Hello dear Gamer Horizon fans! Alex here taking over for Sean for The Top 5! This week, we asked ourselves what we considered the best of the best out of all the soundtracks we’ve heard over our gaming careers. I’m just hosting this week, but here’s the rest of the Gamer Horizon crew with their top picks for their favorite video game soundtracks!
For this list, I’m goin’ old school. I don’t know what it is about old video games, but for some reason, I just appreciated the music more back then, and I never appreciated it more than during my time playing Super Nintendo games. So with all due respect to the Grand Theft Auto games and other games with licensed soundtracks and to the modern games with incredible orchestrated scores, this list is going way back, and I make no apologies.
Even still, there are dozens of games I want to include, but can’t, so in no particular order, here are some honorable mentions in the form of entire series, as opposed to individual games: Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Dragon Quest, Mega Man, Castlevania, Suikoden, Disgaea, Shin Megami Tensei, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda.
To this day, there is nothing quite like the soundtrack to Earthbound. It’s filled with unusual instruments, bizarre melodies, groovy bass lines and tons of style and imagination. My favorite track is titled, “Battle Against a Weird Opponent.” Go ahead, give it a listen, and tell me that isn’t awesome! Okay, so maybe I’m a weirdo. But what can I say? I love the Earthbound soundtrack.
Talk about setting the mood! I can’t think of any video game soundtrack that more successfully portrays the mood of a scene than that of Actraiser. From the simple, but beautiful melody that plays while tending to a growing village to the unforgettable sweeping strings played over times of difficulty, Actraiser raised the bar for video game music when it was released in 1991. The action scenes had great music as well, with music to match all of the unique themes present in each of the levels. I highly recommend the orchestrated version of this soundtrack if original sound versions aren’t your thing.
3. Secret of Mana
One of the trickiest parts of developing Super Nintendo games was dealing with the limited number of audio channels available. If your music was too complicated, tracks would have to be muted in order to allow sound effects to play over the music. That didn’t stop Hiroki Kikuta from composing one of the most interesting soundtracks in video game history for Secret of Mana! I particularly enjoyed the use of electronic drum sounds and complicated percussive rhythms on top of unique and incredibly creative themes. I still frequently listen to this soundtrack. My favorite tracks are Did You See the Sea, a track that remixes a theme used earlier in the game to add more intensity and drama, and The Second Truth from the Left, which plays during the game’s ending.
2. Final Fantasy VI
Although the entire soundtrack is excellent, Final Fantasy VI has some standout tracks that are not only musically ambitious (considering the Super Nintendo’s limited aural capabilities), but perfectly suitable to the content it was matched to. Everyone always talks about the Opera House scene, which was great of course, but I remember the pieces that played during the series of final boss fights and Kefka’s haunting theme; great stuff. Picking only one Final Fantasy title for this list was frustrating because I love several of the soundtracks including IV, VII, XIII, IX, X, XII, and even some of the earlier titles from the NES, but when it comes down to overall quality, I think Final Fantasy VI deserves the spot.
1. Chrono Cross
In terms of actually sitting around my apartment and listening to video game music, there is not a single soundtrack that I listen to more often than that of Chrono Cross. Although I could have made this list up entirely of Super Nintendo games, especially considering how fantastic the Chrono Trigger soundtrack is, I consider the Chrono Cross soundtrack to be slightly better. It has a huge variety of tracks, a standout vocal piece and plenty of themes that are memorable and creative. It helps that a few of the tracks pay homage to Chrono Trigger, which itself had fantastic themes. But the fact of the matter is I can listen to this soundtrack over and over again, enjoying it every time, and clearly remembering the great moments throughout the game—or at the very least the relevant settings. And I’ll never get sick of the incredible intro music and beautiful vocal piece that plays during the ending.
As much as I have been gaming for a really long time (30 plus years), the soundtracks pre PSOne didn’t really leave much of an impact on me. The reason for this is pretty simple. I liked the music I listened to more. Instead of listening to the midi-instrumental scores on offer with games like Final Fantasy III, I would turn the volume down, put on some Iron Maiden from my stereo and listen to that instead. It wasn’t until games started being able to incorporate voice acting, and full blown orchestral scores that I actually started to listen to the sound design and wane myself off of old habits.
With that said, here are my Top 5 soundtracks.
5. Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 3
With insane variety and use of great hip hop and rock and roll artists, Tony Hawks 3’s sound track has something for everyone. Del the Funky Homosapien, Boogie Down Production’s KRS One. The Adolescents, The Ramones and the mighty Motorhead all grace the soundtrack and my ears.
4. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Rockstar always has great sound tracks (well, mostly – I really didn’t care for the soundtrack in GTA V) and San Andreas is amongst the best. Truly capturing the essence of early 90’s hip hop, the selection on display is nigh impeccable – Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Eric B. and Rakim (whom I consider to be best MC of all-time), Big Daddy Kane, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube are amongst the greatest of all time and they are all here. Not to mention a killer selection of rock and roll as well: Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine (before Zack De La Rocha considered himself an actual MC which he isn’t), Helmet’s only good song, Alice In Chains, Living Colour and Faith no More. I could probably go on an on, but it’s late, I’m tired and you know exactly what I am talking about.
Once again, Rockstar nails it.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Yep, another Grand Theft Auto soundtrack. (SPOILER: there is one more on this list). Vice City is just about as perfect a soundtrack as I could possibly hope for being that I developed my musical taste in the 80’s and in the span of 10 years, I went from pop, to new wave, the hard rock, to metal to hardcore and about 75% of those genres are represented on this soundtrack as if plucked right out of my head and made especially for me.
Hell, the V-Rock station alone would be worth the spot on this list: Twisted Sister, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, AND Judas Priest. Then you have 80’s pop like Cory Heart’s “Sunglasses at Night,” A Flock of Seagulls “I Ran (So Far Away),” Toto’s “Africa,” and power ballads like “Sister Christian” from Night Ranger and Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” This soundtrack is everything I could possibly want in a game that takes place in the 80’s. Impeccable and essential.
2. The Last of Us
The Last of Us is pretty much the total package. From writing, to acting to graphics to sound, this game nailed every single aspect in its presentation. Not the least of which is the haunting score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Minimalistic and absolutely beautiful, it’s a damn shame that video games have yet to reach that true status in which there is industry recognition like that of motion pictures and television yet. The bar set by Santaolalla and Naughty Dog is one hell of compelling case for there to be one soon.
1. Grand Theft Auto IV
For all of the great soundtracks the GTA series has offered, IV stands head and shoulders as my favourite for one simple reason: Liberty City Hardcore. Kudos to the music people at Rockstar for not only recognizing how important New York hardcore is to the identity of New York, but for getting tracks from seminal bands like Underdog, Leeway and Maximum Penalty – from their demo no less. Hardcore music is still underground and I bet a LOT of readers probably don’t even know these bands exist, but I do, I love them and I love Rockstar for including them on this soundtrack.
Sean really likes his punk bands, so it’s no surprise that his favorite contains them. According to him, “Underdog is one of the many great, seminal New York hardcore bands found in the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack.”
5. Street Fighter 2
Each character had a theme song in Street Fighter 2, and quite frankly, some might be better than others. But the use of music and a background stage gave each character some personality in a game that had about zero story to speak of. Over time, these themes have become synonymous with the characters, and though they have been remixed to meet the changing times over the years, they help define the characters. In a game all about the roster, to have music be such an integral part of a franchise’s 25 year history puts it on this list.
4. Chrono Trigger
This game’s music is a lullaby to a generation. If you don’t remember every theme, every emotion it made you feel, you probably didn’t play it. The farther you got in the game, the more the music lost its light tones and became more heavy, ultimately coalescing, for me, in the Magic Age of 12,000 BC. This was used to great effect when the occasional light tones would return, making you get behind the basic “Good vs Evil” theme of Chrono Trigger. It’s also likely the most remixed thing of all time on OC Remixes, showing how much influence it has had over people interested in video game music.
Yasunori Mitsuda is my favorite Japanese game music composer, and for me, Xenogears was his best work for a very long time. I even bought the physical soudtrack. This game explores a lot of quasi-religious themes, with the earthbound citizens rising up against the “heavenly.” There are a variety of instruments here, but what I keep coming back to in this soundtrack is when spiritual elements clash against more earthly tones. There’s a reason this soundtrack has been remixed to bejeezus and back, and even got its own album on OC Remixes.
2. Xenoblade Chronicles
Yasunori Mitsuda’s best work WAS Xenogears until this came out for the Wii. This is the greatest RPG soundtrack of all time. Yes, better than Chrono Trigger. Go listen to the boss theme. I’ll wait.
Wasn’t that badass? Mitsuda’s motivation, to me, was a soundtrack along the lines of “Dude, let’s go mess things up.” This soundtrack gets you motivated and pumped, which helps as the game’s battle system is more active and real-time.
1. Mega Man 2
I thought, why not Super Mario or Zelda? Those soundtracks are timeless. But for me, Mega Man 2 was the most awesome use of the NES sound chip. Pretty much every single stage has memorable, hummable theme music. Let’s not forget the boss music, and one of the greatest tracks of all time, Dr. Wily’s theme. Mega Man was my favorite franchise growing up, and Mega Man 2 has the best music of the franchise. It’s simple arithmetic for me; Mega Man 2 is the greatest soundtrack of all time.
And there you have it, folks! Did we miss anything? What are YOUR top 5 video game soundtracks? Share it on the comments below and let’s talk about it!