Find out what tunes elevated our favourite games…
The stigma that video games aren’t a legitimate form of art is, fortunately, fading more and more with every year.
How could it not?
Video games consist of countless forms of objective works of art, from the visual, to the auditory, to even the tactile with the advent of haptic feedback. From the smallest indie darling to a Triple-A juggernaut, none would exist without a team of artists.
While we’ll definitely cover other aspects of this in future, for now we’re going to look at the soundtracks that elevate our favourite gaming experiences. Whether they be an original score or a curated playlist of popular music, it’s often these that stick in the memory the longest (even now Goldfinger’s Superman makes me want to pull off a sick kickflip).
So sit back, let the needle drop on the proverbial spinning record and reminisce with us as we run down some of the best video game soundtracks of all time…
Super Castlevania IV – Tom
The 16-bit era of gaming gave us some of the most iconic soundtracks of all time. As I write this, I’m listening to a playlist of F-Zero and Altered Beast, two games of varying quality, but with undeniably catchy tunes.
But of this prestigious bunch, none have stuck with me quite like the atmospheric score of Super Castlevania IV for the SNES. A game so good it effectively launched a new genre of gaming, it sees you take the role of Simon Belmont, on a quest to slay big daddy Dracula. It’s a title I often still dip into from time to time, and a large part of that allure to revisit it is the promise of sonorous pleasure.
Composed by Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo, the soundtrack manages to capture the feeling of being in a classic Hammer Horror flick, while also getting you amped enough to slay all manner of gothic beasties.
You needn’t look any further than the opening track, Simon’s Theme, to get a feel for this. Balancing spooky organs with a bass line so groovy it’d put Flea to shame, it’s everything a 90’s horror game should be: campy, creepy and oh so very fun.
Final Fantasy X – Drew
I could’ve said any Final Fantasy game here and earned a respectful nod from you. I appreciate FFVII’s One Winged Angel and the battle theme from FFIV as much as the next Scott Pilgrim, but this was only the second Final Fantasy game I ever played – a cosmic leap from FFIV on my old Gameboy Advance SP. That, added to the fact that it’s a ruddy good JRPG, means that it left an indelible mark on young Drew’s consciousness. If I were trying to impress you I’d say The Last Of Us; if I were telling the truth, I’d say FFX.
Regular series composer Nobuo Uematsu returned to construct this masterpiece alongside Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, and you can hear all the same influences that drove earlier entries – pop, metal, traditional Japanese and European classical music. The different composers and wide-reaching influences add a real diversity to the mix that helps to separate parts of the game geographically and tonally.
Diversity is the key word here because there’s oodles of variety to be found. Alongside the usual looping action-style music are some beautiful orchestral pieces and some minimalistic ambient constructions you’re more likely to find on a lofi hip hop study beats stream nowadays. FFX is an absolutely scathing criticism of organised religion, and the overall baddies turn out to be the Catholic Church (not really, but also yes really), so the soundtrack contains a number of amazing choral pieces that fill you first with awe, and then eventually dread.
As for particular highlights, I’m not exaggerating when I say that Fight With Seymour very nearly puts Megalovania to shame as the coolest, funkiest, diddliest boss battle music in gaming. It’s unfortunately overshadowed within the game by Otherworld, a simple, punchy death metal song that plays over the first FMV cutscene and the final proper boss of the game.
All of that pales to the simple beauty of To Zanarkand. A terribly sad yet peaceful piano solo that plays over the very first scene of the game, it functioned as a mission statement for the story to come – this was an adventure for sure but, first and foremost, it was a tragedy. It spoke to people so much that later entries like FFXIII’s The Promise, and even Dearly Beloved in Kingdom Hearts would imitate this mournful tune.
FFX managed to leave a legacy worldwide that rivalled FFVII’s – no small feat – and the soundtrack is one of many aspects that made it one of the greatest games ever made, and my personal favourite in the series. But if you play the Trials anywhere near me, you’re fixin’ to get cut.
Katamari Damacy – Craig
Since Dobbie stole my pick, let me enlighten you with a game called Katamari Damacy.
Originally released 2004 for the PlayStation 2, you play a character called the Prince trying to restore peace to the cosmos, which was inadvertently destroyed by his father, the King of All Cosmos
The game is uniquely Japanese; it’s gameplay sees you rolling a ball around, picking up items and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Game director Keita Takahashi came from an artistic background, and his influence here means the visuals still hold up over 15 years later. Not bad for a PS2 game.
But aside from its gameplay concept, what really helps set it apart from other titles is its soundtrack. Receiving multiple awards (from IGN and GameSpot), the music in Katamari Damacy (and the series it started) are hard to describe at first. There’s jazz elements, but they aren’t jazz. There’s electronic beats and tones similar to that of a NES game, but it’s not a typical video game affair. And on top of all that, sprinkle in some samba influences too. By the end of the game, you come to realise all these elements just work and compliment the colourful world perfectly.
The soundtracks for this game series have made it into music charts MULTIPLE times and that is not just by luck. It will be the most unique music on this list and despite the fact most of the lyrics are in Japanese you will definitely be singing along by the end.
Honourable Mentions: Nier Automata, Burnout 3 (Revenge & Paradise), Tony Hawk 1+2 and WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2007
Persona 4 – Neale
It’s tough to pick which is the best of the big three Persona titles. Persona 3, 4 and 5 each boast incredible soundtracks – I think even people that’ve never experienced a Persona title first hand would find it hard to argue that fact. But if I had to go out of my way and pick a single soundtrack of the three that stuck with me the most, I’d have to pick Persona 4.
