For decades, our geeky world of games has been soundtracked by bleeps and bloops, bagpipes and bongos, and other instances of instrument-y weirdness. Abrasive atonal rubbish grew into head bopping 16-bit basses, and low-fi Rock evolved into lush orchestras.
A history of video game music development would demand a library of books (or a whole lot of internet articles), so we’ve condensed this supersized subject. Here are our favorite video game songs, from the iconic, to the “I’ve never heard of that”.
Arrow Flash (1990) – Opening Theme
Arrow Flash is a short but sweet side-scrolling space shooter with a killer opening. An intergalactic barrage of pumped-up riffs score Arrow Flash’s mecha manga aesthetic, propelling players into an early 90s gem. – Harry Morris
Bloodborne (2015) – Ludwig the Accursed/Ludwig the Holy Blade
Bloodborne has some of the best music of any game this generation, with soaring and savage Gothic numbers which compete with mournful themes of a time long gone. The absolute cherry on top of the bunch, though, is this two-parter from the DLC The Old Hunters. Beginning with Ludwig the Accursed, the song is a sad lament for the horrific mutation that has befallen what was once a great hero of Yharnam. However, things take a major shift in the triumphant second part, Ludwig the Holy Blade. Together, the two themes mirror and contrast with one another, forming one of the best boss tunes of all time in the process. – Mike Worby
Blue Dragon (2006) – The Seal is Broken
Whilst Nobuo Uematsu’s One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII is the final boss music crème de la crème for most, his contributions to 2006’s Blue Dragon shouldn’t be overlooked. When Shu and his friends face big green super-baddie, Destroy, this choir-laden belter ticks every finale box, and then some.
(Hot take: One Winged Angel is good, but this is better.) – Harry Morris
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015) – Clouds and Starlight
When it comes to game soundtracks, indie games are a treasure trove of fantastic music that can sometimes be overlooked in favour of triple A titles. An indie game that has a particularly poignant soundtrack is Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Epically orchestral to the point that it feels biblical (though still managing to represent the northern country villages of England), the score certainly ingrained itself in my head after I played it. It was the piece Clouds and Starlight that really stood out to me though.
Clouds and Starlight is heard during one of the most emotionally brutal moments in the game, and the feeling it invokes is undeniable. The song features a choir and full orchestra to really hit home those religious undertones, making it feel like a hymn to those who have been taken to the titular Rapture. Soundtracks work best when they perfectly correspond with the themes of their source as well as with the particular scene in which they play. Clouds and Starlight does all of this and more, ascending to spectacular soundtrack status by elevating the scene and heightening the emotion. Composer Jessica Curry proves her skill with the entirety of this soundtrack, but Clouds and Starlight is an amazing yet underrated gem in the realms of video game music.
Now excuse me while I go and listen to this and have a bit of a cry. – Antonia Haynes
Fallout 4 (2015) – Main Theme
Fallout is a series that has had its fair share of controversies over the years (we’re not even going to touch the mess that is Fallout 76) but one thing about the series that can’t be disputed is how awesome the soundtrack is.
The main theme that runs throughout the series is brilliantly atmospheric, but it is the theme from the latest game in the main series, Fallout 4, that is one of the most memorable. Inon Zur, the composer for the game, perfectly captures the feeling of a dystopian world ravaged by nuclear war with the main theme, but it is the amped up Fallout 4 version that feels like the definitive version. With its epic orchestration and ominous yet enjoyable sound, the Fallout 4 theme wouldn’t sound out of place in a big budget movie. – Antonia Haynes
Final Fantasy VII (1997) – J-E-N-O-V-A
When it comes to memorable and epic boss themes in the Final Fantasy series, few tracks are stand out like this pulsing synth number from Final Fantasy VII. J-E-N-O-V-A positively slaps! A theme that absolutely nails down the importance of Jenova appearing before the party, this incredible tune will get players’ hearts pumping and their palms sweaty each of the three times it plays, as the player is confronted by this malevolent force. For bonus points check out the epic update the theme was given in Final Fantasy VII Remake. – Mike Worby
Final Fantasy IX (2000) – Melodies of Life
At numerous points throughout the course of Final Fantasy IX, players will come across Garnet humming a soothing melody to herself in moments of solace. It’s a recurring tune that will likely stick to the player, and it finally pays off beautifully when it blossoms into a fully vocalised piece during the credits of the game. As the track comes to an end, it transitions smoothly into the franchise’s main theme, leaving it feeling like composer Nobuo Uematsu’s own personal coda.
Ironically enough, IX also happened to be the last Final Fantasy soundtrack Uematsu composed without assistance. – Francis Kenna
Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2011) – Etro’s Champion/Knight of the Goddess
The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy is divisive amongst Final Fantasy’s fandom. But regardless of one’s stance on Lightning and co’s adventures, this opener to Final Fantasy XIII-2’s first battle packs all the epic-ness of the franchise’s best compositions. Rousing strings crescendo atop a backbone of orchestral grandiose, tumbling into a gorgeous chorus that says “Y’know, the Final Fantasy XIII games really aren’t that bad.” – Harry Morris
The Last of Us (2013) – Main Theme
Well known composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for the 2013 post-apocalyptic smash hit The Last of Us is one of those soundtracks that stays with you long after playing. There are many great songs, including the various versions of All Gone and the tear jerking Vanishing Grace, but the main theme has become a hugely iconic musical masterpiece, and for good reason.
