Let’s be honest, video game soundtracks just don’t get enough love. Sure, most people can hum you a few bars of the Zelda soundtrack or the opening Super Mario Bros. tune, but there’s a rich world of video game music out there that is by and large ignored by the general population. While we all hope that things like the Journey soundtrack winning a Grammy or the stunning Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra performances of video game soundtracks will bring this medium’s music into the mainstream, that hasn’t happened quite yet.
Even the biggest gaming music fans can occasionally miss a truly great soundtrack. While that often happens because there’s simply not enough time to play and hear every game out there, there are other times when the soundtrack in question is attached to some obscure or awful game that is impossible to recommend outside of the score. Occasionally, it’s just a matter of there being so many great video game soundtracks out there that some get lost in the shuffle.
Rather than be intimidated by the wide world of incredible video game music, we recommend that you sit back, turn up the volume, and soak yourself in the sounds of these 25 underrated video game soundtracks:
25. Earthworm Jim
Earthworm Jim is a game that doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest, but some serious work went into the production of this SNES classic. The game’s graphics are fantastic, its art style is distinctive, and the writing is genuinely funny. Yet, it’s Earthworm Jim’s soundtrack that really stands the test of time.
The truly impressive thing about this soundtrack is the way that it so immediately and clearly helps players identify the game’s various trippy levels. No two tracks sound exactly the same, yet there is a strange unifying quality to the various songs that makes them an unmistakable part of this musical collection.
24. Pictionary (NES)
If you never played Pictionary for the NES, you’re missing out on one of the greatest and strangest soundtracks in video game history. Composed by Tim Follin, one of the most underrated composers of the NES era, the Pictionary soundtrack sounds like it belongs in a particularly action-packed 2D beat ‘em up.
The game launches an auditory assault on you the moment that you hear its infamous title theme, and the incredible tunes only continue as you sit down to play this otherwise serene digital board game. If the Pictionary soundtrack was played in clubs throughout the United States, we’d actually go to clubs. Well…not really, but that would still be pretty cool.
23. Waterworld (SNES)
More often than not, the reason great video game soundtracks get overlooked is that they’re attached to pretty awful games (much more on this later). That’s certainly what happened with Waterworld for the SNES, a game so bad that generations have admitted to their therapists that being gifted the title was when they realized their parents didn’t love them.
The title’s soundtrack was simply amazing, though. For a game that is pretty action-heavy (at least it is when the game is working as intended), Waterworld’s soundtrack is oddly serene. This is especially true of the game’s signature song, “Diving.” Indeed, you could argue that track is one of the absolute greatest underwater songs ever featured in a video game.
There’s a little room for debate regarding just how overlooked the Shenmue soundtrack really is. After all, many fans of the franchise regularly rank it among gaming’s greatest musical achievements. Yet, it never feels like the soundtrack gets the widespread love it so richly deserves.
What’s remarkable about the Shenmue soundtrack is the way that the composers managed to account for so many different moods, locales, and characters. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that the game’s “epic” action movie tracks pale in comparison to the tranquil beauty of the sounds that accompany your walks through the title’s revolutionary world.
21. Mafia 2
The Mafia 2 soundtrack is a bit of an anomaly. Most gangster entertainment soundtracks either rely heavily on licensed tunes or sweeping orchestral melodies that capture the romanticism of the dirty underworld. Mafia 2 does things a little differently.
There are licensed tracks and classical tunes, but there are also some upbeat tracks that feel like an homage to the “cops and robbers” era of crime films. On top of those “chase sequence” tunes, there are also some surprisingly sorrowful songs that capture the shocking humanity of the game’s story without betraying the rhythm of the rest of the soundtrack.
20. Rule of Rose
There’s no shortage of great horror game soundtracks out there, which probably helps explain why the Rule of Rose soundtrack gets almost no love. The soundtrack for this somewhat obscure PS2 game relies heavily on string instruments, but you’ll never feel like the game is overplaying its symphonic hand. From the incredibly violent violin sounds of the opening tracks to the more restrained and atmospheric sounds of the later levels, Rule of Rose turns simple strings into pure nightmare fuel.
19. Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins
The original Tenchu also featured an incredible soundtrack, but we’re giving the slight nod to the sounds of this stunning sequel. Incredibly, Tenchu 2 rarely relies on traditional – or popular traditional – Japanese music. There are certainly tracks in the game which you’d expect to see in such a period-specific stealth ninja title, but much of the music consists of an incredible mix of horns, digital bites, and orchestral-style arrangements. It all comes together to form a soundtrack that undeniably fits the atmosphere even if you wouldn’t have necessarily predicted such a collection of music.
18. Bucky O’Hare
Say it with us now:
“BUCKY! Captain Bucky O’Hare!”
