Soundtracks are just as important as graphics and playability and giving a video game a sense of immersion.

Whether it's skulking through a dark cavern, flying high through the skies or blasting your way out of a situation, soundtracks in video games are comparable to film soundtracks in that they act as dialogue and emotional markers in any given level or scene. The right piece of music at the right time in the game can have a profound effect on a player's experience.

Here's twenty of the best examples of video game music.

 

20. ECCO THE DOLPHIN

Ecco The Dolphin was a dense, extremely difficult game that was laden with themes that probably went over the heads of players when it initially launched. Like the game itself, Ecco The Dolphin's soundtrack seemed almost at odds with what other games were doing - it was deep, beautiful, strange, mysterious, purposefully challenging, and almost ahead of its time.

 

19. SUPER MARIO 64

Thanks to the expanded memory, longtime Nintendo composer Koji Kondo was given a far broader spectrum to work with on Super Mario 64 and used it to his full advantage. You only need to listen to something like Dire, Dire Docks to get what an incredible composer he was and how he could come up with beautiful music that perfectly fit the peaceful mood of that level.

 

18. MORTAL KOMBAT II

As well as the ultra-violence on screen, what Mortal Kombat II's soundtrack managed to capture that grimy, dark, B-movie vibe with its driving drums and horror-inspired guitar riffs. It's no surprise that Mortal Kombat hasn't really progressed its soundtrack - they pretty much nailed it down in the first and second game.

 

16. HOTLINE MIAMI 2: WRONG NUMBER

Although Hotline Miami and its sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, took the top-down, 16-bit aesthetic, its soundtrack was pure synthwave and night-drive. The soundtrack was just as important to the game's feel as the often brutal and violent story, and it helped to sell that Nicholas Winding Refn / Brian DePalma vibe it was going for.

 

15. CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE

It's no surprise that Infinity Ward hired Harry Gregson-Williams - who's scored such films as Tony Scott's Enemy Of The State and Man On Fire -  to write the main theme for this. The game was, after all, explicitly referencing the likes of Black Hawk Down and the soundtrack helped to sell that. Sure, it might have been overbearing in parts, but aren't action movies like that?

 

14. PARAPPA THE RAPPA

Although some might view Parappa The Rappa as nothing more than a gimmicky game that was very much of its time instead of ahead of it, there's no denying that it had an extremely catchy soundtrack. Not only that, bringing the player into the very soundtrack was a first in gaming and made for some unforgettable moments. It was clunky and repetitive in parts, but when was the last time you saw an onion kung-fu master teaching a dog how to rap?

 

13. MASS EFFECT 2

While Mass Effect may have fallen a long way in player's estimations - Mass Effect 3 being a byword for botch ending - one thing it got right throughout every game was its soundtrack. The mixture of synthesisers and orchestra worked with how the game blended cover-shooters and RPG, but as well as this, it also helped to mirror the mood and texture of the game. The heroic, sweeping orchestras blended perfectly with the action-packed moments, whilst the Vangelis-inspired quieter moments were just as effective.

 

12. RESIDENT EVIL

Although Resident Evil had very little soundtrack, when it was used, it was used effectively and precisely - and immediately set you on edge. Like the best horror movies, Resident Evil's soundtrack was as much about ambience and atmosphere as anything else. While there's no one distinctive melody or theme, it absolutely worked at scaring the bejesus out of you.

  

11. MEGAMAN 2

It's kind of incredible the amount of melodies and variety that composers managed to squeeze into 8-bit games. While some of them might have been repetitive or downright annoying, the sheer limitations that they worked against is kind of boggling nowadays. For Megaman 2, there were so many levels - each with its own distinct soundtrack - and each one fitting perfectly into what was on-screen. After Super Mario Bros., Megaman 2's soundtrack is probably the best of the NES.

 

10. QUAKE

Interesting tidbit - Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails composed the entire soundtrack for Quake purely because he was a huge fan of Doom and wanted to try his hand at composing. Of course, Reznor is now the go-to guy for David Fincher, but if you happen to play Quake again, you can hear that same oppressive, atmospheric soundtrack he's become known for. Very few composers know have to capture dread in the way that Trent Reznor does, and the soundtrack for Quake is one of his most frightening works.

 

 

9. PORTAL 2

Although most people associate Portal 2 with the comedy musical number Want You Gone from GlaDOS, the incidental music inside the game really is special. Like a lot of Portal 2, it's quirky, fun, unusual and way more smart than you realise. It layers over each level so effortlessly, but doesn't become distracting when you're trying to figure out the puzzle. That, in itself, is particularly difficult to do - making music that won't necessarily be ignored, but can blend seamlessly into the background without distracting a player. And, yes, Want You Gone is a gas. 

