As is the case with movies and TV, music has a massive impact on the success and capabilities of a video game. But whereas a Scorsese flick or an episode of Boston Legal are passive experiences (i.e., a director assembles a message, wraps a song around it, and we absorb said sentiment through consumption), video games seek to truly engage. Without the consumer, Spyro doesn’t collect magic gems, Sam Fisher doesn’t snap necks, and no one ever gets rocketed in Liberty City.
Music in video games has to not only be the soundtrack to a great moment and make you feel or think something viscerally, it has to urge you to pick up the controller and react and respond in a certain frame of mind, to risk life and limb for some princess in a faraway castle. With an epic score or a hit-filled soundtrack, a video game can transition from a system of triggers and data to a living, breathing work of art, where bits of info shaped into a tiny elf boy can tell just as many stories and sway just as many hearts as the words and deeds of Hollywood.
So, in honor of music’s vital role in gaming, we’ve counted down the best video game scores and soundtracks. These titles represent some of the best contributions to the field, where gameplay was only truly meaningful because of the inclusion of the right music. These are the games forever etched in our brains, and though the details of the story and the mechanics may not be as vivid, the music itself forever changed the way we all get our game on.
So, drop in a quarter and click “Start” below.
— Chris Coplan
10. Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy reinvents itself with every installation. I through VI, from the 8 and 16-bit eras, remain classic and untouchable. VII and beyond are the subject of much endless debate – lauded and denounced. Across this varied continuum, it’s the music of Final Fantasy that remains its most consistent element. The series’ original composer Nobuo Uematsu is revered not just as one of the greatest composers of game music, but one of the greatest composers of the past three decades. And Final Fantasy VII stands as the high water mark of his work.
For a game series going on 15 installations, with countless spin-offs and affiliated titles, one has to ask: What makes the music of Final Fantasy VII so special? It’s not just that FFVII‘s music was the defining soundtrack for first generation PlayStation owners. Certainly previous and future games in the series have wonderful music. It’s the same reason that VII blew so many young gamers’ minds back when it debuted: it’s a powerhouse. It doesn’t boast the best Final Fantasy story or characters, but there’s so much good story and so many good characters that it carries the weight. Musically, it’s the same: not a single track in VII can compare to the majesty of “Terra’s Theme” from FFVI, but VII has so many evocative and moving themes, with such breathtaking scope throughout the score, that it overcomes all contenders.
What’s more, the role that Uematsu’s score played in the game itself can’t be overstated. While FFVII certainly was an impressive-looking game at the time, its software limitations made it the last Final Fantasy in which the emotional resonance of the story leaned so heavily on music. Without Uematsu’s score guiding players through the sci-fi slums of Midgar or the against the one-winged angel Sephiroth, the game’s script and character animations couldn’t possibly have channeled even a modicum of the impact VII had. Uematsu ought to be credited as the game’s co-writer. –Cap Blackard, CoS Art Director, Nerdy Show host
09. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece and a visceral gaming experience that sticks in your jaw like a dusty wad of chewing tobacco. The tale harkens back to the desperate, sun-washed moods first established by spaghetti westerns. It also tugs at the heart with its sad folklore: a lone rider who is at once running from his past while moving forward on a mission of vengeance. The game rightfully earns all the praise and critical acclaim that’s been heaped upon it.
The controls are smooth, the map is expansive, and the struggles of battling through decrepit towns while foraging for pelts, cash, and bullets is a stunning, updated take on the theme of survival that gamers first encountered while playing Oregon Trail in elementary school libraries. Graphics, action, and gameplay aside, though, it’s Red Dead’s original soundtrack that lifts this adventure into the pantheon of gaming legend.
Red Dead is a sprawling landscape of wide open spaces that stretch on forever below an angry sky and a dangerous moon.These themes are so powerful and the soundtrack so moving that it feels like you’re actually playing out a version of HBO’s short lived classic Deadwood or even P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood. While Jonny Greenwood wasn’t involved at all with Red Dead’s hour-and-half soundtrack, there are certainly artistic nods to his Grammy-nominated film score throughout the game.
