Top Ten Tuesday 26

My Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks

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've been a huge fan of video game music pretty much since I first heard the catchy Mario Bros. theme. Sound design had begun to evolve beyond simple bleep and bloop sound effects, and today's titles have full orchestral and composer arranged tracks that rival the best film soundtracks. Because of the huge variation in genre and gameplay, however, video game music has the capacity to go beyond what most films feel safe doing and successfully integrate everything from licensed pop music to dubstep to haunting tracks you wouldn't hear anywhere else.

I've maintained an ongoing Video Game Music playlist even before iTunes existed where I pick and choose my favorite songs to keep on shuffle while I'm playing other games or writing or just dinking around on the internet. The past ten years have been one long discovery of soundtracks, songs, and remixes, and my love for video game music knew a Top Ten list was inevitable. That being said, this has been by far my most difficult list to date even with the knowledge that I will also eventually do separate Top Ten lists for individual songs, title tracks, and remixes. I've decided to start with overall soundtracks to start my journey into video game music recognition, but know that it has been as painful as it has been fun and I have an expanded Honorable Mentions section to make myself feel better.

Note - I'll be embedding entire album playlists on youtube, but also giving individual links to my favorite tracks and others that deserve recognition. It's a feast for your ears!


Top Ten Soundtracks


10) Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson

Favorite Tracks: Born Unto Trouble, Triggernometry, Deadman's Gun

Red Dead Redemption is one of the greatest games ever made, certainly of this last generation, and like John Marston I see its legend only growing in time. Every facet of gameplay, art, and sound design add up to create the incredible experience of an open-world Western game (more please), and the soundtrack creates an evocative mood that fits perfectly with the slow-paced, beautiful exploration of sun drenched prairie-land as well as vicious action-packed gun fights. Inspired by classic spaghetti westerns the composers also utilized some modern elements like electronic to create a truly unique but completely amazing experience. And who could forget the incredible vocal tracks that are brilliantly placed throughout key moments of the narrative? Never before had a song started playing that completely absorbed me into the experience and made me really reflect on everything that had just happened - "Far Away" when arriving in Mexico for the first time, "Compass" when John returns home, "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" when Jack visits his grave, and "Deadman's Gun" during the end credits.


9) The Witcher (2007)

Composed by Adam Skorupa and Paweł Błaszczak

Favorite Tracks: River of Life, Last Battle, Peaceful Moments        

Yes, The Witcher dubiously graced my Top Ten Disappointing games list, and no I never finished it. But there was an important element I didn't mention for the purposes of that list - The Witcher had an incredible soundtrack. It was so good that several tracks continue to enjoy regular rotation in my master VGM playlist even while memories of the game itself fade (and it helped that the awesome folks at CD Projekt released it for free with the game). With great Celtic flavors the soundtrack could easily be mistaken for that of the Lord of the Rings ("River of Life") or Braveheart ("Last Battle") while still maintaining a great original fantasy vibe. I've heard great things about the sequel's soundtrack as well, and that should really be enough to get me to try it.


8) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation, 1997)

Composed by Michiru Yamane

Favorite Tracks: Dracula's Castle, Marble Gallery, The Tragic Prince

The original Playstation popularized the concept of console games on CD-ROMs instead of cartridges (though it would take Nintendo several years to catch up). Rumors quickly began flying throughout the school yard that placing these game discs into a stereo or walkman would automatically play the game's soundtrack. Woah! Most non-RPGs were hardly worth listening to, but from the early days there was the shining example of a game CD you could totally rock out to. Symphony of the Night is universally regarded as one of the greatest gaming soundtracks ever produced with an incredible mix of gothic themes with shredding guitar metal and haunting organs. Several tracks adorn my VGM playlist but many also enjoy a permanent seat on my Halloween mix that I play on the porch for trick or treaters! The unsettling chords of "Door to the Abyss" is the perfect backdrop to any Halloween theme.


7) Bastion (2011)

Composed by Darren Korb

Favorite Tracks: In Case of Trouble, The Bottom Feeders, Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme)

Bastion is a simple but amazingly fun and beautiful Action Role Playing Game set in a unique dying world that's literally falling apart. All of the game's events and actions are narrated, right down the player's choices, creating a storybook-like atmosphere, and the colorful art style proves that post-apocalyptic worlds don't all have to be gray and brown. What really set apart the game from everything else and pushed it onto my Top Ten games of 2011 was one of the greatest video game soundtracks I've heard in recent memory. For the first time after a game was released I was anxiously awaiting the release of the accompanying soundtrack, and eagerly bought it on the first day. There's a reason that Darren Korb made my Top Ten Composers list with just this one entry - its jawdropply amazing and a wonderful example of the eclectic variation in themes, styles, and melodies that can be found on just a single soundtrack. From the acoustic Western sounding songs of "In Case of Trouble" and "Spike in a Rail," to the incredible mix of techno and Middle Eastern themes in "Terminal March," the soundtrack has something for everyone. Like Red Dead it also utilizes some really incredible vocal tracks in certain story moments to help immerse you in the understated but fantastic story. The first time you hear "Build That Wall (Zia's Theme)" you have to stop in your tracks to listen to in its entirety, and "Setting Sail, Coming Home," is one of the greatest ending themes I've ever heard and will always having a permanent spot on my VGM mix.


