The Best Game Soundtracks of the Year
Well…that was a tough one, wasn’t it? 2020 has been less than kind to us and 2021 is going to inherit a lot of the issues that we are currently facing. That being said, despite the difficulty of it all, I think now is a good time to step back, take a breath and reflect on the good things that happened this year. For me, it has to be music. As cheesy and cliché as it is, music truly is a healing element for me and so I revel in it whenever I can. If you’re familiar with my work here, you’ll probably have noticed I do discuss music quite frequently (yes there is a lot of BTS. No, there is none in this list you’ll be pleased to know) and you’d be correct. I’m nothing if not consistent. In this article- part one of a two-parter- we’re going to be counting down the twenty best video game soundtracks released this year. This is the third year in a row that I have ranked the game soundtracks of the year and I have yet to be disappointed with the music that gaming has had to offer over the previous 12 months. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the positive things to come out of the painful mess that was 2020.
20- Moving Out– Danny Hey featuring Lenny Macaluso
We’re starting off the list with Moving Out, an indie physics game from DevM Games, SMG Studio, and Team17. The game is a silly co-op title with a similar style to the Overcooked games in that the physics are exaggerated to heighten the craziness. The soundtrack is incredibly well done and has an awesome 80’s synth-style, giving the game a burst of personality.
Danny Hey – a composer with Team17 who has worked on the soundtracks for Overcooked and The Survivalists– is the man behind the music here. There was also an impressive addition to the soundtrack: Lenny Macaluso. His name may not be a household one but I’d be surprised if you had never encountered Macaluso’s work. A prolific musician whose work was most prominent in the ’80s and ’90s, Lenny Macaluso is an American songwriter and composer whose work has appeared in a number of high-profile projects, including films, television, and video games. His most infamous song is likely “The Touch” by Stan Bush from the 1986 animated Transformers movie. Even if you don’t know the name and artist, you’re sure to have heard this cult classic 80’s jam. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what it was at first but as soon as it began when I listened to it during my research, I knew it straight away. “The Touch” is everything that you imagine to be synonymous with the ’80s: synth backing, rocking guitars, and high octane vocals. This is thanks to Macaluso, who wrote and composed the song, so it is amazing that an indie game such as Moving Out was able to enlist him to help out with the soundtrack. Macaluso and Hey perfectly encapsulate the 80’s sound with the Moving Out soundtrack, making it one of the best- and frankly, most underrated- video game scores this year.
Top Track: Main Theme
The Moving Out “Main Theme” is the perfect representation of the 80’s style that the overall score encompasses. In all of its synth glory, the main theme pulls you straight into the zany game world and keeps a stronghold. Catchy and incredibly well made, the “Main Theme” is wonderfully retro and a tad inspirational thanks to the 80’s melody.
19-Necrobarista– Kevin Penkin and Jeremy Lim
Another indie game from 2020 with an incredible soundtrack, Necrobarista has an awesomely peculiar techno soundtrack that corresponds with the themes of the game perfectly. Necrobarista is a game from Australian indie game studio Route 59 and is a visual novel. The game also has anime-style character designs and is set in a supernatural coffee shop that serves both the living and the dead (and necromancers too, hence the name). Overall, composers Kevin Penkin and Jeremy Lim create a techno and electronic sound to represent the supernatural elements of the game. However, there are softer piano songs that truly embrace the coffee shop setting. Some of the tracks give off the same vibe as that ambient music that will often play in your local coffee establishment but with a little more –for lack of a better word- personality.
The music on the OST tends to jump between these two styles: electronica and piano melodies, often creating tracks that are an interesting mixture of the two. Penkin and Lim are hugely successful in creating a soundtrack that is able to represent both the out of the ordinary, supernatural elements of Necrobarista as well as the everyday nature of the coffee shop setting. The eerie techno combined with the melodic piano themes is a unique take for a visual novel game and I think this decision of musical style from the composers really paid off, making Necrobarista one of the best gaming soundtracks this year.
Top Track: Cat and Mouse
Even though I really enjoyed the softer pieces from the Necrobarista soundtrack, I had to go with the piece “Cat and Mouse” as it is such a banging techno track. The track starts off with that eerie, quieter sound that runs throughout Necrobarista’s score but it soon escalates into a dance track that perfectly portrays the thrilling feeling of a chase or a fight. You’re seriously not human if you don’t even get the urge to bop your head to “Cat and Mouse”.
18- Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout– Jukio Kallio and Daniel Hagström
When it comes to the biggest surprises in gaming this year, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is definitely one of them. The game took the internet by storm for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most overlooked elements of the game is the soundtrack. The music is just the right amount of silly without crossing over into irritating. It perfectly captures the zaniness and the playful nature of the game with synth sounds, playful drum and bass beats and small chant-like sounds that seem to reflect the titular Fall Guys- or Smol Beans as the internet dubbed them- themselves. Composers Jukio Kallio and Daniel Hagstrom worked collaboratively on the score, noting in an interview with Bandwagon that Kallio managed compositions whilst Hagstrom dealt with the finer details of the music as well as mixing, mastering, and the general production. In another chat with Daily Bandcamp, the two of them expressed that they took inspiration from ’70s and ’80s sports themes- which becomes all the more noticeable once you know that is what they were going for- and also discuss how they used items like balloons to create specific noises for use in the music. I absolutely adore this kind of creativity and resourcefulness with composers. The Bandcamp article sums it all up pretty accurately, describing the soundtrack as “psychedelic, bizarre and hypnotic sonic gumbo” that has a variety of inspirations such as “smooth funk”, “J-Pop”, “80’s cartoon soundtracks” and “video game music from Sega’s Dreamcast era”. I can’t help but agree with these descriptions and you’d be forgiven if you were to think that this sounds like a messy mashup of genres. However- despite its eclectic and over-the-top nature- the music for Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout works and it works amazingly at that. It even manages to work when a medieval style of theme was introduced in its second season. Positive and bursting with energy but still managing to avoid becoming cacophonous, Fall Guys has one of the best soundtracks in gaming this year.
Top Track: Everybody Falls (Fall Guys Theme)
It has to be the eponymous main theme that I pick for the best song on the Fall Guys soundtrack. The main theme of a game has to capture every aspect of the game in a short yet stand out piece of music. “Everybody Falls” does this perfectly, with its funky synths and rousing background chants. This is also the piece that includes the sound of Jukio Kallio inflating a balloon and for some reason, it works. The song plays as the game opens, on the main menu, and when the player is waiting to go into a game and so it has to have a staying power that isn’t going to infuriate people after a while. “Everybody Falls” achieves this but it is also a catchy jig in its own right. Wacky yet not irksome, “Everybody Falls” is the perfect way to introduce the game.
17. Ikenfell– Aivi & Surasshu
A retro tactical RPG with 8-bit graphics, Ikenfell is another indie game with an incredible soundtrack to its name. The composers behind this awesome chiptune arrangement are husband and wife duo Aivi Tran-a pianist-and Steven Velema- who works in electronic music. Working under the group name aivi &surasshu, the two of them are well known for their work on the popular Cartoon Network show Steven Universe. Just as they are able to capture the magical personalities and otherworldliness of the Steven Universe world within their music, the musical duo perfectly captures the setting and feel of the Ikenfell realm (which is set in a world of magic and focuses on several magic students at their school). There is a mysticism to the soundtrack that is conveyed perfectly with the eclectic blend of electronica and piano, all encompassed in a chiptune style. The soundtrack also variations within its midst, with rap performances by the rapper Sammus, guitar interludes by fellow Steven Universe musician Stemage, and vocalist Adriana Figueroa who has covered various video game songs on YouTube. This adds another dimension of diversity to the soundtrack but doesn’t make it feel unfamiliar at any point. In a press release for the game, the husband and wife team stated, “We wanted to bring some of our experience composing music for Steven Universe to Ikenfell…We tried to express each characters’ feelings through the music, and we collaborated with vocalists for many of the character themes”. This comes across very well in the soundtrack, with each piece having a different feel whether it’s a more out their chiptune beat, some mellow guitar melodies, or a somber piano riff. There is passion in this soundtrack- in each and every one of the 75 songs- and it comes across in every single short but superb track.
