Music has become an integral part of the video game experience. However, the way that a game’s soundtrack is used, and indeed the function that it serves, is as varied as the actual games themselves. To illustrate this, and celebrate just how far the art form has come, we have lovingly compiled our list of the best video game soundtracks of all time.
25. Super Metroid – Kenji Yamamoto, Minako Hamano
Full of crackling feedback, deep synthesiser drones and piercing stabs of melody, the soundtrack to Super Metroid is perhaps easier to respect than love. An artifact of a bygone era, and in some ways held back by the technology of the time, it is brisling with invention and homage in equal measure.
Undoubtedly influenced by Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Alien, Super Metroid pushes the unease to its limit. However, the unique sound design, a consequence of Yamamoto serving as both sound programmer and a composer, elevates the game’s soundtrack into something that has proven to be almost as influential as the work that inspired it.
24. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – Power Glove
Composed by Australian duo Power Glove, the soundtrack to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon took the synthwave formula and pumped up the intensity to levels that were suitable for a game Ubisoft described as “get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the world”.
Playing as a part-human, part-machine super soldier literally named Power, players would sling retro-futuristic weapons and laser swords in a world that was lit by neon and fraught by mecha-dragons. The music had to be pure cheese, and Power Glove nailed the brief.
23. Donkey Kong Country – David Wise
David Wise can make a rare boast that he snubbed the legendary Koji Kondo of a game credit. Or rather, what he and Donkey Kong Country developers Rare submitted to Nintendo were so damn perfect for the SNES title that they couldn’t imagine anything else soundtracking the experience.
Inspired by the sample-heavy hits of the early ’90s, Wise chopped up elements of swing, conga, and natural sounds into a soundtrack that became an instant classic. Just try to listen to Aquatic Ambience without decompressing a little… we’ll wait.
22. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – Harry Gregson-Williams, Norihiko Hibino
Metal Gear mastermind Hideo Kojima has a strong track record when it comes to utilising music and sound for dramatic effect. Over the course of the Metal Gear Solid series he has explored various different action genres in terms of gameplay mechanics, as well as the music that people associate with said genre.
Despite being set in the 21st century, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty plays on ’80s and ’90s blockbuster action films such as Michael Bay’s The Rock. Looking to achieve a similar level of grandeur and adrenaline, Kojima tapped that film’s music producer (Harry Gregson-Williams) to lend his talents.
It’s a fantastic piece of work that proudly announces the cinematic aspirations of the game’s creative director, and ultimately succeeds in helping him realise them.
21. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – Various Artists
Music, and more specifically the innovative radio system, plays a huge role in fleshing out the in game worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series. Everything from the over-the-top radio DJs to the impeccable song selection combine to immerse the player in a fictionalised city where adventure, crime, and larger-than-life characters reign supreme.
What separates and elevates GTA Vice City from the rest of its family is simple: the ’80s, baby. While other iterations of the series have tended to lean into the ‘music is a player choice’ paradigm, the team behind Vice City realised that music was key to their pursuit of nostalgia-laced world building. And it’s also chock full of bangers.
20. Mass Effect – Jack Wall, Sam Hulick
Few games have managed to create a world as intricate, fleshed out, and full of mystery as that of Mass Effect. The game immediately throws players into our universe in the year 2183, where humanity has encountered an entire galaxy’s worth of alien races, profound moral dilemmas, and sci-fi intrigue.
Composed by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick with contributions from Richard Jacques, David Kates, and Faunts, the Mass Effect OST was the perfect accompaniment to the game world on offer; enigmatic, futuristic, and cinematic at once.
19. Dark Souls – Motoi Sakuraba
Likely the only thing that threaded together the last shreds of a player’s sanity when they first encountered Dark Souls was Motoi Sakuraba’s magnificent soundtrack. Equal parts breathtaking and harrowing, Sakuraba crafted 31 pieces of simply wondrous music.
While the Dark Souls 3 soundtrack is a close contender, this is where the tone was first truly set for the macabre fantasy of Dark Souls.
18. Legend of Mana – Yoko Shimomura
The Legend of Mana soundtrack is one of the crowning moments in Yoko Shimomura’s illustrious career. The Japanese composer is responsible for the some of the most majestic and sweeping video game soundtracks of the golden era, and is quite possibly overlooked by western audiences because her work doesn’t come packaged with the Final Fantasy tick of approval.
Nonetheless, her work here alternates between extremely catchy energetic numbers that will have the player’s head bobbing along in no time and emotionally stirring orchestral pieces that give the game a much-needed sense of narrative and purpose. It’s pitch perfect and dripping with magical beauty.
17. Bloodborne – Cris Velasco, Michael Wandmacher, Yuka Kitamura, Ryan Amon, Nobuyoshi Suzuki, Tsukasa Saitoh
Silence plays a very important role in Bloodborne. However, perhaps somewhat unintuitively, it serves to accentuate the game’s viscerally mesmerising score. Many of the game’s most iconic moments, including some truly terrifying boss encounters, are lent serious gravitas by ominous chanting and choirs that emerge from unknowable darkness.
