Video games are often under-appreciated as a medium of art, despite regularly delivering gripping stories, enthralling character development, and great music. Even as far back as the 4-bit era, when video game music was little more than a series of tones and beeps, game developers have been finding ways to make great music.
From vintage classics like Sonic the Hedgehog to modern masterpieces like Skyrim, there have been some iconic soundtracks from the world of video games. Music that you find yourself randomly whistling or humming thirty years later! Music that you put on and listen to when you’re not even playing the video game.
But which are the best of the best? Estimates place the number of video games in existence at well over a million, and while it’s true that not every soundtrack is gold, there is still a lot to choose from. To make this list manageable, we have limited our choices to only one soundtrack per franchise.
Sorry, Zelda fans.
There are a few special cases, however. For example, the Mario franchise covers several sub-franchises, such as Luigi, Wario, and Donkey Kong. In these cases, we’re going to count the sub-franchisees rather than just the parent franchise. Now, let’s get into it! Here’s is my best 20 video game soundtrack of all time list!
20. Red Dead Redemption
Released in 2010 by Rockstar San Diego – part of the Red Dead franchise
Rockstar’s epic open-world western game brought a whole host of new fans to the company after their world-beating Grand Theft Auto success. Composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson and produced by David Holmes, the goal of the soundtrack was to imitate the music heard in Western movies from the 1960s, and few would argue that it didn’t succeed. The composers made use of several unconventional instruments in their search for a distinctive sound.
The soundtrack was released digitally the same year and received a positive reception that included several award nominations and cover versions. There was even a second soundtrack release later that year to accompany the very popular downloadable content: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.
19. Pokémon Gold and Silver
Released in 2000 by Game Freak – part of the Pokémon franchise
Ushering in the second generation of Pokémon games, Pokémon Gold and Silver editions were role-playing games for the iconic Game Boy and Game Boy Color handhelds. The popularity of this game should not be understated and is such that a third edition, Pokémon Crystal, would soon follow. The game is a top-down role-playing game that sees the player moving around the fictional Pokémon world trying to catch and evolve various Pokémon and become the new Champion.
It is this immense popularity, combined with uncounted combined hours of game play, that has embedded this fantastic soundtrack in so many minds. From upbeat tunes to keep you company as you navigate the countryside, to peaceful melodies around villages, and tension building numbers that play when you face off with a pokémon in the wild.
Released in 2015 by Toby Fox – standalone game
Undertale is another role-playing game in which the player takes on the role of a child who has fallen Underground. Underground, in this case, is a vast region where magic and monsters exist. You must navigate the Underground, completing tasks and facing off against said monsters as you explore the vast array of different settings, from typical underground dungeons to villages and much more.
As far as the soundtrack goes, it is not only the catchy, perfectly crafted tunes that are impressive, but also the sheer runtime of the soundtrack, for a game with a distinctly retro look and feels, the soundtrack over-delivers. With unique music for what feels like every different area in the game, the soundtrack runs for over two hours in total. That’s a lot of listening time.
17. The Last of Us
Released in 2013 by Naughty Dog – part of the Last of Us franchise
Naughty Dog’s acclaimed action-adventure game sees you take on the role of Joel, a smuggler who has to escort a teenage girl across the United States. The twist? The United States is a post-apocalyptic hellscape infested with man eating creatures. The game itself has been hailed as something of a masterpiece in its own right, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its soundtrack made this list.
Said soundtrack was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla and had a digital release in the same year the game came out. It features a hefty thirty tracks for a total runtime of just under an hour and has received plenty of praise in its own right, not merely as an accompaniment to a video game. There isn’t one single thing that makes a soundtrack worthy of inclusion on this list, but being a soundtrack that people choose to listen to by itself certainly helps.
16. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Released in 2004 by Rockstar North – part of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise
You would have to have been living under a rock to not know about the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Rockstar’s open-world crime game has regularly involved budgets that put blockbuster Hollywood movies to shame, and their latest installment, Grand Theft Auto V, is still an incredibly popular game seven years after its release!
But it is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas specifically that makes our list. Unlike many of the entries here, San Andreas features real-world songs, rather than music composed specially for the game. With names like 2Pac, James Brown, Rage Against the Machine, and many more, it’s no surprise the soundtrack is popular. The music in-game could be heard through a series of radio stations, adding to the immersion of what has been a groundbreaking franchise nearly every release.
15. Super Metroid
Released in 1994 by Intelligent Systems – part of the Metroid franchise
Super Metroid was the third release in the Metroid series and was released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This era of gaming ushered in a whole new standard for video game music, with 16-Bit consoles making hitherto unheard-of levels of fidelity possible. The game has received plenty of critical praise, mainly for its atmosphere which relies heavily on its soundtrack to achieve.
