Since the very dawn of the video game industry, music has been a vital component to games, helping shape the experience for the player. The boom of the 8-bit era in the mid-80’s saw video games utilise music to elevate gaming to the next level, resulting in a fledging video game scoring industry blossoming within the ever evolving video game industry.
Each and every gamer out there will have their favourite soundtracks; tracks that immediately illuminate their nostalgia for beloved experiences gone by. There is an argument for literally thousands of soundtracks to be considered amongst the greatest of all time, depending on your taste.
For us at That’s Not Current, it’s an aspect of gaming we feel deserves a lot more attention drawn to it. While we all have our favourite artists and albums, how many video game composers can you name? The folk that pour their creative heart and soul into a project to enrich the experience for the consumer deserve way more love.
So what better way to get the ball rolling on such a debate with a list of 10 truly iconic games where the soundtrack is part of it’s allure. All originals — ruling out the licensed soundtracks such as GTA series, Tony Hawks 2, etc — and all utterly spellbinding.
In order of release date….
Super Mario Bros, Koji Kondo (NES, 1985)
Your already humming the tune in your head, aren’t you?
When talking about iconic soundtracks, it would be impossible to ignore one of the single most important soundtracks in video game history. Well over 30 years old now, this was the first game where the soundtrack was a truly integral part of the gaming experience, with the music changing depending on whether you were above ground, below, or in water. Koji Kondo is rightfully regarded as a master of his trade, and has gone on to have an insanely influential career scoring some truly spellbinding games from Nintendo’s most celebrated IP’s, including many more Mario games, Mario Kart and Zelda games. While you could argue that Super Mario Bros. doesn’t stand up as well today its sequels, and the score is very repetitious by today’s standards, in 1985 it was a revolution that paved the way for everything that followed.
Street Fighter II, Yoko Shimomura & Isao Abe (Arcade/SNES, 1991/92)
Where Super Mario set the mould, Street Fighter II took it to the next level. Once again, each of the stage’s classic tracks can immediately transport you back to an arcade or to your SNES days. Each track encompasses music relevant to the character’s home country, adding greatly to the overall depth of each character. Despite limited by the 16-bit system which is dated by today’s standards, the soundtrack still sounds excellent more than a quarter of a century later.
Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2, Masato Nakamura (Mega Drive/Genesis 1991-2)
It’s difficult to separate between the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games; both are truly iconic. Composer Masato Nakamura was a successful musician and producer with popular J-Pop band Dream Come True when he was approached by Sega to provide the score to their mascot’s debut series. The electro-pop score he delivered added so many layers to each level that it arguably helped elevate the game from a standard platform game into the iconic behemoth it’s fondly remembered as. Within six months of the release of Sonic the Hedgehog he was back in the studio to score the sequel game, which is arguably even better. For many millennials, the Sonic score was the soundtrack to their youth.
Wipeout, CoLD StoRAGE (PlayStation/Saturn/Windows, 1995)
This is a little bit of a controversial entry, as there were later versions of the futuristic racer released on PlayStation featuring tracks from established artists such as Orbital, The Prodigy and Leftfield. However, when you talk about iconic video game soundtracks this is always one of the go tos. Welsh composer Tim Wright (aka CoLD SToRAGE) — who was also behind iconic soundtracks for the Lemmings series and Shadow of the Beast — originally created a Hard House/Electro hybrid score for the 32b-bit Psygnosis game. You will struggle to find a better example of a soundtrack elevating a game to something more than what it is. Whether the music is to your taste or not, it works superbly as a soundtrack for the future setting of the game, with an adrenaline-pumping beat that makes the game much more exhilarating. Simply put, without the soundtrack, Wipeout would not have been a success. So iconic was the soundtrack, it was one of the first games to commercially release it, but tragically cut many of the CoLD SToRAGE tracks. Another revolution was how many CD players would play the game disc’s audio tracks.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Frank Kelpacki (1996)
It was a tough choice selecting between the original Command & Conquer and the Red Alert spin-off from Westwood Studios. In the end, it was Hell March (below) that swung it in favour of the latter. But both are truly outstanding scores. Composer Frank Klepacki perfectly sets the tone for the struggle between the Allied Forces and the Soviet State with a hybrid of industrial rock and electro — that Klepacki himself calls “rocktronic”. The tracks are bursting with tension and adrenaline that perfectly frames the feel of the alternative global war being played out onscreen. Joining Westwood in 1991 at the age of 17, Klepacki was only 21 years old when he created such a timeless and iconic score, becoming interwoven to the fabric of the Command & Conquer series by composing the score to a total of 14 of the 18 games. A “mechanical man” indeed.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Koji Kondo (N64, 1998)
The second time we have had Mr. Super Mario, Koji Kondo, on our list with this fifth entry in the Zelda series, and the fourth time where Kondo oversaw the score. Now, as franchises go, Zelda is very much “up there” as the greatest of all time for its enchanting soundtracks — as well as being one of the most acclaimed game series — so any one of the games could be presented as an example of the audio perfection. While A Link to the Past was way ahead of its time, especially for a 16-bit entry, it would be unjust to not regard Ocarina of Time as the pick of this damn fine bunch. With a whole element of the game revolving around playing music on the aforementioned Ocarina, the score for this game is simply perfect. It works as a narrative to the game, controlling the emotion and suspense of each and every scene with unparalleled refinement, always there but never intrusive. To sell just how powerful it is, play the game muted and you will immediately notice just how flat it feels.
