35 of videogaming's most memorable soundtracks

Feature Aaron Birch 13 May 2013 - 06:20

From the Commodore 64 to the modern day, check out 35 of videogaming's best ever soundtracks (and listen to them here...)

Games are often praised for their amazing visuals, deep, complex gameplay and well-written narrative, but music is also a big part of the media. Just as it forms an essential part of any movie's atmosphere, games need the right soundtrack in order to fully immerse the player into the game world. A rousing audio track can stir the emotions, properly relay the heroic nature of a protagonist, or instil fear when needed.

Games soundtracks are, arguably, much more important than other media, as the player is the star, in full control of the action. Whilst music in movies is hugely important, in a game the audio doesn't just accompany the visuals, but has to pair up perfectly with the player's actions and the events onscreen that can unfold in a multitude of ways, and not just the linear plot of a movie.

Therefore, good gaming music isn't just about the usual impact a track can make, but also how well it fits with any and all actions the player can take, and how it fleshes out the environments and atmosphere.

Some games get this right, some game get it wrong, and some games knock the ball out of the park. Some gaming music is now so iconic, even non-gamers would recognise it, such is the impact it has.

So, were going to look at some of the best examples of gaming music. These are tracks that all excel in their own way, be it as a brilliantly composed piece of music, a emotional punch to the ears, or a medium-smashing, instantly recognisable theme that everyone knows. Many of the titles below could easily have several inclusions, but we're going to limit each to a single track. So, get ready to tickle those ear drums.

Phantasy Star Online – The Whole New World

Not to be confused with the Disney Aladdin song, the opening theme of Sega's online RPG for the Dreamcast, Phantasy Star Online, is an orchestral triumph. This epic composition fits in beautifully with the opening scene's depictions of the players' arrival to the planet Ragol and eventual conflict with the dangers there.

The score is accompanied by uplifting, yet simple lyrics, and it ends in a building cacophony that never fails to give you goosebumps. It's a powerful theme that does exactly what it intends to do – build you up for the quest to come, and the dangers you're going to face alongside fellow hunters.

Legend Of Zelda – Main Theme

One of the best gaming series ever created, The Legend Of Zelda has one of the most rousing soundtracks in all of gaming, especially the main theme (also often used as the Hyrule Field theme). It's been remixed and reworked several times, and used in various areas of each game, but the central theme is simply timeless.

We've included the 25th Anniversary orchestra version here, as it's a particularly good version, and is about as heroic a theme as you can get, which is only fitting as Zelda's Link is often thought of as one of the greatest heroes of all time.

Although we're only including a single entry per game here, with Zelda you have the break the rules a little, and special mentions have to go to the Gerudo Valley theme, and the superb Ballad Of The Goddess from Skyward Sword.

Shenmue – Main Theme

Shenmue was all about atmosphere and losing yourself into the life of Ryo Hazuki. Taking place in Japan and China (in Shenmue II) the game simply oozed detail, and delved deep into far eastern culture, and this was represented beautifully in the soundtrack.

The game's main theme is another orchestral piece, this time with a purely oriental feel, and once again it's a very moving track that fits perfectly with the game. It mixes emotional highs and lows, matching Ryo's tragic, but also optimistic story so well, and it possesses one of those central melodies that, once you hear it, will never leave you.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty – Main Theme

Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, this fusion of military marches and sci-fi stylings is one of the most popular game themes ever written.

It's not hard to see why. It's an adrenaline-filled showcase theme that goes perfectly with the series' covert, military aesthetic, and coupled with the game's well produced intro sequence, it's a great example of just how well a piece of music can set the stage for events to come, even if we spent the majority of the game as Raiden's original, overly whiny and effeminate incarnation.

Thunder Force IV – Metal Squad (Stage 8)

Although many would argue that the 16-bit sound war was won by the SNES, the Sega Mega Drive had its own share of classic soundtracks, with one of the best being the metal-infused, riff-happy Thunder Force IV.

Thunder Force IV featured a glut of powerful, rock tracks that suited the fast-paced shooter to the ground. These tracks made the most of the Mega Drive's limited sound chip, and this is clearly evident in the game's eight stage, with the track Metal Squad.