The Last of Us – Main Theme manages to convey multiple emotions in a short space of time. Starting off with a country style guitar theme and escalating into something more sinister, there are feelings of sorrow, loss, fear and survival all contained within the simple yet powerful pluck of the guitar strings. It is a theme that is interpreted in different ways throughout the soundtrack too, such as with a cello arrangement of The Last of Us (Never Again). The versatile nature of the theme manages to perfectly encapsulate the world of The Last of Us in its every form and for that, it is one of the best contemporary video game themes out there. – Antonia Haynes
Mass Effect 3 (2012) – Leaving Earth
Mass Effect is a series with one of the best gaming soundtracks out there. Suicide Mission from Mass Effect 2 is one of the most well known pieces of music from the game series and for good reason. However, Leaving Earth from Mass Effect 3 is an underrated gem of a piece that serves as a lesson in how music can help create an amazing video game opening.
The music plays as Commander Shepherd is forced to abandon Earth as the Reapers invade. Shepherd can only look on helplessly as Earth is taken over with countless civilians perishing in the chaos , including a child whose death continues to haunt Shepherd throughout the game in their nightmares.
Clint Mansell’s score is menacing but also melancholy, perfectly encapsulating a world falling to a terrifying foe. It also cleverly incorporates the infamous and genuinely scary mechanical roar sound of the Reapers. Ominous, emotional and kind of creepy, Leaving Earth is a musical piece that stuck with me long after I stopped playing. – Antonia Haynes
Persona 5 Royal (2020) – I Believe
Throughout Persona 5, the electrifying Life Will Change always felt like a perfect prelude to a heist, but in Royal’s third semester the song is fittingly swapped out for the more personalized I Believe. It feels like a successor to the aforementioned Life Will Change thanks to some clever nods in the lyrics, and the riff that bridges the opening and choruses to the verses, but it no longer feels like a track about being the underdogs rising up against oppression. Instead, it alludes to the Phantom Thieves’ personal growths and beliefs that are formed during the third semester, and it results in one of the franchises most empowering songs. – Francis Kenna
Resident Evil 4 (2005) – Serenity
The melancholic save room themes are an iconic staple of the Resident Evil franchise, but none feel as heavy in their juxtaposition of being both haunting and reassuring as 4’s. Maybe it’s the exhausting pacing of 4’s Ganado encounters that make any of the quieter moments feel more cherished, but regardless, Serenity is a surprisingly moving piece from a franchise that isn’t known for its emotional nuance. – Francis Kenna
Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game (2010) – Just Like in The Movies
Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game is such a fun and addictive beat em up, but the soundtrack is equally compelling thanks to its chiptune sound made to reflect the 8-bit arcade style of the game. There are tons of great tracks on the game’s soundtrack from the band Anamanaguchi, but the stand out to me has always been Just Like in the Movies.
This is the final track in the game and is one of the most memorable due to its cheerful nature, signalling a happy ending and a perfect way to wrap up the game. This is actually one of my all my time favourite game soundtracks and Just Like in the Movies was my ringtone for the longest time when I was a teenager! I’m so excited that the game is coming back with a complete edition soon, and I’d definitely recommend giving Anamanaguchi’s awesome soundtrack a listen if you haven’t heard it before. – Antonia Haynes
Silent Hill 2 (2002) – Laura’s Theme Reprise (Stairs of Fire)
Akira Yamaoka’s dingy, gritty soundscape does occasionally allow for beauty, even amidst the tragedy of Silent Hill 2. As a tormented character goes off to face her death and her damnation, the soft piano of Laura’s Theme Reprise sees her tragic journey to its bitter end. A stirring, sad tune, Laura’s Theme Reprise then introduces a mournful violin, weaving an indelibly sorrowful and evocative creation between these two disparate elements. It’s a wonderful piece of music and one that will still move players to this day, particularly if they’ve watched the scene for which the song is known. – Mike Worby
Silver Surfer (1990) – BGM 1
This NES oddball, notorious for its crushing difficulty, has one perk in its corner: Tim Follin. An industry legend responsible for pushing 8-bit music past its perceived hardware and stylistic limits (seriously, look him up), Silver Surfer’s BGM 1 is a retro ruckus that’s as ballistically over the top as the projectile hell the titular protagonist must survive. – Harry Morris
The Walking Dead Game (2012) – Clementine’s Suite
The Walking Dead was one of the most unexpected hits from Telltale Games back in 2012 (and one of my personal favorite games ever). The musical score for the game, composed by Jared Emerson Johnson, doesn’t have the huge orchestration that some of my other choices have, but its simplicity makes it all the more impressive as it has just as much staying power and effect as the larger compositions. The Clementine Suite is one of the best pieces of music from the series, with its soft, sombre and somewhat chilling nature emphasising Clementine’s journey of survival as well as the development of her character over the years.
Clementine has become an iconic video game character, due to her excellent development as a lost child who is taught how to fend for herself to a grizzled and hardened apocalypse survivor, and her accompanying musical suite perfectly represents her as a character, as well as the general tone of the game and The Walking Dead franchise as a whole. Jared Emerson Johnson’s Clementine’s Suite is one I would definitely want to hear with a full orchestra one day. Someone, please make that happen. – Antonia Haynes
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006) – Staff Credits Theme #1
Keeping in series tradition, Twilight Princess is a game filled to the brim with outstanding music, but it’s the medley that plays over the game’s credits that feels like the true culmination. Pulling from various melodies that are prevalent throughout the adventure, the track is a near-seven minute epic of swelling orchestration and tinkering reprieves, encapsulating the emotional journey of the game in a tightly composed Koji Kondo gem. – Francis Kenna