My Top-10 Video-Game Soundtracks
I’ve made some blogs concerning video-game music, but I think it’s high time to finally list my absolute favourite soundtracks from the realm of video-games. While making this list I wanted some firm criteria to go by, otherwise the list would have quickly become over-crowded by soundtracks of the same composers or companies. As such, I picked only one soundtrack to represent one game company.
The list itself is organised by how much the soundtrack wowed me and keep in mind that I really struggled with restraining myself to these choices. Maybe I’ll do a best soundtracks by company or game system one of these days, but for now, here are the ten that blow the rest out of the water for me…
I really wanted to give Rockstar Games recognition for their excellent taste in soundtracks. However, much as I loved the soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I felt including it in a top-10 like this would have been cheating as it’s consisted entirely of source music (with no original compositions unlike prior GTA games). Therefore I felt I needed to give one of their other games the light and then it occurred to me that my very favourite Xbox 360 game would fit the bill.
In this 1940s set detective action-adventure game the very jazzy and well-produced soundtrack isn’t simply there to accommodate the Film Noir atmosphere and setting, it’s actually part of the gameplay mechanics, as musical sound ques tip the player off whether or not they have found all the clues there are to be found in a crime scene.
On top of which, I just love orchestral soundtracks which don’t go straight for the big and epic jugular, which tends to be the case now-a-days whenever an orchestral soundtrack is being discussed. L.A. Noire’s excellence is in its subtlety. Sadly, that is also its weakness and I felt this game really couldn’t be any higher, because as involved and well-produced as the soundtrack is, it’s just not memorable enough to warrant a higher position.
Of course heavy metal gets to my soul and there isn’t a heavy metal video-game theme as catchy around as “Grab Bag”, the theme to one of the most controversial video-games in history. However, if you thought the soundtrack to the manly babe saving escapades of the alien-blasting Duke’s first person adventure was as over-the-top as the concept, you’d be very much mistaken.
Although there is a fair amount of rock n roll in DN3D’s soundtrack, what actually makes it impressive and much more memorable than the rock antics of ID’s Doom game are the more subtle techno themes which provides Duke Nukem 3D one of its more under-rated aspects, atmosphere. As much as I liked Duke Nukem Forever, I do have to admit that it didn’t quite reach the same excellence in sound as the Duke 3D and I even felt the newer title over-used the Duke theme and variations of it.
Robert Prince and Lee Jackson can, in my view, pat themselves on the back for this excellent MIDI soundtrack which is still one of the best in the business. Sadly, the lack of a true instrumental sound might be what makes it seem a little insignificant.
The soundtracks of Sierra’s Gabriel Knight game series have been excellent since the MIDI sound Sins of the Fathers. However, despite its orchestral excellence which over-comes the audio-limitations of the second game, the Beast Within soundtrack simply couldn’t beat out my love for the third game’s soundtrack.
I feel that occasionally the lack of music in a game is as important as having it in the right spots. This is what appeals to me about Gabriel Knight 3. In the real world outside and amongst the nature of Southern France, you’re often treated to the sound of the wind and the chirping of birds. But the minute a pair of Freemasons are found dead or Gabriel spots an important clue, Robert Holmes hits us with dramatic orchestral goodness.
Gabriel Knight 3 uses a rather light gallop tempo with its action themes, but finds time for lovely and even slightly noire-esque piano sections which really fill the atmosphere of the Hotel Rennes Le Chateau and lets the mystery run its course. Gabriel Knight 3’s theme is also my favourite with a very fresh sound to it in comparison to the darker and more oppressive themes of its predecessors. I couldn’t really find any reason why I couldn’t put this soundtrack higher, other than the fact that further entries have it beat in sheer variety.
Sometimes a game soundtrack is excellent simply because so many talented people worked on it. That is definitely the case with Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters soundtrack from Toys for Bob, which was the collaborative effort of no less than four composers. Of course, I couldn’t miss an opportunity to also put a soundtrack which had two Finnish composers working on it on the list.
Star Control 2’s soundtrack is really excellent for all the right reasons a game soundtrack should be excellent, many catchy and varied tracks. The variety is again impressive considering the limited technology the composers worked with which reduced the soundtrack to mostly electronic and techno style beats. However, whether we’re talking about the dramatic Yehat theme, the comical Spathi, the kicking Hyperspace tune, the dark Ur-Quan main theme or something creepy and subtle like the Mycon theme – the music all down the line is excellent in Star Control 2.
The Ur-Quan Masters just creates a brilliant atmosphere for itself with themes you can instantly recognise and it’s probably only the relative obscurity of this soundtrack that keeps me from placing it any higher. Riku Nuottajärvi and friends have also made updated remixes of the soundtrack which can be downloaded free online.
When it comes to Castlevania soundtracks, which you prefer really comes down to personal taste as Konami’s horror actions series soundtracks are consisted of some of the best music found in any video-game, period. I was even tempted to put the very first or second Castlevania games on the NES on here for all their excellence.
