While we tend to think of them as a primarily visual medium, sound is still a very important part of video games.
In fact, a game’s soundtrack can stick with you much more easily than its graphics. It’s easy enough to just cue up a good soundtrack on Spotify or even YouTube. Barring that, you can also just hum any good tunes that are stuck on your head.
With that in mind, we here at Variable have decided to put up a list of what we think are some of the best video game soundtracks. (Read: You should live your life with music playing in the background)
This is likely our hardest listicle yet. There are so many great soundtracks to choose from that it was tempting to just list all that we liked in a giant-sized list. As tempting as that may be, we’ve been able to let common sense reign and have narrowed our list down to just 11.
Why 11 you may ask? Because all good things “go up to 11.”
1. Streets of Rage 2
Not only did Yuzo Koshiro get his start as a video game music programmer during the 80s, he was also a familiar sight in some of Tokyo’s top clubs during the day. It should come as no surprise then that the soundtracks of the Streets Of Rage games (or Bare Knuckle in Japan) that he worked on are some of the best that Sega had to offer during the 16-bit era.
Of these, Streets Of Rage 2 is arguably the best. Sounding more refined than that of the original, while not as experimental as that of the third game.
It basically sounds like what you’d think a club in the late 80s and early 90s would, featuring swaggering house synths and even some early trance. Best of all, the beat matches the on-screen action perfectly, which is all you really need for a good beat ‘em up soundtrack.
2. Chrono Cross
Yasunori Mitsuda is no stranger to epic JRPG soundtracks, having scored quite a number of them over the years. Even early in his career, his talent was obvious, which is why he was included in the pre-merger Squaresoft and Enix “Dream Team” behind Chrono Trigger.
As iconic as the Chrono Trigger soundtrack was, it’s in its sequel, Chrono Cross, that Mitsuda really comes into his own, free of having to work alongside other composers, while also having had other works under his belt.
At its core, Chrono Cross is a sequel in name only, keeping the core concept of a world almost exactly like your own but changed in some way. Where Chrono Trigger dealt with time, however, Cross deals with parallel worlds and uses its soundtrack to reinforce that.
The shift from fun, vibrant tunes to melancholy ones filled, interspersed with key moments of silence give the player a sense of what main character Serge may be feeling, despite him being a silent protagonist.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog 3
The story behind this one is a legend onto itself. Sega approaches one of the biggest musical artists of all time, Michael Jackson to do the soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, only to pull out at the last minute over the child abuse allegations he was facing at the time.
The real story is a bit more complicated. The actual songs were worked on by frequent Jackson collaborator Brad Buxer. After creating a few tracks, Jackson was apparently unhappy with the quality of the soundtrack and the limitations of the Sega Mega Drive’s sound chip that he ended up backing out of the project.
Despite this, however, some of the Jackson influence seems to have remained, with later tunes from the King of Pop even sounding like songs from Sonic 3—1996’s Stranger in Moscow, in particular, sounds similar to Sonic 3’s ending credits theme (Buxer has since confirmed that the song was based on the one Sonic 3).
The long and short of it is that Sonic 3’s soundtrack is good, it’s very good.
4. Final Fantasy VI
Picking a favorite Final Fantasy soundtrack is like trying to pick a favorite child—they’re all so good that it almost seems impossible to do so. But alas, choose we must and for this list, we’re going with Final Fantasy VI.
Final Fantasy VI was the last time legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu was truly limited by hardware, yet despite this, he was able to create a soundtrack that still stands up today.
Indeed, listing to songs such as the battle and boss themes, it’s easy to hear where the direction where Uematsu would take the soundtracks of later games.
More importantly, Uematsu’s songs for FFVI have this quality where your brain can easily fill in the missing details that were beyond the Super Famicom’s sound chip—it may just be a series of wavetable samples, but Aria di Mezzo Carattere sure does sound like it’s a full orchestra in your head, with voice.
6. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
If you tell somebody today that Michiru Yamane did not create the Castlevania sound, they’ll probably say that you’re lying. That’s how iconic her work in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was.
While the Castlevania franchise already had some memorable songs (take for example Bloody Tears, which was used in Season 1 of the recent Netflix animé), Yamane’s work on SOTN was the first time that the entire soundtrack would be memorable on its own.
