Quite possibly the most under-appreciated aspect of video games is the music. People obsess over graphical fidelity, control responsiveness, and level design, but sadly a game’s score is often glossed over.
Yet a great soundtrack can drastically increase the gaming experience. Having the right music can be crucial to triggering a visceral, emotional response; to building excitement or emphasizing sadness.
Can you imagine sitting through hours of Civilization V without its beautiful, ambient soundscapes? Or a game like The Last of Us striking all the right emotional chords without hitting all the right musical ones?
Take a moment to consider how much less of an impact Super Mario Bros. would have had on gamers in the early `80s without its iconic theme song.
The right soundtrack can be an integral component, pushing a game past simply being good into the realm of becoming legendary.
When choosing the top 10 soundtracks of all time I took several things into consideration. First, I decided on was that the music had to be composed specifically for the game in question. This automatically excludes some outstanding game soundtracks like Tetris and GTA: Vice City. I also considered things like impact, scope, influence, catchiness, and memorability.
I also admittedly have a particular fondness for the music of classic games. There is a reason for that, of course. Due to the limitations of hardware during the 8 and 16-bit days, game composers had to be much more creative because of the limited resources at their disposal. These composers were trying to make impactful music using synthesized, chip-based waveform generators. Therefore, they had to rely on strong melodies and hooks to pull people in.
Anymore, companies pour multiple-millions into the soundtrack alone, and musicians who went to Berklee are making orchestrated scores much in the same way that movie scores are conducted – but something is lost in that. They are losing that catchy melody that you can hum to yourself… that hook that embeds itself deep within your psyche. You can play the first 2 notes of Super Mario Bros. for someone, and they instantly know what it is. There is a reason why the 8 and 16-bit era is known by some as the “golden age” of gaming, and I believe music plays no small part in that.
So, without further ado, I present you with the Top 10 Video Game Soundtracks of All Time:
#10 – Sim City
Initially this may seem like an odd choice, but hear me out. Not only was the music in Sim City whimsical and enjoyable, it was relaxing. What better companion could you have for hours of city building? It’s a prime example of how music can set the mood for a video game.
Did you ever realize that the music style changed based upon the size of your population? The village music is soothing and melodic, but as your population grows, the music becomes more industrial and complex. Certain events in the game triggered specific musical changes as well, which was pretty revolutionary for the time.
The tracks are all superb, and instantly recognizable, and the original Sim City is well deserved of the #11 spot.
#9 – Duck Tales
In an era where most popular kid’s franchises were being turned into god-awful platforming games, Duck Tales became the exception. It was released for the NES in 1989, and excelled in nearly every department. Cool enemies? Check. Awesome levels? Check. Tight controls? Check. Multiple Endings? Check. Incredible soundtrack? Oh, hell yeah.
Every track on the game was fantastic, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the decade-spanning impact of the game’s amazing standout track: The Moon.
#8 – Castlevania (series)
It would have been impossible to narrow down a single Castlevania title for this slot, so I hereby nominate the entire damn series. The impetus for most of the iconic tracks is kind of a mystery. The music of the first Castlevania was composed by both Satoe Terashima and Kinuyo Yamashita, although according to Yamashita they didn’t collaborate on any of the tracks.
To this day it is unclear who wrote what tracks on the original game, and sadly nobody was officially credited for them in the game. However, from Simon’s Quest onward both Terashima and Yamashita were credited for the compositions, including the iconic track “Bloody Tears.”
The Castlevania series has been responsible for some of the coolest and most iconic music in all of video game history.
#7 – ToeJam & Earl
What an incredibly bizarre game. When ToeJam & Earl came out in 1991 on the Genesis, I played it relentlessly. Something about the strange imagery as I traversed a distorted Earth as a duo of alien rappers from the planet Funkotron, collecting presents, and dodging man-eating mailboxes was strangely appealing. I was 9 years old, and didn’t know what “surrealism” or “satire” meant, but I knew that I adored this damn game.
One of the things that stuck with me the most though was the badass, funk inspired soundtrack that accompanied the game. The music that John Baker composed for this game is perfect for the setting – or for relaxing in a hot tub full of hula girls.
