Videogame soundtracks have been a guilty pleasure of mine for nearly as long as I’ve been a gamer- I’ve always felt that videogame music is severely underrated, or worse, undermined as an inferior form of expression. Some of my earliest memories of great music includes tracks from titles such as Secret of Mana and its ethereal, otherworldly harmonies; the fantastic synth-metal boss theme from Mystic Quest Legend, as well as the timeless upbeat melodies from Super Mario World. There are many worthy contenders to pick from, but my final call is Bobby Prince’s soundtrack for DOOM/DOOM II. Firstly, it’s no secret that a number of the songs contain riffs, sometimes even whole passages, that resemble something you might have heard from Slayer or Alice in Chains. The genius of Prince’s ‘borrowing’ of these musical elements stems back to his former life as a lawyer, where he had learned exactly exactly how much of the source music he could sample without being liable for legal action.
DOOM has one of the most enduring, community-driven legacies of any game soundtrack to date- Even back in the mid ’90s, the team at ID Software received tapes of fans covering songs from the DOOM soundtrack. As the years went on, and the world became more connected, fans started collaborating, and many more DOOM remixes surfaced, to the point where Overclocked Remix released two DOOM remix albums: DOOM: The Dark Side of Phobos (2005), and DOOM II: Delta-Q-Delta (2008). Even more recently (as old habits truly die hard), custom mods have surfaced promoting freshly re-crafted tracks to replace the original tracks. The work of Bobby Prince has stood the test of time, and cemented itself within the legendary circles of the pantheon of gaming.
The soundtrack of a video game, for me personally, is an integral part of the enjoyment of a game. It helps set the atmosphere for every situation and draws you deeper into the world being created as you invest countless hours of playtime. There have been so many games with great music that I have enjoyed over time, and have left strong impressions on me, but after much inward debate, I chose Final Fantasy VII. It was the first Final Fantasy game I ever played, and began my obsession with the franchise. As an RPG, the music is extremely important throughout the narrative, clearly directing your emotions as it draws you into the story, encouraging you to become immersed in the universe and care about the characters. I can happily sit and listen to the FFVII soundtrack and easily recall moments from the game based off the music alone, because they are so closely knitted in my mind.
I’m listening to Aerith’s Theme as I write this, and I can still remember the first time I heard it in the game as I experienced the loss of a character I had come to care about; the shock and sadness of the moment highlighted by the sweet and gentle melody as the Holy materia bounced down the steps in time. All the emotion that you’re supposed to be feeling in that moment is perfectly portrayed through the music, and I can’t imagine that scene without the track I have become so familiar with. In my opinion, it would fall flat without it, and not be as impactful as it was. There were plenty of other moments in FFVII, and other games, where my emotions were stirred, and again, it all comes back to the music. Games just wouldn’t be the same to me without a meaningful soundtrack.
A great soundtrack has always been a huge factor in how immersive and gripping I find a game. And this topic gave me an excellent reason to go back through my 20 years of game collecting to pick the best! Some lesser known titles introduced me to hypnotic techno, whereas more popular action-packed games had me head-banging along as I sniped some poor sucker. For awhile, I worried that choosing would be impossible. That was until I came to the realisation that I’d been whistling “The Song of Storms” the whole time I had been browsing.
There is no competition, Koji Kondo created tunes that were simple to enjoy, yet managed to create instant atmosphere as you stepped into each new area of Ocarina of Time. The simple almost ditty-like tunes the player repeated during the story swelled into incredibly beautiful melodies to make for some of the most memorable cut scenes and locations for me. Still today there are endless fan-made homages online to celebrate Kondo’s work, and I have five different albums of his music from the original compositions to heavy metal versions; the highlight of my year will be in march when I’m lucky enough to see the Sydney symphony orchestra perform his music. OOT and Kondo took gaming soundtracks from jingles and unmemorable background music to pieces like the Bolero of Fire which have stayed with me all these years, no other game has made such an impact for me.
Oh man, you’re asking a lot of me here. I could easily write several thousand words discussing at least 30 different video game soundtracks; detailing how and why each one deserves staggering levels of praise! Super Meat Boy, Homeworld 2, Splinter Cell: CT, Doom, Killer7, Skyrim, Tetris, Bioshock Infinite, EVE, Quake… Look, I’m not making a joke, I could seriously do that. The quantity of venerable soundtracks for video games is really damn big, so to ask me to pick just one i- Fallout. Totally Fallout! I’m not talking about New Vegas’ weak attempt at Americana or Fallout 3’s thinly veiled Elder Scrolls soundtrack. I mean Mark Morgan’s original nightmare-inducing, makes-me-smile-every-time, Fallout tracks from the original Interplay games. To me, they are the defining tracks of the wasteland. They are what every other post-apocalyptic soundtrack strives to be. It’s grimdark, ominous as hell, and has an ambient emptiness that legitimately conveys the loneliness of the wasteland. It cements the tone of the game from the very beginning, and acts as a constant reminder that this is a place that you’d rather not be.