As we learn more about Marston’s own criminal past and the redemptive mission to save his family from the likes of bandits, outlaws, and corrupt government officials, we also gain valuable insight into how troubled he really is and how much danger surrounds the quest. Tribal drums and violent chants flood in at moments of attack, like surging rainwater, raking trails across the desert, while the parts of the story that take place in Mexico dance to a sinister flamenco influence. The soundtrack directs the aura of trouble and loneliness like Sergio Leone in musical form. The song that takes home the biggest bounty of all though is José González’s touching “Far Away”. –Dan Pfleegor, CoS Marketing Director
08. Katamari Damacy
There’s really no other way to start explaining Katamari Damacy than saying this: it’s a weird game. Really weird. We’re talking drunk cosmic deity destroying all the stars in the sky while his son rolls stuff up on Earth using a sticky ball to get it big enough to turn it into replacement stars weird. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The quirky game first showed up stateside in late 2004, generating a slow burn of cult-like followers. Featuring a distinctive art style, simplistic yet challenging gameplay, an utterly unique story, and a downright charming soundtrack, Katamari Damacy challenged what people could classify as a puzzle game. The premise here is that you’re playing as the son of the King of All Cosmos, who tasks you with rolling a magical ball around various stages to get stuff to stick to it. When the ball meets the satisfaction of your jerkbag Dad, who is one of the most sarcastically hilarious characters in video game history, he turns it into a star. Yay!
Every song is a gem, and is just as ludicrous as the game’s content. A multitude of genres and tons of vocal tracks ensured that players got an earful of extremely varied music that they would, without realizing it, start humming and singing along to. Electronica, pop, lounge, jazzy scat, ambient, new age, acoustic, classical orchestra…there’s honestly just way too many styles to list. I’ll never forget the first three weeks (yes, three weeks) after first playing the game when “Lonely Rolling Star” was on loop in my brain.
Much like the game itself, defying convention, sense, and reason, Katamari Damacy‘s music appears to have zero conventional logic, yet is still so lovable, interesting, and parasitically addictive. Who needs sense when you’re rolling up a marketplace full of random stuff, anyway? At the end of the day, it’s hard to come away from a session of Katamari Damacy without a smile on your face and a song stuck in your head. –Stevo Bortz, Artist, Level 99 remix team
07. Saint’s Row IV
When Saint’s Row launched in 2006, though well produced, it was just too similar to the Grand Theft Auto series to be truly meaningful. So, as each new title becomes more about the lunacy of murderous cats and man-a-paults, the score and soundtrack have helped ground and shape the series.
Saint’s Row IV may be the most absurd entry, but it also offers the most choices. You can drive fast cars in a tailored suit, listening to In Flames while you firebomb cops. Or, fly around in a UFO before blasting people with an Inflato-Ray, to the sweet sounds of EMF’s “Unbelievable”. However you fly your freak flag, it’s your call to mix and match accordingly. That’s real freedom: to listen and do what you want in ways the developers never anticipated (or might ever wanted to do themselves).
It’s also fun to explore your own emotional sensibilities. I wasted hours smashing to various songs, from Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” to Zeds Dead. And while grand, rollicking songs get the adrenaline pumping, there’s nothing like blowing up aliens to “The Planets, 1st Movement: Mars”. It’s the sort of game that leaves you questioning the whole gameplay-music relationship, doing so without ever taking itself too seriously (cause, ya know, dildo bats and a Dubstep Gun).
Still, some of the more rewarding moments are less obvious. When the main character and Pierce drive around singing off-key renditions of Haddaway’s “What Is Love”, it’s not a throwaway moment: it’s an easy and effective way to show character’s bonds. And though the game takes away choice when it cues up Stan Bush’s “The Touch” during a crucial scene, the slow fade in and sheer lunacy have more emotionality than some movies.
For those who frequently revisit games, each playthrough will also vary based on where you are in life and your own ever-changing perceptions and sense of humor. That’s just the laser-shooting cherry on the sundae that is SRIV and its role in redefining modern gaming. That, and telekinetically hurling pedestrians into skyscrapers. –Chris Coplan, CoS News Editor
06. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
While each successive Elder Scrolls game has been bigger and more grandiose than the last, making The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind feel like a distant memory, it was one of the most important titles in the series, especially in the music department. Jeremy Soule, who’s considered among the best composers working in the game industry, took the helm of the series for the first time with this title and really established the signature sound and powerful sample-based orchestra—almost indistinguishable from the real thing—that he has since come to be known for.
The original version of the soundtrack, included with the Collector’s Edition, broke down tracks into the main theme, exploration themes, and battle themes. While subsequent re-issues have featured Morrowind-flavored track titles, even the soundtrack’s most serious fans probably don’t remember them. The music is powerful enough to stand on its own without track titles to lean on.
What makes this score magical is the balance of ambiance and melody. Morrowind can be played for many hours, and the pieces cycle through somewhat randomly, and while each is able to immerse you in the world of Morrowind, there will be moments where your ears perk up to certain melody, and it’s those moments that drove me and many other fans to seek out the soundtrack for outside listening.
And that doesn’t even touch on the heroic main theme that Soule created for this game that would become a theme for the series moving forward. In fact, this theme was used to announce The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, much to the delight of fans.
