From Doom to Minecraft: our guide to the Best Video Game Soundtracks
You've worn out your thumbs, now it's time to wear out your ears.
Back in the 70s, calling a video game a piece of art could've seen you laughed out of a room. The technology may have been a modern marvel, but the aesthetics were limited by that technology - pixelated blocks moving clunkily around a screen, accompanied by a few bleeping noises. A few decades on and it seems like we’re in another universe, with games now rooted in traditional storytelling and feeling just as – or even more – immersive than anything we see at the cinema.
Video game soundtracks have also been revolutionised within that time. From 80s chiptune to 90s electronica and onto the introduction of Dolby Digital in the 00s, the scope and breadth of the soundtracks we hear today is astonishing. There’s no longer a need to mimic film scores because TV and movie composers are now doing it for the games themselves.
As systems continue to get more powerful, so will the scope of the music we hear creating the atmosphere to game worlds. To celebrate this (still, in our opinion) underappreciated art-form, we’ve put together a list of some of the best video game soundtracks of all time -- from 8-bit to orchestra pit.
As soon as it arrived on the Sega Mega Drive, Altered Beast became an instant hit, bringing side-scrolling carnage into thousands of homes. Tohru “Master” Nakabayashi’s soundtrack is as fondly remembered as the game itself, providing the background to a world where punching a zoo’s worth of humanoid animals in the face is par for the course. It’s a score that immerses the player into fierce battle scenes and mournful underground sequences, forging an unforgettable 16-bit sonic masterclass. The game wasn’t exactly the hardest to conquer but its gleeful violence and impressive score made sure you kept picking up the controller again and again.
It was all so simple back in the early 90s. All you needed was a seedy side-scrolling back street, biceps bulging shown through a rough-cut sleeveless t-shirt and a never-ending stream of bad guys to smash off the screen. Yuzo Koshiro’s music for Streets of Rage gave us even more reason to play with a classic chiptune soundtrack that still sounds as potent today as it did all those years ago. A pulsing collection of house and techno tracks were incorporated into traditional Japanese themes that urged you to push the buttons as quickly as the tempo. Heard with the game or on its own Koshiro’s soundtrack is one you’ll never want to forget.
A shoot ‘em up swamped with personality from head to toe that pitched the player head first into non-stop bedlam – yep – sounds like Metal Slug. Takushi Hiyamuta matches the intensity of the game with a score that slides from militaristic music to jazz, heavy metal and full-on attack mode synths. Just like the game itself, there isn’t a moment to take a breath as the pace is relentless. It was a ridiculously over the top game that somehow managed to sound even crazier during the big boss battles. It’s a true legend of the genre with a soundtrack to match.
Koji Kondo has done more than enough to ensure his name goes down in video game folklore and his scores for The Legend of Zelda series is perhaps his most iconic. As if the N64 version wasn’t enough, the soundtrack for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was also beautifully orchestrated by Eric Buchholz and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. The themes of mortality and impermanence are all weaved into Kondo’s unforgettable compositions which will remain imprinted on the minds of Nintendo aficionados forever.
While the cinematic versions weren’t up to much, the original PS1 version of Silent Hill remains a stone cold classic. It changed game design forever along with the expectations of gamers back in 1999 and Akira Yamaoka’s score played a pivotal role in doing that. The arrangements are a sensorial assault that makes the hairs on your neck stand up as you wander through the endless mist tested by piercing synths and discordant percussion. Yamaoka’s score drifts through the air and follows you into every last hidden room and dark shadow in the game. It’s a terrifying experience that was best played with the lights off and your nerves left hanging precariously at the door.
The release of Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999 turned the gaming world on its head, its $70m production costs being felt in every element of its astonishing gameplay. The soundtrack featured a masterful set of compositions from Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Ryuji Luchi, Osamu Murata and Yozu Koshirp that blend together eastern motifs with traditional western orchestral cues. It transcended genres due to its mixture of fighting, problem-solving, RPG and adventure gameplay and the score was perfectly pitched to create a cinematic sound that gamers would never forget.
Kow Otani’s soundtrack details the two sides of Shadow of the Colossus’ magnificent adventure. The peaceful journey can be heard in the gentle woodwinds and soothing acoustic guitars, accented by violins and sombre piano chords. However, Otani ups the ante for the slaying of the beasts and giants, creating tracks filled with booming brass sections and spiralling strings. The score becomes more discordant and ominous as the danger increases and submerges the player deeper inside its world. It’s quite simply a monumental score that manages to meet the epic scale of the gameplay head on, creating a soundtrack that sounds just as powerful played alone as it does when you’re controlling the destiny of Wander.
C418’s soundtrack for Minecraft set the tone perfectly for a game that allowed you to experiment to your heart’s content. Even though the Minecraft universe can seem a little overwhelming due to its size and seemingly endless possibilities, the music keeps players grounded and focused on the task at hand. In many ways, the score stands in for any semblance of a story in the game and can be interpreted differently by any number of people. The classical ambient sound at times feels lonely and imposing, while in other moments uplifting and adventurous. Continued use of swirling synths and subtle piano chords send you off into a world where you are the master of your own universe.