Generally speaking, the soundtracks of the mainline Persona titles do offer something different compared to most video game OSTs, and that is (though I do feel very silly adding this) singing. In fact, speaking from the hip, most non-diegetic soundtracks in games that contain lyrics tend to be Japanese, and I’m not entirely sure why that is! (I’d love to see examples of Western titles with soundtracks that have singing that isn’t a licensed song or attached to the gameplay in some manner, so if you can think of any please let me know!)
Maybe it’s the fact that I spent a long summer playing Persona 4 Golden on the Vita years ago, or maybe it’s just because it was the first Persona title to really get me invested, but it’s a soundtrack that I’m constantly reminded of. Shoji Meguro did a fantastic job of composing songs that emotionally connect you to the world, utilising a multitude of genres, ranging from orchestral pieces, to hard rock anthems, and even pop ballads. Credit to Meguro where it’s due, I think it takes a lot of work to create a battle theme that doesn’t become stale after 90 hours of gameplay (which he’s managed in virtually every Persona title).
Shadow World, The Battle for Everyone’s Souls, Reach Out To The Truth, Specialist, Heartbreak, Heartbreak, Time To Make History, Backside of the TV, The Junes Theme; these are all songs I can remember off the top of my head after nearly a decade of having not played the game, and my memory is shockingly bad. Meguro’s ability to create memorable jingles and motifs has put him up as one of the top composers in the industry right now, and it’s always exciting to see his name attached to a new project.
To any Persona 5 fans that haven’t given the older games a try yet, I implore you to dive into Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden for their incredibly diverse soundtracks. I don’t want to be that guy but people have been giving some of you guys weird looks for saying “this song gives me Persona 5 vibes”. I don’t want you to be painted with that brush. It’s all jazz.
I think the thing that really proves how good these soundtracks are though, is that Atlus made entire rhythm games devoted solely to their music, the caveat being the storylines that just aren’t worth me even making jokes about. Talk about ways to make an easy buck out of your audience!
It was very, very hard to pick a single soundtrack to write about, so I’m just going to list some of the best ones I also wanted to mention but wouldn’t have been able to fit on one page, that also haven’t been mentioned above, in no particular order:
Final Fantasy IX, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Nier Replicant & Automata, Devil May Cry 3, Animal Crossing (series), The World Ends With You, Capsule Silence XXIV, VA-11-Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, Bayonetta, Amplitude (2016), Parappa the Rapper, The Legend of Zelda (series), Pikmin (series), there’s just too many to mention, this sucks.
The Best of the Rest – Dobbie
I’ve opted to write about a selection of different games and their soundtracks here in bitesize chunks rather than focus on a single one, because truthfully the more I thought about the topic, I came to realise just how important and ingrained deep within my psyche some of these soundtracks are. A great game can fall flat without a great soundtrack and, equally, a great soundtrack can really elevate something that’s quite average. In some cases, a great soundtrack can even change your life (stick with me on it, I’m not just being a profound prick).
First up, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. This game is incredible on its own, breathtaking scenery, horrifying monster encounters and a world that genuinely feels like it lives and breathes even before you set foot in it as Geralt of Rivia. Describing the soundtrack to this game is a massive feat that I can’t even begin to do here (even if I had a whole article, I daresay), but suffice to say it is genuine art placed on top of a game that is already a masterpiece. The music that scores the scene even when you’re doing something as humble as playing a game of Gwent thumps way harder than it has any right to. If you’re heading off for a walk around a forest or wooded area in the real world, this soundtrack can make it feel like a true adventure.
In a similar vein, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game I’d feel guilty for not including. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve put into Skyrim across who knows how many playthroughs at this point, but I can promise you it would only be half as wonderful without a lot of the incidental music that plays as you travel the roads and paths between cities. To this day, I can still feel myself getting pumped up whenever Dragonborn begins to play on the game’s opening menu.
If we’d put together this list without including Doom (2016), we’d be hacks with no credibility. Whether you’re a metal fan or not, no one can deny that destroying the demonic hordes of Hell is perfectly soundtracked by roaring guitars and drums being smacked so fast that even Doomguy would struggle to keep up with them. In Doom Eternal especially, the gameplay becomes far more rhythmic at times, and synchronising multiple glory kills with whatever track is currently playing just feels divine.
A truly nostalgic choice here, but it’s also undeniable that the music in the original Spyro trilogy was exceptional. Composed by Stewart Copeland of rock band The Police, for my taste at least it’s the best music that any member of The Police has contributed to (sorry Sting!). Each of the many worlds across these games is captured perfectly within the soundtracks, there is not a single note that goes amiss. In fact, I think the music in these games is what truly made them great, providing the true feel for worlds that would perhaps falter slightly were it not for the tone being set out by what was being played.
My final choice is perhaps a bit of a cop-out, but someone’s gotta do it. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was the first game in the series I played and, while I’ve played most of them since (and most of the Rock Band series too), I think it was this game that truly nailed the setlist. Arriving in late 2007 just as my music taste was really starting to take shape, this game is responsible for introducing me to some of my favourite bands. The Smashing Pumpkins, Queens of the Stone Age, Aerosmith, Metallica, Pearl Jam and many more – all bands I’d heard of and perhaps already knew a song or two by, but it was truly getting to know this setlist front and back that propelled me forward to exploring them and, effectively, shaping myself into the man I would become. A cop-out maybe, but arguably the game soundtrack that influenced my life the most.
While you’re here, please subscribe to Upside Down Shark on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts!