"Top 20" is kind of misleading, because I don't even want to begin trying to rank these. But it wouldn't be very stylish to call this a "List of 20 Great Arbitrarily-Ranked Video Game Soundtracks," would it? In fact, it might not even be 20 soundtracks at all, as I'm almost certain I'll suddenly remember one or two more as soon as I post this.
The criteria for selecting these soundtracks is based primarily on how well I could remember music five, ten, fifteen years after playing the games. I looked over my shelves and collections of games just trying to see if I could remember anything about the music, and these are the 20 that I actually have lasting memories of. And that, I feel, is perhaps more important than a soundtrack's technical merits.
Continue reading the full article for my pick of top 20 video game soundtracks, complete with four embedded tracks from each of the games. Can you guess which games and songs will be featured?
Of course, the classic Doom. The score, composed by Robert Prince, is well known to gamers. There's really not much to say about this one; if you've played Doom then these tunes will all be instantly recognizable to you. On a related note, if you're looking for a fun new way to experience the original soundtrack, you might check out The Dark Side of Phobos, an OCRemix album featuring contemporary remixes of the original soundtrack, or Sonic Clang's Doom Soundtrack.
#2. Illusion of Gaia
This Super Nintendo game was kind of over-shadowed by Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and Zelda: A Link to the Past, but it was not without its own charm. The music is, I suppose, what you'd expect from a Japanese A/RPG, and it might not really be all that great or special, but its music is integral to establishing the tone and mood of each unique place you visit. I can't listen to these songs without visualizing the game; everything comes to life again.
#3. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
One of the greatest RPGs of all time, this vampire game is dark and moody. The whole game takes place at night with you creeping through dark alleys, seedy night clubs, through sewers, and even into haunted mansions. The soundtrack for VTMB is more ambient, not very melodious, but its industrial/grunge tracks are perfectly atmospheric for the dark, gothic mood of the game, even featuring some well-placed licensed music and entertaining radio loops throughout.
#4. Gothic 3
Despite the many bugs and problems with Gothic 3 on release, the one thing that critics were unable to pan was the orchestral soundtrack by Kai Rosenkranz. Continuing his work from the previous two games, Gothic 3's soundtrack is a pure delight to listen to and accents the whimsical, fantasy elements of the game with perfection, while also setting the tone for more dramatic, emotional moments. Exploring the game's vast world is always pleasing because of this backing music.
#5. Portal 2
What is there to say about Portal 2? The soundtrack by Mike Morasky is all kinds of things. It's mostly a bunch of ambient techno and synth riffs that aren't especially noticeable as overt music, but they fit the tone and atmosphere of the game extremely well. Parts are genuinely haunting and others are up-beat and thrilling, all sounding appropriate for the computer-controlled testing facility. Also of interest are Jonathan Coulter's Want You Gone and The National's Exile Vilify.
This recent indie hit from Super Giant Games sports a fantastic soundtrack by Darren Korb that really brings the game's setting to life. A lot of the tunes have a rugged "wild west" feel, complimenting the game's literal "frontier setting." Other tunes are slow and mysterious, fitting of the somber tone as you explore the ravaged remains of civilization. The music is great in the context of the game, but it's the kind of soundtrack that you can listen to by itself and still enjoy every moment of it.
#7. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
I don't even need to say anything about this one, do I? You knew it would be somewhere on the list. We all remember every single song from Ocarina of Time, including the button combinations to play them on the ocarina. The music is an integral part of the experience, with each piece perfectly capturing the mood of every place you go. Just listening to the soundtrack makes me want to go back and play the game again, which only goes to show you how compelling the music really is.
#8. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
This 2001 steampunk role-playing game by Troika Games was pretty unique. Not a lot of games go for Steampunk, and most of the ones that do aren't very remarkable, but Arcanum is pure, undiluted steampunk at its very finest. In a world founded on magic, with technology rising to the foreground, contending to leave magic a relic of the past, this soundtrack is a brilliant mix of string harmonies that really sets the tone for this unique adventure.
Deus Ex is a classic, one of those games that defies genres and that no other game can come close to replicating. With Human Revolution now out, it's especially topical to go back and take a look at the game that started it all. The music of Deus Ex is extremely memorable---listen to some of these tracks and I'm sure you'll be able to hum along with them. If nothing else, the music is a large part of what helps create the cyberpunk "feel" of the game's rich atmosphere.
#10. Chrono Trigger
A classic Super Nintendo role-playing game that needs no introduction, the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger is great for "active listening" even without the context of the game. So many of the songs are full of pure, sweet, epic awesomeness, with many of them embodying entire themes, characters, or sections of the game, all on their own. There are just so many great songs here that it's hard for me to even narrow it down to four. So here are some of my personal favorites:
#11. Super Mario 64
Here's another one of those timeless classics that I don't really even need to bother setting up. Super Mario 64 is a fond childhood memory for many of us, evoking strong feelings of nostalgia whenever we get a chance to see, play, or hear it again. The songs are all just so playful and fun to listen to, perfectly representing the worlds within the paintings; just listening to the music is enough to bring you back inside of them. Some of them are so much fun that I actually play them on guitar.
