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What Are The Greatest Videogame Soundtracks Ever?


As I have discussed previously in The Lost Art of Videogame Music, videogame music is a hugely important part of the game experience. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it affects each part of the game and alters significantly the way our brains perceive what it going on. Anyone who has played GTA or Saints Row The Third and experienced a high-speed police chase conducted to a piece of classical music will know what I mean.

I wanted to create a list of the games that, for me, have soundtracks that significantly help to lift the game to new levels. These are not necessarily the greatest musical compositions (though there are many of those included), but those that I believe have the biggest impact on the game itself.

Please do add your own contributions below.

Streets of Rage 2 (Megadrive)

The first time I played this with my friend on his Megadrive, we both enjoyed it immensely. The game was colourful and fun, with big chunky characters. Yet there was one thing that stood out, the incredible soundtrack. It was bassy, with the kind of house and break beats that felt totally modern, as if they had just come out of a nightclub. The whole set of tunes put you straight into the neon lit world. One of the very first videogames that you’d seriously want to play through a big speaker system and dance along to.

Super Mario Land (Gameboy)

If ever there was example of how to make the most of a tiny sound chip, this is it. Along with Megaman, Super Mario Land had powerful plinky plonky ditties that stuck in your head and built up the tiny dark green pixels into something much more fulfilling. The NES and SNES Mario games had great tunes, but they were never as important as here. The graphics were the most basic and lifeless ever used in a Mario game, but when the music was playing, it was hard not to feel part of the game. The end music was almost beautiful in a way too, no tune has ever said “The game has finished” more appropriately for me. Even a bad rap track couldn’t ruin these melodies.

Ridge Racer (Arcade / Playstation)

It’s hard to remember now just how advanced Ridge Racer was back in 1993. One of the very first games to push polygons beyond flat shading. It also pushed game music forward, with powerful, energetic songs that took the ability of CD music storage and hit you with it over the head. The track Rotterdam Nation was like something from a distant planet. Quirky and Japanese enough to feel like the latest Japanese technology was flying in your face. Then for it to turn up on Playstation a year later, incredible; but it was overshadowed by the next game series.

WipEout / WipEout 2097(Playstation)

The impact of these two games on videogame music is both gigantic and also a mixed blessing. They, along with the amazing design from The Designers Republic, helped change the perception of gaming from that of a geeky hobby, to that of a mainstream, fashionable pastime. The subtle reference to drug culture showed just how in tune with the time wipEout was, leading to demo pods making appearances in nightclubs across the UK. However, it also started the trend of developers filling up games with licensed tracks, which would ultimately leave many games over the next decade with disconnected soundtracks.

The pounding tunes, with inclusions from major dance music producers (in Europe at least) matched the futuristic visuals perfectly. As a Playstation launch title in Europe, the combination of amazing 3D graphics, stunning visual design and modern dance music were an unstoppable combination. When the sequel incorporated Firestarter by the Prodigy, gaming was forever changed.

Super Mario Galaxy 1+2 (Wii)

Two almost inseparably good games, with incredible music. A largely orchestral score that has been composed almost perfectly to mix the lovable charm of Mario with the atmosphere and power of the best classical music. Sweeping and melodic, the music feels every bit as big as a game based around Galaxies should do. Plus, who can resist a jazzified version of the main theme from Mario 64?

Sanxion (C64)

Although many of the best individual gaming tunes are on the Commodore 64, they mostly tend to be one-off songs that introduce a game with no music. But the tunes are so damn good I had to include one. A tape game that people would spend 15 minutes reloading just to hear the music? That’s power.

R-Type (Amiga)

A buzzy, energetic and tuneful soundtrack that really added something special to an already excellent shoot ’em up. Anyone who has spent much time will know about the tension created by the music at the start of level 3, where the high-pitched melody introduces the danger as you await the gigantic spaceship. The best version though, is easily the Amiga one, as it included an extra loading song by Chris Huelsbeck that is among the best pieces of music ever put to disk.

GTA: Vice City (PC)

To many extents, Vice City was a far better stylistic showcase than it ever was a game. A wave of 80’s nostalgia put into game form, the radio station format helped to create a brilliant sense of atmosphere and fun. The use of 80’s classics and cult hits was a masterstroke, and in many ways is just as responsible for the success of the series as the game itself. Driving a speeding police car to A Flock of Seagulls? Hell yes.

