Top 10 Video Game Soundtracks: Staff Picks



Journey
Submitted by Sarah-Jane Tollan

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From the monstrously intense Latin chants in Final Fantasy VII’s ‘One-Winged Angel’ to the whimsical, enchanting ‘Song of Storms’ from Ocarina of Time, music is as integral an asset to a video game as its gameplay mechanics and characterisation. Yet never before has a soundtrack been so fully integrated into a video game—to the extent that it becomes part of the gameplay itself—than in Journey, 2012’s artistic indie game of choice. 

From the quiet flourish of a flute as you traverse the desert to the increasing crescendo of violins whilst you glide across the sand to the sun setting over the mountain, Journey‘s soundtrack is as aesthetic as its environment. But its charm lies in its solidarity with the player: the music reflects your progression as you explore each level, creating a soundtrack that hardly ever repeats itself. As you enter a snowy mountain landscape, subtle violins accompany your passage until you are met with a tempestuous snowstorm; the music gradually mutates itself into a panicked, ominous suite with a backdrop of rushing wind and crackling lightning as you battle towards the summit.

By matching the compositions—moulded by composer Austin Wintory over a three-year period—to the player’s movements, the video game is given an emotional arc and personality unlike any other game. As you ascend higher and higher towards your destination, the violins soar higher with you, and there is an acute awareness, an acute sense of responsibility, that you feel in leading the character towards their finale. It is such a striking commitment to the nuances of its theme, of the emotions tied to ideas of journeys and pilgrimages, that instead of being solely an ambience creator, Journey‘s soundtrack is the game.



Final Fantasy X

Submitted by Alex Driscoll

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Though Nobuo Uematsu could well have his own list article dedicated to his astounding, beloved works on the Final Fantasy series – and beyond – and though it was incredibly difficult to pick just one, there are few works in his roster that have had the impact that Final Fantasy X had. The first entry in the series on the PlayStation 2, the game was beautiful, bright, and had a stunning story that was only amplified by Uematsu and co.’s vibrant contemplations.

Take the piano-led ‘To Zanarkand’, for example. It’s played over the opening credits with the lead character saying just two sentences: “Listen to my story. This may be our last chance”, words whose connotations only became so heartbreakingly sentimental when tied with the effervescent opening scene and its delicate, moody piano. Few prolific gamers can say they weren’t emotionally tortured by its accompaniment with a heart-rending tale of Spira. Although the visuals have aged in a way that the recent remaster arguably emphasised, the music has a timeless quality, with the capabilities to incite real emotion and tension.

Apart from its passionate aptitudes, the soundtrack is particularly interesting for an array of other details. Final Fantasy’s first taste of metal music doesn’t disappoint, and the tasteful battle theme never gets old. Many would still be able to recite ‘Song of Prayer’, even if they’d not played the game since its release, and cuts like ‘Besaid Island’ and ‘The Sight Of Spira’ are wonderfully calming, extremely illustrative of the areas of the game they decorate. ‘Place of Ordeals’ might even rouse some anger in those familiar, due to those pesky temple puzzles. It’s a soundtrack that blooms with excellent listenability, even when detached from the artwork it was designed to accompany. For that reason, it manages to transcend the level of your average soundtrack.



Red Dead Redemption
Submitted by Ellis Whitehouse

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Widely considered as one of the greatest games of the seventh generation of consoles, Red Dead Redemption is an operatic poem of blood, honour, and loyalty, painted on a back drop of a time where the wildness of the American West was beginning to fade, but with several reminders that it did anything but die quietly.

The soundtrack to Redemption was essential for establishing the player in the setting of the dying West, and it never got a note wrong. It echoed the mood and aesthetics of the desert lands full of blood and outlaws, with soft and bleak melodies playing out beautifully in the ears.

There is one defining moment in the game that encapsulates everything magical of the game’s soundtrack. John Marston has just entered Mexico, riding a long way from home to hunt down his former gang members, once his brothers, to ensure his family are freed. Upon docking at the riverbed marking the American border, he mounts a horse and rides off inland, and as he does, Swedish indie folk singer José González begins his beautiful ‘Far Away’.