While the full version of that classic Saturday morning theme song isn’t included in the soundtrack of this NES game, the game is certainly not lacking in memorable tunes. In fact, it seems that the game’s composer was aware that Bucky O’Hare was going to be a punishingly difficult game and created tracks that have an oddly ominous tone to them.
The result is a soundtrack loaded with tunes that could just have easily been added to the best Mega Man or Castlevania games. It’s a gem from the golden era of Konami platformers.
17. Dante’s Inferno
Dante’s Inferno is burdened by a somewhat divisive legacy. Upon its release, it was written off by many as a God of War knock-off that lacked that franchise’s silky-smooth gameplay. Yet, those who played Dante’s Inferno will tell you that the title featured the kind of imaginative design you definitely don’t see in a rip-off.
Besides, the game’s soundtrack is undeniably amazing. It does veer into old-school God of War territory here and there, but most of the tracks have a haunting Bloodborne quality about them. This is a soundtrack that sounds like it’s ready to pounce on you from a dark corner.
16. Wild Arms
If the Wild Arms soundtrack has one flaw it’s that not enough of the tracks in the game take full advantage of the game’s wild west theme. Those that don’t are good, but they feel like they could have been in other RPGs.
Still, the songs in this game that take full advantage of Wild Arms’ compelling blend of genres are simply stunning. That’s especially true of the game’s opening theme, which sounds like something you’d get if Ennio Morricone composed the soundtrack for a Final Fantasy movie. All told, it’s the kind of soundtrack that sticks with you long after the game is over.
15. Aliens: Colonial Marines
Oh, we’re quite serious. Aliens: Colonial Marines might be one of the most embarrassing licensed games of the modern era, but those who suffered through it know that it also features an amazing soundtrack.
Colonial Marines’ soundtrack manages to combine the atmospheric horror of the original Alien film with the breakneck action of Aliens. Just listen to the haunting tones of the track “Egg Room” and try not to avoid the chill down your spine. In fact, Kevin Riepl (who also composed the first two Gears of War games) does such a great job of capturing the spirit of the films that we’d go so far as to say that this is the best Alien soundtrack ever.
14. The Mummy Demastered
The Mummy Demastered has to be one of the biggest surprises in recent years. Who would have ever thought that a 16-bit tribute loosely based on that awful Tom Cruise Mummy movie would be so good?
Actually, we recommend Demastered solely based on the strength of its soundtrack. This soundtrack certainly draws upon some old-school 8-bit and 16-bit classics, but it’s also influenced by more modern orchestral hits. The result is a soundtrack that feels like a chiptune take on more recent scores but translates that modern music in such a way that ensures the results never feel like a gimmick.
13. Divine Divinity
Divine Divinity was quite popular when it was released in 2002, but the game kicked off the Divinity series isn’t regularly cited as one of the all-time genre classics. The real shame of its slightly obscure status is that more people haven’t heard the game’s soundtrack.
While Dungeons and Dragons-style games have boasted great soundtracks for quite some time, Divine Divinity is arguably the greatest of them all. The sheer variety of the tracks in this game is impressive enough, but it’s those haunting dungeon tunes that put this soundtrack over-the-top.
12. Too Human
Given its pedigree and promising premise, Too Human might be the most disappointing game ever made. It was supposed to be a true video game epic, but it ended up being a series of bad ideas held together with digital glue.
However, the game’s soundtrack showcases what Too Human could have been. The soundtrack features the kind of grand tunes you’d expect in such a game, but what separates Too Human from the epic game music pack are its more somber tracks. There’s a sorrow to the music in this game which captures the underlying Norse mythology elements of its universe better than any other aspect of the experience.
11. Remember Me
Remember Me’s weak gameplay and uneven story sadly limited the reach of this otherwise clever game. Actually, developer Dontnod Entertainment’s first game is oddly similar to the recently released Vampyr. It’s clear there was talent behind this game, which makes it all the more confusing that so much of it just doesn’t work.
The game’s soundtrack remains a largely unblemished piece of brilliance, though. Best described as an electronic nightmare, Remember Me’s futuristic sounds rarely slow down long enough to convey traditionally emotional moments. Still, there’s a shocking amount of heart in this rapid series of electric beats.
10. Blast Corps
Rare’s Blast Corps features one of the most fascinating premises in gaming history. In it, you are tasked with using various vehicles of destruction to clear a path for a runaway nuclear missile. It’s an utterly bizarre idea that is accompanied by an equally bizarre soundtrack.
Given that the Blast Corps soundtrack was composed by Graeme Norgate (Killer Instinct, Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark) it shouldn’t surprise you that there are some excellent heavier guitar tracks in this game that are perfectly complemented by synth. Yet, it’s the offbeat, folksy tracks that really lend this soundtrack a personality of its own.
9. Bionic Commando Rearmed
The Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack skirts that line between corny and fantastic. It’s certainly not hard to imagine someone listening to it and imagining the music for an early ‘90s direct-to-video action B movie. Yet, there is a ferocity to the Rearmed soundtrack that elevates it above other pieces of entertainment.