#12. Metroid Prime
Metroid Prime was an effing awesome game, faithfully recreating the excellence of Super Metroid in an immersing, 3D world for the first time ever. And by golly did it work. The soundtrack has a lot of great, atmospheric songs that play a major role in establishing the distinctness of each of Tallon IV's unique areas. Not only does the music provide pleasing background ambiance for your exploration, but it does a great job of making you feel all alone on a desolate world.
#13. Silent Hill 2
As a psychological survival-horror game, Silent Hill 2 is all about pacing and steady tension. The soundtrack, composed by Akira Yamaoka, hangs in the background for the most part, establishing a thick layer to the atmosphere, haunting you with its brooding melodies and chilling harmonies. The music is melancholy and unsettling with a bunch of ambient sound effects thrown into the mix, just to keep you on your toes. Here are some of the more prominent, emotional songs:
#14. Katamari Damacy
Katamari Damacy is one bizarre concept of a game; you play as the Prince, sent to Earth by the King of All Cosmos to roll up everything in sight with katamari. You start out small, picking up paper clips and thumb tacks, rolling things over until you're eventually rolling up entire cities. The soundtrack matches the wildly bizarre premise of the game and comes off as very creative and imaginative. The charming jazz, lounge, pop, and big band tunes make a mundane task fun and exciting.
#15. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is the definition of "epic." No other game comes close to this game's scale. And it's not just the size of the colossi, it's the entire presentation of the game, which comes complete with an epic soundtrack to match. The music's everything it needs to be; calm, tranquil, vast, grandiose, majestic, tense, heart-pounding, hopeful, sad. Climbing onto these giants and bringing them down wouldn't be nearly as exciting without this perfect orchestral score behind you.
#16. Skies of Arcadia
Originally released for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, it was eventually re-released on the GameCube in 2002 as Skies of Arcadia: Legends. This pirate-themed game (where pirates roam the high skies in airships) featured some great orchestral arrangements that really fit the pirates (in the sky!) theme. Not every track is as somber as these---there are some great, uplifting ones as well---but these are the ones that I remember most and which, I feel, have good lasting salience.
#17. Star Fox Adventures
Adventures is certainly the black sheep of the Star Fox family. It's more like a Zelda game from some aborted dinosaur project than a Star Fox game. Say what you will, but Adventures has a very pleasing soundtrack that fits the atmosphere of the game. A lot of its tracks feature marimbas and tribal drums with soft, melodious pan flutes, even a couple of choral chants. It's a very earthy sound that you don't often hear in games, and it works very will with Adventures.
#18. Final Fantasy VII
Here's the other one you knew would be somewhere on the list. It's almost here by simple obligation. This is an unusual pick for me, because I've never actually finished FFVII because I just don't like it. And yet, here its soundtrack sits, because the soundtrack is really quite good, and even though I never finished the game and don't like it very much, the music still conjures images and fond memories of certain parts. Which only goes to show how powerful its music is.
#19. Perfect Dark``
Perfect Dark is one of the greatest FPSs ever. It was years ahead of its time, with a deep single-player campaign with tons of replayability and a multi-player scene that is almost unmatched, even today. The game was simply a masterpiece, and its sci-fi, corporate espionage theme gave it a unique, memorable flavor. And the soundtrack is essential in creating that sci-fi espionage feeling. I can't listen to these songs without thinking about spy fiction, or that unique "Perfect Dark" feel.
#20. The Bard's Tale
The Bard's Tale is not a particularly good game. It's boring, monotonous, and repetitive, without a whole lot of depth or compelling mechanics. But its sense of humor was enough to carry me through it, with the Bard and the narrator poking fun at fantasy-RPG tropes at every turn. The soundtrack features several fun, amusing songs, including a great bar song about beer, and several oompa-loompa style prophet songs. They're all just so fun and tongue-in-cheek.
Before anyone rages about how some random internet blogger with no authority could omit their favorite game's soundtrack, consider that this list only consists of games that I've actually played; it's in no way ultimate or inclusive. And the numbers are mostly arbitrary, being ranked #5 doesn't make one game's soundtrack any better than being ranked #10. They're just there to prove that I actually picked 20 games. Also bear in mind that the criteria for these selections is mostly how memorable they are; a lot of games have great soundtracks but impart no lasting impressions beyond the game itself.
If I think of any more exceptional soundtracks (I'm sure there are some good ones that have slipped my mind), I can add amendments to the list. Likewise, if anyone has suggestions I'd be happy to hear them and consider adding them in.