17 videogame soundtracks ahead of their time

Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Beginning

Why it was ahead of its time
Castlevania music in general had been quite good up to this point; several (if not all) of the songs used in the first two games have gone on to become franchise staples, consistently remixed for the latest games in the series. Part three continued the trend of catchy melodies and haunting hooks by adding a special music chip that added three additional sound channels, enhancing the system’s audio capabilities beyond contemporary titles.

Above: Game rockers The Minibosses made this ultra rad video to their rockin’ Castlevania III medley

For various (i.e. boring) reasons, the chip never made it to the US and Europe. So technically, this is more of an entry for Akumajo Densetsu on Famicom than Dracula’s Curse on NES. Doesn’t really matter though, as the “stripped” versions found on the US and European versions are still quite strong.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Gameplay

Why it was ahead of its time
Jesus Crackers people, listen to that insanity. The game’s composer, Tim Follin, a well-known musician responsible for several quality soundtracks, kicked the living crap out of other NES scores with this multi-layered, tripping-on-acid electro shock. Never mind how awful the game was, we played it just to freak out and run circles around the living room until our parents drove Mr. Surfer back to the rental store.

Above: Tim and his brother Geoff wrote the ‘70s-soaked score to Spider-Man and the X-Men (1992)

You’d do well to sniff out more of Follin’s great works, including Sky Shark, Solstice, Target: Renegade and office-favorite Plok.

Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

Sample Song: Stealthy Steps

Why it was ahead of its time
Just as Out Run took inspiration from real-world sources, Streets of Rage borrowed the neon-bathed grit of a seedy, early-‘90s club and converted it into music fit for fighting. It’s not all thumping beats though – several tracks mix hard techno with up-tempo dance, while others (like the one below) are among the moodiest game tracks ever written. Simply put, Streets was incomparably ahead of other Genesis games both in quality of the tracks and the way the composer used the limited tech to squeeze out such toe-tapping tunes.

Above: Perfect music for cold, rainswept city streets

Yuzo Koshiro joins the ranks of Follin and Hubbard as one of gaming’s greatest musicians, and would go on to produce more amazing pieces for Streets of Rage 2, Super Adventure Island, Actraiser, Ys and lately Etrian Odyssey. Too much awesome.

Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

Sample song: Alien Breakdown

Why it was ahead of its time
Again, this was a game that looked out into the world for ideas instead of just throwing down tracks that people associate with game music (i.e., beeps). The above song borrows hip-hop and rap staples like smooth bass and synchronized record scratches to create a sound right out of the early ‘90s.

Above: The Toejam Slowjam

The game itself is unrelentingly bizarre, starring two funked-out, backwards-hat-wearing aliens trapped on Earth. ToeJam’s draped in a gold chain and snazzy shoes, while Earl sports garish shorts and totally rad shades. Both constantly utter phrases like “jammin’” and walk with a rhythmic gait in tune to the equally funked up music.

Sega CD / Mega CD

Sample song: Collision Chaos (Past)

Why it was ahead of its time
Hoo boy, there’s a lot to say here. First, it’s just a massive pile of tracks. Each of the game’s seven levels has four possible forms: past, present, good future and bad future, and each of these forms had its own accompanying theme. That is a ton of music for a side scrolling game, and would have been utterly impossible to do on Sega’s cartridge-based Genesis. The vast range of musical styles, in addition to the volume, earns a place on this list right off the bat.

Above: American ending song, taken from the GameCube compilation

Second, most of the Japanese Sonic CD tracks were tossed out for the US release, prompting an entirely new set of songs for every one of those levels, essentially doubling the number of songs attributed to the Sonic CD soundtrack. In fact, only the “Past” tunes remain the same in both, and as a result are easily distinguishable from the rest of the music made for the US version. The Japanese stuff is more electro-synth beats, while the US tunes range from electric guitar solos to music befitting a tiki party (looking at you, Palmtree Panic).

We happen to love both soundtracks just fine, but there are a lot of people out there who were enraged by the switch. We know this from personal experience (even some rogue GR editors hiss at the US stuff), and Wikipedia claims GameFan editor Dave Halverson said the new music was “an atrocity that remains the biggest injustice in localization history.” A bit harsh, eh?