Top Track: Rhythm of the Wild
Whilst the character Gilda has a killer theme with “It’s Showtime” and rapper Sammus shines with “Paint the Future”, it is “Rhythm of the Wild” –which features Stemage’s guitar skills and violin from Jeff Ball- that truly stood out to me whilst listening. This is one of the first battle themes in the game and it incorporates all three major elements- guitar, violin, and electronic chiptune- wonderfully to encompass the feeling of the forest, of nature, and of a grand adventure. “Rhythm of the Wild” is an amazing chiptune track that is hugely addictive and incredibly catchy.
16- Star Wars: Squadrons– Gordy Haab
I included Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in my soundtrack list last year and we now have another Star Wars game with a brilliant soundtrack this year too: Star Wars: Squadrons. The space combat title was composed by Gordy Haab, who also worked on the Fallen Order soundtrack. It’s clear that Haab has a clear and concise understanding of Star Wars music, established by John Williams who composed the original films. As with his work in Fallen Order, he perfectly captures the essence of what Star Wars is within his music. The adventure, the space setting, and the often epic nature that is synonymous with the Star Wars universe are all apparent in Haab’s work and he amps this up even more so with Squadrons.
Squadrons is a combat game where you play as a starship pilot- switching between the New Republic and their X-Wings and the Galactic Empire and their TIE Fighters- and so there is a certain kind of music that is needed. A game that focuses on dog fights in space would need music that captures the hectic and unforeseeable nature of the gameplay, where you don’t know if you are about to be obliterated or catapulted into the depths of space. Haab does this incredibly well with his huge, orchestral themes for both the New Republic and the Galactic Empire. There are hints of the well-known themes for both of these factions within Haab’s scores but he cleverly inserts them into his own compositions. Just as with Fallen Order, Haab manages to pull the player into a galaxy far, far away in the same way that John Williams does with his cinematic scores.
Top Track: Main Theme
I know choosing the main theme of a soundtrack seems like a bit of a cop-out but believe me when I say that I pick the song that I feel represents the soundtrack the best as well as highlights the composer’s skill and the “Main Theme” of Star Wars: Squadrons does that perfectly. Haab presents a new theme here that easily sounds like it could have been composed by John Williams himself. Haab utilizes the orchestra fantastically in the short theme, which is just less than two minutes long. What is great about this theme is that it is used later on in the soundtrack multiple times- as is the norm for a main theme- but it is done so in a very clever way. The theme is used in both the Empire and the Rebel sections of the game but it is adjusted accordingly so that it becomes recognizable as a theme for the good guys but also a theme for the bad guys. This emphasizes the versatility of the theme and the brilliant work from Haab to be able to create a theme that could be used for the dark side and the light.
15- Streets of Rage 4– Olivier Deriviere, Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima
The Streets of Rage 4 soundtrack had some seriously big shoes to fill, with the music of the Streets of Rage series being one of the most critically acclaimed in gaming. Thankfully, the soundtrack for the most recent game in the series did not disappoint and is one of the best released this year. Oliver Deriviere- who has composed for games before such as A Plague Tale: Innocence which was on my list last year– took the reins in the fourth game, whilst composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima (who worked on the other three games in the series) helped out with additional compositions. Others who contributed to the music of Streets of Rage 4 included Keiji Yamagishi, XL Middleton, Groundislava, and more. However, it was Deriviere who composed the primary themes within the game and he thoroughly succeeds at maintaining the essence of the Streets of Rage series whilst also bringing the music into a new era of gaming.
The game series is known for its eclectic musical stylings, often blending trance, dance, electronic, hip hop, and techno sounds with chiptune sounds. Deriviere incorporates these themes effortlessly into the score but also delivers some new contemporary sounds that amp the soundtrack up. In an interview with Clash Music about his work on the soundtrack, Deriviere discusses the way he was able to modernize the score due to the significant development of technology since the original games in the ’90s, “Music production has very much changed from the old days and computers are everywhere giving you some really deadly possibilities that I took full advantage of.” It very much feels like what the Streets of Rage soundtrack from the ’90s could have been if had this technology back then, which I think is a testament to Derivere obvious knowledge of the franchise and his skill as a musician and composer. Streets of Rage 4 easily stands as an equal to its three predecessors, raising the bar for electronic music in gaming.