Bloodborne is like a kettle being brought to the boil; the music is the steam, slowly building until it erupts in a terrifying burst of sound and frantic energy. It’s insanely good and, if you aren’t careful, might leave you wondering where your own sanity has run off to.
16. Jet Set Radio – Hideki Naganuma
Once upon a time, when inline skates were cool as shit, Jet Set Radio was a neo-futuristic adventure where players could ride around Tokyo, leaving a trail of graffiti and blazing beats wherever they tread.
The soundtrack contained some licensed tracks, but the real piece of history here is the original compositions from by Hideki Naganuma. Inspired trip hop, big beat, J-pop, and rave, these charged-up tunes made it feel as if you were truly skating into the future.
15. Hollow Knight – Christopher Larkin
Hollow Knight is a peculiar little indie game. Sporting some adorable character designs and remarkable background artwork, it’s a joy to behold. However, at the centre of the game’s world, and indeed its somewhat obscured story, is a tremendous amount of feeling. A contemplative melancholy that is enormously, and surprisingly, affecting.
I’m convinced that the gorgeous work of Australian composer Christopher Larkin is largely responsible. A relative newcomer when compared to many on this list, he is someone clearly on the rise – and is one of the main reasons we simply can’t wait for Hollow Knight’s upcoming sequel, Silksong.
14. DOOM (2016) – Mick Gordon
It may seem obvious in hindsight, but the inhumanly perfect pairing of Mick Gordon’s soundtrack with id Software’s DOOM is an experience unlike any other. The pounding drums and shredding solos on 8-string guitars, coupled seamlessly with the testosterone-charged gore-fest of playing the Slayer is a glorious sight to behold.
A breakout hit of the 2010s, DOOM provided a perfect throwback to ’90s industrial rock while feeling fresh and new. The dynamic soundtrack is all the more impressive as it was composed in conjunction with the ways each player experiences the game. As sections turn ominous, eerie, or downright violent, the music reflects and adapts into formations that are downright epic.
13. Persona V – Shoji Meguro
The soundtrack to Persona V is much like the game that accompanies it: completely bonkers. Seriously, if you try and write it down, as I am right here, it doesn’t add up. Nonetheless, it’s a singularly brilliant example of the power of thinking outside the box, and it’s deserving of its status as one of the most innovative video game scores of recent years.
Its unique identity consists of a fusion of seemingly disparate elements. Pieces from funk, jazz, opera, pop, 8-bit video game music, and rock all make appearances – sometimes in the same song. It’s a lot to take in, but for the initiated, its genius is incomparable.
12. Halo 2 – Michael Salvatore, Martin O’Donnell
Where Halo: Combat Evolved redefined what a first-person shooter could be, its soundtrack made an equal mark on the industry. Following the success of Microsoft and Bungie’s era-defining masterpiece, they hit us all with another simply perfect game.
Like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix Reloaded, or Aliens, Halo 2 took everything that made the series’ first entry iconic and turned all the dials to 11. The action, tech, score, and budget – especially the budget – were bigger, and somehow, Halo became even more of an icon.
Composers Michael Salvatore and Martin O’Donnell returned for the Halo 2 OST, but this time they were joined by legendary producer Nile Rogers and a 50-person orchestra. Not to mention literal guitar god Steve Vai, who’s responsible for the guitars added to the upgraded, rock ‘n’ roll Halo Theme in Halo 2.
11. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – Various Artists
When making a list of the best video game soundtracks of all time, it’s important to set ground rules. Some of our editorial team weren’t sure about including games that relied on song curatorship over original soundtracks. What wasn’t controversial was that if we did, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 would sit at the summit of such titles.
Boasting a collection of tracks that pulled from punk (Millencolin), hip-hop (Mos Def, Public Enemy) and metal (Anthrax, Rage Against the Machine), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 set the bar for assembled video game playlists. Its authenticity not only appealed to real-life skaters, but ended up influencing the tastes of a generation of gamers.
10. Bastion – Darren Korb
Now that the world has fallen in love with Hades, Supergiant Games are more popular than ever. But their debut was Bastion, a lonely, beautiful, and perfectly soundtracked action game released in 2011.
Peppered with the brilliant vocal performance of Logan Cunningham as the game’s grizzled narrator, Darren Korb’s score for Bastion is full of songs that tow the lines between hope, adventure, and despair.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Koji Kondo
Between Ocarina of Time, Super Mario Bros., Star Fox, and many other titles, it’s hard to seperate Nintendo from their MVP composer Koji Kondo. Throughout the years he never failed to pull together melodies that were so simply catchy – the kind of sequences that would make even the highest class of pop musicians jealous.
Ocarina of Time really had two soundtracks; that which played to the boisterous, happy-go-lucky adventures of young Link, and the often sombre compositions which appeared in the downtrodden Hyrule an older Link was destined to save.
