Without music, said philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, life would be a mistake and brother, he wasn’t kidding. Where would we be with songs? Without killer beats and struck piano keys, crazy brass, breezy woodwinds, and the sweet fury of stroked strings on violins, guitars, and more? I know this much: our games would suck. From the primitive but expressive soundchips of 1980s consoles to the full instrumentation available to game musicians today, video games have been producing original tunes that defy classification. These are the greatest soundtracks--original jams, no licensed music--in video game history.
“It was kind of like a festival,” in a recent interview, reminiscing about the development of Squaresoft’s classic time travel RPG. “It was really fun.” Yasunori Mitsuda’s lush soundtrack perfectly captured the festival atmosphere. Songs like “Guardia Castle” and “Corridors of Time” capture the tonal breadth of the game, shifting from orchestral stoicism to synthesized awe and wonder between the two of them, but still feel like they’re part of a cohesive whole. As his first full soundtrack, Chrono Trigger defined Mitsuda as a composer and also felt like a final statement on the Super Nintendo, the song “To Far Away Times” a fitting farewell to the console’s unique soundchip.
Time, fittingly, has been kind to Chrono Trigger’s spiritual successor, sort-of-not-really sequel. Chrono Cross was derided when it first came out because it was so wildly different from the last game to bear the Chrono name. The only thing unanimously praised was its soundtrack which was equally distinct. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda returned to the series, but traded in the synthesizer-focused style of Trigger for an intense acoustic blend mixing Celtic strings, Caribbean rhythms and percussion, and even Steven Reich-style minimalist orchestration. Haunting folk songs like “Radical Dreamers” sit next to downtempo ambient like “Chronopolis” and laid back themes like “Fields of Time” whose steel drums make you want to just kick back. “Scars of Time,” its main theme and intro song, blends all of Chrono Cross’ disparate styles into a driving wash of strings, woodwinds, and percussion that is impossible to resist.
Shoji Meguro is a wild person. Attempting to mix jazz, old school midi game soundtrack style, J-pop, rock, and hip-hop all in one place simply shouldn’t work. In the hands of another musician, Persona 4’s soundtrack would sound like a discordant nightmare. Instead, it’s as effervescent as an autumn breeze running through the streets of Inaba. Battle themes like “” have all the cheesy rock glory of an Iron Maiden classic but they’re balanced out by Everything But the Girl style dance pop confections like “.” Nothing beats the mix of beats, horns, and keys that is “Pursuing My True Self,” Meguro’s main theme.
Secret of Mana
In making his first soundtrack, Hiroki Kikuta bent the Super Nintendo soundchip in truly bizarre ways. Making his own samples and stretching his skills to make songs that pulsated with the same teeming life that marked Secret of Mana’s verdant visuals, the result is a soundtrack that not only doesn’t sound like anything else from the era but one that doesn’t sound like anything else on the hardware. “” is a ruminative mix of strings and piano that takes on an air of hallucinatory mystery when it opens with, of all things, whale song. Elsewhere songs like “Into the Thick of It,” whose sweet flute melody is driven by a synth melodica underneath, is the literal sound of climbing a giant tree that is the heart of the world. Timeless.
Nier made no sense when it came out in 2010 and it doesn’t make any more sense now that it’s become a cultishly adored tributary in the stream of PS3/360 RPGs. What happens when Square-Enix tries to make an action RPG that appeals to both east and west, with different main characters for each region? A bizarre, pastoral post-apocalyptic adventure starring a violent hermaphrodite and a talking book soundtracked by some of the most moving new age music ever written thanks to Keiichi Okabe. Calling Nier’s soundtrack new age is misleading, but it’s the closest categorization there is for its mix of soaring orchestral pieces, quiet Spanish guitar, and Emi Evans’ ethereal singing in what she describes as “.” “” sounds like a cut from Now That’s What I Call Music in the technologically advanced future of Middle-earth. “,” with its plucked guitar and shuffling doumbek beat, is the sound of crumbling buildings overtaken with vines. Raw magic.
Mega Man X
Mega Man’s adventures on the NES raged pretty hard, chock full of essential chiptune jams that remain foundational to the style. While those soundtracks rocked pretty hard and Mega Man himself was made of metal, it wasn’t until Mega Man X that the soundtracks became totally metal. When “” starts in the very first seconds of the game, it’s a miracle that the wailing guitars don’t literally set your hair on fire. If it did, though, the rest of the soundtrack would just burn the entire world to cinders with its sheer rock prowess. “” sounds precisely like the sort of crazy rave up a deranged robot would write if the only song they’d ever heard was The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You.” The Mega Man X continued to produce great soundtracks, but nothing in the whole series rocked this hard before or since.