The song accompanying Marston’s first ride into Mexico is absolutely mesmerising – the song is pitch perfect with the sun scorched red lands that the game so beautifully draws, and emphasises that the life Marston is trying to live with his family is slipping further away from him. It echoes the underlying sentiment of the game – life in the American West is changing, but the old wild ways are still very much alive, and full peace isn’t quite here yet.



Chrono Trigger
Submitted by George Pierce

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When discussing the best video games of all time, there are a handful of titles that will always be in the running.  Squaresoft’s 1995 masterwork Chrono Trigger is among these. A sci-fi fantasy released towards the end of the SNES’s lifespan, Chrono Trigger routinely tops the list of best 2-D RPGs ever created.  The game already has plenty going for it—an engrossing story with unforgettable characters and an innovative battle system to boot—but the music of the game has always been noted as a high-water mark not just for Squaresoft, but for the entire genre.

Where Chrono Trigger’s music really shines is in its ability to portray personality and emotion without trying too hard.  “Frog’s Theme” conveys a sense of chivalry and formality, very fitting for a knight such as Frog.  “Schala’s Theme,” on the other hand, is an incredibly beautiful piece that undeniably conveys a deep sadness or depression, and completely describes Schala herself, hinting at the pain she bears.  Just as efficiently, moods in the game are also set through music.  The song that plays at the Millennial Fair is lighthearted and festive, akin to an Irish drinking song (complete with a sing-a-long shout of “Hey!”), whereas the track that plays as you explore the Magus’s castle is simply one drawn-out A# note with random haunted wailing in the background, providing tension and suspense to an already creepy castle.  And “Depths of the Night” is one of the most emotional songs I’ve ever heard in a video game, fully encapsulating a tender moment within its slow, somber notes.

The amazing thing about this soundtrack is that it was composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s very first; he was a sound engineer before this game, but was tasked with creating Chrono Trigger’s music when he asked for a raise.  Considering the result, I’d say he earned his keep.  With help from Noriko Matsueda and Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, Mitsuda came up with one of the most endearing and enduring video game soundtracks of all time.  He’s gone on to work on other stellar OSTs, including Chrono Cross, Mario Party, and Xenoblade Chronicles, but Chrono Trigger will always be the standard-bearer when it comes to game music.



Ace Combat IV
Submitted by Jackson Maxwell

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Though it was released in 2001, Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies feels of its time even today. With stunning graphics and a truly engaging plot (whose twists and characters put the more lazily written storylines of the series’ newest entries to shame,) it can be both an all-encompassing franchise highlight and a delightfully fun, arcade-like exercise depending on the player’s mood.

Its greatest quality, one that its equally incredible sequel, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, also has in spades, is its sense of grandeur. The implications of the missions you’re sent on feel as large as the seemingly infinite skies you tear through. But it’s the two hour-plus soundtrack, composed by Tetsukazu Nakanishi and Hiroshi Okubo, that so often gives this game the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The bubbling synthesizers that peer in and out of almost every one of the soundtrack’s two dozen (!!) pieces will sound familiar to anyone used to playing Namco games. However, what’s the most impressive is how seamlessly Nakanishi and Okubo blend those whirring electronics with the power of the full orchestra they utilized for the game. You’ll hear bellicose horns one second, then impassioned guitar shredding right out of a Van Halen hit the next. And while these dramatic qualities make it a tough listen without the accompaniment of the game, they really do accentuate the missions they accompany. Imagine playing the game’s legendary final mission, where you have to destroy the inhumanely large super-weapon, Megalith, without the equally famous soundtrack piece “Megalith -Agnus Dei,” leading the way.

Removed from context, the dramatic cries of the full choir and orchestra on the song seem a bit ridiculous. But when you’ve reached the game’s final climax, with an army of fighter jets in front of you, waiting to turn you into a pile of spare parts, it’s the perfect amount of chest-puffing self-seriousness, and the perfect culmination of a sweeping score that is astonishing in both its scope and its versatility.



Metal Gear Solid
Submitted by Joey Chini

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Metal Gear Solid’s characters, setting and themes are instantly recognizable as classic video game gems. The first instalment in the franchise has a score that embodies everything Metal Gear Solid has to offer; calculated infiltration, suave charm and nail-biting combat. Industrial percussion and the low hum of synthetic choir establish daunting dread and suspense fro the introduction.

