When it comes to evoking emotion and translating feeling to the audience, few aspects of art are as important as the music. Whether communicating a sense of danger, the stakes of a vital struggle, or the sinister mystery of an unknown world, no part of an experience is as vital or transcendent as that of the music that accompanies it. With that in mind, we’ve asked our writers to tell us their absolute favorite gaming soundtrack, and what makes it stand out to them. Below are their answers.
Few games possess the sheer personality and diversity of Chrono Cross‘ soundtrack. Layered with diverse soundscapes and evocative melodies, Yasunori Mitsuda’s legendary follow-up to his Chrono Trigger soundtrack is one of the best collections of music ever created, inside or outside of its respective medium.
Part of what makes the soundtrack so special is the wide degree of range it offers. From mournful, melancholic tragedy to cheerful festival music, Chrono Cross nails the tone of every area you explore and every moment you experience with the most spot-on, involving and enveloping music imaginable. Big moments like epic boss battles with long embittered foes or fearful deities are given the appropriate level of reverence they deserve, while the game’s other big moments are offered an eclectic mix of wondrous instrumentation, operatic vocals, and gorgeously devised emotion via Mitsuda’s earth-shattering grasp for the feel and sound of the moment in question.
In fact, music is such an important part of Chrono Cross, that you can’t even beat the game properly without playing a series of notes during the final battle, the last of which is the titular “Chrono Cross”, a mystical element which cements the connection between Chrono Cross and its forebear. A marvel of sound design and musical mastery, Chrono Cross’ soundtrack pays tribute to its past, while proudly evoking its own gorgeous present. It is truly a masterpiece. (Mike Worby)
Final Fantasy VIII
When it comes to gaming soundtracks, few series’ are as well known as Final Fantasy. However, even among this esteemed company, Final Fantasy VIII is a massive standout.
Doubling down on the soaring operatics that made ‘One-Winged Angel’ such a memorable theme in Final Fantasy VII, series composer Nobuo Uematsu creates a stirring, pulse-pounding score for VIII which offers a ton of memorable tracks. From the adrenaline fuelled chase of ‘Dead End’ to the mounting theatrical dread of ‘Filthos Lusec Wecos Vinosec’, Final Fantasy VIII makes every key moment in the story stand out all the more through Uematsu’s incredible ability to tie music to the emotion of a moment.
The utter thrill of battle can be heard in the soaring opening theme, while the solemn hope of a promise can be felt in a moment that requires more nuance. Further, the game’s villain, Ultimecia, gains so much of her sinister menace in thanks to the music that accompanies her throughout the game. Finally, the 4 part suite that accompanies the final battle, particularly the last branch of it, is unrivaled in terms of climactic boss music.
A collection of music that stands as one of gaming’s best even 20 years later, Final Fantasy VIII‘s score is one of the all-time greats, and easily among the best RPG soundtracks ever created. (Mike Worby)
God of War
God of War made an epic comeback in April 2018, with Santa Monica Studios completely revitalising the series while managing to stay true to the general tone of the franchise. With this new game came a soundtrack by Bear McCreary (known for his music for television such as the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series, Outlander and The Walking Dead) who took over from Gerard Marino, the composer for all the other games in the series. McCreary pays homage to Marino’s work in his score but adds his own interpretation by introducing an element of subtlety and combining it with Nordic influences. By doing this, he creates a soundtrack that never forgets that Kratos is still well and truly the God of War, but also emphasises and reflects the growth and maturity of his character and the series as a whole.
Kratos gets a new bombastic theme that incorporates the deep and booming voices of a choir with classic bass, strings and drums. The theme is very much Kratos as it is incredibly powerful and almost aggressive; the perfect encapsulation of his character. Other themes in the game are equally strong and represent their intended moments well, such as the melancholic ‘Memories of Mother’ for Faye, Kratos’s deceased wife and Atreus’s mother. ‘Valkyries’ is a brilliant battle theme that continuously immersed me in the fight with the titular Valkyries even when I kept dying and having to hear it over and over again. ‘Ashes’ is a fantastic theme — my personal favourite of the whole soundtrack — for the moment when Kratos and Atreus hold a funeral for Faye. It blends ‘Memories of Mother’ with Kratos’s ‘God of War’ theme to create a piece that is high in emotion yet still retains the undeniably masculine undertone of Kratos’s theme.
