Nothing makes a game more enjoyable than its soundtrack. You can have all the killer gameplay you want, it could be one of the funnest things to physically play ever; but it’d all be entirely lifeless if it wasn’t for some exemplary sound design.
A soundtrack is what brings the game to life and fills it with memories, it’s also what separates an average game from a great game. You won’t see any must-play titles having lacklustre soundtracks, it’s all integral to the experience.
So, without further ado, here are my top 10 video game soundtracks – and I can promise you that it’s not just your generic list of games you see on everybody else’s top 10.
While the WipEout soundtrack may just be a set of licensed tracks, the team at the now closed Studio Liverpool knew how to pick ‘em. Taking some of the best electronic and dance artists, WipEout seems to always have the heavy hitters of the next few years well before they’re heard in clubs and bars.
But that’s not what makes it so special. HD/Fury’s soundtrack isn’t even necessarily the best of the bunch, but the way in which is uses sound sets it apart from any other racing game.
This isn’t just a soundtrack, it’s an audio cue for when you’re low on health as the music dulls and becomes distant and somewhat broken. When you activate a shield the music envelops you, echoing inside the protective bubble. Hitting a boost pad or using a turbo boost sends the soundtrack roaring into a loud frenzy. It just adds a wonderful tactile element to races all through the power of sound.
Bethesda could have taken the easy route with Fallout 3’s soundtrack, after all, a nuclear wasteland isn’t exactly going to be the noisiest or cheeriest of places. While there’s still an option to play in eerie silence, thankfully Bethesda decided that jazzing the place up with the aid of your wrist-mounted radio is probably a good idea.
Nothing quite summed up the destruction of humanity better than the juxtaposition between the bleak environment of the Washington DC wasteland and the music left over from a forgotten time. The 1940s to ‘50s music found on the radio was brilliant and those moments where a floating Enclave radio head would wonder by breathed the familiarity of the propaganda-ridden world that existed during the Cold War into this new terrain.
The tracks may have been licensed music rather than original works, but that’s really what helped ground everything and inject a bleak, dark, humour into the environment around you.
Persona 4 Golden
This may seem like another odd choice for those who aren’t accustomed to the musical brilliance that is Persona 4 or it’s handheld companion Persona 4 Golden. But while it may not be the most widely shared JRPG in the world – which it totally deserves to be – it’s soundtrack is a work of musical genius from Sh?ji Meguro and Shihoko Hirata’s vocals are both haunting and beautiful in equal measure. I’m usually not a fan of soundtracks with vocalists either, but it just works here.
There’s an eclectic mix of music here too, with jazzy numbers, heavier and faster rock along with jaunty numbers for the more light-hearted moments. While it doesn’t have the sheer amount of music that a Final Fantasy game tends to have, it reuses pieces in familiar situations. This means that you’ll always associate a certain piece to meeting with friends, investigating the TV world, partaking in a battle etc.
It’s powerful stuff too as you mindset changes from dungeon crawling and boss fights to relaxing and enforcing social links almost at the flip of a musical switch.
What’s that? Not Ocarina of Time! You’re damn right it’s not. Not because OoT isn’t fantastic musically – it is – but because Wind Waker is so damn unappreciated for a game that, like OoT revolved around making music. While its magical songs aren’t as memorable as Link’s ocarina-powered outing, the music of the world around him is.
The great sea is huge and quite the body of water to navigate across and through, so it’s understandable that any voyage out there on the King of Red Lions is a bold adventure that needs a fittingly bold score. You’ve got the Spanish guitar and Peruvian pan flutes of Dragon Roost Island that set you up perfectly for adventure; the jaunty and idiosyncratic sounds of Windfall Island that, while happy, seem to be hiding something darker underneath; and the safe haven of Outset Island is both warming and enchanting, encouraging safe exploration. It’s also got a darker side with dungeons that really sound empty, expansive and like they’ve been abandoned for years.
It’s a shame that, for something so fantastic, people don’t remember or appreciate the wonders of Wind Waker’s soundtrack more.
