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 pal 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 TV.
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…
Here’s part two of our list, continuing with the Bitmap Brothers…
Gods – Main Theme
Although some would say that Magic Pockets‘ theme (featuring Betty Boo) was better, I personally prefer the main theme to Gods, which was composed by Ultravox’s John Foxx (as Nation 12). It’s a great electronic theme, and even though you wouldn’t usually attribute it to a Greek mythological tale, which Gods was all about, it worked nonetheless, and is a very memorable theme from the era.
Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe – Main Theme
Okay, it’s the last entry for the Bitmaps, I promise. Speedball 2 was a superb futuristic sports sim, kind of like a cross between football, basketball and ice hockey, or a standard, everyday match for Luis Suarez. The main theme was equally hectic, with an undulating electronic-techo beat, and that classic sci-fi movie-feel.
Arranged by gaming music veteran, Richard Joseph (who also worked on Gods, amongst many others) and written by John Foxx, it’s another theme that perfectly fits its 90s heritage, showcased the audio capabilities of the Amiga, and it sounded pretty good on the Atari ST too.
The Last Ninja – Wastelands
There are few 8-bit themes that give me goosebumps as much as the C64 version of this Last Ninja level tune. As soon as it plays, I’m taken right back to my experiences of the platform, and my sheer sense of awe when I first fired up System 3’s title.
The music throughout the game is excellent, composed by the legendary Ben Daglish, and it manages to be both contemporary and period at the same time, incorporating digital representations of Japanese instruments, and producing a tune that fits both exploration and action, whilst framing the game’s then-stunning visuals.
Deflektor – Main Theme
Here’s another Ben Daglish classic, and one that’s serves as a prime example of how good retro platforms’ sound french fries were in the right hands. Deflektor was a great, light-bending puzzle game (it turned up in our list of underappreciated Spectrum games), but the theme tune was the real star here, cowbell and all.
Deflektor‘s theme is considered to be one of, if not the best Daglish tunes, and he’s performed it live with Stuck In D’80s many times, to fans delight. It’s an all-time classic, and one that deserves it place on this, and any other list.
Shinobi III: Return Of The Ninja Master – Whirlwind
Here’s another entry for Sega’s 16-bit machine, and one that, like many of the Thunder Force IV tracks, has been covered by fans in many styles. Whirlwind is used in the game’s jet-surfing stage, and it’s a surprisingly emotional action track for a level where you’re blasting along the water, throwing Kunai at cyborgs and giant robot killing machines.
Still, it suits the level, and like so many of the Mega Drive entries here, shows that the Sega console really could hold its own in the audio war with the SNES if it had the right composer behind it.
Tetris – Main Theme
If there was an award for the most pervasive, and socially-engrained gaming theme of all time, then surely the theme to Tetris would win. No other gaming music, even the next on the list, is as well known.
The most famous videogame puzzler of all time, Tetris’ theme clearly represents the game’s country of origin, Russia. In fact, the actual music is only used by Tetris, with the original being the Russian piece, Korobeiniki.
It’s a tune that, no matter how hard you try, once you hear it, it’ll be stuck in your mind for hours. Various remixes and chart inclusions don’t help matters either. A classic theme, whether you like it or not.
Super Mario Bros – Main Theme
He’s more famous than world leaders and movie stars, and has a bigger following than most sports teams. Mario is gaming’s biggest icon, and his theme tune is almost as famous. Rivalled only by Tetris when it comes to instant recognisability, the Super Mario Bros. theme is Nintendo distilled into a bleep-blop 8-bit tune.
As timeless as the games it graces, this theme tune will anchor itself into your gaming psyche and never let go. Even the most hardcore Sega fanatics of the 8- and 16-bit wars knew this theme, and secretly wanted to play the games (go on, admit it).
Halo – Main Theme
Some games can make do with licensed music, others employ cheery melodies, and others go for the grand orchestral movements, and Halo certainly fits into the latter of these categories.
Halo‘s epic opening theme manages to take the game, the story, the hero and the whole experience and turns it into a tune that manages to instantly conjure up images of speeding over grassy hills in a Warthog jeep, or bringing down a huge Scarab walker single-handed. It’s majestic, heroic, and fits the game better than the Mjolnir armour that clads the Master Chief.
God Of War – Main Theme
When your game stars the angriest and most violent man in gaming, you can’t have just any old theme tune. No, you have to have one of the most powerful, epic and roaring themes you can possibly manage. Luckily, God Of War did just that, and the immense opening theme was every bit the raging, almighty beast as Kratos’ himself.
