Video game composers have a tough task to handle. They are responsible for setting the sonic atmosphere and helping keep the excitement up. However, video game soundtracks often disappoint by being mostly long-tones and percussion or repetitive nightmares. Below is a list of video game soundtracks that I feel have not only done their job well but have gone above and beyond in musicality, storytelling, and memorability. The list is in chronological release order.
What are your top ten favorite video game soundtracks? Comment below!
SPOILER WARNING - Some descriptions contain spoilers!!!!!
1. Final Fantasy (Series)
(1987 - Present)
The Final Fantasy series has delivered music of the highest quality. The fully orchestrated scores (whether it be multiple MIDI tracks or live instruments) help immerse the player in the ever expanding fantasy world. The characters themes make these people seem all the more real and reveal the true nature of who they represent. Ever since the first installment Final Fantasy has not sacrificed the quality of the music and it shows no signs of stopping. The music is often performed live for Final Fantasy specific concerts. This should be the goal not only for video game composers but for ANY composer - high quality writing, memorability, and great orchestration.
Sample: One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII by Nobuo Uematsu
Also listen to: Don’t be Afraid from FF8 and Reina’s Theme from FF5 both by Nobuo Uematsu
2. Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow
By Junichi Masuda
Ah, the joy of Pokémon. I remember renting the VHS (that means one of those bulky video tapes, kids) for the first few episodes from a Blockbuster in my hometown when I was young. It grabbed my attention and every time I went I was curious about it so finally we pulled the plug. It was awesome. I was enthralled with Charmander (the best starter because it means you aren't going to slide your way through the first few gyms without actually training). On a road trip to Kentucky my mom gave me and my sister Pokémon Red and Blue and we played nearly the entire time.
The music does a great job of sustaining the energy but also being enjoyable to listen to. Each town has its own theme and captures the essence of the location - Lavender Town especially (R.I.P.). The bicycle music makes you want to ride all game and the battle music gets the adrenaline going. Its simplicity is its greatest strength - not overly complex or trying too hard. It was the soundtrack of my car rides and one that best demonstrated purposeful composing.
Sample: Final Rival Battle
Also listen to: Cycling and Team Rocket Hideout
By Grant Kirkhope
Grant friggin' Kirkhope. The man with the plan. Remember that scene from Pulp Fiction where John Travolta's character jams that huge needle of adrenaline in Mia's chest? That's playing a game scored by Grant Kirkhope. He's even scoring the new Rare game coming out soon - Yooka-Laylee.
One thing that becomes clear is that Kirkhope likes to travel to different key areas like he's in a race to collect Jinjos. His orchestrations are also very rapid and unique - check out those low reedy instruments right after the marimbas and flute. This isn't a soundtrack you can ignore - it sets the scene by being an active member and not a background layer. The most important aspect is that it's a very fun soundtrack to listen to. It may be one of the most important pieces to the puzzle.
Sample: Opening Song
Also listen to: Freezy Peak and all four seasons of Click Clock Wood.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
By Koji Kondo
Hey, listen! If you've played this game all the way through you know it's arguably one of the best games of all time. The music that accompanied it was nothing short of epic. From the chant of the Temple of Time to the creepiness that was the Shadow Temple the music always added to the story. Notice how the instrumentation reflected the environment - folk instruments for the castle center, airy tones for the Forest Temple, and martial elements for the Field.
You can hear in Hyrule Field how the upward five-note pattern from the main theme permeates a lot of the material. Kondo did a great job throughout the score of making the connecting threads imperceptible. Despite this every segment feels complete and your journey is all the better for it.
P.S. The Water Temple was only impossible if you kept forgetting which switches you were flipping in what order. Majora's Mask was more difficult than that.
Sample: Hyrule Field
Also listen to: Shadow Temple and Lost Woods
5. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
By Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando
Here's where I lose half of you.
The energy level is right where it needs to be and is as fun as all of the various powers Kirby can take on in this side-scroller. Just listen to the call and response of Pop Star and those 16th background patterns that drive and drive and drive the music forward. It's also a very jazzy soundtrack - listen to those trumpet interjections and wandering bass lines. Tracks like Ripple Forest with that emulation of improv and a film noir chase-like feel help freshen the pace. It was a cute game and one that required such a neat little score.
Sample: Pop Star
Also listen to: Quiet Forest and Ripple Forest
6. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
By Norihiko Hibino and Harry Gregson-Williams
I think we can all recall the first time we tried using the box to sneak past the guards. Whether or not it was successful varied but it was a tongue-in-cheek iconic moment in serious series of games. The music in these moments made sneaking around a heart-racing experience. It's a sleek score with pulsating rhythms and clear developments but it doesn't hesitate to go full force when it needs to. The game was lauded for its inventive mechanics as well as its heavy subject matter and the series hasn't let gamers down in either regard.
Sample: Main Theme (composed by Tappi Iwase)
Also listen to: Fortune and Kill Me Now
One of the best aspects of the Minecraft soundtrack is the calmness of it. Minecraft is one of those games where you and a bunch of friends just went around exploring, mining, and crafting whatever came to you in the moment. My greatest creation was Belmoont Park, a cow-themed horse race track inside my world of Moo Haven. It was 1/4 size of a real-life track and had all the fixings. Cow puns galore.
I typically refer to this score as atmospheric. There's not really a plot to cover in Minecraft so the soundtrack is really just an odd on to the experience. This means that each track - pianos/synths/strings - develops without restrictions or outside demands. It's music that exists for the sole purpose of being music.
Also listen to: Sweden and Mice on Venus
By Austin Wintory
What a breath of fresh air. In a time when video game soundtracks were written to imitate shoes in a dryer Journey's composer Austin Wintory stepped up to the scene and blew everybody away. Such careful orchestrations and beautiful performances (very well done, bravo) add that palpable layer of humanity other soundtracks never come close to. It's a healthy mix of mysterious and exciting; sweeping strings mixed with a few drums.
I haven't had the chance to play the game but from what I've researched it's a two player game where you work your way through obstacles and can only communicate with minuscule signals.
Also listen to: Final Confluence and The Road of Trials
9. Gears of War 3
By Steve Jablonsky
The Gears of War Series is one of the tightest knit plot lines of any game series I've encountered and the score for Gears of War 3 stands out for its energy, effectiveness, and emotion. When the human race is on its last leg and morality is a question mark it requires a score as gritty as the decisions being made. The instruments used add to this grittiness - thick strings and metallic percussion emulating gears grinding together.
One particularly effective moment occurs when a main character sacrifices themselves for the squad and the piano line from Madworld (Gary Jules version) plays as we watch a slow motion version of it go down. I was definitely misty-eyed during this sequence and still thinking there'd be a triumphant return. It's the attention to detail and the impact the music has through this game that makes it a stand out.
Sample: Gears Keep Turning
Also listen to: Finally a Tomorrow and Loss of a Leader
By Derek Duke, Neal Acree, Sam Cardon, & Cris Velasco
In all honesty this post is a thinly veiled excuse for me to salivate heavily over this soundtrack. What really impressed me from the get-go was the heavy brass and the fantastic job the engineers did mastering this album. The goosebump factor is real. If you ever need to get something done just pop this on and you'll get it done and more.
I won't get to play this game due to system requirements (sad face) but the score made me want to. I'm unclear on the plot and how the music is in-game but a score this well written is always a good sign.
Sample: The World Could Always Use More Heroes
Also listen to: Situation Critical and Rally The Heroes
Red Dead Redemption
(2010) by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson
Sample: The Shootist
(2013) by Garry Schyman and Jim Bonney
Sample: The Battle for Columbia IV