Top Ten Tuesday 12

My Top Ten Video Game Composers

Disclaimer: There are many top ten lists, but this one is mine. If you think a game is missing here, I either didn't play it, didn't have any interest in it, or I just hate you.


Pre-List Notes

I love music and I love video games and I really really love video game music. I've had an ongoing VGM mix playlist on my ipod for over a decade; it currently consists of 8 hours of original tracks, remixes, arrangements, and compilations of dozens of different games and series - and those are just my favorites. Video game music has come a long way since the bleeps and boops and now classic chiptunes of the 80s and early 90s into full blown big budget orchestral soundtracks that rival most Hollywood productions.

While I plan on doing future lists of my favorite soundtracks and individual songs, I decided to start with a slightly easier, but no less important list - that of my Top Ten Video Game Composers. Like any successful medium, video game music would be nothing without the talented men and women behind it.


Top Ten Video Game Composers


10) Inon Zur

While having a supremely awesome name, Zur began his career composing for movies and television scoring some dubious titles like Power Rangers but nonetheless winning accolades. He seemed to really hit his stride when he transitioned to video games working with big budget RPG studios like Bethesda and Bioware. While I wouldn't claim that any of the games he worked on were particularly known for their music, that's more a testament to the richness of the game and the way in which the music seamlessly adds to the immersion.

Notable Games: Baldurs Gate II, Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins


9) Ben Prunty

A young up and coming composer that I hope to hear much more of, and if his work on the amazing FTL is any indication, deserves to have a prolific career. The very low budget but successful Kickstarter project brought on Prunty to create an immersive soundtrack that would reflect the vastness and dangers of space. In doing so, Prunty created two versions of each level, essentially a wondrous Explore track and an ominous Battle track, so the two could seamlessly blend whenever danger struck. FTL is an amazing game in its own right, but even when I'm not sinking hours into piloting my doomed crew to their deaths, I continue to listen to the entire soundtrack in all its excellent glory.

Notable Games: FTL: Faster Than Light


8) Mark Seibert

I'm a big fan of adventure games, and I pretty much grew up with Sierra's two juggernaut fantasy series King's Quest and Quest for Glory. With minimal gameplay compared to most genres, adventure games especially rely on immersive storytelling to create a rich experience, and obviously music plays a huge role. Former guitarist and vocalist for 80s Christian band Omega Sunrise Mark Seibert answered a wanted ad by Sierra On-Line to be a musician for King's Quest IV. He quickly became the company's Music director, composing entire soundtracks and even became a producer for many of Sierra's later titles. I always found the music in Sierra's games to be particularly memorable, especially several key tracks in the Quest for Glory series.

Notable Games: Anything Sierra - King's Quest, Quest for Glory, etc.


7) Yoko Shimomura

Undoubtedly the most famous female video game composer in the world, Shimomura began her career working for Capcom and contributed to all their big games of the early 90s, including Street Fighter II, a soundtrack that has become one of the most remixed in history. Yearning to move from arcade style music into a more classical approach, Shimomura joined Square and acted as one of the primary composers for many of their non Final Fantasy titles including Legend of Mana and a personal favorite of mine - Super Mario RPG. She is most famous, however, for composing the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack - a wonderfully unique series blending Final Fantasy with the Disney universe in an Action-RPG format. Like many successful Square composers, she left to become freelance but continues to compose for video games.

Notable Games: Street Fighter 2, Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG


6) Darren Korb

Released as part of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade in 2011, Bastion quickly earned a landslide of awards and the hearts of gamers with its simple yet fun action combat system, beautiful artwork, intriguing story, and one of the greatest soundtracks I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. This is one of those weird cases where as much as I enjoy the game itself, the soundtrack is far and away the most amazing part, and was composed entirely by former Rock Band champion Darren Korb. As the audio director of Supergiant Games, Korb created all the sound effects to the surreal and widely varied score to the outstanding narration and lyrics. Many of the composers on this list have dozens of games and scores to their credit, and it's a testament to just how amazing a job Korb did with his first outing of Bastion that he makes it so high on my list.

Notable Games: Bastion


5) Jeremy Soule

Another graduate of the Square School of Awesome Game Composers, Soule is an incredibly prolific composer that has scored dozens of games for all kinds of genres and won numerous awards. His music is usually paired with large open world role playing games. Soule is probably the closest thing to a traditional Hollywood composer in the industry, often considered the John Williams of Video Game Music. He is probably best known for scoring the 3D Elder scrolls games - Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, and his music often evokes feelings of exploration, excitement, and wonder.