Top Track: Call the Cops
There are so many tracks that I love from this soundtrack. “They’re Back”- a piece from original composer Yuzo Koshiro- is phenomenal and gets points for the nostalgia factor. “Rising Up” by Olivier Deriviere is also exemplary, but “Call the Cops” is the tune that I’ve chosen as the top track. “Call the Cops” is an absolute banger of a track that seamlessly blends hip hop/ drum and bass and synth music. The best part of this track is the ingenious inclusion of police sirens within the song, which elevates it to insanely awesome status. Very clever and oddly topical too, “Call the Cops” manages to feel like a classic Streets of Rage song whilst also being thoroughly modern and a brilliant tune in general too.
14. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity– Kumi Tanioka, Reo Uratani, Ryotaro Yagi and Haruki Yamada
Another game series that has incredible music with every entry has to be The Legend of Zelda. With the recent release of the spin-off game Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity– set within the Breath of the Wild universe- comes with another amazing soundtrack for the series.
Age of Calamity’s score is a whopping six hours and forty minutes in its entirety so unfortunately, I haven’t been able to listen to the whole thing. I did have nineteen other soundtracks to write on after all! However, from what I have listened to it is clear that Age of Calamity is one of the biggest and most orchestral scores for a Zelda game. It compares to the likes of the scores heard in anime films, with large, sweeping orchestral and gorgeous themes throughout. There is a lot of harking back to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the soundtrack as well as a great deal of creative reworking’s of various pieces from BOTW too. There is a faster pace to the music here- emphasized by the quicker tempos and necessary to correlate with the different, more frantic gameplay style used in Age of Calamity in comparison to Breath of the Wild.
The Age of Calamity soundtrack is exactly what a spin-off soundtrack should be. It takes elements of the source material and rearranges it to suit its own genre whilst also creating beautiful original pieces too. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is yet another smashing soundtrack for The Legend of Zelda series as a whole and this doesn’t surprise me even a little
Top Track: The Champion Mipha
“The Champion Mipha” perfectly encapsulates the way that the composers of the Age of Calamity soundtrack are able to rework an existing theme for a new genre. In Breath of the Wild, the character Mipha gets her own musical theme. It’s a beautiful and somber orchestral dream and in Age of Calamity, Mipha gets her theme rearranged. Age of Calamity is a hectic hack and slash game whereas Breath of the Wild is an open-world RPG, so there are different kinds of gameplay, different atmospheres and therefore, a different musical style needed. Mipha’s altered theme for Age of Calamity– “The Champion Mipha”- fantastically reworks Mipha’s quiet and reserved melody and changes it into a theme fit for a fighter without losing the elements that made her theme unique to her character. With tons of music to choose from on this soundtrack, from what I have heard I believe that “The Champion Mipha” is the best representation of some of the amazing reworked themes within Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
13. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time– Walter Mair
The Crash 4 OST is another new soundtrack for an existing franchise that manages to maintain the feel of the original games whilst bringing it into the present day. Composer Walter Mair does this amazingly well, creating a soundtrack that is creative and very much Crash Bandicoot but also fresh and contemporary.
The classic and unforgettable original theme from the very first Crash Bandicoot game is cleverly blended with various tracks throughout the fourth game and whenever you hear it- even if it is only for a few seconds- it instantly hits you with the nostalgia factor. However, it is done so subtly that it doesn’t feel forced. It’s brilliantly done by Mair, who clearly has a lot of respect and love for the Crash series. He also maintains percussion instruments throughout the Crash 4 soundtrack, which is a staple of the music in the series. As well as maintaining original themes, Mair also created all new themes for the various settings and characters within the fourth installment. In an interview with Game Spot, Mair discusses how he created some of unique character and place themes, “ For Dingodile, I recorded a brass band with guitars and drums…For the levels set in Wasteland…I took a recording team into a quarry where we smashed rocks and metal objects with sledgehammers and large wrenches… The Prehistoric levels received their own unique sound-world by recording primitive instruments such as the bone flute or fur drums.” Mair clearly went out of his way to make a soundtrack that had its own feel and atmosphere as well as a score that was undoubtedly aligned with the Crash franchise. I mean, he literally recorded himself smashing rocks to do so. That’s commitment.