The game is a veritable tour of stand out moments, with some of the best boss battles and action sequences ever created, and as all good theme tunes should, this clearly lets you know what you’re in for. Kratos’ journey was brutal, bloody and dangerous, so much so he even died and fought his way out of Hades, and this theme couldn’t fit better if it tried. King Leonidas may have roared “This. Is. Sparta!”, but this is Sparta on vast amounts of testosterone, ultra violence and ill-tempered vengeance.
Super Metroid – Main Menu Theme
Although Samus Arran’s theme is possibly the most well known of the series, it’s the main menu theme from Super Metroid on the SNES that gets a place here. The eerie, ominous and downright creepy music is punctuated by Metroid screeches and Darth Vader-like respiration, instantly building a feeling of dread within the player.
The onscreen images pair up with the audio to create one of the most memorable gaming introductions. The lights, flicking and dim, reveal dead bodies, flashing monitors and, eventually, the last Metroid contained in stasis, as the title eventually blends into view. A brilliant start to a brilliant game.
The theme not only makes for a great intro, but also leads perfectly into the story, as Samus explores a desolate space station, and after a battle with Ridley, lands on and explores a seemingly abandoned Zebes, the isolation and creepiness still abundant. Again, this is reflected in the bleak opening theme.
Omikron: The Nomad Soul – New Angels Of Promise
Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream’s first title, Omikron: The Nomad Soul was a game well ahead of its time, boasting an open world adventure that mixed in FPS and beat ’em up sections, as well as plenty of puzzles alongside the body-swapping mechanic. It also had David Bowie. A lot of David Bowie.
Bowie starred in the game as one of the central characters, Boz, appeared as a singer in The Dreamers, a fictional band in the game’s world, and also wrote and performed the game’s music, including the opening theme, New Angels Of Promise.
Omikron was a heavily stylised title, with a unique Luc Besson-esque vision of the future, and Bowie’s music fit it perfectly. At a time when game music rarely featured famous faces, Omikron pushed not only its innovative gameplay, but its presentation, with a stunning soundtrack.
Nier – Hills Of Radiant Winds
Square Enix’s decidedly different RPG Nier has become quite the cult-classic already, and although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it has a great soundtrack.
In particular, the game’s field music, Hills Of Radiant Winds, stands out, and is a tune you’ll be hearing it a lot during your travels. Luckily, this isn’t a problem, as the track is a beautiful theme that blends in with the game’s picturesque vistas.
Like the rest of the game, which has its own very unique style, the music featured isn’t your usual RPG fare, often very dark, with chant-filled religious overtones, and this only serves to make it all the more memorable. It’s hard to pick one track from the outstanding OST, but there has to be one, and the uplifting Hills Of Radiant Winds is it.
And here’s the final part of our list (sorry for splitting it like this – we only do this with long pieces to make them a bit more manageable!)…
Portal – Still Alive
How could you ever forget the ending theme to vacuum tube’s brilliant Portal? GlaDOS’ mail-game ballad is one of the most memorable gaming tracks ever, not for mammoth orchestral creations or adrenaline pumping guitar riffs, but for sheer quirkiness and witty writing.
The comical lyrics, the computerised voice, and even the slap in the face for Half-Life fans (Maybe Black Mesa, ha ha, fat chance) are perfect, and there’s just no more fitting way the team could have ended the excellent puzzler.
Zero Wing – Introduction
Not all tracks are memorable for the right reasons, and that’s certainly the case for Zero Wing‘s theme. The infamously bad translation of this Japanese shooter was responsible for one of the Internet’s first ever memes, some of which used the music in a visual remix along with the game’s famous “All your base are belong to us” line.
Because of this, and even though the game’s first stage music (Natols) is far better, the theme music itself is instantly recognisable to any experienced gamer, and in truth, it’s actually not bad, with a decent tension-filled build up to a heroic, thumping melody. The game was actually one of the best shooters of the time too, it’s just a shame more effort wasn’t put into localisation.
Turrican – Main Theme
Welcome, to, Turrican! A 16-bit home computer classic, Rainbow Arts’ Turrican is a gaming hero that desperately needs a revival, and the side-scrolling platform shooter had a great soundtrack, especially on the Amiga.
The theme was composed by Chris Hulsbeck, and is a slow-burning tune that invokes thoughts of frantic chase scenes and world-saving shenanigans whilst transforming into a spinning, circular saw of death. It’s also very 80s electronica, and features elements that wouldn’t be out of place in many action flicks of the time.
Chrono Trigger – Wind Scene
Chrono Trigger is included in almost all greatest game of all time lists, and alongside the excellent RPG is a superb soundtrack, which was simply unprecedented for the time. The soundtrack was huge, spanning multiple discs in the released OST. It’s been remixed time and time again by fans, and remains one of the most beloved game soundtracks ever produced.