The original Metroid trilogy produced some of the most iconic game music ever made. Hip Tanaka’s “,” Ryoji Yoshitomi’s ripping on Game Boy, and Kenji Yamamoto’s eerie, propulsive work on are the definitive aural landscape of sidescrolling exploration games. Yamamoto’s work on Metroid Prime, though, is in a class all its own. Midi compositions that capture the ruined grandeur of the alien planet Tallon IV are propped up by bizarre instrumentation and profound emotion. “Chozo Ruins” is a jittery mix of funk and ‘50s pulp cinema sound effects while “” is a glassy piano soundscape propped up, like all songs on the Prime soundtrack, by what sounds like a synthesized theremin. The is, like the whole game, bizarre, alien, and beautiful.
Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse
From the very first screen of the original on the Famicom Disk System, Castlevania has been known for absolutely bitchin’ jams. “Vampire Killer” is to chiptune what “Johnny B. Good” is to rock and roll, but the series’ legacy extends beyond 8-bit into the elegant melange of styles captured by Michiru Yamane in Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow and more. If there is a peak to Mount Castlevania, though, it must be Castlevania 3. Whether listening to the Famicom version bolstered by a unique soundchip in the cartridge or the stripped but not less spectacular NES version, these tunes capture every mood the series is capable of. “” rocks harder than almost everything in the series while “” lays down an absolutely irresistible groove. “,” the dusky theme that plays as soon as you turn on the game, is also the first moment that the music starts to hint at its potential for real gothic beauty.
Silent Hill 3
Akira Yamaoka’s soundtracks--thick stews of rock, trip hop, industrial, drone, and more--are almost as famous on their own as the games they appeared in. When the furiously plucked mandolin gave way to beats, guitar and piano in the original theme “,” Yamaoka established a signature sound as unmistakable as Prince’s guitar or Dre’s beats. While Silent Hill 2 comes close, Silent Hill 3’s soundtrack is the crown jewel in the Yamaoka discography. The quiet, lulling strums of “” lead into a plucked counter melody that sounds like an afternoon nap as conceived by Joy Division. The shuffling menace “” uses cresting, looping piano to create an air of furious ecstasy that’s never given proper release. And then there’s “,” a rock song so pure you can practically feel Chrissie Hynde nodding in approval as it plays.
Streets of Rage 2
There's a reason why Yuzo Koshiro's name is front and center on the title screen to Streets of Rage 2 - it's because he's a god among video game composers. Taking cues from 80s and 90s action flicks, Detroit house, and the Eurobeat scene, Koshiro worked magic on the Genesis' FM synth sound chip and crafted a soundtrack that's equally appropriate for the sidescrolling beat-'em-up as it is at home at any dance club. The sounds like the theme to Lethal Weapon from an alternate universe, properly setting the stage for an urban beat-down. You could probably mix ""into a house music set and no one would bat an eye. And of course, who can forget "," which will go down in history as one of the most memorable first stage tracks of all time? It's one thing to listen to great video game soundtrack; it's another to listen to one so infectious that you're tapping your foot and humming its techno synth melodies long after you've turned your console off. Streets of Rage 2's soundtrack isn't just good video game music--it's the very definition of fresh. - David Roberts
Halo 3 was the culmination of composers Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's work on Bungie's (now Microsoft's) sci-fi shooter series. Sure, it might not be the game that introduced us to the famous Gregorian chant-laden theme we all know by heart, but it was the game that refined and expanded on it, while also providing us with some of the best backing music to Master Chief's adventures. You might not know the track names by heart, but listen to “” or “” and you're guaranteed to remember scenes of action and heroism, as one of the last Spartans fought to save the galaxy from darkness and annihilation. Spartans never die, they're . - Sam Prell
Street Fighter 2
The ambition of Street Fighter 2’s creative team is as inspiring today as it was in 1991. To make a game that gave players unprecedented control of eight different characters, each one with dramatically different physical characteristics, and then render those characters in animation and music as rich as what ended up in the game was unprecedented. That this was Yoko Shimomura’s first work out of college, her first stab at composing a wide variety of music, and her first time working with a technology like the CPS-1 soundchip makes it all the more astounding. Every track is iconic, rife with the international flavor of the game’s cast. “” with its rumbling percussion, the chiming bells and desperate tone of “,” the joyful pentatonic scale boogie of “:” every song is as evocative of its character and stage as it is pleasurable on its own.