McCreary’s score captures the tone of the game overall perfectly, as well as reflecting the more intimate character moments too. McCreary clearly understood and utilized Gerard Marino’s material from the other games and does the series justice by not throwing it away entirely. Instead, he builds on the feel of the original score and introduces new themes to represent the Norse age. This creates a score that is chock full of emotion and realism, which also manages to maintain the fantasy feel and reflect the setting of the game. This not only makes this gaming soundtrack the best of 2018, and one of the best in contemporary gaming, but also one of the best of all time. (Antonia Haynes)
Kid Icarus: Uprising
Super Smash Bros. and Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai’s revival of the Kid Icarus series on the Nintendo 3DS incorporates rhythmic storytelling into the key pillars of game design, resulting in fantastic orchestrated and digitally composed scores that help lead the charge during dynamic action set pieces in the skies that continue with on-foot assaults. The sound design in Uprising is just as integral to the game as its lovable characters and challenging gameplay. Every piece of music in Uprising is thematically appropriate to its sporadically changing and blending themes of Greek mythology, science fiction, and fantasy.
For example, during Pit’s first battle with his mirror clone Dark Pit, the atmosphere is shrouded with a unique combination of the Spanish acoustic guitar and the Greek lute; two instruments often associated with the sounds of western duels and rivalries by the general public. The acoustic guitar represents the engaged battle between the two Pits while the lute harmonically shows the power of both the goddess of light and worshipper of darkness — Palutena and Medusa — judging and interfering with the fight above and below them. The two instruments help culminate into a fight that further feels as if you are standing in the middle of a tense shootout.
This is only one example of what is contained within Uprising’s 25 chapters that hold almost four hours worth of music. Every track feels constantly fresh due to how the game’s story seamlessly continues to change tone and jump from multiple settings that loosely follow the inspirational source material of the series. Unlike that of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and GameBoy entries, Uprising is a wild ride whose soundtrack is certainly worth listening to by itself, but for the most worthwhile experience, it definitely should be paired with either third-person shooting or smashing. (Marc Kaliroff)
Kingdom Hearts II
Before the player is even afforded the opportunity to press a single button, Kingdom Hearts II’s evocative soundtrack has already perfectly encapsulated the , and that achieved in no less than a chord. Though not an immediate sequel, Kingdom Hearts II directly expands on its predecessor’s themes of heart and friendship in an often-melancholic rumination on how memories and relationships can shape our very existence. Though not without the familiar , the sequel’s soundtrack is more than up to the task to tackle such heady subjects, and, stripped of all context, still effectively conveys the immense ethos at play in KHII.
Throughout the game’s run time, composer Yoko Shimomura perfectly scores every beat the game seeks to hit, from a to a fond . Innumerable moments in the game are given immense poignancy courtesy of the score alone. A sudden forces the player to internally grapple with the fact while their methods might be nefarious, these villains want nothing more than to exist. Similarly, an impossibly accentuates the conclusion of an initially unwelcome prologue, making it impossible not to feel for and miss a character that was introduced mere hours before, leaving the player near overwhelmed as the title flashes across the screen and the game starts in earnest. Brimming with unforgettable new themes, including , gorgeous new renditions of preexisting favorites like the title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” and capped off with a sensational theme from Hikaru Utada in “,” and the soundtrack for Kingdom Hearts II gives the title its heart and remains not only one of the best and most effective gaming soundtracks, but one of the most beautiful, impactful scores of all time. (Tim Maison)
The Last of Us
When it comes to memorable soundtracks from more contemporary video games, The Last of Us is one of the first to come to mind.
The Last of Us is one of the most commercially and critically successful games of the last decade. The 2013 post apocalyptic zombie (kind of) game tells the story of grizzled and world weary survivor Joel as he is tasked with escorting a 14 year old girl across the country. A simple premise that created arguably one of best narratives in gaming. As well as being impressive from a storytelling perspective, the game’s music is also incredible. Renowned composer Gustavo Santaolalla — known for his work in films such as Brokeback Mountain and The Book of Life –– created the music for the game. His score breathes life into the apocalyptic world that the player inhabits. He does this by keeping things simple yet always retaining a suspenseful, harrowing or emotional tone.