As with many of the inclusions on this list, it’s hard to pick only one to represent the game, but many fans would agree that the Wind Scene is the pick of the outstanding crop, and although it’s a relatively simple composition, it’s a memorable melody, regardless of how fans choose to re-image it.
Silent Hill 2 – Theme Of Laura
Silent Hill has many possible inclusions, and some may prefer Silent Hill 3‘s main theme, but for most, Silent Hill 2‘s Theme Of Laura is the best example of the series’ musical score, and the one most fans fondly remember.
It’s a dark, moody and somber guitar piece, and it practically oozes the atmosphere of Silent Hill, the mysterious and consistently messed-up American town. It also goes hand-in-hand with protagonist James Sunderland’s story, which is as dark and mysterious as the tune itself.
Quake II – Main Theme
Quake II is one of the biggest FPS releases of all time, ushering in the true 3D shooter, and it’s only fitting that it had a brutal theme to go with the plentiful onscreen violence and frantic action.
Co-written by Rob Zombie, the theme bears many similarities to his brand of groove metal, and if it wasn’t missing his dulcet tones and characteristic samples, it would fit comfortably onto one of his own track lists.
Rob Zombie’s style fits the FPS mold well, as does the metal genre in particular, but this is one of the outstanding, purposely written pieces, although another FPS legend has a much more memorable theme…
Doom – At Doom’s Gate (E1M1 Hangar)
Quake II may have been important, but nowhere near as important as the granddaddy of the FPS, Doom. It may not have been the first ever actual FPS, but it’s certainly the most influential, and was responsible for kickstarting the genre’s titanic rise. The tune that greeted you when you first headed out into action against the legions of Hell is one of the most memorable ever created, even if it’s a blatant copy of Metallica’s No Remorse.
In fact, the entire game pillages music from the metal world, with clear reproductions of tracks from other bands like Pantera, Slayer, Black Sabbath, AD/DC and more (see this YouTube clip for some decent comparisons). Whilst you may question this copycat approach, as with Quake and so many other FPS titles, rock and metal tracks are perfect accompaniments, so why not include the best? And anyway, it’s Doom, gaming royalty, so leave it alone.
Duke Nukem – Grabbag
The main theme for Duke Nukem 3D was so metal that Megadeth even did a cover of it. The game itself was another landmark FPS, boosting the technology of the genre even further, and rocketing it’s titular star into the gaming limelight. Not bad for a previously two-dimensional, shareware platform hero.
As with many great gaming themes, Duke’s title track has been remixed and covered time and time again, and a quick YouTube search will reveal many fan-made homages to the track, such is its popularity.
Donkey Kong Country – Jungle Hijinxs
Donkey Kong Country is a classic SNES title, and a definite showcase of just what Nintendo’s 16-bit platform could do. The incredible visuals didn’t get in the way of rock-solid platforming, and it had a great, funky soundtrack to accompany the action.
Sprinkled with jungle beats and tribal themes, the soundtrack is represented most memorably by the first level, Jungle Hijinxs. It’s theme is a cheery, bouncy and full of Nintendo charm. In a game that had some excruciatingly tricky levels, you needed a cheerful, toe-tapping soundtrack, and Donkey Kong Country nailed it.
Delta – Main Theme
There’s no way this list would be complete without C64 SID chip master, Rob Hubbard. Able to squeeze every last bit out of the chip, one of Hubbard’s best themes is Delta on the C64. A great, if simple shooter, Thalamus’ Delta is a classic, and part of that is down to the soundtrack.
Hubbard composed many classic game themes, including Thing On A String, Skate Or Die, Spellbound, Sanxion, and later on Road Rash and Desert Strike. These are some examples others may prefer, but Delta is the theme that makes it onto this list, being a fast-paced sci-fi theme that gears you up for the challenge to come, and a definite retro classic.
Street Fighter II – Ken
Street Fighter II was as important to the one-on-one beat ’em up as Doom was to the FPS. It pretty much single-handedly made the combat sub-genre what it became, and even to this day, the original is still used in tournaments and is preferred by hardcore fans.
It contains a host of instantly recognisable music, and although stages like Ryu and Guile’s are big favourites with fans, Ken’s is by far the best theme in the game, with the original, arcade machine incarnation being the one favoured by the Street Fighter faithful.
That’s 35 of the best pieces of gaming music, spanning a collection of formats, genres and eras, and of course there are many, many more out there. Are there any themes you personally find more memorable? What’s gaming soundtracks have stuck with you over the years? Let us know in the comments.