Final Fantasy 8
Everyone's got their own favorite Final Fantasy soundtrack, but if there's one that deserves a place on a list of best soundtracks, it's Final Fantasy 8. For 8, series composer Nobuo Uematsu was clearly shooting for something cinematic, and you can feel it right away with the opener, “”, which is like Star Wars' 'Duel of the Fates', only a million times better. Seriously, pick any song out of the 74 different tunes in the soundtrack, and you'll find your mind instantly swept away on a grand sci-fi/fantasy adventure. There's “”, which is single-handedly the greatest overworld theme in Final Fantasy's decades-long history. “” is a rollicking, blood-pumping tune, and is just as listenable after dozens of hours of random battles. And of course, there's “” which basically sounds like if Rush got a side gig making video game music. Every single song is a masterwork, a bizarre blend of prog-rock, classical music, and Uematsu's signature style combining to create something not just unique within Final Fantasy's oeuvre, but within video games as a whole. Final Fantasy 8 may not be the most obvious choice, but dammit, it's the right one. - David Roberts
Katamari Damacy wastes zero time getting weird, as its PS2 Memory Card set-up screen plays a stripped down, acapella version of its theme song called “.” What follows it is pure auditory joy - the musical equivalent of bathing in a sea of multi-colored jelly beans and rainbows. Combining elements of jazz and big band, electronic music, J-Pop, and piling on a heaping helping of strange, Katamari Damacy's soundtrack could have been a total mess of genres and styles. But like the big ol' ball of stuff the diminutive Prince pushes around, all of the music just fits together, forming one incredible, cohesive package. I bet you can't hide that grin while listening to “,” or keep your feet from tapping to “,” or stop yourself from singing the bizarre lyrics to “.” Katamari Damacy's tunes want to wad you up into its life, and it's impossible to resist. - David Roberts
Bastion started as a game about cartography where the player moved and a world built up around them, a physical experiment divorced from the emotional survival story Supergiant Games ultimately produced. Even with its text, art, and delicious action in place, though, Bastion wouldn’t truly have its heart without Darren Korb’s soundtrack. A dusty mix of folk like “,” country like “,” bluegrass like “,” and even freaky tribal like “” clumps and morphs into a ripe whole not unlike Bastion’s in game ruins. Just listen to “” and try not to get swept away.
Donkey Kong Country
There’s a reason people freaked the geek out when David Wise was announced as the composer for Wii U’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: his SNES Donkey Kong Country soundtracks kicked ass, particularly the very first. Songs like “” blend ragtime piano with animal sounds, synthesized beats and clarinet into a jazzy new age morass that is Wise’s very own style. But Wise is never one note in Donkey Kong Country. Minimalist chill out tracks like “” couldn’t be more different than DKC’s more energetic jams, but they still feel perfectly suited to the game’s pre-rendered world and are beautiful just to listen to.
It is convenient that DuckTales for NES is a super fun game, but its quality is hardly essential to success. DuckTales could have been a boring, unplayable monstrosity and it wouldn’t have mattered as long as Hiroshige Tonomura’s songs were still there. The rollicking pop of “” and the Rob Zombie-by-of-NES horror schlock of “” are the kind of righteous chiptunes that have kept this soundtrack famous for almost 30 years. Even the “Stage Select” jingle melody, a simple 8-note looping melody, is a sweet earworm that lodges in the brain. Its centerpiece, the utterly wistful “,” is the song that demonstrates why bands like Anamanguchi continue to use the NES to make music today.
Perhaps you didn’t know that a cello could simultaneously break your heart and put it back together again. Austin Wintory’s beautifully atmospheric Journey soundtrack positively soars. From the mournful “” and echoing “,” to the sand surfing joys of “” and the victorious “,” Wintory makes Journey a tour de force of strings-driven emotion. This was the very first video game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy for good reason and matched up with the sandy visuals of ThatGameCompany’s masterpiece perfectly. Layered on top of the ringing chirps of your be-scarfed adventurer, this is the beautiful and heartbreaking sound of video game music transcending anything that has gone before. Tears? No, that’s sand in my eye. Honest. - Louise Blain
Parappa the Rapper
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A dog wants to impress his ladyfriend, who is a flower, by becoming a hero. He does this by, among other things, taking karate lessons from an onion, cooking with a chicken, and trying not to poop himself while waiting for the bathroom. Parappa the Rapper is a glorious exercise in music rhythm game weirdness as you tap along in an attempt to master each song’s unique and absurd challenge. The gameplay isn’t overly remarkable, but the songs have real staying power: For proof, simply say “Kick, Punch” to a Parappa fan and their reply of “It’s all in the mind!” will be swift and guaranteed. Every track is a winner, but my personal favorite is the reggae-esque tune from the flea market. Just because the rhythm is slow, that don’t mean that you can’t flow. That is a great wisdom. - Susan Arendt
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