Slow burn is the foundation on which the score builds its greatness, adding sections to loops as it progresses through the composition. It says so much that a score like this, if done lazily could’ve just been a bland rendition of a Trent Reznor soundtrack. Adding small details like the sound of a water droplet hitting metal, or the ‘chika-chika’ of a hat electrically processed so much that it feels mechanized, elevates what could have been a benign rip-off to a malicious sound that does more than just make you feel nostalgic.

The enigmatic track ‘Encounter’ never ceases to amaze. Its staccato radiates tension and the notes adapt to the players actions, utilizing crescendo and decrescendo to emphasize the stakes. The rest of the score has moments of soothing ambiance, blaring horns that amplify hectic chases, and epic boss fight music that adds to the grand scale of each battle. Themes resonate with their counterpart, from  character themes like the eerie sound of the errant ‘Mantis Theme’ to the sorrowful, somber sound of ‘Enclosure’, and the location themes like ‘Warhead Storage’ and ‘Blast Furnace’ always remind you where you are. By the end of the score there are many words that come to mind that can be used to describe it: memorable, classic, or inspiring. But there is only one word I can think of that truly encapsulates the essence of Metal Gear Solid, and that word is legendary.

The Konami Computer Entertainment Sound Team Japan composed most of the score, except “Metal Gear Solid Main Theme” which was composed by TAPPY and “The Best Is Yet to Come” written by Rika Muranaka and performed by Aoife Ní Fhearraigh.



Skies of Arcadia
Submitted by Joss Taylor Olson

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Before there was Final Fantasy XII, the Sega Dreamcast had its own equivalent that sent RPG fans on a journey through the clouds with Skies of Arcadia. A world of floating continents in a sea of sky was knit together by a spirited cast of pirates and conquerors, a story of exploration in an age of sail, and a lively soundtrack backing every discovery with a glorious orchestral pulse.

Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda (GunValkyrie, Sonic series) seize the player’s attention from the beginning, accompanying the mysterious princess Fina’s flight from the corrupt Valuan Empire with a frenzy of strings and brass. The score soars through a world still being mapped, from the bright woodwind theme of Air Pirate Island to the pseudo-Arabian Nasr to the Mesoamerican jungle rhythms of Ixa’Taka. The lands of Arcadia are all alive with unique and colorful themes, each of which seep into the harmony of the overworld music as you fly from country to undiscovered country.

The soundtrack tells the story as powerfully as it builds the world, resurrecting familiar motifs for climactic moments. Maeda and Minobe bring back the beautiful strings of the main theme for the game’s bittersweet ending, and the militaristic theme of the Valuan Imperial Armada returns faster and more intricate for battles with the Admirals. Speaking of boss music, Skies corners the market on it. In addition to specific tracks for the major villains, most of the boss fights have three associated pieces: one regular theme, a frantic piece for when the party is on the ropes, and one triumphant tune for when the boss is. The transitions are practically seamless and complement the tenor of the action well—making it all the more frustrating if you manage to die when the music says you shouldn’t.

If there’s a case to be made for the long-teased HD remaster, it’s that the soundtrack would get the orchestral treatment it deserved. The synthesized music worked fine on the Dreamcast but sounds somewhat tinny in the Gamecube remaster, Skies of Arcadia Legends—a casualty of compressing the game to one disc. Technical issues aside, the scope and emotion of the Skies soundtrack rival that of any Final Fantasy; all it’s missing is the proper instruments.



Shenmue
Submitted by Max Szyc

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I always appreciated the action-packed scores that accompany my favourite video games. But I tended to rarely give them the attention they deserved, instead opting to listen to my own soundtracks (read: old Linkin Park and Incubus albums). Because of this, I didn’t develop an infatuation for game soundtracks that my peers usually had, save for occasional nifty Nintendo compositions. Sega’s Shenmue was the game that completely changed all that.

Released in North American in 2000 for the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, Shenmue offered a gaming experience unlike anything else at the time: you had to find the man responsible for murdering your father, but do so immersed in a realistic world that allowed players to do what they wanted, whenever they wanted it. Each of the game’s NPCs possessed unique dialogue (almost always terribly voiced), the weather replicated real life patters, and you could buy all the convenience store crap your IRL parents would never give you money for. The game’s unique pacing made for a mesmerizing experience, but it was Shenmue’s dreamy soundtrack that made it all come together.