There’s an underlying level of anger to this soundtrack that makes every pulsing electronic sound feel like it’s one of the game’s enemies. On top of that, you’ve got a few tracks that escape the more metal vibes of rest of the soundtrack and offer something hauntingly serene.
Much like Too Human, Lair was a game that seemed to have it all. It was developed by Factor 5 (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron), it looked stunning, and it even featured some revolutionary (at the time) motion controls. Sadly, the horrible realities of that revolutionary control scheme pretty much killed the game.
Still, Lair’s soundtrack comes highly recommended. Many of the songs are anthems of war – and they’re incredibly good ones at that – and there is plenty of heart in the game’s slower tracks, too. In a just world, this soundtrack would be transplanted to a better game.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4: Turtles in Time
While I’m a little biased towards this selection considering that “Big Apple, 3 A.M.” was my alarm clock ringtone for years, the fact remains that the almost universally beloved Turtles in Time for the SNES features a soundtrack that shockingly doesn’t get enough love.
While it’s true that many of the songs in this game rely on similar sounds and structures, that hardly diminishes the results. Any good beat-em-up soundtrack will keep your blood pumping and have you button mashing to the beat. So far as that goes, Turtles in Time might just be one of the genre’s greatest examples of effective game music.
6. R4: Ridge Racer Type 4
R4: Ridge Racer Type 4’s soundtrack has no business being as good as it is. After all, this is a racing game we’re talking about. Who listens to the soundtrack in racing games? That’s just part of what makes this game’s soundtrack so special.
Almost every track in this game feels like it belongs on the Lumines soundtrack. If you know anything about that game’s famous collection of upbeat experimental tracks, then you know just how high of a compliment that really is. While the tracks themselves are exceptional standalone pieces, it’s the way that they work so well within the context of the R4‘s high adrenaline races that makes them truly legendary.
5. Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future
While it probably didn’t help the console’s sales, the Dreamcast’s collection of weird games is part of the reason it’s such a beloved console. After all, what other console at the time would advertise a dolphin adventure like Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future as one of its big-budget exclusives?
Ecco is certainly not a game for everyone, but its soundtrack is impossible not to love. With few exceptions, the tracks in Ecco are designed to inspire feelings of tranquility, but they also wield tremendous emotional influence. It’s the kind of soundtrack that would make James Cameron’s underwater documentaries feel as epic as James Cameron’s ‘90s action movies.
4. Freedom Fighters
The generally underrated Freedom Fighters is a 2003 action game from IO Interactive about a band of revolutionaries in an alternate version of America run by the Soviet Union. It’s a great game that yields a soundtrack quite unlike anything the action genre has ever produced.
There’s a bit of a duel going on in the Freedom Fighters score. Some of the compositions in this game are clearly inspired by the music of the Soviet Union while others beat with the heart of a revolution. The one thing that unifies every track is the emotional weight each lends to the game’s many scenarios.
3. Halo 3: ODST
We love the original Halo trilogy soundtracks as much as anyone, but if you’re looking for Martin O’Donnell best score, you’ll find it in Halo 3: ODST. O’Donnell and his team essentially started from scrap when they composed this soundtrack. They abandoned almost all the orchestral sounds of the previous Halo games in favor of something that felt like it belonged exclusively in this game and its scenario.
The result is a soundtrack that incorporates quite a few jazz tracks you might associate with old film noir flicks. In a game that explores the vulnerability of humanity in the midst of a war too great for mortals, it is Halo 3: ODST’s soundtrack that captures the spirit of being swept by something so much greater than ourselves.
While Earthbounditself isn’t really underrated anymore, the game’s fascinating soundtrack certainly is. To be honest, it’s not hard to see why.
At a time when the best JRPGs featured sweeping fantasy scores, Earthbound elected to challenge our ears with a strange selection of songs that borrowed ideas from just about every musical genre. Some tracks feel like demented takes on classic Beatles songs while others invoke a rare blend of psychedelic and jazz.
The game’s massive soundtrack rarely repeats itself or a particular genre. The few times that Earthbound does fall back on a familiar tune, it does so in a way designed to invoke the feeling of coming home after a long strange trip.
1. Advent Rising
It’s no mystery why so few people know about Advent Rising’s soundtrack. After all, the game was a much-hyped sci-fi epic that featured a questionable story, some forgettable characters, and gameplay that worked when it felt like it. None of that excuses the fact that many have never heard what might be one of the absolute greatest video game soundtracks ever composed.
Words are a painfully inadequate way to do justice to a soundtrack that can drag a tear out of a stone or make a grain of sand feel a pulse. Yes, Advent Rising features sweeping orchestral tunes that convey a full range of emotions. If Advent Rising’s soundtrack had been in a feature film instead of a failed video game, it would be remembered by many as one of the all-time greats.
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