6) Aquaria (2007)

Composed by Alec Holowka

Favorite Tracks: The Light, The Traveller (Open Waters I), Home

Aquaria was an independent game made in 2007 by a two team development company, and it managed to be one of the most beautiful and memorable games I've ever played. I've gushed about my love for this unique Action-Adventure-RPG in my Top Ten Metroidvania list, and even mentioned the incredible soundtrack. Combining beautiful and mysterious tracks with the sheer joy of exploration created a unique soundtrack that has yet to be equaled for its sheer beauty, and nearly every song on the album has a permanent place on my VGM playlist. Several found their way onto my infant daughter's lullaby CD I made her, and more reached a custom orchestral CD I made when I cruised around the boat at my folk's lake house when I just wanted to chill. I still have fond memories of the emotional story, the fantastic ending, the cool boss fights, and the large world, but nothing comes close to the longevity of one of gaming's best and little known soundtracks.

Can't find a single full soundtrack to embed, so instead I'll include this epic 9 minute song that was released specifically with the soundtrack. Jenna Sharpe, the voice actress for Naija has a gorgeous voice and this vocal track encompasses the themes of Aquaria perfectly.


5) Super Mario World (1991)

Composed by Koji Kondo

Favorite Tracks: Welcome to Mario World, Super Mario Brothers, Peaceful Mushroom World

There's little I can say about the greatness of the Mario tracks - either they take you back to a glorious nostalgia filled age of mushrooms and goombas, or you're too young and need to get off my lawn. The soundtrack to Super Mario World comes across as the pinnacle of both the original 8-bit collection and the amazing achievements of its far superior SNES evolution. Not only is every track instantly recognizable, but Nintendo graciously included every single little jingle and sound effect on the massive album. Better yet, the entire first disc of the two disc masterpiece is a supremely amazing arrangement of fully orchestrated jazzy versions of each of the major themes from the game. The not so creatively named original tracks such as "Overworld," "Title," and "Swimming," are arranged in big band fare, and several of my favorites have been on permanent rotation in my playlists for over a decade. If you've never heard this amazingly orchestrated version of the classic Mario themes, you owe it to yourself and your hopefully glorious childhood to check it out.


4) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Composed by Koji Kondo

Favorite Tracks: Kokiri Forest, Hyrule Field, Gerudo Valley

You can really tell we're getting into the best of the best here. Ocarina of Time is one of the greatest games of all time, and its amazing soundtrack follows suit. Koji Kondo (one of my Top Ten Composers) was the John Williams of video game music, creating incredibly catch, memorable tracks that allow you to instantly recall a character or place with just a few notes of the melody. The child-like sense of adventure with the piano and winds of "Kokiri Forest," the epic feel of running around my first truly open world with the epic track of "Hyrule Field" that covered a gamut of emotions, the exhilarating, pulse pounding music from "Gerudo Valley," and fan favorite somber tune "Kakariko Village," all bring warm fuzzies to my ears and heart when they frequently pop on my playlists. Not to mention the ridiculously catchy mini themes of "Shop," "Windmill Hut," and "Market." Oh and the actual ocarina? That was used frequently throughout the adventure to open dungeons, teleport around, and summon your horse, and each little melody was unique and endearing with Zelda's own "Ocarina of Time (Zelda's Theme)," being the most memorable. An amazing soundtrack to an unforgettable experience.

If you're a fan of the soundtrack, I highly recommend checking out Hyrule Symphony. Like the first disc of the Super Mario World soundtrack, Hyrule Symphony has fully arranged songs with a live band to create the best possible version of the most popular tracks.


3) Chrono Trigger (1995)

Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda

Favorite Tracks: Frog's Theme, Memories of Green, Delightful Spekkio

So good. SO GOOD. Second only to the amazing Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda created an absolute masterpiece with what is surely known as the golden age of JRPGS in the 16-bit era. Chrono Trigger would've been an amazing game in its own right, but the incredible album goes above and beyond to create one of the most memorable experiences in gaming. From the opening moments with the clock ticking back and forth and the fanfare begins playing you know you're in for something special. "Frog's Theme" alone puts such a huge dumb grin on my face, and encompasses as heroic and uplifiting a song as anything I've heard. You play "Gato's Song" or "Delightful Spekkio" to any gamer my age and I guarantee they will at the very least nod and smile. Each of the various epochs and settings had their own unique tracks, and it was one of the first games to begin the trend of RPGs giving each character their own theme song - from Frog's aforementioned triumph to Robo's insanely catchy riff; even the villains had their own themes. We didn't need voice acting when the ominous "Duh Duhhhh," started in "Lavos' Theme." I would not begrudge anyone having Chrono Trigger at the top of their music list. But on mine...


2) Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Composed by Nobuo Uematsu

Favorite Tracks: Locke's Theme, The Veldt, Terra's Theme

As much as I have to promote some of the lesser known tracks on here, none of that is needed when mentioning the legendary work of my number one video game composer. Uematsu helped lay the groundwork that made not only RPG music but video game music in general so great. The monstrous three disc Original Sound Version to Final Fantasy VI contains over three hours of epic tracks, from memorable character themes to that incredibly catchy battle music that will never ever leave my head. If you put a gun to my head and made me hum or whistle every single song, I might just survive. I probably whistle "Terra's Theme" every other day, and "Celes' Theme," is one of a handful of songs I can play on piano from memory (well the melody at least). Narrowing down my favorites is what I imagine it's like to pick your favorite children; nearly every song is special to me and it's incredible that nearly two decades later we are still exploring them and discovering new joys (see the recently released Free remix album Balance and Ruin). It's even happened to me, as I found the harsh bagpipes of "Relm's Theme" too off-putting until I listened to an orchestrated version that nearly brought me to tears.

Since the music is so well known and highly regarded, there are a ton of great official "spinoff" albums you can discover, including a fully orchestrated album called Grand Finale and my personal favorite, an all piano version (by Uetmasu of course) with the definitive version of "Terra's Theme" (Tina in the original Japanese)  And as I mentioned in my Composers list, if you are at all a fan of Final Fantasy music and rock and roll, you have to check out Uematsu's band The Black Mages!


1) Chrono Cross (2000)

Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda

Favorite Tracks: Scars of Time, Fields of Time - Home World, Voyage - Home World

I adore Mitsuda's work on Chrono Trigger, but after the pile of gushing I gave FF6's album you'd think nothing could top that. Well Mitsuda did just that with Square's long in the making 3D sequel, Chrono Cross. While it may have failed to live up to the impossible expectations of its predecessor, the soundtrack quietly joined the prestigious company of its brethren, and is without a doubt the greatest video game soundtrack ever produced. Them's fightin' words I know. But I can easily and enjoyably listen to the entire soundtrack without skipping a single track. With heavy Celtic influences and beautiful uses of piano and violin (and check out that electric guitar on "Magical Dreamers") Mitsuda created a whole immersive experience on top of the epic role playing game about loss and time travel. Narrowing down my favorites is simply impossible, I literally just picked the ones that had the most Plays on my iTunes. There's just so much greatness here: the gorgeous violin and light touch of vocals in "The Girl Who Stole the Stars (Kid's Theme)," the head bobbingly catchy bagpipes in "Termina - Another World," the way too good to be just walking around music "Voyage - Another World." Heck, "Arni Village - Home World," is one of the prominent track's on my daughter's lullaby CD, it's just beautiful.  Chrono Cross is another example of a game whose soundtrack will live on even as the game itself may fade, but in no way does that diminish the incredible evocative experience that Mitsuda created.


Honorable Mentions

There is a staggering amount of amazing video game music out there but thankfully by narrowing it down to overall albums I've made an impossible task somewhat feasible. Still, there are many that must be recognized even if they can't quite crack my coveted Top Ten list.

Recently FTL: Faster Than Light has gained composer Ben Prunty some much deserved notoriety with the surprisingly amazing mix of synthesizers and chiptunes to create an eerie and beautiful soundtrack that fits the space adventure perfectly. Another semi-recent discovery is the fantastic techno soundtrack of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you loved the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, at least listen to the title track "Icarus." Older favorites include Sonic the Hedgehog 2's delightfully catchy themes and the Streets of Rage series for some really funky chiptunes to bop your head to. On the PC side I have Quest for Glory 4 with several standout track favorites that incorporated the gothic horror theme in some really interesting ways. And I know I'm not alone when I mention the amazing classically infused songs of Heroes of Might and Magic III (with II's operatic music being a close second), whose classic faction themes always have a place on my playlist. Finally I want to give special mention to the Mass Effect series for having a particularly wonderful soundtrack and which most gamers should instantly recognize, especially that great driving keyboard track in "Uncharted Worlds."


Wrap Up

Interestingly but not surprisingly my top four soundtracks are all from the same era of gaming - the golden age of 16-bit up to the early days of 3D, and all penetrated my impressionable childhood that links them inexorably with the rose-tinted ear pieces of nostalgia (otherwise known as age 10-15). But the best soundtracks go beyond that feeling of nostalgia and stand up all on their own as amazing works of art and the pinnacle of which all other games should strive. A great soundtrack may not make a terrible game great, but it will make a great game absolutely amazing.