Covered time and time again by fans and garage bands on YouTube, Metal Squad is an excellent example of what a talented composer can do even when lumbered with limited resources. Toshiharu Yamanishi did a superb job here, and Thunder Force IV is one of the best examples of digi-rock you'll find.

Streets Of Rage II – Go Straight (Stage 1-1)

Streets Of Rage II (called Bare Knuckle in Japan) not only followed on from the original game's musical pedigree, but it improved upon it. Just as the game itself was bigger and better, so was the sound track, composed once again by Yuzo Koshiro.

The game packed in superbly arranged 90s-style music that pushed the Mega Drive's sound chip to its limits. The tracks fitted in perfectly with the onscreen action, as neon lights pulsed in the background of an urban battle royale.

Some stages were set to hectic techno beats, whilst others, like Stage 1-2's bar, slowed things down with a jazzy twist. However, the most memorable track for most the opening level music. The slower thumping beats quickly lead into a frantic tempo which proceeded to incorporate the original game's main theme. It's the perfect opener, and the pulse-pounding beats fit the head-pounding hits displayed on the telly.

Sonic The Hedgehog – Green Hill Zone

Sega's mascot is one of the most iconic game stars ever created, arguably only outshone by Nintendo's Mario. The original game was the killer app Sega needed to make the Mega Drive an instant success, and the theme backing the game's opening level is one of the most instantly recognisable tunes included in a game.

The Sonic games, particularly the original MD outings, usually feature all sorts of cheery and memorable inclusions in their soundtracks, but none can match the Green Hill Zone, as it's the tune most Sonic fans ever heard when they first set eyes on the spiky blue one and witnessed his first-ever loop de loop.

F-Zero – Mute City

It didn't garner the same success as Mario Kart, but F-Zero has a huge following of fans, and the Mute City theme is a supremely memorable track, fitting the futuristic hover racing setting like a glove.

Like all good themes, Mute city features that central ditty that just sticks in the mind, and as soon as you hear it, those halcyon days of 16-bit come flooding back, and the SNES' mode 7 racer is one of the best examples of the era.

Special mention should also go to the excellent remix of Mute City in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, complete with killer guitar solo.

Final Fantasy VII – Aerith's Theme

No one with any sense would deny that Final Fantasy VII is one of the most important RPGs ever made. The ground breaking JRPG may not be considered by hardcore series fans as the best Final Fantasy title, but it's certainly the most successful, and was a major driving force behind the original PlayStation, and in popularising the genre for the mainstream.

The game also has a great soundtrack, with some truly brilliant atmospheric music. The instantly recognisable battle and victory themes are great, the Chocobo theme is on the right side of quirky, and the daunting Sephiroth tune (One-Winged Angel) still haunts my nightmares today, as I remember spending hours and hours battling him.

However, there's one track that will haunt fans' minds far longer than any of those, and it's Aerith's (Aries) theme. You first hear this early in the game when you meet her as a simple and innocent flower seller, and it comes across as a bitter-sweet theme reflecting her delicate, almost childlike nature and love for the dying planet, but after her death, it transforms into a hugely emotional and solemn melody. Unforgettable.

Bionic Commando – Main Theme (2009)

Although the original 1988 game was the first time we heard Bionic Commando's theme, it's the 2009 incarnation that gets a place here. Whilst the reboot itself was nothing overly special (and some would say it was far less than special), the main theme is a triumph in simplicity.

The piano version of the classic theme doesn't rely on a full orchestra or military drums to shine, and the singular instrument is all it needs to create a memorable theme that's delivered with class. If only the game matched its music's grade.

Tempest 2000 – Mind's Eye

The Atari Jaguar wasn't exactly endowed with a big collection of good games. In fact, you could probably count the truly decent games on a single hand. One of the best on the system is undoubtedly Tempest 2000, which is ironic, as it's also one of the least technically challenging, not needing the '64-bit' power of the console.

As well as being as addictive as some illegal substances, the game included some excellent music, with Mind's Eye being the outstanding inclusion. It's a no-hold barred techno rave-fest, which perfectly matches the game's eye-melting visuals and frantic gameplay. Television is, after all, the retina of the mind's eye.

Xenon II: Megablast – Main Theme

They made some of the best games of the 16-bit computing era, and the Bitmap Brothers also had a great knack when it came to soundtracks, with Xenon II's Bomb The Bass theme being a particularly fine example.