Final Fantasy X, Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu & Junya Nakano (PS2, 2001)
Similar to Zelda, it’s a case of take your pick with Square Enix’s RPG fantasy series. Many will opt for the iconic FFVII, while the less well-regarded FFVIII does have a mesmerising score. This could quite easily have been an article waxing lyrical about Final Fantasy soundtracks as they are collectively that impressive. However, when talking about video games as art, including the music, then it’s hard to look beyond FFX. Nobuo Uematsu was solely responsible for every Final Fantasy soundtrack prior to FFX, but given the increase in scope of the game over previous incarnations, the producers hired Hamauzu and Nakano as two distinctly different composers to give greater variation to the fantasy world of Spira. Pulling in influences from classical music, J-Pop and western artists like Elton John and Paul McCartney, the soundtrack alone was a wonderful concept d-iven journey into Spira. More than 15 years later, it is still a stunning piece of work and no question it made an excellent game more magical.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Jeremy Soule (Windows/XBox, 2002)
Another series of games that is blessed with a rich tradition of engrossing music. Described as the “John Williams of video game music”, Jeremy Soule’s list of credits reads like a greatest hits of video games. Total Annihilation, Neverwinter Nights, Dungeon Siege, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Prey to name but a few. Yet it’s hard to deny his magnum opus has been his work on the Elder Scrolls franchise. Oblivion‘s score is outrageously brilliant, while Skyrim saw Soule invent a whole new language called Draconic for the lyrics. However, it all started with Morrowind and while many will argue the scores for the two later titles are more spellbinding, this set the tone. More than 15 years ago Soule gave this Bethesda game the Hollywood treatment, devising an audio backdrop that was reminiscent of Howard Shore’s work on the Lord of the Rings films that were around at the same time. It carried an aura that helped transport the player to the fantasy setting of Morrowind. All this time later, Morrowind is still a beacon of what is possible with video game composing and it easily embarrasses many of today’s AAA titles. With such ambience, depth and power, it is the definition of an iconic soundtrack from and iconic game.
Mass Effect 2, Jack Wall (Xbox 360/PS3/Windows, 2010)
More and more, video games are blurring the lines between traditional computer games and fully-immersive, interactive entertainment experiences. Development of video games are regularly productions so large they rival the best of what film can offer, and with this comes new horizons and new benchmarks in soundtracks. Nowhere is this evolution more prevalent than with Mass Effect series. Where the first set a precedent, the middle chapter of the trilogy redefined what is possible. Mass Effect is a space opera on a massive scale, and while the lore and visuals present the world, the soundtrack makes it real. Throughout the game the score controls the pace and tone of what is unfolding in front of you. With influence drawn from multiple sci-fi films, such as Blade Runner, Jack Wall has created a futuristic orchestral delight and its influence on the experience cannot be understated. When talking about the whole package in video games as an alternative to film, Mass Effect 2 absolutely knocks it out the park. All components come together seamlessly to provide a masterclass in video game story telling — and it would be impossible without such a stellar soundtrack.
Hollywood take note – video games can do it better.
Bastion, Darren Kobb (Xbox 360/Xbox One/PS3/PS4/PS Vita/Windows/Mac, 2011)
The most recent entry on our list, this stunningly beautiful independent action RPG has brought a whole new element to video game composition. While traditional scoring of any media is normally done post-development of the game, with Bastion it was a simultaneous development. As is tradition, the gameplay and art dictated an element of Darren Kobb’s score, but he also created music that was then used to inspire gameplay and art development. Just like the music video 30 years earlier, Kobb viewed Bastion as a platform to showcase his creativity while developers Supergiant Games provided him with the freedom and scope to do so. The end result is a perfect marriage of of two art forms where neither takes precedent over the other. It is a video game you can stick on an just listen too. Kobb could have released this as an album and it would have been very well received. However, in presenting it as the heartbeat to a video game, both he and the developers achieved something that, as whole, is simply a wondrous work of art.