Music is an important part of life. Whether you obsess over it like me or just casually listen when you’re in the mood, there’s no denying that it’s touched us all in some way at some point in our lives. Even those rare folks who claim to have no interest in music can probably dig in the depths of their brain and find an example of a time where music impacted them; made them feel something they’ve never felt before.
Soundtracks are the unsung heroes in video games. Some do a fantastic job setting the tone of a game and evoking emotion out of the player, but I feel like they’re rarely appreciated as much as they should be. When we think of what makes games great, the major elements are top of mind: Gameplay, story writing, visuals, etc. But what about the music? I’d argue that its just as critical to making a great game as the rest.
Think about it. Zelda games just wouldn’t be the same without those classic tunes we’ve known since childhood. Likewise, take the heavy metal instrumentals out of a DOOM game and you’ll find that blowing demons to smithereens isn’t nearly as invigorating. Game soundtracks are so important to the overall experience, which is why I’m making a point to show appreciation for the ones that did it best.
This one is long overdue. Here are my ten favorite video game soundtracks of all time.
Shadow of the Colossus
When a game has no dialogue, the soundtrack better be damn good. Fumito Ueda understands this, which is why all of his games have amazing scores, particularly Shadow of the Colossus. Perhaps what’s most interesting about the music in this game is that it’s only heard during colossi encounters and cutscenes. An exploding symphony of strings, woodwinds, and brass creates an intense vibe during battles with the giant creatures, and when you send one crashing to the ground, sobering, angelic choir vocals fill your ears as the released tendrils of Dormin violently enter Wander’s body. The music isn’t just background noise; it’s been carefully selected to cue at the right moments. And that’s how it should be.
I haven’t touched Shenmue in nearly 20 years, and yet its soundtrack still holds a special place in my heart. It’s beautifully orchestrated and can stand toe to toe with some of the most renowned film scores. Mixing traditional Japanese chord progressions and instruments with western orchestral trademarks, composer Toshiyuku Watanabe and his team created something as unique and epic as the game it was made for. With its gorgeous string arrangements and beautifully understated use of traditional Japanese flute, “Shenmue” (the main theme) might be my favorite piece of video game music ever recorded. I’m also fond of “The Sadness I Carry on My Shoulders,” a soft piano tune that embodies the feeling of being weighed down by an unbearable sadness. It’s simply divine.
While I love video game soundtracks, I generally don’t listen to them outside of when I’m playing the game. Cuphead’s brilliant, swinging jazzy OST is the exception. That’s mostly because it feels more like a standalone jazz record than a game score. All tracks are played beautifully by professional musicians, including a 13-piece big band, a 10-piece ragtime ensemble, and a solo pianist. Most importantly, it perfectly matches Cuphead’s animation style and feel. When you design a game to look like a cartoon out of the 1930s, and add in some rollicking, highly difficult gameplay, it only makes sense to compliment it with a score full of rip-roaring Jazz Age numbers that get the juices flowing.
Journey isn’t a fun game. In fact, it’s hardly a game at all. Yet it’s still regarded as a gaming masterpiece. Why? Because it’s fucking beautiful; both visually and audibly. It was the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy, and for good reason. It’s jaw-dropping orchestral arrangements rival those found in film scores, featuring some impressive cello work from Cellist Tina Guo. According to lead composer Austin Wintory, the score was written with the player and their journey in mind. Cello solos represent the player, while all other instruments represent the world around them. He also made a point to remove any overt cultural influences to make the score as “universal and cultureless as possible.” I’d say he succeeded.
Jet Set Radio
Talk about a soundtrack that perfectly suits the vibe of the game it was created for. Nothing screams rollerblading graffiti artists louder than funky hip-hop instrumentals, effervescent dance beats, and energetic pop-punk jams. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting score for a game this lively, vibrant, and unique. My personal favorite track must be “Humming the Bassline.” With its distinct sample taken from The Treacherous Three’s “Feel the Heartbeat” and smooth, silky bassline, it’s undeniably catchy and fun. You can’t help but nod your head to it. Another standout is “Everybody Jump Around.” Sampling House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and mixing in some impressive record scratching, it’s another one that gets the body moving.
A soundtrack so nice that Capcom decided to sell it as a vinyl box set over 10 years after the game’s original release. Inspired by classical Japanese works, the music in this game is transcendent, drawing on Far Eastern folklore and traditional instruments to create a stunning, sweeping score that equals the artistic merit of the game’s breathtaking animation. “Kamiki Festival” is easily my favorite. It’s looping Japanese flute melody always succeeds in putting a smile on my face and filling my heart with joy. While not to the same extent, many of the other songs have a similar effect. The soundtrack is chock full of spirited tunes that inspire a feeling of happiness and optimism in me. I’m getting nostalgic just writing about it.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is my favorite game for many reasons. One of them is its phenomenal soundtrack. Argentinian Composer Gustavo Santaolalla knocked it out of the park with this minimalistic, dissonant, acoustic guitar-driven score. Challenging himself, he used a variety of instruments that were new to him to inspire a “feeling of danger and innocence” that he felt matched the tone of the game. He also experimented with recording in unconventional rooms, such as a bathroom and a kitchen, to produce unique sounds. It’s safe to say that all this experimentation paid off, resulting in soundtrack that perfectly matches the atmosphere of the game. The exceptional story writing coupled with these organic, textural sounds is unparalleled in terms of evoking emotion out of the player.
Jazzy, catchy, and stylish as hell, the Persona 5 soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in a game in the past several years. Whether you’re calmly strolling the streets of Shibuya at night to the smooth, chiming “Beneath the Mask” or battling enemies in the Metaverse to the upbeat, zestful “Last Surprise,” the score always perfectly sets the tone. Because of the game’s length and its habit of playing the same songs over and over, I grew tired of some tracks towards the end of the campaign. However, listening to them again has instilled a nostalgia in me that makes me want to pop Persona 5 back in my PS4 and spend another 100+ hours of my life immersed in its world.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
How could anyone refute this? There is simply no game with as much memorable original music in it as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. From the infectious Lost Woods theme to the somber Temple of Time theme to the exuberant Song of Storms, every musical composition in this masterpiece is simply fantastic. My personal favorite, however, is the Fairy Fountain theme. From the gorgeous opening harp strums to the enchanting looping melody, it’s an absolute treat for the ears. It’s even been sampled and remixed a few times in popular music. The most notable example is when Team Teamwork mashed it with Slim Thug and Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin.” That’s cool and all, but I’ll listen to the original over it ten times out of ten.
What do you think of these gaming soundtracks? Which gaming soundtracks are your favorite? Let’s discuss in the comments!