  • TheWoolyMammoth - April 28, 2009 9:44 p.m.

    Wow! Brilliant article Brett! Hits home with me as I'm a massive gaming soundtrack nerd also. The earlier Sonic games are the tunes that I find the most impressive, also ones I listen to consistently today. Only picked Brawl up a couple of days ago and the first thing I noticed was the amount of music on offer, must have wasted over 2 hours listening to it all before I even played the damn game!
  • GamesRadarCharlieBarratt - April 28, 2009 10:26 p.m.

    Aquatic Ambiance!
  • leroybrown - April 28, 2009 11:27 p.m.

    Good list. However, Naoto Shibata's excellent shred version of Castlevania III (from Dracula Battle released in Japan) is FAR FAR superior to the sloppy, out of tune, childish mush by the Minibosses. Here's a link, enjoy!
  • twishart - April 29, 2009 1:01 a.m.

    Elston: great editor, or greatest editor?
  • 435 - April 29, 2009 1:11 a.m.

    Streets of Rage and ToeJam & Earl. Two of the best soundtracks ever created. I squee every time I hear a track from either of them.
  • onesweetdream11 - April 29, 2009 1:15 a.m.

  • RareHero - April 29, 2009 1:46 a.m.

    I got something to add. Ridge Racer Type 4's soundtrack should probably go down as one of the best of all time. Here's a link:
  • TrIp13G - April 29, 2009 2:04 a.m.

    CV III's beginning level theme is so tight. Also, you totally brought back some great memories with the inclusion of Spidey's theme from Arcade's Revenge.
  • TyeTheCzar - April 29, 2009 2:48 a.m.

    I highly recommend you check out the Japan-only Indie-developed(by one guy) Touhou series for it's great music(Visit for more information). I'm telling you, their tunes(all done by one guy... who also makes the entire games) rival that of top-banana composers. Here are some examples of the songs; note that they've recieved a LOT of remix treatment there:
  • JakkedGamer - April 29, 2009 4:40 a.m.

    The duke nukem guitar theme should've made it on this list, and i'm not just saying that because i'm a duke fan, i'm also a musician.
  • madrejugo - April 29, 2009 4:54 a.m.

    You forgot The moon level soundtrack from Ducktales, for the nes.
  • garnsr - April 29, 2009 5:22 a.m.

    I think Wipeout XL definitely deserves a place, it got me into techno-type music. Castlevania has the best music in any video game. Whatever happened to Yuzo Koshiro, he was so huge in the 16 Bit era. And nothing from Tommy Tallarico?
  • GR_DavidHoughton - April 29, 2009 8:35 a.m.

    Aquatic Ambience and Terra's Theme back-to-back? Are you trying to kill my ears with joy, Brett?
  • bruce - April 29, 2009 10:06 a.m.

    It's a shame that DK devolved to that Kong-Rap or whatever it was called in DK64. Also I'm going to start listening to Out Run in my car! Prime driving music!
  • teamRAMrod37 - April 29, 2009 11:23 a.m.

    I almost drowned in nostalgia when I heard Aquatic Ambiance.
  • TheWoolyMammoth - April 29, 2009 12:06 p.m.

    Remember, it's not a list of every soundtrack ahead of it's time, just 17 examples of said tracks! =)
  • FinalGamer - April 29, 2009 12:18 p.m.

    As my first post ever in this place, lemme just say I wholeheartedly agree with this entire article. I mean I'm a real fan of videogame music, BIG fan, it's the only thing I listen to all day even, and I didn't even realise about a few of these until now. I love when you guys do articles on music, thanks for this one.
  • miiketakashi - April 29, 2009 1:27 p.m.

    I'm reliving some classic C64 games and soundtracks, so this article couldn't have come at a better time. I remember One Man and His Droid being used during Ghostbuster's game-within-a-game, Invade-A-Load! It still sounds fantastic today, that was the power of the C64's SID chip, it was always ahead of its time.
  • BenitoMasterSystem - April 29, 2009 3:54 p.m.

    Oh, and i can't believe there's nothing from Jet Grind Radio on here.. Also, I'm a sucker for ambient, haunting music and aquatic ambience is awesome..

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