Super Metroid took full advantage of that 16-Bit fidelity with a 22-track playlist of tension building and, at times, uplifting music. The soundtrack from this game has led to many covers and re-imaginings by talented fans, granting it continued relevance in gaming culture beyond that of its initial popularity.
14. Mega Man 2
Released in 1989 by Capcom – part of the Mega Man franchise
The second game in the prolific Mega Man franchise was released on the Nintendo Game Boy (not to be confused with the arcade game, Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters, or the Game Boy version), and saw Mega Man continue to fight the evil Dr Wily. Mega Man 2 is an action platformer that sees Mega Man fighting his way through a series of robot bad guys. The game sold more than 1.5 million copies, with it’s audio receiving distinct praise.
Composed by Takashi Tateishi with a little help from the first Mega Man’s composer, Manami Matsumae, the soundtrack to Mega Man 2 is fast-paced and energetic. Some have even credited it with ushering in a new era of video game music, where the music plays an integral part in giving each stage a unique feel.
13. Metal Gear Solid
Released in 1998 by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo – part of the Metal Gear franchise
Metal Gear Solid is one of those games that will live in gaming history for as long as gaming is a thing. Not only is it credited with popularizing the stealth game genre, but it is also a significant part of the origin story of one of gaming’s most revered developers: Hideo Kojima. The game sees you take on the role of Solid Snake and tasks you with sneaking through areas without being detected by the bad guys.
As you might expect, the soundtrack for this game is a tense, quiet affair, providing an appropriate atmosphere for the stealth nature of the gameplay. The soundtrack has been released in multiple formats over the years, including CD.
12. Shadow of the Colossus
Released in 2005 by Team Ico – standalone game
Shadow of the Colossus is something of a rarity on this list—a game that is not part of a larger franchise. Initially released in 2005, there was a remastered release in 2018, but we’re not counting that as a second game. Shadow of the Colossus is an action-adventure game where the player takes on the role of Wander, a young man who traverses a forbidden land, tackling giant beings. Shadow of the Colossus has been cited as the inspiration—direct or otherwise—for several popular games, God of War being a notable example.
The game features a lot of expansive scenery punctuated by epic battles, and the soundtrack captures that perfectly. Peaceful ambient melodies accompany you through the wilderness, while rousing epic numbers will have you feeling the hero you’re playing when the battles start.
11. Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Released in 2008 by Monolith Soft – part of the Super Smash Bros. franchise
Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the third entry in this immensely popular franchise that pits popular video game characters from across several franchises against each other in classic beat-em-up battle. It is a healthy dose of fast-paced action involving all of your favorite characters, what’s not to like? It wasn’t just onscreen where significant cross-over was taking place, however.
The soundtrack to Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a collaborative work involving no less than 38 renowned video game composers. Not only is the music a great listen in its own right, it perfectly captures the essence of the many different characters, their franchises, and the eras they came from.
10. Sonic the Hedgehog
Released 1991 by Backbone Entertainment – part of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise
The famous blue hedgehog hasn’t had the best of times since the heady days of the mid-90s, with it being widely considered that there hasn’t been a good Sonic game since then. We’re not going to weigh in on that debate. However, it’s a testament to how significant Sonic was that he is still considered an influential character in the world of gaming, despite that perception about his more recent back catalog.
The soundtrack from the original Sonic the Hedgehog perfectly encapsulated the spirit of what was, at the time, a revolution in video games. Each level has a distinct tune that, to this day, many people can hear and immediately be transported back to when they were trying to beat Starlight Zone for the third time. And let’s not talk about that underwater countdown music from Labyrinth Zone!
9. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Released in 1997 by Konami – part of the Castlevania franchise
Symphony of the Night is the thirteenth release in the Castlevania franchise—one of the largest franchises to feature on this list in terms of the number of games. The game is—deep breath—a sidescrolling platform-adventure action role-playing game. Phew. You spend your time exploring Dracula’s castle, fighting various baddies, and eventually confronting the great vampire himself.
Composed by Michiru Yamane, the soundtrack for this game perfectly encapsulates the eery yet fun tone. Think more haunted house than a horror movie, with a sprinkle of thrash metal for good measure. There are thirty-four songs in the soundtrack.
8.Donkey Kong Country
Released in 1994 by Rare Ltd – part of the Donkey Kong franchise
From the franchise responsible for the birth Mario, Donkey Kong Country is the eighth game in the Donkey Kong franchise. It is a sidescrolling platformer with a distinctive “3D” appearance that was achieved through using pre-rendered images in the game art. The game featured forty levels, so there was plenty of scope for the soundtrack to shine.
And shine it did. Composed mostly by David Wise, the music was expected (by Wise, at least) to be replaced with music from Koji Kondo of Super Mario fame, but Wise’s music was liked enough that he was offered the chance to run the whole show! The music is mainly atmospheric with a strong beat in keeping with the game’s jungle environment. The music from Donkey Kong Country would be one of the earliest instances of a video soundtrack getting a standalone release.