Simple strings are the main element of most of the score. The guitar takes center stage in a lot of tracks but it steals the show in ‘The Last of Us Main Theme’ (now a hugely well known piece of music). It begins softly and gets more grandiose as more instruments join the lone guitar to emphasize the building drama as the world begins to fall apart.
Another highlight in the soundtrack are the various versions of ‘All Gone’. All of them are beautiful pieces with a deeply emotional feel in contrast to the drama, dread and excitement that the main theme can stir up. It’s impossible to not feel something when you hear any of them but ‘All Gone (No Escape)’ is a particular stand out to me that can get the tears flowing pretty easily (just like the scene in the game).
Santaolalla clearly has a keen understanding of the game world as well as the story and characters. He expresses all of these elements perfectly through his haunting yet beautiful soundtrack that is akin to a cinematic score. Santaolalla skillfully crafts a whole world with his music and by doing so, creates a score that is easily one of the best in gaming. (Antonia Haynes)
No More Heroes 2
No More Heroes 2 is this brilliant off-the-wall insane gem, with gameplay as varied as its excellent boss designs. There’s a lot of fast-paced action, and a high tempo soundtrack attributes greatly to the exciting feeling of experiencing the game. But one of my favorite parts about No More Heroes 2‘s soundtrack is that it spans multiple genres and thematics, finding time to be chilled out with the sparkling “Sunshine Slayer” from the Kimmy Howell boss, whilst also jamming through blazing punk inspired tracks like “Beam Katana Chronicles II.” Then we come to the vast amount of mini-games used for collecting cash, and we get 8-bit inspired tracks that would fit perfectly in old school games.
There’s even a great dramatic track that feels almost like its taken out of either a spy film, or some sort of surfer drama (or honestly something that would feel fitting in Team Fortress 2) with Charlie MacDonald’s boss theme “DEATH PARADE.” Every boss has these amazing themes, though the most standout of all is the infectious and infinitely singable “Philistine” from the Margaret Moonlight fight. “Reaper, reaper, that’s what people call me. Why? Cause they all die” will be stuck in your head forever, thank me later.
But even outside of the boss themes, there’s a few remixes of the No More Heroes theme from the first game that each build and present something brand new. Probably the strongest is the first, “N.M.H. The Outer Rim Remix,” but they’ve all got something to give. Whether you’re fighting in a giant mech, having a motorcycle duel with a bōsōzoku, or slicing your way through waves of enemies, NMH2 has the perfect soundtrack to back it all up. (Shane Dover)
It feels erroneous to include only one title from Atlus’ Persona franchise, a series that has dedicated three rhythm titles celebrating its quality scores, in this best-of list. However, Persona 5 (2016) arguably propelled the series to new heights when it comes to excellence in video game soundtracks. Given that the title’s protagonist, Joker, is consistently told how ‘cool’ and suave he is, it’s completely fitting that Persona 5’s score (produced by composer Shoji Meguro with contributions from others) is heavily inspired by acid jazz, funk, lounge, and pop as genres.
What’s even more confounding, however, is how exceptionally well these jazz-dominant influences are in representing the turbulent day-to-day of a teenage outcast living a double life. Meguro’s compositions are simultaneously motivating and pensive, urging the player to take action (in battle and out), while also encouraging them to reflect on the heavier social themes of the title. Moreover, they encapsulate a rainbow of emotions, from the destructiveness of (teen) angst, to the tenderness of first love, to the melancholy of a subpar day at school. Perhaps the greatest testament to Persona 5’s soundtrack, however, is the presence of reaction videos online of Let’s Players and streamers hearing its ridiculously smooth battle theme, Last Surprise, for the first time – and it also became a meme. If viral success isn’t indicative of an excellent soundtrack, then what is?