The Amiga had the best version of the theme tune, and any veteran gamer who was blasting flying space squids at the time will surely agree this deserves a place on this list, as well as agreeing that the Bitmaps deserve more...



Disqus - noscript

No Outrun? It was the first game I remember having the soundtrack on the other side of the tape. Used to listen to it on my Walkman on the way to school!

I'd like to add Lotus Turbo Challenge 2, Hired Guns and Fury of the Furries to the list if I may.

The weird thing is, I've never played a computer game beyond the odd one on my phone, but I have the soundtracks to all the God of War games, because they make excellent inspirational music for when I'm writing. Am I some anomaly for this or do others do the same?

no Mass Effect? :(

I love the Mass Effect soundtrack, I still remember feeling sad at the end credit music because the game had ended! Love that series!

I still love Elite 2: Frontier Intro music and up till now my No.1 soundtrack of all times is the No One Lives Forever :-)

Great list, I don't know if I could have picked just one track from Super Metroid, they are all perfect for the game. I'm genuinely shocked though that the Mega Man series was overlooked; some of the best music written for any game or system. Another that would be on my personal list would be the LucasArts SNES game Zombies (or "Zombies Ate My Neighbors" in the US), the music stays in your head for days.

Jet Set Willy had an amazing soundtrack! And so did the Secret of Monkey Island - that sound track was amazing!

The only other one that springs to mind right now is Biggles, which I had on the Amstrad. Come to think of it, if it was farted out of an internal speaker then I loved it!

The original Crash Bandicoot has a great soundtrack which I still find myself singing along to when I play the game. Disappointed it didn't make the list.

definite lack of lucasarts on here. Michael Land's work in their heyday was awesome - X-Wing, Monkey Island, Sam and Max, The Dig...all brilliant.

Excellent article and thanks for rockin' up some sweet blasts from my own past, Aaron! Alongside the Super Mario and Donkey Kong music, I'd also count The Legend of Mystical Ninja and the Monkey Island games as all-time classics of game music.

I always thought the best video game soundtrack was the one in Shadow Hearts: Covenant

"Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – Main Theme
Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams"

Harry Gregson-Williams didn't create the theme but remixed it. Tappi "TAPPY" Iwase composed it for MGS.

No Dead Space?? But I love that sound of someone releasing a wild bull into an orchestra pit!

Jet Set Radios sou tracks is amazing, as are the ones for assassins creed and hitman series' thanks to jesper kyd (I think that's how you spell his name lol)

The Bubble Bobble soundtrack is an unforgettable earworm.

I wish the FFX soundtrack got at least an honorable mention. Suteki da ne was beautiful, and The Sending was deeply saddening, yet peaceful at the same time. I used to play those two and Zanarkand I think it was on a loop to help me drift off to sleep. And then I played Otherworld when I was angry.

Donkey kong country 2 had the best overall soundtrack of the 3, very cool, and it included jungle hijinks. Kudos on super metroid, the music went seamlessly with the stages. As for street fighter, I can still hear E. Honda's and Balrog's stages. Great games.

No (insert favourite game soundtrack here)?

Seriously though, cliched as it may be, 'Aquatic Ambience' has to top any track in the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack.

And Oscar Araujo's 'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow' score doesn't get enough love - it's wonderfully orchestrated, epic and beautiful all at the same time.

uhm...no Wipeout? Seriously?

Many WoW-songs are amazing....

And the entire Baldur's gate soundtrack

Rome: Total War had an epic soundtrack!

Play all the videos at once, with headphones on for best results

You didn't include ANY work of Rob Hubbard? Shame on you.

You forgot the Glider Rider game tune for Zx Speccy 128k!

WHERE IN GODS SWEET EARTH IS WALLY BEBENS EPIC 25 MINUTE C64 TETRIS MASTERPIECE????? SIR HAS NOT A CLUE!!!

Outrun?

I agree with ~The Sending music from FFX, also F Zero on the SNES. was it Bomb 'da' Bass??. I remember the Tekken II trailer music being very dramatic too

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Wipeout on the PS1.

Phenomenal.

