Game music has been a passion of ours roughly since, oh, 1985, but in the past 10 years, it’s come to mean something more. Don’t get us wrong, we still love the beepatronic music of the 8- and 16-bit periods (and the wave of chiptune artists it inspired), but the past decade has also seen licensed music become a surprisingly important part of gaming. Sometimes, this just means a selection of familiar hits to accompany our music games, but every so often, a game will use licensed tracks to careful, brilliant effect – and in the process, will expose legions of gamers to music they might never have heard otherwise.
What follows are the games and franchises that have been the most influential in bringing strange and terrifying new musical styles to gamers’ ears – and in the interest of making this our most self-indulgent Top 7 since that other one, we’ve asked a handful of our editors to explain what made each one important to them personally.
7. Brutal Legend
Broadened the horizons of: Henry Gilbert, news editor
I didn’t grow up hating heavy metal. I could appreciate the showmanship of it and the skill involved in a rocking guitar solo, but I did think it was really stupid. Sometimes I could have fun celebrating what was stupid about it, like with Tenacious D and videos like this, but I’d never respect the genre as legitimate music. I went into Brutal Legend with that spirit of mocking celebration in mind, but came out with a different perspective.
Brutal Legend is full of knowing winks, and milks comedy from the extreme style of heavy metal, but you can tell the people behind it truly love it unironically. It’s not just the cameos from metal royalty in the game that drive that home, it’s the soundtrack, with over a hundred songs that cover seemingly every aspect of the genre and act as a crash course in metalness. And instead of some mercenary collection of the biggest hits and whatever else the record companies pushed on them, developer Tim Schafer and his team pulled together a soundtrack out of love and that love was infectious.
For every well-known band like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, there were deeper cuts like Brocas Helm and In Flames. The songs were still ridiculous (and it probably helped that I couldn’t see the goofy-looking bands perform the music), but I was so deep in the world of Brutal Legend, I could see past the silliness and understand the quality of the genre that angry teens had known about for decades. For me, Brutal Legend ended up being a great mixtape made by my new hesher friend to convince me heavy metal is just as “real” as the mopey indie rock I love. And it worked.
Broadened the horizons of: Mikel Reparaz, senior features editor
A few years before it hit big with Guitar Hero, developer Harmonix produced a far more obscure series for Sony. Whether you knew them as Frequency or Amplitude, however, the two games were more or less the same; in each, you’d pilot a little spaceship-looking thing along a trippy background, hitting lines of “notes” to activate them in the song. Naturally, a trippy-looking game requires a trippy-sounding playlist, and so a bunch of remixers and electronica acts – including Harmonix mainstay Freezepop, which contributed “Science Genius Girl” – jumped in to provide the soundtrack.
Frequency deserves credit for kick-starting the series, but I didn’t discover it until the sequel, Amplitude. Amplitude still packed in plenty of the pop-punk, indie and techno-infused beats I loved to rock out to mindlessly in 2003, but its setlist included a few acts that stood out sharply against the more conventional electronica tracks, like the Baldwin Brothers (“Urban Tumbleweed”), Mekon (“What’s Going On”), Freezepop (again, this time with "Super Sprode" and Icelandic hip-hop outfit Quarashi, which turned in the unforgettable “Baseline:”
Most of the other entries on this list are about games that exposed us – and by extension, other gamers – to genres that were wholly new to us. Amplitude, by contrast, pulled me in with music I already knew I liked, and then hit me with a bunch of new acts and styles I’d never heard of, introducing me to a couple dozen bands I didn’t know I loved in the process. It also set the stage for Harmonix’s bigger successes, meaning it was the start of the company broadening a lot more musical horizons than my own.