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...

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