However, it only made sense to put up the soundtrack of what is easily my favourite Castlevania game. The TurboGrafx/PC-Engine CD exclusive mid-90s title was known to few in its day which was really a shame considering its excellent original melodies as well as the traditional re-usage of classic Castlevania tunes Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears in its soundtrack.
A varied collection of Konami composers worked on the title and that work also produced one of the all-time most memorable character themes (Richter’s Theme) in the series. Rondo of Blood merely missed out on the Top-5 due to its lack of notability due to its obscurity, but it’s definitely a must play (and a must listen) for any Castlevania fans.
I really don’t know what to say what hasn’t been said about Ocarina of Time’s soundtrack. It’s simply untoppable from Nintendo’s Zelda series. Koji Kondo, series composer since the first title, let his orchestral excellence be heard in every dungeon theme and even while running through Hyrule field.
Music is also part of the game-mechanic with the player actually learning to play an instrument through the process of playing it. In addition, Kondo finally decided to experiment with the series’ soundtrack, using minimal ocarina themes, ethnic and latino influences and so much more.
Ocarina of Time is one of the best rounded soundtracks for any game and it even does the epic orchestral fantasy themes well. However, some of the key Zelda themes have been so overtly used and Ocarina really doesn’t give them much in a way of a new twist that in certain aspects the soundtrack may even begin to sound standard. However, the game and its music are such a huge part of my childhood, it would have been a crime not to have it in the top-5.
If NES chiptunes have proved anything, it’s that you don’t need high-tech audio playback to make good music as long as you kick a lot of ass. Takashi Tateishi is a name that sadly seems to have disappeared from the annals of video-game masters, for his work in the second Mega Man game’s soundtrack can’t be ignored.
Mega Man 2 is probably one of the best defined and produced NES soundtracks in history. With the very limited five-channel arsenal, Tateishi was able to produce nice marching themes like Metal Man and Flash Man’s themes, a memorable ballad style soother like Bubble Man and intense tunes such as Air and Hear Man’s themes. With Mega Man 2 it never feels like you’re listening to a bad tune, the music gets you pumped up for the next robot fight.
Mega Man 2 beat its undoubtedly highly respected sequel and even the very heavy-metallish Mega Man X soundtrack, not to mention Alpha Lyra’s brilliant Street Fighter 2 soundtrack to become my pick for the best Capcom produced soundtrack on the list. It simply can’t be beat in this area. Sadly, the final fortress theme is the only thing keeping it from getting any higher.
There is no shortage of excellent music in Sega’s Sonic series, whether we’re talking about the 16-bit originals on the Mega Drive or the newer 3D titles. However, if you really want to know soundtrack excellence, I think you have to look at the early titles of the series. The first Sonic, although a timeless classic and in my Top-3 of the games from this series, definitely didn’t have the best soundtrack despite some excellent themes.
Sonic 2 is known for having improved on every aspect of its predecessor and this also included the music. Masato Nakamura upped the game from his soundtrack in the first game to give Sonic 2 such well-defined and memorable themes as Metropolis Zone, Sky Chase Zone, Mystic Cave, Hilltop and of course my absolute favourite Chemical Plant Zone.
With this game it’s hard not to just get up and dance to most of the themes in the game. I do give credit for the later Sonic game’s excellently produced soundtracks (especially Sonic Adventure 2), but Nakamura showed already back in 1992 that with enough talent you can make master pieces out of even very primitive sound technology.
Really, the whole DKC trilogy from the SNES should be up here, but David Wise’s musical brilliance was perhaps showed off the best in the extremely epic and ambitious 16-bit endeavour of Diddy’s Kong Quest. The pirate themes of course get you off to a good start, but soon you’re treated to brilliant orchestral sounds and more subtle, popping and jazzy tunes.
DKC2 impresses both with its variety and its production quality considering its technical limitations. Rare’s games seemed to be blessed with audio-excellence all the way up to Conker’s Bad Fur Day. However, no game soundtrack has ever been so good that I’ve actually stopped playing the game (my second favourite on the SNES no less) just so I could listen to it.
David Wise, you are the man.
I really, really, really wanted to have both Peter McConnell and Michael Land up on the top-10. What kills me is that the only game where these two LucasArts maestros worked together was the soundtrack of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which despite its excellence is still only the second best soundtrack in the series after The Curse of Monkey Island.
Peter McConnell however went off to work on a soundtrack that may be impossible for anyone to top, because of its excellence, variety and simple beauty. Grim Fandango not only had the bopping beats, piano, orchestral and jazz instrumentation of titles like L.A. Noire, Gabriel Knight 3, the well-defined melodies of the sort of games as Mega Man, Donkey Kong, Sonic and Star Control and the Ethnic vibe of Ocarina of Time… it just had heart.
Grim Fandango is one of those game soundtracks that you can play to your hearts desire and it never gets old. Sometimes old school just works regardless of the context where it’s being used. Grim Fandango is and always will be my favourite video-game soundtrack.