Composed by famed Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro and several others, Shenmue’s OST fused lush ambiance and atmospheric drones with Eastern instrumentation that resulted in a uniquely Japanese score. Not only did it enhance the game’s decidedly dreamlike feel, but it single handedly birthed my love for ambient music on a grander scale. The music’s effect has led me to look back and realize just how awesome some of my favourite game scores really are, but none of that would’ve been possible had Shenmue not opened my eyes.

With the long-awaited Shenmue 3 finally on the way, I look forward to getting lost once again in the series’ musical bliss.



The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Submitted by Patrick Fenton

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When the topic of video game soundtracks comes up, one word leaps to the front of my mind: Zelda. Since 1986 the theme song has been ingrained in the minds of gamers (at least this one) and it has survived multiple recompositions while still keeping the same classic feeling. With 19 official Zelda games released since then, one soundtrack stands above the rest comfortably, and that is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

The Wind Waker soundtrack—composed by Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, and Koji Kondo—contains 133 tracks and is one of the most unique Zelda soundtracks, thanks to the vast ocean dividing the small islands of Hyrule and a strong opening. Listening to the first 25 tracks one can envision the story of Link rescuing Tetra, then saying goodbye to his grandma and setting off with pirates to rescue his sister from The Forsaken Fortress. All this before the soundtrack even gets to the second most iconic theme in the Zelda franchise simply titled, Ocean.

While the Wind Waker title theme is great, there is no escaping listening to Ocean while travelling through the games vast seas looking for treasure and islands. Speaking of the title theme, it has never sounded better than in the song The Legendary Hero. In the game it plays over the telling of the legend of the Hero of Time at the outset, and it does a fantastic job of re-imagining the simple old 8-bit theme with actual instruments like uillean pipes and strings, expanding on it to accompany the tale of a lost hero and a kingdom washed away. The old Zelda theme has never sounded better, and no game since has had an opening so memorable, thanks in large part to the music.

All of the music in this game is memorable, from the boss fight themes to mini-games and events within the story. The soundtrack never fails to match the light-hearted, cel-shaded graphics, keeping the sense of adventure alive even during long sea voyages (or not-so-long voyages in the Wii U version). Even when the story involves dark subject matter, the graphics and music work in concert to keep the game fun and make it perhaps the most memorable Zelda game released to date.



Braid
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller

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Braid could perhaps be succinctly dubbed ‘The Impressionist’s Super Mario’, and its visual mode espouses this in almost every aspect—this wandering of and through 19th century paintings fashioned mostly by an impression or idea of its respective indexes. Suffice to say, the world of Braid is an abstract one, and in no small way does its soundtrack follow suit.

“Orchestral”, though the music certainly is, seems to fall short of the descriptive mark. Although Braid‘s gameplay never finds itself unaccompanied by bold and variously timbred horn and string-suffused tracks, it scarcely does so without conducting an atmosphere of listlessness, daze, and whim. For this reason, ‘orchestral warm-up’—those brief, few, aural minutes before curtain-up, while patrons are taking their seats, musing about playbills—strikes much more accurate a term for the OST’s gist.

Something like jazz, topically, is what an ‘orchestral warm-up’ could be regarded as. However, here, each instrument’s direction is neither less nor more emotionally arbitrary, as is jazz’s mode, but rather ‘affectively indifferent’. This equation, now, seems to yield something almost entirely antithetical: something neuronally peripheral, of the spine, reflex, and musculature, and not, like jazz, of the sub-neuronally central (the subconscious brain). This ‘affectively indifferent’ style to Braid’s listless musings becomes paradoxically, in effect, widely affective to the listener. Indeed, widely moving  is this ‘whim of the purest’: whim of the body, guided by spasm—yet not spastic—autonomic appendage, soma, and spine.

Expressionism (visually) is easy to speak about musically; one could conceivably coin it ‘jazz’. But the antithetically impressionistic Braid conceives a music likewise: an ‘orchestral warming-up’ that one could coceivably coin ‘anti-jazz’—or, simply, the sound of impressionism.

Oh, small-stepped Braid, what a giant leap you are for the medium we used to so casually call the “video game”.

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