While Soule’s scores have become much more complex since 2002 when Morrowind was released, he created a legacy for himself and the franchise in just a little over 40 minutes of music. Anyone interested in game music, and Soule’s works in particular, needs to seek out this soundtrack and given it a listen. You won’t be disappointed. –Jayson Napolitano, Music Editor, Destructoid
05. Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid‘s score still sticks with me for the same reasons that it amazed me as a kid: it’s the opposite of what you’d expect. In an Action Game about Nuclear Threats and Hostages and Robot Ninjas and A Gruff Soldier Who Repeats The Last Thing People Told Him With A Question Mark At The End, you’d expect bombastic, high octane music. Stuff reminiscent of Michael Bay’s most self-indulgent films.
What we got, however, was a remarkably elegiac, haunting soundtrack more fitting to a survival horror or arthouse game than one where you engage in a topless fistfight with your Evil British Clone. To this day, the end credits song (“The Best Is Yet To Come”) still gives me chills. Walking through the already-creepy hallways of Shadow Moses, the ambient music puts you in a state of unease — the score takes pleasure in reminding you that despite the crazier moments that await you, you’re still a relatively powerless creature in a world full of men (and monsters, and robots) that can kill you a hundred times over. Just as the gameplay suggests caution and tentativeness, so too does the music.
Not to mention that even when the score does get big and bombastic — or when you do alert a guard, or try to shoot down a helicopter — it still retains its own identity. The Alert music, for instance, doesn’t feel like a copy-pasted Hans Zimmer action score, or like an overly melodic videogame-y jingle. It feels like a combination of the two: blustery enough to feel epic, but simple enough to be memorable. — Anthony Burch, Writer/Co-star, Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?
04. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
Video Game Music was, up until this point, starkly divided from conventionally consumed music. Sure, a lot of the chip-arranged music was very catchy, but it was still relegated to its own ecosystem. Video games contained video game music, written by and large for that game. That all changed the instant anyone popped in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the Playstation and heard the beginning of Goldfinger’s “Superman” in the first level.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is, at its core, a score attack game. Get as many points/tricks/items within a certain amount of time as possible to continue. It would not have stood out from other games if it were not for its unprecedented support from prominent members of the professional skateboarding community, addictive and competent gameplay, and soundtrack of licensed music from acts associated with the sport. Bands like The Vandals, Dead Kennedys, Primus, and The Suicide Machines contributed songs to the game, giving a legitimate “skater punk” feel to each stage.
While other games of the redbook-audio console generation utilized a licensed soundtrack, never before had such a perfect balance been struck between a game’s music and gameplay. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater took all major elements of the skateboarding scene and packaged it together in one glorious euphoric gaming experience. The series continued to up the ante with every entry, adding larger tracklists that reflected prominent skate music of the time. (I ended up being a frontman of a punk band for four years, and I still arrange video game music in ska style to this day, so to say this game has influenced me is an understatement as it was my first real exposure to that kind of music.)
The Pro Skater series lost its stride with the release of the infamous Tony Hawk’s Ride, basically dying after the release of Tony Hawk’s Shred due to the inclusion of poorly-planned controller gimmicks. Despite this, many gamers remember the glory days of Pro Skater, grinding on rails while singing at the top of their lungs: “So here I am…” –Stevo Bortz, Artist, Level 99 remix team
EarthBound is a game about fear, about friendship, about wonderment and loneliness. It’s the psyche of every child, scared and brave, who grows up with darkness too early, but still holds onto magic. It’s quirky and strange and frightening. And its heart is its music.
In lieu of dialogue, detailed facial animations, or voice, EarthBound‘s soundtrack became the vehicle for conveying Ness’ identity and his emotional journey. You can distinctly feel the carefree glee of a naïve young boy, as yet unaware of the dangerous road before him, in the bike theme. You can sense the nostalgia, warmth, and fear in the score of every “coffee” plot-recap. And when he finally confronts Giygas, the discordant, unsettling theme conveys how terrifying and seemingly insurmountable this creature – a child’s greatest nightmare made real – would appear.
EarthBound‘s soundtrack isn’t just background music, and it isn’t even just ancillary support for a scene or moment. Often, it defines that moment. The gentle melody that accompanies each sound stone fully creates the space. It turns what would just be a lake into a sacred, mystic place – an environment of mystery and wonder, capturing both the excitement and the fear of the children that enter it.
Ultimately, it would be unfair, and inaccurate, to credit one aspect of the game as carrying the entirety of its emotional resonance. But compared to its contemporaries, EarthBound‘s soundtrack is unique in its ability to not only support, but create theme, convey emotion, and build character. It’s both subtle and pointed, an essential tool for connecting the player with a frightening, whimsical world, and the young boy that must save it. –Ashly Burch, Writer/Co-star, Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?