And why wouldn’t it, Yamane mixed classical rococo styles with modern rock, pairing classical strings with an electric guitar to create a unique sound that would forever be linked to the franchise.
6. Street Fighter II
Arguably one of the most iconic video game soundtracks of the 1990s, Street Fighter II’s OST is something that anyone who had ever gone to an arcade back in the day is bound to know by heart.
While Capcom has recruited more composers and added more themes to the franchise’s canon, nothing they’ve ever put out has ever seemed to match Yoko Shimomura’s work on SFII.
Not only are the themes memorable on their own right, but they fully encompass the characters they represent. Ken’s has a rocking guitar-driven sound fitting that of a hot-blooded American. Guile’s theme follows in a similar vein but is made to sound more heroic, given his status as a military man. Balrog’s sound like a perfect fit for a warm Vegas night and M. Bison’s theme is downright sinister.
7. Persona 5
The Persona series has always had great tunes, thanks to genius composer Shoji Meguro. Part of what makes the songs so memorable is how they work with the game’s unique, “day-in-the-life-of” gameplay. This means that the music is tailored to fit the most mundane of day-to-day activities, including going shopping, eating lunch, etc.
Persona 5’s soundtrack excels in this. Its jazzy sound makes just doing everyday things feel so much cooler, both in game and in real life.
In a way, it’s the perfect video game soundtrack to listen to while going around our daily lives. With over 100 songs in the soundtrack, there’s bound to be a song for just about any situation.
How many video game soundtracks can you say contributed to the Disney musical canon? Ducktales is one such game, with its iconic “Moon Theme” being added to the soundtrack of the 2017 Ducktales reboot and even given lyrics.
That’s not to say that the game’s soundtrack runs on one song alone. The rest of the game’s soundtrack is also pretty good, being the work of Hiroshige Tonomura’ and Capcom’s legendary sound team.
The quality of these songs is so good that it helped inspire a generation of chiptune artists, such as Anamanaguchi, who still use the Famicom’s dated sound chip to make music.
9. Mega Man 2
While Ducktales was good, Mega Man 2’s soundtrack may be the granddaddy of all 8-bit Famicom-era soundtracks.
Once again the work of the Capcom sound team, this time under the leadership of Takashi Tateishi, the Mega Man 2 soundtrack arguably defined the sound of the whole franchise.
Beyond that, classic tunes from this game (such as Wily Stage 2) have gone on to inspire covers and memes barely related to Mega Man.
10. Super Metroid
There was bound to be one Nintendo game on this list. While it would be easy to go for the typical Marios and Zeldas, we went with the Super Metroid soundtrack.
Hirokazu Tanaka takes full advantage of the Super Famicon’s Sony sound chip here. Using moody ambient samples and atmospheric reverb to create a soundtrack that perfectly captures the feel of a lone bounty hunter on an alien planet.
What really elevates the soundtrack, however, is how Tanaka is able to use it to build tension. While the soundtrack can be quite steady for the most part, at times, Tanaka will change the tempo ever so slightly to tease the player and hint at dangers ahead.
11. Mass Effect 2
If there’s any modern game soundtrack that captures the same ambient, “spacy” feel of Super Metroid, it’s Jack Wall’s work for Mass Effect. As with the former, this makes players feel a similar sense of loneliness. To this, Wall adds heavy doses of 80s style synth, reminiscent of many action movies from the era.
While the first game had a similar sound, it was Mass Effect 2’s however that arranged it in a way that made it more palatable to a wider audience, giving listeners bigger crescendos on top of more variety.
The soundtrack ranges from low and mysterious at certain points to more bombastic “blockbuster-esque” tunes for some of the game’s bigger action sequences. In between, you have unique and sublime tunes that can gently sweep you away on stellar winds.
So there you have it, 11 game soundtracks that we feel have stuck with us long after we put our controllers (and mice and keyboards) down. Of course, this is just a tiny helping of the great video game soundtracks that have been released over the years.
That said, not everyone has the same musical taste. If you have your own soundtracks that you like, feel free to share them in the comments.