Street Fighter II (Arcade)

While an impressive game in its own right, the music helped to define it, and certainly defined the individual characters more effectively than any fighting game before it. If you were a kid in 1991 though, nothing says “I am in an arcade” like the title music for Street Fighter II.

Deus Ex (PC)

Most first person shooter games have soundtracks that sway so far towards atmospherics that they actually sink into the background and disappear. Deus Ex however had tracks that generated a real ambiance, bringing to life the dark, brooding context of the game. Arguably still the best PC game ever made, and the music plays no small part in that.

Sonic The Hedgehog 1 & 2 (Megadrive)

Back in 1991 Sonic was the epitome of cool. Fast moving sprites and backgrounds combined with music that was inseparable from the brightly coloured levels. The songs stick in your head, and don’t ever leave. To this day I can sing every single tune from these two games note for note, and I have never even owned a Megadrive. The music was so iconic at the time that I find it hard to argue against it playing a key part in the success of the series. A word should also be said for the Master System game, which had some cracking tunes of its own.

Tetris (Gameboy)

At the time, no game had ever been made that was as addictive as Tetris on the Gameboy. Still to this day the definitive version of a classic. The music lifted it above ever other incarnation of the series. Just try playing Tetris without wanting to sing the Russian style music…

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Rob is an advertising strategist and author of 'The Ad Pit' blog. Rob has been playing games for 25 years - which makes him feel very old. He used to have a victory ratio of 40:1 in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, but that was a long time ago! #dogyears

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15 Comments

  1. The third level of Turrican 3 on Amiga was a great tune, as was Rez. I actually hijacked your piece and used Rez as the feature image 😉 and two other games that are not very well known but had stunning music are Guardian and Roadkill for CD32. Get the super jackpot!

    • @Simon Burns Turrican was a good one. Rez was one of those I nearly put in, I was unsure as it almost forms part of the game rather than be a piece of audio in itself. Great game and audio.

  2. Thing On A Spring C64 was a cracker. Not many Speccy ones to remember but Agent X was pretty good considering the paucity of hardware it had to work with. Used to love Hypersports loading music.

    • @PaulWooding Good choice. The remarkable thing about the C64/Speccy era is that game music had an impact despite rarely being part of the game!

    • @PaulWooding That brings back some memories- mostly of sitting waiting for an age for games to load, and yet not minding one bit 🙂

  3. The music from Halo, for me, is as iconic as anything about the series. Has a franchise ever quite managed that before?
     
    The end credits for an old Xbox game called Breakdown featured an amazing nu-metal track called “Take it All”, which put hairs on the back of my neck and gave me a great buzz after finishing what was a great game.
     
    Some of the music from Half Life 2 was pretty special too even though it was quite a rare feature in the game. Perhaps that’s what made it so great? Less is more.
     
    More recently, Muse playing at the start of NFS Most Wanted got me right in the mood for some insane driving and put a great smile on my face.
     
    In fact, for me, I think a perfectly placed licenced track can juxtapose brilliantly against a game, just as it can in a film – perhaps better than an original piece of music ever could.

    • @Luke Martin VA It can, but not all developers realise that it seems. Gran Turismo did it well, as do some of the NFS games. Underground nailed the right music for the style, even if the game itself wasn’t brilliant.

  4. What about Silent Hill? When the composer of the game is a selling point, you know you’re on to a winner.

    • @CalaveraBlues Yes, Silent Hill is well worth a mention, some of the most atmospheric soundtracks ever throughout the series.

    • @CalaveraBlues That’s a good one. Like Deus Ex it found a way to be atmospheric AND noticable.

  5. I forgot Tyrian. What amazing music.

  6. Final Fantasy X: Besaid Island, To Zanarkand, Macalania woods.

  7. I could add quite a few OST’s to this list. I used to listen to game soundtracks all the time. Here are some off the top of my head:
    – Donkey Kong Country Series
    – Pretty much anything produced by Nobou Eumatu (final fantasy series) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Cross)
    – Grandia 2
    – Megaman X
    – As someone commented below – The Silent Hill series, especially those produced by Akira Yamaoka
    – Even though I cannot stand FPS. I will add COD MW2 to the list as anything produced by Hanz Zimmer is a win for me
    – Another famous one is Harry Gregson Williams with Metal Gear Solid 2 and onwards
    I could go on for ages to be honest. Maybe I will do an article along the same lines? I will think something up.

  8. CalaveraBlues Good choice. I always seemed to like the songs played in the save rooms of Resident Evil. Especially number 2.

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