s honestly not a single forgettable moment in the entire score. Stirring performances by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra bring Hisaishi’s music to life and make it transcend anything you would expect on a Nintendo DS (Wrath of the White Witch was released on the Playstation 3 less than a year after Dominion of the Dark Djinn, its original DS counterpart). Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch recently experienced a re-release on the Nintendo Switch, so there’s truly no excuse to not play it.
Monument Valley (2014)
Monument Valley is a serene, peaceful, and meditative gaming experience, and its soundtrack reinforces these themes impeccably. Composed by Stafford Bawler, Obfusc, and Grigori, it’s hard to call out a specific track that shines brighter than the rest, but that’s a testament to how cohesive the soundtrack is. Each piece acts as background music to your journey, driving you forward without making you feel stressed out about getting stuck on a puzzle. Throughout the game, the soundtrack maintains a distinct point of view with lush and spacious sounds that perfectly match the dreamy feeling the gameplay evokes. The songs feel heavily indebted to the IDM genre, with pieces like “Oceanic Glow” that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada record. Monument Valley establishes a tone and sticks to it incredibly well, creating a cohesive and wondrous sonic experience that works in tandem with the gameplay.
Shovel Knight (2014)
Shovel Knight is an acclaimed 2D side-scrolling platformer with a score by none other than Jake Kaufman. While the soundtrack (and the game at large) is an homage to the 8-bit era, it’s just as innovative as it is nostalgic. Rather than letting 8-bit music’s inherent limitations in sound design and orchestration be a hindrance, Kaufman uses them to spotlight his ingenious compositional chops. The score is full of creative counterpoint and harmonic surprises that will intrigue any veteran composer, while maintaining an accessible and authentic emotional through line that will resonate with any non-musician. For a contrasting but equally delightful side of Kaufman’s music, check out his fully-orchestrated and irresistibly groovy score for Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.
Fire Emblem Fates (2015)
Consisting of Fire Emblem Birthright, Conquest, and later, Revelation, Fire Emblem Fates is an artfully constructed game that navigates themes such as family, destiny, and choice. In Fates, the player must choose between fighting alongside their blood and adoptive kingdoms, Hoshido and Nohr. The two kingdoms are inspired by real-world cultures, and the soundtrack is critical in telling this story; the Japan-inspired Hoshido is scored by elegant music that’s reminiscent of gagaku (Japanese Imperial Court music that features instruments such as the shakuhachi, sho, koto, and ryuuteki), while the medieval Europe-inspired Nohr is scored by galvanizing tunes that are reminiscent of celtic music (featuring instruments such as the vielle, uilleann pipes, and bagpipes).
While all of the instrumental compositions are nothing short of inspiring, the standout piece in the soundtrack is without a doubt “If~ Hitori Omou” (or the translated “Lost Thoughts All Alone” in western releases). The song is closely intertwined with Fates‘ plot, and vocalist Renka’s performance is incredibly beautiful, so much so that several of the game’s developers reportedly cried when they heard her audition.
It’s hard to believe that the mega-successful Undertale was created pretty much entirely by one person; indie developer Toby Fox is the game’s programmer, designer, writer, and composer. Despite this, it doesn’t seem that he took any shortcuts with the score. While it doesn’t boast full orchestrations or polished production, the soundtrack carefully weaves thoughtful motifs and memorable melodies throughout its compositions that make you laugh at times and tug on your heartstrings at others. Some standout songs include “Heartache,” “Hopes and Dreams,” “Snowy,” and of course, everyone’s favorite “MEGALOVANIA.”
Persona 5 (2016)
There are countless games out there where the aesthetics outshine the gameplay, or vice versa. That said, Atlus’ Persona 5 is one of those rare titles that’s truly outstanding in both departments. Its immersive 100+ hour campaign combines RPG and social simulation mechanics in a fresh and novel way, while its impeccable art style (famous for having the best UI / menus of any game ever made) and distinctive music help create a world that’s simultaneously cool and electrifying.
The soundtrack, spearheaded by series sound director Shoji Meguro, features an eccentric hybrid of acid jazz and heavy rock. A few of its most adored tracks, including “Last Surprise,” “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There,” and “Beneath the Mask,” are topped off by Lyn Inaizumi’s soulful vocals. Do yourself a favor and go listen to this soundtrack. Preferably while playing the game.
NieR: Automata (2017)
NieR: Automata brought Keiichi Okabe back to the acclaimed franchise as the lead composer, and offers hours upon hours of breathtaking music. The music draws players into the game’s post-apocalyptic world with haunting arrangements primarily driven by strings, piano, percussion, and vocals. A distinguishing element of the soundtrack is its mesmerizing fictional language, showcased by vocalist Emi Evans on songs such as “Song of the Ancients (Atonement),” “Vague Hope (Cold Rain),” and “Emil (Despair).” This score truly has no weak points; its compositions are original, its production is world-class, and its emotional fit with the game is superb. And if you don’t take our word for how amazing NieR: Automata’s soundtrack is, it also won “Best Score/Music” at The Game Awards 2017.
Hollow Knight (2017)
Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania game with a score composed by Christopher Larkin. While many games in the genre employ theatrical arrangements and melodies, Larkin opts for subtlety, primarily relying on ostinatos and restrained melodies performed by piano and strings. However, in a similar spirit to the gameplay, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of his ostensibly simple soundtrack — leitmotifs weave together recurring themes in the story, crescendoing to a particularly thoughtful and gripping accompaniment for the final battles. If you’re into cathartic experiences that are a blend of deeply saddening and uplifting, then Hollow Knight and its soundtrack are definitely for you.
Compared to the other titles on this list, CRYSTAR may be a game that’s unfamiliar to many — which is unfortunate, because its music deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Composed by Japanese music producer Sakuzyo, the score juxtaposes lush orchestral arrangements with gritty percussion and industrial fx. The result is a chilling soundtrack that’s both adrenaline-infused and melancholy, often times in the same moment. And best of all, the score is available to be streamed in full on Spotify.
Though our list focused on the greatest original soundtracks in video game history, as an afterthought we wanted to highlight five franchises that have demonstrated an incredible ear for compilation soundtracks. Each of these series have had their own outsized impact on the close relationship between video games and music.
Since the series began licensing popular music with FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, FIFA has featured an extensive list of iconic tracks from around the globe, reflecting the colorful variety of the world’s game.
2. Tony Hawk’s
The music of the Tony Hawk’s franchise perfectly captured the American-ness of skateboarding through its iconic mix of punk rock and hip hop.
3. Dance Dance Revolution
With its first release in 1998, the Dance Dance Revolution series not only set the standard for the addictive rhythm game genre, but also masterfully compiled soundtracks that made you want to, well, dance. Every game is full of absolutely nutty original songs, remixes, and covers, spanning everything from funk to happy hardcore.
4. Need for Speed
In any game where driving is central to the gameplay, you need to have a soundtrack that people can bump on repeat for hours — and the longstanding Need for Speed series understood this perfectly.
5. Grand Theft Auto
Music has historically played a key role in the Grand Theft Auto series. From its early days when in-house producers would create stations of parody tracks to its present day iterations that feature curation from the likes of Frank Ocean and Flying Lotus, GTA has always made sure that its various radio stations are always full of varied sounds.
At the end of the day, there are countless excellent video game soundtracks that we couldn’t fit onto this list. Did we miss you favorite game? Is there an entry on the list that you resonate particularly strongly with? Let us know in the comments below.
November 6, 2019