If ever there was a game that could transport you into a completely different world it is Monument Valley. It was no simple task for Stafford Bawler, Obfusc and Grigori to find the right music to complement such intricate puzzles and gorgeous game design and yet they exceeded all expectations. The compositions glide from one theme to the next, remaining quiet or energetic without ever distracting from the gameplay. It often feels like the music is designed to reflect the textures and colours seen on screen, producing a calming effect that soothes and encourages the player to immerse themselves into solving the problem.
Composer Brian Reitzell’s work on the Hannibal TV series was already regarded as one of the best in recent years and he added a similar cinematic feel to video game tech thriller Watch_Dogs. Reitzell avoids falling victim to the typical video game score clichés to create a rich and sophisticated collection of compositions. It’s a stunning combination of traditional percussion fused with moody electronica, always reflecting the dark price Watch_Dog’s protagonist Aiden pays for his vigilantism. There is a far more emotional edge compared to its contemporaries and with it Reitzell has created a timeless modern-day classic.
In a game that gives us a very English look at the end of the world, the score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the most highly respected in recent memory. Jessica Curry’s arrangements are pivotal to the success of a game where there are no present-day characters and both the environmental sounds and musical cues guide you through the world. The gorgeous orchestral score is notable from the very start, loaded with luscious strings and a romantic idyllic view of the English countryside. As you explore the wide terrain trying to figure out what has occurred, Curry’s evocative score brings us closer to humanity both inside and outside of the game.
When you wait a decade for a game – or anything – to be finished, the expectations are so high you’re more likely to be let down than not. Luckily, the spiritual successor to the critically acclaimed Okami didn’t disappoint. Takeshi Furukawa’s score for The Last Guardian is used minimally to powerful effect, complementing the gameplay rather than driving it. The tracks seamlessly evolve from beautiful woodwind compositions one minute, to headstrong adventure style arrangements the next. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Howard Shore’s work on Lord of the Rings such is its heartfelt and emotional power. If this is the type of masterful score you get after ten years of waiting, we’re ready for the long haul in future.
Rhythm games had fallen a bit flat and felt quite stale before Brian Gibson’s Thumper arrived to shake things up. Gibson is better known for his work with rock outfit Lightning Bolt, and he put together a powerful collection of tracks to send you hurtling through a viscerally intense alternate dimension. The music on the soundtrack is inspired by the game itself, placing you right back behind the speeding space-hell beetle. It’s a series of tracks supplying all the metal-mechanical mayhem you need to take you out of this world for as long as you need.
There is nowhere to hide from the waves of hellish enemies in the world of Doom and that’s just the way its die-hard fan base like it. Calling the gameplay intense doesn’t even begin to cover it. Mick Gordon has a penchant for progressive metal and he channels every last bit of that into the soundtrack. Distorted, low-pitch guitars and pummelling drum patterns made for aggressive instrumental metal that got you ready to go to war. But it is far from one-note and it incorporates plenty of samples from game, throwing in demonic voices, screams, chainsaws and enough madness to fray your nerves. It was Hell on Earth, but you never wanted it any other way.
Henry Jackman’s film scoring experience makes him a perfect fit for a character like Nathan Drake and Uncharted 4 keeps the adrenalin pumping throughout. An all-action hero needs an all-action score and Jackman’s bold orchestral numbers pound their rhythms into every movement and tension filled moment. Jackman deepens the mystery elements of Drake’s adventure to tighten the suspense around our hero with arrangements that wouldn’t feel out of place on the big screen. Whether diving into shark-infested waters or getting into firefights with a drug cartel, Jackman’s score places you firmly in the shoes of a man consumed by his pursuit of long-lost treasure.
There was more than a hint of Tim Burton’s style to the metroidvania masterpiece Hollow Knight and it’s a tone composer Christopher Larkin strikes in his beautiful score for the 2D game. As players explore the huge expanse of Hallownest, Larkin’s music captures the eerie atmosphere of this beguiling, underground world. The freedom the game offers is immense and the tracks reflect that diversity, sweeping the player up into fantastical orchestral numbers, while at other times lonely piano notes feel just as powerful. The game was a slick and polished affair and Larkin’s score matches that in every sense.
While the previous entries in the God of War series were steeped in Greek myths, Bear McCreary’s score transports players into the ‘Second Era’ of the narrative – Norse mythology. The epic soundtrack captures the game’s larger than life themes, inspiring you to wield Kratos’ trademark dual blades and charge onto the battlefield to destroy your enemies. But it isn’t just a one-note, fight-to-the-death soundtrack. McCreary is far better than that. His score guides you through a range of emotional beats so every arrangement resonates and holds meaning. Kratos’ character has matured into fatherhood and the score reflects this key narrative structure of the game – there are heartfelt softer moments to counterbalance the carnage. It’s a choral and orchestral experience that powers through your veins, making you appreciate every last note.