The game’s many characters and zones had motifs crafted for them, often a close musical relative to the simple notes players would learn on Link’s ocarina. This soundtrack breathed life into its game like few others in history have managed to, building subtle neural connections between the characters and places – sometimes before you even knew they were there.
8. Hotline Miami – Various Artists
Calling Hotline Miami an essential pillar of synthwave history isn’t even selling it short. Bringing together titans of the genre such as Pertubator or M|O|O|N and smashing them into a soundtrack that was nothin’ but pedal to the metal was pure genius.
With this kickass OST as a backdrop, Hotline Miami leaned into tropes of fast cars, badass letterman jackets, bikies, and violence. It’s a cult classic that still pulls its weight today, and then some.
7. Super Mario Bros. – Koji Kondo
One of the most phenomenal examples of “less is more” in the history of composition, it was limited amount of audio memory allowed on NES cartridges that spurred Koji Kondo into creating melodies that had to be instantly attention-grabbing, not to mention as catchy as they come.
Kondo also led the game’s sound design, meaning in addition to the Overworld Theme, he also created the now-iconic sounds of the coins, bricks, power-ups, and invincibility stars that remain essential threads of the Mario tapestry.
6. The Last of Us – Gustavo Santaolalla
While The Last of Us is widely recognised as a gaming masterpiece, Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting soundtrack takes no small cut of the cloth. The devastating cello solos, earthy percussion, and nylon-plucked guitar lines imbue an emotional potency that should be a requisite for all post-apocalyptic games.
Like the best contemporary composers, Santaolalla employs a masterful sense of restraint. It’s the silence that brings the true sense of terror here. One of the best video game soundtracks ever made, and followed up with another masterful effort in its sequel.
5. Silent Hill 2 – Akira Yamaoka
Akira Yamaoka’s work on the Silent Hill series is legendary. Even when the games have failed to live up to their hype, his music hasn’t dipped below exceptional. This makes choosing one game for this list rather tricky, but for our money, Silent Hill 2 is impossible to overlook.
Trading some of the first game’s abrasive industrial exterior for something more surreal and unsettling, Yamaoka created a startling amalgamation of two of his biggest influences; Trent Reznor and David Lynch’s iconic composer Angelo Badalamenti. A masterpiece of rare creativity that has often be imitated, but never surpassed.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Manaka Kataoka, Hajime Wakai, Yasuaki Iwata
While remaining true to its roots, both the game and the soundtrack to The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild dared to explore new boundaries, rather than reinvigorating an already well-worn franchise. The mere piano tone here is enough to stir emotion, nostalgia, and joy.
By embracing themes of ambience and minimalism, the soundtrack perfectly reflects the game’s brand new world as you gallop across windswept fields and parachute through the sky. This was a brand new Zelda, and brave new Link, and the masterful re-imagining of timeless classics.
3. Ico – Michiru Oshima
Sony have always been at the forefront of bridging the divide between video games and cinema. Their first-party titles generally endeavour to tell an emotionally resonant story, and they spare no expense when it comes to achieving this. Music obviously plays a big role, and therefore it will likely come as no surprise that a number of their titles have risen to the top of this list.
Ico, despite being one of the earlier examples, shows just how compelling this philosophy can be when successfully executed. Often sited as a key example of ‘video games as art’, Ico blazed a path that many have since tried to follow.
The music of Michiru Oshima is critical here and, despite it’s restraint, perfectly demonstrates the power of music in video games.
2. Final Fantasy VI – Nobuo Uematsu
What can be said that hasn’t already been said a million times? Any list of the best video game soundtracks of all time without some Final Fantasy jockeying for position is, quite simply, preposterous. The series is synonymous with large-scale storytelling and its music is the beating heart of their sagas of love, conflict, and technology.
Back when the series’ characters were little more than loosely arranged groupings of pixels, the music gave players a window into the soul of the world. Final Fantasy VI has one of the most affecting (and dark) narratives in the series, and longtime composer Nobuo Uematsu didn’t miss a note, providing a legendary score of staggering resonance and emotional range.
1. Minecraft – C418
When Daniel Rosenfeld (C418) and Markus Persson (Notch) were respectively writing music for and developing Minecraft, you have to wonder if they had an inkling of the magic they were onto. Now with over 230 million sales and counting, it’s hard to imagine any game that’s had as many human hours lovingly poured into it as Minecraft.
It’s also hard to imagine players coming back for thousands and thousands of hours without the gorgeous, subtle compositions of C418 scoring their building adventures. As the player scrounged for diamonds, eluded creepers, or just sat for a moment and took in the pixellated landscapes, the OST was always there to make the experience that little bit more special.
The music itself was inspired by ambient luminaries such as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin, and fittingly, C418 now sits side-by-side with them as one of the few that managed to bring ambient music to the masses.
Written by Tom Cameron, Alastair Cairns, and Luke Saunders.