Music to My Ears: The Best Video Game Soundtracks of All Time
Video game music remains an underappreciated art form. There are some out there doing the hard work of changing public perception about game music, with podcasts like The Legacy Music Hour and VGMpire producing content that highlights the best game music ever made. Still, there remains the problem of people associating game music with the bloops and bleeps that accompanied the oldest of the old school games — think Atari 2600 or ancient computer games. But starting around the 8-bit era with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System, game composers began to pull out the stops, creating complex and surprisingly mature music within the technology’s strict limitations. As time has gone by and those restrictions have been removed, many game composers have risen to the challenge, continuing to push the envelope in creativity. We should do more to celebrate that.
Taste is subjective. Therefore, I totally expect my list, like any list, will be found lacking by some people. On top of that, there are just so many games that chances are good there are real gems out there I’ve simply never encountered. Still, to the best of my ability, I’ve put together a list of the all-time best video game soundtracks. Whether you’re experiencing them in-game, via an LP or CD, or through slightly shadier, MP3-related means, you can’t go wrong with these babies.
Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross
Yasunori Mitsuda is a man who needs no introduction for game music fans; but for everyone else, he’s the primary composer behind the much-beloved Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross games. In fact, Chrono Trigger was his first composing job, and he worked so hard on it that he put himself in the hospital, making it necessary for famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu to step in and help finish things up. Still, the vast majority of the soundtrack is a Mitsuda original, and to call it memorable is an understatement. The way he expertly weaves the game’s theme into so many of the songs, while making each song feel unique unto itself, is masterful.
He continued making great music for Square-developed games, including Xenogears for the PlayStation 1, before moving on as an independent composer. Square was able to coax him back into the fold, however, for the Chrono Trigger follow-up, Chrono Cross. Here, unrestricted by the Super Nintendo’s limited sound hardware, Mitsuda was able to flourish, crafting a soundtrack that remains eminently listenable even today. This soundtrack is packed with masterpieces. His incorporation of the theme from the original Chrono Trigger in a few tracks is a welcome nostalgia hit, but almost every track is amazing, from the looping, layered sounds of the Forest of Illusion to the upbeat, festive atmosphere of Termina – Another World. On top of that, the game deals with two different dimensions, necessitating two distinct themes for each area. Mitsuda essentially had to both write all the music and create compelling recreations of almost every area’s theme on top of it. The Chrono series hasn’t had a new entry in decades, but if it ever does continue, the participation of Yasunori Mitsuda is pretty much a necessity.
Tales of Legendia
The Tales series music is typically handled by Motoi Sakuraba, with only a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is Tales of Legendia for the PlayStation 2. Composed by Go Shiina, this soundtrack has a refreshingly different sound. I’d even go so far as to call it “weird.” But in a good way! Mixing genres and instrumentations from a variety of styles, Shiina created a lush soundscape that often ends up being far grander than the game it accompanies. Rich strings and ethereal voices mix together brilliantly in tracks like The Bird Chirps, I Sing. Jazz takes over in A Cheerful Bandit. Experimental use of sound effects, speech, and chanting join with orchestral and rock instruments in the bizarrely compelling March. I’d say it’s a shame that Go Shiina hasn’t done more with the Tales series. Motoi Sakuraba is an excellent composer in his own right, but I find Shiina’s work more compelling and listenable on its own. Definitely check it out.
No Man’s Sky
Proving that I play games that aren’t RPGs, let’s talk about No Man’s Sky. Initially panned as a game that didn’t live up to its pre-release promise, and with some justification, No Man’s Sky has really come into its own through frequent and significant updates. One thing that’s never needed a change, though, is the music. The game itself only uses music sparsely, but the way in which its soundtrack was created is revolutionary. First, post-rock band 65daysofstatic created an album’s worth of tunes in their signature, instrumental style. Then the team at Hello Games took the tracks and broke them all up into component pieces and, using technology similar to the tech that built their universe, created a procedurally generated soundscape that complements the surreal journey you’re taking. It’s worth seeking out the full soundtrack, though. Despite the coolness of hearing bits of music as you play, the full tracks themselves are great.
The Persona Series
The idea that roleplaying games should have sweeping, orchestral scores gets thrown right out the window with the Persona series. An infectious mix of J-Pop, jazz, funk, rock, and more, composer Shoji Meguro has elevated the concept of game music to a whole new level. Bucking the trend, many standard gameplay tracks are lyrical, typically sung in English (a funny aside: Meguro said he wrote the songs for English voices so that Japanese players wouldn’t be distracted by the lyrics, for which he apologized to English-speaking players). Get ready for catchy tune after catchy tune, from the battle themes to the walking-around-town music. Persona 3 started the trend toward excellent Persona music, and it’s continued with Persona 4 and Persona 5.
The Castlevania Series
Another heavy-hitter, not just in terms of game music but in the gaming industry as a whole, the Castlevania series has long been one of the premier action-platformers out there. The games have had a variety of composers through the years. Despite changing hands, however, they all feature a similar sort of style, heavily influenced by 1970s progressive rock. It’s an interesting contrast — you might expect to hear sweeping, gothic orchestral pieces in a series like Castlevania, full of monsters and vampires, but instead, you’re treated to some of the most infectious rock music in gaming. The series arguably hit its peak, in more ways than one, with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation. Here, composer Michiru Yamane crafted a sweeping, varied soundtrack full of rock, jazz, and more. Her compositions still stand as one of the crowning achievements in game music. The soundtrack was just recently released on vinyl by Mondo, which is a testament to its longevity and continued relevance.