#6 – Maniac Masion
When I was a kid video games took me away to many different worlds, and one of my favorite places to visit was the Edison family mansion. Out of all of the LucasFilm adventure games, this is my favorite. The cheesy, sci-fi, B movie feel probably provided my first exposure to this sort of genre, and may be directly responsible for my love of such things today.
Dr. Fred, Nurse Edna, Weird Ed, hamsters in microwaves, mummies in the shower, sentient space-tentacles, and an in-game arcade machine called Tuna Diver… can you get any fucking cooler? Yeah, you can. You add an incredible soundtrack full of catchy tunes that perfectly compliment the imagery of the game. These songs rock!
#5 – Super Metroid
The original Metroid had a fantastic soundtrack, but the SNES incarnation of the series improved on it in every single way. In fact, I have been known to assert that Super Metroid is actually a perfect game in every way (aside from the wall jumping mechanic). The creepy, isolated atmosphere is brilliantly conveyed by the score as soon as you pop in the cartridge, and when the Metroid theme finally kicks into full gear your heart begins pounding before you even press start.
From Crateria to Brinstar, and Maridia to Norfair, the soundtrack is simply amazing throughout the entire game, truly enhancing the mood and aura of the entire experience.
#4 – Chrono Trigger
It is hard to find a game with a more memorable soundtrack than Chrono Trigger. The songs were primarily composed by Yasunori Mitsude, even though Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu is credited for several tracks that he made after he was asked to replace Yasunori, who had to be hospitalized for stomach ulcers. Make no mistake though – this is primarily a Mitsude score, with him composing an astonishing 69 tracks for the game (Uematsu composed an additional 9, and collaborated with Yasunori on “Boss Battle 1.” Tsuyoshi composed an additional 4 tracks for the added content on the Playstation release).
These songs conjure a wide range of emotion, and most of them are downright beautiful. Chrono Trigger is one of the most highly regarded games of all time, and it wouldn’t have become what it has if it weren’t for this breathtaking score.
#3 – Donkey Kong Country
Donkey Kong Country was an SNES revolution in many departments, and may mark the pinnacle of accomplishment on the platform. The soundtrack alone was truly masterful, combining ambient and atmospheric soundscapes, and utilizing sounds of nature with catchy melodies and tribal percussion. The songs always fit the level, constantly enhancing the feel of your surrounding environment. All of that aside, these songs flat-out rock, with a depth and melodic lyricism that has rarely been matched.
#2 – Final Fantasy (series)
Video game music hasn’t always received all of the attention that it does now. In the current gaming landscape, developers spend much more time and money producing epic scores for their games, which requires recruiting people with some real musical know-how. Nobuo Uematsu was one of the first artists to help transcend video game soundtracks into the realm of actual compositions, and Final Fantasy is his baby.
While many companies in the 8 and 16-bit era were tacking on repetitive, mindless, digitized tracks to their games – without much thought or care – Uematsu was making some of the most memorable themes to ever grace a cartridge. He took his job very seriously and therefore created some absolutely jaw-dropping music that enhanced the Final Fantasy series in nearly every way.
Without Nobuo Uematsu, those feelings of joy, sadness, fear, anger, and tension wouldn’t have been nearly as pronounced as you traversed the world in a Final Fantasy game. He is like the Danny Elfman of the video game, and has made countless scores that have stuck with me far longer than the end of the game.
#1 –The Legend of Zelda (series)
If Nobuo Uematsu is the Danny Elfman of the video game world, then Koji Kondo is the combination of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Kondo was the musical genius behind Super Mario and Star Fox, but his most impressive contribution by far has been The Legend of Zelda.
When Zelda hit in 1986, it was huge. Kondo, regardless of the technical and hardware limitations of the time, created a score for an NES cartridge that invoked a sense of mystery and adventure that a traditional composer with an ensemble orchestra would be hard-pressed to accomplish.
As the series has progressed and evolved, so has the music. Many new songs have been added throughout the years, and the compositions have increased exponentially as far as complexity is concerned – but at the core is still that amazing melodic theme that Kondo conjured up over 25 years ago.
It is no wonder why the music of Zelda has achieved worldwide recognition, has touched so many people, and is sitting in the number 1 position on this list.