 

8. STREET FIGHTER II

Although Mortal Kombat had specific music for stages, Street Fighter II had music for characters. Like the characters themselves, each of them were unique, distinctive and easily recognisable. Granted, it worked with the most basic characteristics for each fighter, it nevertheless evoked and defined them in ways the graphics on screen couldn't - Guile's theme was loud and triumphant, Vega's was mysterious and gallant, M. Bison's was dark and foreboding. Like Mortal Kombat II, the general melodies haven't changed all that much because they nailed them down perfectly so many years.

 

7. OBLIVION

Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind all had excellent soundtracks - and really, it's about personal preference when it comes to picking the best one. Our choice has to go to Oblivion. While Skyrim had its choral flourishes, evoking the hardened tundras and freezing winds, Oblivion was just pure high adventure and soaring mountains. What's more, seeing the lush landscape of Cyrodiil for the first time with the overworld music was an eye-opening experience and was many players first experience with an immersive, open-world game. The music of Oblivion was a huge part in that.

 

6. FINAL FANTASY 7

You only need to listen to Final Fantasy 7's soundtrack with an actual orchestra to get just how huge the scale that Nobuo Uematsu was working on. That said, he specifically opted for the MIDI sound so as to make it sound distinctive. Not only that, he also wrote for each scene with a script in mind rather than trying to enforce a melody or specific mood. Final Fantasy 7's score was unbelievably massive and, spread out over three CDs, it covered every genre imaginable and became iconic in the intervening years. Flying Lotus even uses Shinra Inc. in his live-set. That's how influential the soundtrack was.

 

5. THE LAST OF US

On the surface, The Last Of Us is a post-apocalyptic zombie survival game. Scratch the surface and it deals with themes of isolation, free will and consequences, family, grief and - yes - zombies. Gustavo Santaolalla's soundtrack was every bit as rich and textured as the story of The Last Of Us, but it's in the smaller moments that you really get the beauty of it and how it adds to the drama playing out before you.

 

4. SUPER MARIO BROS. / SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

Yes, it's a cop-out putting two of the most recognisable video game franchises together in one - but the truth is that they're a lot more similar than people realise. Both games were squarely aimed at children and needed remarkably catch music to hook them in - and it absolutely worked. You could play the opening level music from either game - Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Bros. - and people will probably recognise it in a matter of seconds. They're just like pop songs. It's no wonder rumours persisted for years that Michael Jackson worked on the soundtrack for Sonic The Hedgehog 3 - and were eventually proven to be true.

 

 

3. GRAND THEFT AUTO: VICE CITY

Although the likes of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, IV and V have used radio stations effectively, Vice City was the first to attempt it - and probably did it the best. Rockstar's song choices were so well-chosen, it's quite possible that they merely lifted the playlists from genre radio stations in the '80s and transplanted them into the game. Indeed, Rockstar's then-music director Craig Connors extensively researched the music of the era and worked hard to define the different radio stations and their playlist - to the point where it pretty much defined the game itself.

 

2. LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME 

From the very beginning of the franchise, Legend of Zelda's always had music that seemed to fit perfectly over what was happening on screen and enhance it in a way that few games are capable of doing. Ocarina Of Time's soundtrack is often associated with memories of hurling Epona across Hyrule Field or swimming through the Water Temple - but it was the broadness and freedom that the soundtrack evoked that made it truly special. Not only that, the clue's in the title - music plays a huge part in the story and Koji Kondo's soundtrack was symbiotic with the player's experience.

 

1. RED DEAD REDEMPTION

If you've played Red Dead Redemption, there's a good chance you know what we're going to talk about here. It's either the moment John Marston enters Mexico for the first time or, after murdering Dutch, returning to the homestead. In both cases, Rockstar's choice of song over the simple act of travelling is incredible - because it's exactly how it would work in a film. The game effectively pauses - even though you're moving - for an emotional beat and just lets the story wash over the player. Jose Gonzalez's haunting Far Away creeps in ever so softly as your horse lolls over mountains, whilst Jamie Lidell's Compass breaks in as the player races through snow and desert. There hasn't been a game yet that catches emotion with music in the same way, and it's unlikely there ever will be.

 

 

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Halo / Halo 2 / Halo: Reach

Starfox

Chrono Trigger

Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night

Overwatch

Super Metroid

GoldenEye 64