Standout tracks include: Last Surprise, Rivers in the Desert, Life Will Change, Layer Cake, Beneath the Mask, and The Whims of Fate. (Jordana Elliot)
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master is not only the best title in its franchise, but boasts a gaming soundtrack more killer than a bunch o’ chucked shurikens. A beaming iteration of 16-bit melodic magic, Joe Musashi’s quest jumps from funky fresh jams to fist pumping anthems.
Highlights include title theme ‘Shinobi’, dark ‘n’ groovy ‘Trap Boogie’, and the iconic ‘Whirlwind’. And that’s not to mention round 1 opener ‘Japonesque’, stellar boss theme ‘Shadows’, or ‘Idaten’ (from that hella cool horse level). Really, choosing standouts from this batch of bangers requires a lengthy list, it’s that good!
Mingling an amalgamation of genres and tempos with hyper catchy hooks, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master‘s soundtrack is a testament to the excellence of its era. (Harry Morris)
JRPGs have always been known for their great music. From the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to Kingdom Hearts, the genre has rarely failed to deliver a quality soundtrack in even the most lackluster of entries. Enter Xenoblade Chronicles. Routinely praised as one of the greatest JRPGs of all time and a Metacritic darling, Xenoblade succeeds not only because of its excellent gameplay, top-notch story, and loveable characters, but also because of its incredible music.
Xenoblade succeeds because of its ability to break free of the constraints that have bound JRPGs for decades. Its soundtrack is no different. Coordinating the efforts of Yoko Shimomura, Yasunori Mitsuda, and ACE+ (Kenji Hiramatsu, Tomori Kudo, Hiroyo Yamanaka) into a coherent whole, Xenoblade director Tetsuya Takahashi refused to limit the scope of the soundtrack during development, mixing together typical JRPG acoustics with “instruments that each had their own individual flavor […] creating a more varied soundtrack” in the process.
The result was nothing less than extraordinary.
Every piece of Xenoblade’s music, from the opening theme that plays mournfully when the game starts up to the end theme that plays joyfully at the game’s conclusion, fits into its role perfectly, cementing a soundtrack that just feels right.
It’s hard to put into perspective the huge swathe of emotions that Xenoblade’s soundtrack covers. There are songs about love. There are songs about hatred. There are songs about loss, growth, silliness, seriousness, and nearly every other emotion imaginable. Indeed, even when divorced from the corresponding scenes in the adventure, the music carries with it a sense of emotional magnetism that is as rare as it is breathtaking, a sense of adventure and yearning that never fades, even after repeated listening. And, its that timelessness, that endemic quality that makes Xenoblade’s soundtrack a good listen, even for those not interested in JRPGS at all. (Izsak Barnette)
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
It’s a testament to series composer Yasunori Mitsuda that two Xenoblade Chronicles titles made this list. The mainline Xenoblade games are known for being exceedingly story-driven, emotional journeys, and a major reason they’ve succeed is because of the outstanding attention to detail given to their scores.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a sprawling JRPG that follows the story of a young salvager named Rex on his continent-spanning journey to reach Elysium, meet The Creator, and uncover the truth about the ancient living weapons known as Blades. The sheer scope of the game (70 hours of playtime is on the low end) makes it all the more impressive that the soundtrack has enough variety to feel fresh and engaging throughout.
How’s this possible you ask? The music isn’t just region and city-specific, but each theme is based on the aesthetics of its setting. One of the most beloved tracks in the game, , perfectly exemplifies this. The track’s bombastic horns lend a fitting brass sound to the heavily industrialized city. , however, most of these elements are stripped away in favor of a sweet flute and piano-led melody that brings to mind images of a wistful nighttime stroll.
That’s right—most locations have accompanying night themes that contain the daytime theme’s core melody but slow things down to evoke a softer, more subtle mood for exploring at night. Satoshi Igarashi how Astral Chain’s exploration and battle music play off of each other using this same audio design method. The result in both games is a lovely coupling of tracks that complement each other and suit different moods perfectly.
Want to listen for yourself? I can’t recommend the sleepily ambient sounds of enough. It’s a city enveloped in dreamy purple and blue hues and is the first true visual showcase of Rex and Pyra’s journey. is far grander and drearier, but equally worth your time. (Brent Middleton)