Notable Games: Total Annihilation, The Elder Scrolls Series, Guild Wars series


4) Jack Wall

Compared to the other non newbie composers on this list, Jack Wall is a relatively late entrant into the world of video game music but no less revered. Beginning with his scores for the Myst sequels which would win him several awards, Wall also co-founded the Game Audio Network Guild to promote video game music appreciation in the early 2000s. Even better, Wall produced the Video Games Live Concert series in 2005 as a touring live orchestra performing video game music with video footage and effects. Oh, and Jack Wall also did all the music for the Mass Effect series. You may have heard me mention that series a few times on this blog. The hauntingly beautiful and memorable tracks are consistently amazing throughout the series, from the epic intro to the simple menu music.

Notable Games: Mass Effect Series, Myst series


3) Yasunori Mitsuda

Stop me if you've heard this story before: young talented composer interested in music and video games gets a job at Square making music for awesome roleplaying games and has amazingly successful career. That sentence could be applied to several composers, many of whom made this list, but none can compare to the greatness of Yasunori Mitsuda. I have two words for you: Chrono Trigger. And here's two more: Chrono Cross. Two amazingly cool roleplaying games that transcended the genre in their respective eras, but the aspect that really lives on for me personally are the soundtracks - simply some of the best stuff you can feed your ears. Like the other successful Square Graduates on this list, Mitsuda quit Square to start his own freelance company in 1998, but thankfully one of his first gigs was to score the Chrono Trigger sequel, Chrono Cross, a game with very mixed opinions, but I will fight anyone that doesn't think it has one of the best soundtracks in gaming. Chrono Trigger's unforgettable score alone would have cemented Mitsuda's place in gaming history, but he continues to be a prolific composer for Japanese Role Playing Games.

Notable Games: Chrono series


2) Koji Kondo

If Shigeru Miyamoto is the father of Nintendo, and to an extant modern gaming, then Nintendo's main man composer is surely the father of modern video game music. The widely recognized Super Mario Bros. theme song is undoubtedly the most iconic track in all of gaming, with the Legend of Zelda, his other major franchise, coming in at a close second. The final game he scored as a solo composer - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, can easily be considered his magnum opus; a game that is celebrated as much for its fantastic and revolutionary gameplay as it was its unforgettable tracks - from upbeat strings and wind instruments accompanying you across Hyrule Field to the head bobbing guitar licks of Gerudo Valley and of course the instantly familiar Ocarina songs. Kondo has been with Nintendo practically since its inception into the video game industry, and he should be as much a household name as anything Nintendo has created.

Notable Games: Anything Nintendo - Mario, Zelda, etc.


1) Nobuo Uematsu

All those other composers that rose up through the ranks of Square arranging tracks for various role playing games? They were all influenced by one man, a man and that had been with Square since the beginning, and spent nearly twenty of the most influential years of the gaming industry gracing us with his masterful talents. Uematsu's tenure at Square included all of the Final Fantasy games, a series recognized for exceptionally memorable music. Final Fantasy VI is a personal favorite of mine, and I still hum many of his tracks to this day. There have been countless remarkable remixes and compilations with varying degrees of sophistication, and even Uematsu himself has performed entire CD's worth of his tracks on piano, many of which I used as beautiful lullabies for my infant daughter.

In the 2000s, Uematsu formed a rock band with his colleagues named The Black Mages, playing incredibly awesome rock versions of famous Final Fantasy tracks, and to date they've released three albums and have appeared in concerts.

Uematsu left Square in 2004 to form his own freelance company, though he still primarily works with Square and Square's former President Hironobu Sakaguchi's studio Mistwalker. Without any real formal musical training, Nobuo Uematsu is nothing less than a musical prodigy and creative genius.

Notable Games: Final Fantasy series


Wrap Up

When I began doing the research for this list, I honestly had no idea so many of my favorite composers worked for Square (now Square Enix). Obviously if you were a talented composer and could sign on with the biggest name in epic role playing games, you could end up with a super successful career. The way is not so clear nowadays however, and yet it's also easier than ever for young and new composers to get their work into the ears of gamers thanks to the internet, streaming, youtube, and digital distribution. With young but super talented guys like Ben Prunty and Darren Korb gathering a huge amount of notoriety and fans from smaller independent titles, the gaming industry seems to be entering a golden age for video game composers. Larger studios continue to turn to talented big names in video game music, and many of the most successful composers enjoy the luxury of starting their own company while continuing to pursue their passion for video games and music. Even if you've only heard of a few names on this list, I urge you to check out some of their work.