The instrumentation is flawless, pulling in modern synths and electric instruments alongside cooking pans, tribal drums and background strings. What’s most striking to me is that, despite melody being a rarity, it’s still one of the most memorable soundtracks I can think of. City of the Dead has two distorted notes for a melody (the first one, and the semitone above it) and it’s still better than about 90% of the generic epic stuff pumped into new CoD, Halo, and even Arkham games. It’s a subtlety of expression that terrifies and delights, perhaps more so than the Amnesia soundtrack which opted for a more ‘BE SCARED’ approach. Don’t get me wrong, Saints Row IV came close, but in the end I had to go with the delightfully pants-replacing, loneliness inducing, perfectly toned option.
Skullmonkeys is one of my all-time favourite games, and one I return to regularly for a supreme state of platforming nirvana! Upon first play through, it instantly establishes itself as being a weird and imaginative side-scroller, hosting a cast of unusual characters and environments entirely built of clay. However, the undisputed oddity to this title is the strangely creative soundtrack. Of any film, videogame, or album I’ve ever had the chance to pin my ears to, Skullmonkeys, by far, has the most off-the-wall and multi-genre collection of tracks under one roof. It comprises of many diverse musical styles, ranging from blues to jazz, scat to folk, yodelling, and bongo beat. Yet, funnily enough, manages to string them together seamlessly with its offbeat sense of humour and style.
The soundtrack creates an entertaining and goofy mood for each unique stage, but the most noteworthy and hilarious track is without a doubt the ‘bonus level song’. It’s the lyrics that what makes it an amusing and funny song. As you bounce around the stage collecting items and power-ups, the vocalist sweetly sings to you along the way, “Here’s a little bonus room, I know you’ve had it tough, here’s a little bonus tune, about collecting real cool stuff.” The song also compliments you encouraging you to take your time, but then it’s turns creepy as the vocalist describes himself as your parent singing, “You’re incredible, You’re the Bomb, Me I’m like your Dad, and a little like your Mum”. To separate the game from the music, the Skullmonkeys soundtrack is a quirky and catchy assortment of music. Still to this day, I scat the opening tune when I’m cleaning, and at times sing the bonus level theme to myself when I’m driving; it’s one soundtrack that never fails to escape me because it’s so darn infectious!
Whether it’s to get your adrenaline pumping, or helping you to empathise with your characters, music in videogames can have a profound effect on the player when used correctly as I’m sure it has on me in the past. I don’t really have an ear for picking out great music when I’m playing though, which left me struggling to think of what I could write about. I thought of Bastion because of the skillful way it gave a deeper meaning to the game; it made a sensible choice since it greatly aids in conveying the narrative which makes it a fantastic tool for games. It’s also the only game soundtrack I’ve ever really listened to outside of playing an actual game. Then Tom beat me to the idea, and since he’s great at hiding, apparently, I had to think of something else. Sometimes, however, game music doesn’t have to be audibly excellent and meaningful. Sometimes it just has to be fun to listen to, and catchy enough to get stuck in your head like a jaunty little ice pick. It didn’t take long to realise this was Katamari.
The Katamari franchise has some great songs in its games, especially the theme songs. The most recent addition to the series was Touch My Katamari, which I picked up late last year, and its theme song has been in my playlist, and my subconscious, ever since! It’s a great song, but I challenge anyone without prior knowledge of the series to watch this video, and provide even a vaguely accurate account of what the game is about. Those people would likely never try to play Katamari, and yet, they’ll probably remember that song. It is always an accomplishment when game music can really engrain a moment into your memory, but I’d argue that that truly outstanding music is the kind that stays with us long after the game fades from our memory all together. Playing on loop. Forever.
It’s hard to go past the classic, defining soundtracks of videogame history when making a list like this, especially with the likes of Super Mario Bros. to contend with. Rather than pick the best, I’ve gone with the soundtrack (and game!) that fills me with joy every time without fail. The game is Okami, first released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006.
As a sprawling Japanese mythological epic, the score fits the whole art direction and tone of the game. Traditional Japanese pipes, drums, and strings form the majority of the score; matching with changes of scenery, different characters, battles and Okami’s humorous moments. With a lack of voice-acting, the music is an important tool for conveying tone and making up for the characters’ gibberish (subtitled) voices. My absolute favourite moment of Okami is the moments after clearing the cursed zone of Ryoshima Coast as your character Amaterasu (Ammy) emerges from a cave to overlook the beautiful coastal area. As Ammy rushes towards the coast to explore the new area with flowers blooming behind, the score swells gloriously and fills me with joy each and every time.
In addition to above, my consolation prize goes to another PS2 swan song: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which has left me unable to climb a ladder without tearing up and shouting “SNAAAAAAKE EAAAAAAATERRRRRRRR!”
It’s so hard to look passed Brutal Legend and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance when it comes to great music, but I’d be lying to myself if I chose anything other than Super Smash Bros. Brawl. When I think of fantastic video game soundtracks, two franchises come to mind; The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear. Both of these franchises, and so many others, lend hugely iconic soundtracks to SSBB, with hundreds of songs spanning generations of Nintendo’s best. Mario, Pokemon, Star Fox, Metroid, Kirby, Donkey Kong. It’d be hard to find someone who wasn’t familiar with a handful of the tracks. Even music from Sonic games spanning back to when The Blue Blur was Mario’s fiercest rival are present, and it fits like a glove. As well the classics, Brawl also includes plenty of lesser known (and even obscure tunes), ranging from the Brain Age title theme to a modernised Excite Truck piece. Beyond that even is the inclusion of several original songs, as well as returning songs from previous Smash Bros. games. The soundtrack to Brawl’s single player component, The Subspace Emissary, is certainly less recognisable than the hundreds of classics it’s grouped with, but that’s not to say it isn’t comparable in quality. In my opinion, any game that features both Metal Gear Solid’s ‘Encounter’ and Sonic Adventure 2’s ‘Live and Learn’ is a winner.
In my opinion, the best game soundtrack of all time is Dissidia 012 [Duodecim]. This is because it features all of the best musical and sound arrangements from the Final Fantasy series. I love the fact that Takeharu Ishimoto was able to portray all the characters and environments with their respective themes, and yet, still provide a fresh remaster of each individual song. The real talent of this soundtrack, though, is the ability to make you recall individual scenes from each game, just based upon the song arrangement you hear. In this retrospect, it is a double dose of bliss in that you get to enjoy Dissidia 012, and you get to remember all the most memorable scenes from the previous games. In saying this, however, it does not mean that the soundtrack lacks its own individuality. On the contrary, it breathes more life into it and also provides several original arrangements that are a stunning showcase of the depth and impact that this game provides; From “Lux Concordiae” deep rolling bass notes and melodic choir singing to the raging chorus and sharp chord strikes in “Cantata Mortis & God In Fire”; each song follows in the steps of previous games, and leaves a deep, resounding impression that you can’t forget!
Choosing the best game soundtrack of all time was a particularly difficult choice to make because music is very subjective and tastes change. Game soundtracks have also changed over time with improved technology, even though we’ve seen a resurgence in “chip tune” music recently, such as the great soundtracks for FTL, Dustforce, and many others. It was a tough choice, but in the end, I ended up choosing the soundtrack to Bastion. In my opinion, the music really fits perfectly with the game. It combines sounds from Eastern cultures, as well as Western country music influences. This also fits, not coincidentally, with the beautiful art and atmosphere of the game which also exhibits this mix. It’s a soundtrack that never grew old throughout the whole game, and it added the right emotional cues. It’s a soundtrack that showed it was carefully crafted and original. It’s an album that you can, (and I do) listen to on its own as well, and it has some beautifully haunting original lyrical songs, written by Darren Korb. It’s all these elements coming together that make this one of the best game soundtracks of all time.
Soundtracks and music are important to a game. They set the tone, and will influence the emotions you’re meant to feel. If there was any series that nailed this for me, it’d have to be the Elder Scrolls.
Ever since Morrowind back in 2002, the guys at Bethesda have nailed what a soundtrack should be. The mere mention of Morrowind will have half the people reading this humming or “do dooo”ing the intro. They set the tone and mood perfectly for the journey that lay ahead. Morrowind has a peaceful and mysterious tone, making you feel as if you’re about to wonder a strange new land. Oblivion had a loud and inspiring track, preparing you for war. Then of course, Skyrim, with it’s proud Nordish tone that gets you pumped to embrace the role of Dragonborn. Each of these tracks has stuck with me long after the journey. If that’s not the sign of an great OST, then I don’t know what is?
It might sound strange, but I’m someone who often prefers music without lyrics. It’s not that I don’t find enjoyment in the latter, in fact, I am passionate about all types of music. However, it’s the pure subjective nature of this style of music that resonates so well with me as it can mean anything I need it to, when I want it to. So, as you could imagine, video game music fits perfectly with this philosophy. For example, when I hear one of the great compositions from Final Fantasy, I sometimes think back on the adventures I’ve had throughout the years. Other times, I would hear the same tune and relate to a different time in my life, fueled with feelings of nostalgia. And for those darker moments we all have to go through, it could even provide feelings of familiarity and security.
There are countless soundtracks I turn to, each for different reasons. However, the one I chose was the soundtrack which holds the strongest emotional attachment. It wasn’t easy, but I settled on “To the Moon” by Freebird Games. Set in the not-to-distant future, the game pursues the concept of memory augmentation and fulfilling the wishes of those who don’t have long to live. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest narratives ever conceived in a game as it explores the subject of mental illness in a way that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Attached to this game, however, is one of the most incredible soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It so perfectly conveys the strong emotion of the narrative, but more importantly, resonates with the listener on a personal level as well. One track in particular, “For River”, has never left me. Whenever I hear it, I reflect on my life, and feel as if everything will be alright; no matter how dire my situation might be. From the joy of my engagement, to the death of my grandfather; it has been there for me. And for this reason, To the Moon stands apart from everything else.