7. Super Mario Galaxy
Released in 2007 by Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development – part of the Mario franchise
Everybody’s favourite plumber’s third outing in full 3D was a big hit. In a break from the traditional 2D sidescrolling or standard 3D platforming gameplay of previous Mario games, Galaxy saw Mario hopping from world to world across the emptiness of space. Each world is entirely navigable by the player, although, granted, the planets are tiny. But that just adds to the fun.
The soundtrack for Super Mario Galaxy was nearly a very different animal. Composer, Mahito Yokota, put together a full twenty-eight tracks with a Latin bent to them for the game that was later turned down. He would come back three months later with a different, more orchestral approach, and this fantastic soundtrack was born. It would also be released with an enormous 53 tracks after an initial Club Nintendo exclusive release.
6. Halo: Combat Evolved
Released in 2001 by Gearbox Software – part of the Halo franchise
There are a few franchises that have etched their name first-person shooter history. Names like Quake and Doom are a given, of course. But Halo is right up as perhaps the defining first-person shooter of the last few generations. Halo: Combat Evolved is where it all started on the original Xbox. The game saw you take on the role of the faceless Master Chief as he fights his way through hordes of enemies to prevent the Covenant from discovering Earth.
The music was composed by Martin O’Donnell and his company, TotalAudio. O’Donnell would spend a good deal of time working with the developers to craft a soundtrack that makes excellent use of silence—using the music to add emphasis to critical events.
5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Released in 2011 by Bethesda Game Studios – part of the Elder Scrolls franchise
In much the same way that Rockstar has set the standard for open-world games in an urban environment, Bethesda has done the same for open-world fantasy role-playing games. Being the latest release, Skyrim is the best example of this, with picturesque vistas, creepy dungeons, and epic monsters. The openness of the game—you can go anywhere in the world almost from the start of the game—makes it an immersive experience.
Of course, the orchestral soundtrack that accompanies you through the realm of Tamriel is everything you’d expect from epic fantasy. Composed by Jeremy Soule, who had worked on the previous two instalments of the franchise, the music works perfectly to bring you into the world. The more relaxing music of the game has even found popularity in “ambient music” videos on YouTube, with multiple such videos receiving millions of views.
4. Kingdom Hearts
Released in 2002 by Square – part of the Kingdom Hearts franchise
The first game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise was lauded for its unconventional (at the time) mix of role-playing and action. The player makes their way through the world with two computer-controlled companions, fighting enemies and gaining abilities.
The music was composed and produced by Yoko Shimomura and featured derivations of some Disney films. The soundtrack sold nearly a million copies in Japan alone. Some of the music from this soundtrack was re-released in 2007 as part of Drammatica, a compilation of Shimomura’s best works.
3. Final Fantasy VII
Released in 1997 by Eidos Interactive – part of the Final Fantasy franchise
When it comes to role-playing games, few franchises have the prestige that Final Fantasy boasts. As the name suggests, this is the seventh entry in the franchise. It sees the player take on the role of Cloud Strife, a mercenary who is hired to help fight an evil mega-corporation who wants to drain the planet of its lifeblood for profit.
The soundtrack for Final Fantasy VII was composed and produced by Nobuo Uematsu, who was also the man behind the previous six games’ music. Interestingly, Uematsu had initially planned to use CD-quality audio, but this was found to create lengthy loading times that were deemed not worth it. This forced Uematsu to work with the internally sequenced sound of the PlayStation, which no doubt affected the final result.
2. Chrono Trigger
Released in 1995 by Square – part of the Chrono franchise
Chrono Trigger is a role-playing game that was released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The player views the game world from a top-down perspective, controlling the main character and his companions. The world is a vibrant mix of forests, dungeons, and cities. Using magical attacks, you must battle your way through the world, making use of a host of other exciting mechanics as you go.
Time travel, anyone?
The soundtrack was primarily the work of Yasunori Mitsuda, with a little help from the above mentioned Nobuo Uematsu. Music from the game was very well received and is still considered classic to this day. Live orchestras across the globe have even performed it.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Released in 1998 by Grezzo – part of the Zelda franchise
It is unlikely anyone reading this will not be at least aware of Ocarina of Time. The first of Link’s outings to be in 3D, this game brought gaming royalty into the next era of video games on the Nintendo 64. You control Link in what has since become a standard 3D platformer model, fighting enemies with sword and shield.
The music for Ocarina of Time sees the return of Koji Kondo to our list. The music was not merely part of the scenery in this game but served a significant role in the gameplay. Using the buttons of the controller, players would have to “play” the eponymous ocarina.
As you might expect, the soundtrack has received awards, been performed live, released on a mammoth eighty-two track CD release, and is generally considered to be one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time.
And that’s our list. Do you agree? Are you outraged by some of my choices? Let me know what you think!