It had to be in here really, didn’t it? Bethesda know how to make a game soundtrack. Skyrim may riff off previous The Elder Scrolls game soundtracks – especially with that iconic main theme spruced up with some chanting and strings – but to say it’s nothing more than an adaptation of Morrowind or Oblivion is to do it much disservice.
Exploring the land of Skyrim is beautiful and the ambient music that accompanies it is fantastic, but the dynamic flashes of music as it weaves its way into the current score is brilliant. It signifies points of interest, potential threats and – alongside a dragon’s roar – can put you on edge near instantly.
This isn’t just a wonderful world to explore on foot, it’s also a soundscape you want to envelop yourself within.
To put it bluntly, FEZ is almost nothing without its soundtrack by Disasterpiece. It’s a sonic soundscape that taps directly into the world of trixels that make up Phil Fish’s incredible adventure/puzzle game. It’s also just as fantastically cryptic too as each sound file contains hidden images, clues and even a QR code.
That aside, Disasterpiece’s album is musically accomplished, creating ambient soundscapes that accentuate the gameplay and pull you into the moment. It’s never intrusive, allowing you to hear the gentle sounds of waves, birds and the wind while exploring. It’s hard to explain just what makes it so special without going into full music analysis mode – something that I really don’t know enough about to even try and blag. But each note, beat and chirp feels as well realised and considered as each trixel placed within FEZ’s world.
Final Fantasy VII
While many hold Final Fantasy X as Nobuo Uematsu’s finest Final Fantasy soundtrack, it’ll always be Final Fantasy VII for me.
Putting aside my nostalgia for this PlayStation adventure, its soundtrack is a marvel for a 1997 RPG. The polyphonic tones managed to intimately weave in orchestral movements without losing their impact. It’s quite possibly Uematsu’s most ambitious work within the confines of the technology offered to him.
While it has its iconic pieces like ‘Flowers Blooming in the Church’ (more commonly known as Aries Thme) and ‘One Winged Angel’, Uematsu’s real genius is found in the tracks that imbue life into the towns, villages and cities you visit on your journey. It’s the tracks that could well have just been throwaway pieces of music. It’s the tracks that turn Final Fantasy VII from another Final Fantasy game into an absolute masterpiece.
The Last of Us
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has certainly gained a lot of attention since its release. Its gameplay may have left little to be desired by some, but it was undeniable just how fantastic its story was. However, it seems that far too many have overlooked one of its best aspects: the soundtrack.
Composed by the wonderful Gustavo Santaolalla, its soft plucking of strings and tinkling of piano pulls at your heartstrings as scenes swell with emotion. It’s true test of a fantastic soundtrack is that you don’t ever take it in while playing, yet hearing each track independent from The Last of Us only brings to mind memories of Joel and Ellie’s journey.
It’s a must listen https://soundcloud.com/sony-soundtracks/sets/the-last-of-us
Jet Set Radio Future
This is quite the controversial choice given the fact that the Dreamcast original, Jet Set Radio seems to be a more popular game out of the two. However, I believe that Jet Set Radio Future is not only a better game than it’s predecessor, it also has a stronger soundtrack.
I’m such a heathen, but I’m not sorry.
While JSR was an eclectic mix of music, mostly Japanese dance, rock and acid jazz, Jet Set Radio Future pushed the bar by adding in even more artists – including Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, Scapegoat Wax and The Latch Brothers – and giving old songs a remix to breath new life into them. It matches perfectly with the refined gameplay found within Future and Hideki Naganuma’s contributions are better than ever.
So, how has this made number one over everything else? Well, partly due to preference, but also because – like it’s counterpart FEZ – it dares to be different.
For a game that harks back to the retro aesthetics of ‘80s gaming, juxtaposed against the hyper-violence that ventures into the realms of Manhunt at times, its soundtrack completes the package.
Combining some of the best indie electronica musicians around, Hotline Miami creates a soundscape that’s akin to the hazy drug-fuelled murder romp you undertake. It’s enough to drive some people mad if they were trapped in a room listening to it, but to others it’s a perfect slice of sound. And that’s the beauty of it. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it taps directly into the essence of what Hotline Miami is about, and that’s just sublime sound work, especially given it’s not full of bespoke tracks.