I absolutely adore video game music, so I’m making this list as much for myself as I am for everyone else out there who enjoys the ever-growing world of game music. It’s come a long way from simple beeps, but that’s where I’ll start my list.
The year I was born. This seems like a good place to start our journey. There wasn’t much out in the realm of home consoles yet, but the Nintendo Entertainment System had come out a couple of years before and promised to bring 8-bit video gaming to your living room. While it would be easy to choose a Zelda game for this era, I’ll save that for a later date when the console sounds had evolved a bit more. For now, my pick is Bloody Tears from the game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, written by Kenichi Matsubara. I chose this track because it’s a great example of writing music that fits the game’s aesthetic. It’s got some classical music elements, a strong melody and percussion to drive the adventure on, all of which gives the perfect vibe for a Castlevania game.
Who could forget the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis if you were in the US) and the character who helped propel the console sales? Sonic The Hedgehog sold over 15 million copies worldwide by February 2009. Have a listen to the iconic Green Hill Zone track.
Nintendo released the Game Boy a few years before 1993 and that meant you could finally take all your favourite games with you on long car journeys! As long as you had enough batteries to last the trip and it was still daylight. I know I said I’d leave the Zelda music for a later date but for pure nostalgia reasons, I’d like to add a track from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening to the list. I’ve chosen Marin Sings the Ballad of the Wind Fish for this pick. It’s incredibly simple with only a melody line, but it’s such a haunting melody that I couldn’t leave it out.
We’re moving into the 16-bit era now, again with Nintendo and their Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This was the console I grew up playing games on and I wish I hadn’t given it away when new consoles appeared on the horizon. At least now we have emulators and online stores so it’s relatively easy to play all the classic games again. There were so many great soundtracks on the SNES but I’ve gone with Cranky’s Theme from Donkey Kong Country. This track really fits the jungle setting of the game.
Now it’s time for my favourite console, the Sony PlayStation. This was the console that I got after the SNES and was blown away by the 3D graphics which today look almost ugly. They had a certain aesthetic to them though that I liked, especially compared to the graphics of the N64, the PlayStation’s main competition at the time. Using CDs, there was now more space for music and you could have up to 24 channels of sound running at once. My top pick for the PlayStation is an obvious one but it really stands the test of time. I’ve picked Opening~Bombing Mission from Final Fantasy VII. It only took Nobuo Uematsu a year to compose the entire soundtrack to the game. Because of the PlayStation’s optical discs, he had the option of using recorded music for the game but instead decided to use sequenced audio (similar to MIDI), using the PlayStation’s internal sound chip. This helped give the game a very distinctive sound. My notable mentions for great PS1 music are the opening theme from Metal Gear Solid and Gruesome Encounter from the first Tomb Raider game.
The Nintendo 64 was released in Europe in 1997 and was named because of its 64-bit central processing unit. There were, of course, Zelda and Mario games on the N64 like there are on every Nintendo console, but I decided to go for the special music composed by Grant Kirkhope for Banjo-Kazooie. The track I chose, in particular, is Spiral Mountain. It’s fun and lighthearted and sounds exactly like what you think a game with the word banjo in the title should sound like. On a side note, Grant is also the composer for the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka Laylee.
While the Dreamcast wasn’t a great success for SEGA, it did have some fantastic games such as Crazy Taxi and Space Channel 5. I wanted to add the Sonic Adventure soundtrack to this list purely because it’s stuck in my head right now after the past month of my wife playing the game on Steam. It’s difficult not to hum the melody all day after listening to this track.
A Metal Gear Solid game was bound to appear somewhere on my list as it’s one of my favourite series. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for the PlayStation 2 was the pinnacle of the series for me. It was what a James Bond game could have been; running through the jungle, fighting crazy, over the top bad guys and falling in love with a beautiful woman. Even the main theme was done in James Bond style.
“Someday you feed on a tree frog”
When the PS3 came along, I was reluctant to get one. I’d invested in an Xbox 360 myself and only got a PS3 years later when a friend sold me one of the first gen ones to me for £40. It’s a noisy beast though so I rarely switch it on. I’ve chosen Eternal Sonata as my top pick on this console. This game was special because it was based around Frédéric Chopin, the Polish-French composer. You play in a world that’s dreamt up by Chopin while on his deathbed. All the characters he meets have cool musical names such as Polka, Allegretto and Falsetto, and the game features lots of piano music written by Chopin himself. My favourite track from the OST is once called Reflect the Sky, Bloom the Life. It’s a peaceful and reflective track that adds instrumentation and builds up as it goes along.
The Xbox 360 was my console of choice for playing games online with friends. I remember when I was playing GTAV with a friend over Christmas and it started snowing on the mountain we were on. The 360 had a huge collection of games, currently sitting at over 1,000 titles. Red Dead Redemption was one of the games that you could get lost in. It had a huge open world with a really strong story and characters. The Wild West setting always makes for interesting music and Bill Elm and Woody Jackson didn’t disappoint. It took them 15 months of collaboration to write all the music for the game. Listening to Born Unto Trouble puts you right into the Wild West.
We’re almost up to the modern day (or not, depending on when you’re reading this). This is the PC era for me which obviously has a lot of crossover games with the consoles, so for this one, I have to pick probably my favourite video game music of all time. Gone Home. I’ve never played a game that pulled on my heartstrings so much with so few characters. It’s just you in an empty house in the 90s while an incredible soundtrack plays in the background. The track I Said Yes brings the game to a lovely close.
I tend to play a lot of games based on how good the soundtrack is, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on the PS4 was one of those games. The incredibly talented Jessica Curry wrote the score. The game is of the same genre as Gone Home in gameplay (some people like to use the term “walking simulator”) but is completely different in terms of music. It will take you on an emotional trip through a small, rural English village and the orchestral score will haunt you for weeks afterwards (in a good way). Take a listen to All The Earth and then go and play the game. It’s available on PC too.
So that’s my list of what I think is the best video game music from the day I was born until now. There are obviously loads of game soundtracks I missed off of here because I was trying to do one game for each console/era. I also missed off consoles like the Wii just because I never had one and don’t feel like I know the music well enough to talk about it.
Skyrim and Ori and the Blind Forest are two games I wish could have made the cut. What would you have on the list? Leave your suggestions in the comments.