How about the opening theme to Robocop on the Sinclair Spectrum +2? I remember it was later used in an ad for Ariston kitchen appliances

Even as a staunch Spectrum fan, I'm stocked and shunned that you didn't include one of the earliest classic theme tunes - Forbidden Forest on the C64. One of the most atmospheric pieces of gaming music ever created (not to mention in-game effects) and way back in 1983... 30 years ago!

I got a free cassette with the music to Outrun on one side and 720 on the other side, play that a huge amount.

Love it when commenters pointlessley say 'You forgot..' or 'No - - - - ?!'. Get your own gaming column!

Much as it pains me to big up the C64, but Rob Hubbard's 'Crazy Comets' theme should be in the list.

For pure technical achievement, Manic Miner on the Spectrum is also worth a shout.

Where the hell is Cannon Fodder? Without doubt the catchiest, funny and memorable theme ever...

I believe it is referred to as "discussion"

Got 'Aquatic Ambience' as my ringtone (via @theywereourgods) - never mind the phone ringing.

I revised to it at university.
Sad but true.

If you gt a chance YouTube powerglove Tetris. It's awesome

Nice article! The MGS 2 theme, Aerith's theme, and Still Alive are all high on my list. I would add "Watch the Skies," the song they play while you are slaying dragons in Skyrim.

Apart from that Delta tune?

The themes that Allister Brimble did for Team 17 games on the Amiga were usually pretty good. (I have his CD "Sounds Digital" somewhere.) Project X was a proper arms-in-the-air raver.

obviously can't top these for pure recognisability (is that a word?) but dragon age/mass effect soundtracks I found to be rather wonderful as well as, strangely, the assassins creed main theme.

I think Uncharted's main theme is pretty memorable as well!

Rob Hubbard was my favourite as a kid. I can still hum Nemesis the Warlock or Thing on a Spring even now and it's probably been 25 years since I heard them...

It's very cliche to pick out Aeris' theme to represent Final Fantasy, but there's so many more great themes or cues to highlight: Terra's theme, Celes' theme, FFVII Main Theme, One Winged Angel, the Prelude, any one of a half dozen or so battle cues....And of course the main Final Fantasy theme as heard in the end credits of every game.

Oh, and what about the main theme to Monkey Island? :)

What a fantastic list. Especially glad to see Shenmue on it.

Recently? Pez is fantastic.

Thing on A Spring on the C64 had an awesome theme!

There have been many games with a great tune in them.

But for me only two games has excellent soundtracks, from beginning to end:

Sonic the Hedgehog (Mega Drive)

Battle of Olympus (NES)

No Outrun? Jet Set Willy? Rambo on the C64?

Fury3 / Terminal Velocity should have been on the list, IMHO. ;-)

Yes was just thinking of wipeout.

No Tomb Raider theme? Sound of my pre-teen years, hearing my dad boot up the PlayStation and sprinting along the hallway to play.

Mega man 2 for the snes, its honestly the best soundtrack ever.
Put lyrics to the tunes on that game and you got yourself a hit album.

No Megaman?

Can't believe you didn't include Assassin's Creed 2.

Druid on the C64 would get my vote.

I have the main theme to Monkey Island on my iPod. I listen to it whenever I need a pick me up.

Fantastic! When I first played Monkey Island it all came through the internal speaker and so in my head that is how I remember the tunes. when I revisited it years later with a proper soundblaster soundtrack, the music was still brilliant, but didn't have quite the charm of the internal speaker. Even the sound effects on the internal speaker were charming, the clicks and blasts.

I must have first played it about 1993 and to this day I still clearly remember the main theme, LeChucks theme and the Circus theme music - and I only ever played up to the circus on my first time when I completed it, I never got to the circus again. That's how good the soundtrack was, 20 years later and I can still hum it! I bet the circus music is a good pick me up!

Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander soundtracks by by Jeremy Soule are hard to beat. Both full albums in their own right.

Want You Gone from Portal 2 is also worth including, as is "Club Doom", a brilliant track heard only on a secret level of the PS2 port of Doom. I think props should also be given to the Grand Theft Auto series (both the GTA III-era games and GTA IV and its spin-offs) for its use of massive amounts of period-specific licensed music, with GTA: Liberty City Stories getting extra credit for featuring mostly original radio music. Rabbids Go Home for the Wii also includes a great period soundtrack.

I personally can't get Battlefield 1942's theme out of my head.

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