You could pick any of the Elder Scrolls games for this list, really, as it’s impossible to go wrong with a Jeremy Soule soundtrack. We went with Morrowind, though, because of the way it effortlessly evokes the beautiful loneliness of that game’s landscape. Oblivion embraces pomp and Skyrim bravado, but Morrowind captures the quiet solemnity of your role as the hero standing alone against the darkness. It’s impossible to remember your time as the Nerevarine without hearing Soule’s elegant arrangements in your head, whether it’s the quick strings and horns that accompany an unexpected battle across the hillside (it’s always a goddamn cliff racer), or a cheeky little ditty that picks up your spirits as you wander down the road. Morrowind’s soundtrack is woven into the very fabric of Tamriel and gives everything you do there an air of gravitas. Even if it’s finding out what happens when you drink 600 bottles of skooma. - Susan Arendt
Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect set the tone for BioWare's three-part space opera with its '80s action movie-inspired, synth-heavy soundtrack, but Mass Effect 2 is the game that took that concept and made it palatable to a wider audience while giving listeners bigger crescendos and more variety. The track “” is a great example, starting slow, mysterious, and electronic before evolving into something organic and genuinely thrilling to hear, full of a wide variety of instruments, percussion, and a chorus of chanting voices. And if the blockbuster inflection isn't your thing, there's the sublime tones of the galaxy map music to gently sweep you away on solar winds. Mass Effect 2's soundtrack is so good, you really can't help but speak in hyperbole about it. - Sam Prell
R4: Ridge Racer Type 4
"He's the one for me, there's no place I'd rather be, yeah, yeah, yeah. To the finish line, everywhere you look he's right on time." Lyrics to the hot new summer single? Nope, those are the words to “,” the opening of R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 for the PlayStation. And it only gets better from there. The eclectic soundtrack boasts some of the best and most unique driving songs you could ever hope for, fusing Namco's game-y synth beats with jazz, funk, and house genres. Tracks like “” and “” are standouts, but really it all comes back to the tone set by that opening tune. Buckle up and have fun, it says, because there's nothing out there that drives - or sounds - like this. - Sam Prell
The Adventures of Batman & Robin
You know how the Mega Drive/Genesis had a paltry sound chip compared to the Super NES? Composer Jesper Kyd probably did too, but if so, he really didn’t give a shit. He was going to beat the thing into performing, and he was going to make one of the most original, distinct, and utterly banging soundtracks of the 16-bit era at the same time. Because Jesper Kyd does things like that. Throwing out the soaring, gothic, Danny Elfman vibe of the cartoon the game is actually based on, what Kyd actually produced is a relentless aural onslaught of dark, aggressive, legitimately club-worthy industrial techno, as fresh and arresting now as it was in the mid ’90s. It might not be in any way TV authentic, but as the actual sound of the inside of the head of a pathologically death-obsessed man who eschews sleep every night in favour of wanton violence, it’s pretty much perfect. - Dave Houghton
Shadow of the Beast
Of all of the Commodore Amiga’s achievements in the ‘90s its vast library of excellent soundtracks is easily its greatest. The same goes for Shadows of the Beast itself. Although regrettably, undeniably duff as a video game, from an aesthetic perspective it’s a masterpiece. In fact it’s uniquely stunning, surreally ethereal art and music are the entire reason the game has a reputation today. Shadow’s looks and sound intertwine perfectly, but the latter remains entirely captivating in its own right. Layered, swirling, and constantly twisting toward dark, dreamlike places you’ll never expect, its complete otherness makes it one of the best fantasy soundtracks of all time in any medium. - Dave Houghton
Old game music has to work harder for the player, filling in gaps left in the imagination. That’s why the Turrican 2 score is so good. From the moment it urges itself to life, you know exactly who you are, what you’re doing and why it matters. Suddenly, being a metal man who can turn into a wheel is a thing of cosmic and dreadful significance. If you fail to run right shooting things, the entire galaxy is almost certainly fucked. Most impressively, it manages to keep escalating, like a some celestial object ignoring the rules of terminal velocity. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s honestly not. The Turrican II score is the sound angel rifles make when they fire. A bold, invigorating, heroic score, and the magnum opus of legendary game composer Chris Huelsbeck. - Matt Elliott
ALL SONIC EVER
Here’s the problem with the Sonic the Hedgehog series. It is responsible for some of the absolute greatest video game songs ever written. Stone cold grooves like “” from Sonic 1, swinging weirdoes like “” in Sonic 2, and synth bangers like “” from Sonic 3 are unassailable dollops of perfection. The Sonic series is also responsible for some of the absolute worst music in video game history. Just look at every rap song from Sonic Adventure 2. “” sounds like the kind of nightmare you’d have after eating an entire box of Zebra Cakes and falling asleep listening to 2Pac’s Me Against the World. Given the musical extremes Sonic is responsible for, we have no choice but to include every Sonic soundtrack ever made on our list just to cover our bases.