While graphics and story often draw most of the praise, video game music can be as memorable and beautiful as any other aspect of game design. It’s nearly impossible to pick favorite video game soundtracks—there are simply too many to name—but these are a few of the best out there.
Shadow of the Colossus‘s Soundtrack Complements the Haunting Story
All is not as it seems in Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. What appears to be a straightforward adventure story—kill the beasts to save your beloved—is actually much more, and the game’s soundtrack reflects that. Composed by Kow Otani, known for the soundtracks for several Gamera films, the soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus is a testament to how beautiful video game music can be. It’s as haunting and striking a musical achievement as any film composition, and its cinematic nature perfectly complements the beauty and intensity of the in-game world.
What makes it particularly memorable is that it lacks the traditional fanfare of success—rather than being rewarded with the typical trumpeting of glory, Shadow of the Colossus rewards each triumph with a melancholy theme as Wander falls to his knees, seemingly injured or dead. It perfectly echoes the game’s theme and serves as an early auditory clue to the true nature of the story.
The Legend of Zelda‘s Iconic Video Game Music Still Inspires
While many classic games are included on top-five lists for their sheer popularity, the soundtrack to Nintendo’s many Legend of Zelda games deserve a spot on any list of best video game music. While the soundtracks have varied in quality over the years, Koji Kondo’s iconic themes are part of what makes the series so great. With the perfect balance of high-spirited themes and slower, thoughtful pieces, the Legend of Zelda soundtrack encompasses the series’ emotional highs and lows. As the games revisit familiar characters over the course of the series’ complex timeline, reoccurring music appears—new themes begin, old themes get reworked into new pieces of music, and the myths and legends of one of the most iconic games of all time are captured in audio form. The Legend of Zelda‘s soundtrack perfectly encapsulates what makes it so great: a blend of magic, mystery, and adventure that is both familiar and new, inspiring nostalgia in each new incarnation.
Retrofuturism Turns Sour in the Mass Effect Trilogy Soundtrack
It’s easy to write off Mass Effect‘s soundtrack as being standard sci-fi fare, but that would be oversimplifying the complexities of the game’s music. The first two games are scored largely by Sam Hulick and Jack Wall, drawing heavily on famous sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and Dune for inspiration. The influence is obvious—Mass Effect‘s title screen music, called “Vigil,” is quiet but filled with the synth and computer sounds that characterized eighties music. The first game introduces the Reapers, but you still have hope that they can be beaten, a sentiment echoed in the way the music and atmosphere channel retrofuturism by using older music styles and making the futuristic world so clean and beautiful.
By Mass Effect 2, much of that optimism and cleanness is gone—instead, you have music created with the same sounds, but decidedly darker, with heavy piano and string themes that sound sad rather than optimistic. For the third game, several more composers were brought in, including Clint Mansell, known for his work on “Lux Æterna,” the theme to Requiem for a Dream. The video game music in the third installment is darker and more haunting, with little of the uplifting notes that characterized the first game—this is a Shepard that is tired, broken down, and about to face a possibly unbeatable foe. “Leaving Earth” and “An End Once and For All” echo one another, bookending the sad and deeply affecting end to one of the galaxy’s best heroes.
Final Fantasy‘s Beautiful Soundtracks Inspire Nostalgia
Though many classic game soundtracks inspire nostalgia, nowhere is that more true than in the Final Fantasy series. Because the games retain many themes throughout the series, the sound of success remains the same—the fanfare is iconic, and you’re never disappointed when you hear that song after defeating an enemy. Each game boasts an iconic theme—who can forget the haunting notes of “One Winged Angel” or “To Zanarkand”—and Nobuo Uematsu’s work across the series has left a lasting impression on anybody who has ever played a Final Fantasy game. The series’ soundtracks are always memorable whether the songs are ominous or cute, and Uematsu’s work across the series is outstanding and inspirational for future video game music composers.
Halo‘s Music Is Almost As Good As Its Multiplayer
While music isn’t something many people pay attention to in your average FPS game, the music of Halo is instantly memorable for its blend of orchestral strings, chanting, and electronic sounds. The composers—Michael Salvatori and Martin O’Donnell—intended for the music to convey an air of importance, something that it certainly achieves with its sweeping movements. It’s a truly unique soundtrack, perfectly suiting the mix of military sci-fi and grand story that make up the Halo universe, and though praise of the series has waxed and waned in its later incarnations, its music remains a constant source of enjoyment for even the casual Halo fan. The menu theme is so popular that there’s even an entire website dedicated to displaying the menu and playing the theme song in your browser.
Dragon Age: Few games do tavern music as well as Dragon Age: Inquisition, and its orchestral scores and vocal tracks are gorgeous as well.
Portal: While Jonathan Coulton and Ellen McClain’s funny ending songs are nice, it’s the easter eggs hidden in Portal 2‘s electronic soundtrack (and the lovely cameo by The National) that really make it memorable.
Braid: Braid’s soundtrack was selected specifically to sound nice both forward and backward, making it an interesting listen no matter what way time is flowing.
Journey: The beautiful cello music of Austin Wintory, Lisbeth Scott, and Tina Guo earned this game a Grammy nomination in 2013.
Ōkami: Inspired by traditional Japanese music, the soundtrack to Ōkami perfectly complements the art style and storytelling filled with Japanese myth.
What is your favorite video game music?