There is also a great a significant amount of dynamic music in the game. For instance, if a character starts to rail grind, a more upbeat version of the level music will play whereas in the games N-Verted mode- a mirrored version of the levels- a slightly different take on the track for the level will play. This is such a cool touch that really does make a difference as you play. There is no doubt that Mair and the rest of the team behind the soundtrack show how it’s done with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time when it comes to making music for an already hugely established franchise.
Top Track: Off Beat
“Off Beat” is such an amazing piece of music that I don’t even know where to start. It’s not just about the music with this track, but the way that it works within the accompanying level. “Off Beat” is a level with distinctive mardi gras themes- with the setting of the level being reminiscent of New Orleans- and this is reflected well in both the level itself and the music. What makes this level special though is the dynamic nature of the music. Absolutely everything is synced up with the music here. There are ghosts playing instruments that you have to dodge and their playing syncs up with every single beat, as do the projectiles they throw. If you jump onto an instrument platform- like the drum for instance- it will sync up with the background theme no matter how many times you jump. This is one of the most satisfying video game levels I have seen in a while. Rather than only posting the soundtrack, I am actually going to post a playthrough of the level above from YouTuber Suggestive Themes so that you can see for yourself. This is such an incredible and unique way to not only include music in a game but to seamlessly infuse it with the gameplay. “Off Beat” is not only an incredibly catchy and funky mardi gras bop complete with jazzy horns, booming bass lines and even a hint of xylophone action (it literally feels like you’ve been transported to a 1920’s concert or to New Orleans during mardi gras), it is also hugely dynamic depending on how you move with the beat. Despite the wealth of great music in the new Crash game, “Off Beat” is by far the most intriguing due to this interactivity.
12. DOOM Eternal– Mick Gordon
There was a slight controversy with the DOOM Eternal soundtrack following its release, with music fans noticing that there was a glaring difference between ripped music and official soundtrack scores. It became apparent that composer Mick Gordon’s work had been significantly compressed, leading to a messy sound for some of the tracks. This was such an issue that Gordon publicly distanced himself developer’s id Software and announced on his Twitter that this compression was not his handiwork and that he had only mixed a handful of his tracks. With all that being said, let’s take a moment to just focus on the parts of the music that Gordon did have a hand in. Much like the first DOOM soundtrack in 2016, DOOM Eternal is an amazing powerhouse of bombastic metal and rock tunes that will make even the most conservative of music fans consider becoming a metalhead.
DOOM Eternal was a game that knew exactly what it was- following the success of its 2016 predecessor and well-known reboot DOOM– and it has no qualms about it. A bloody, violent, and rage-fuelled FPS that has absolutely no concern for demon rights, DOOM Eternal’s soundtrack perfectly correlates with its violent themes and action-packed nature. Despite this hectic source material, the music never feels out of control. It does have an over the top feel to it, but it works as the game itself is like that too. The heavy metal fuses well with certain rock elements and futuristic techno sounds- such as the track “Infiltrate The Cult”- that sounds a bit like dubstep but ten times angrier. It’s definitely the perfect musical accompaniment for ripping, tearing, and slaughtering ghouls and nasty creatures.
Whilst DOOM Eternal may seem like a soundtrack that will only attract fans of metal, there is no doubt that it has a tremendous appeal no matter what kind of music you are into. It is a score that not only perfectly fits its accompanying game series, but it is also engaging and inspiring enough that it kind of makes you want to jump head first into a mosh pit. Well, it does for me at least.
Top Track- The Only Thing They Fear is You
Badass and battle-worthy, “The Only Thing They Fear is You” is as epic as video game soundtracks come. The song starts off relatively slowly and builds to ridiculously insane techno metal heights. Each element of the song gets a chance to shine, with the electronic segments bursting during their prominence and the raging guitar from the heavy metal screaming through the thumping beats. This is the definitive Doom Guy theme and it represents not only an awesome and unstoppable character but also an incredible understanding of the franchise from the composer. “The Only Thing They Fear is You” is a song that is well defined by its title. It feels like a boss battle theme except for this time, the boss with the multiple health bars and one-hit kills is you. I have never been a big fan of heavy metal as I’m a bit of wuss with loud noises but even I couldn’t help but want to rock out to this song. Mick Gordon truly blows his audience away with this one, wiping away any doubt that the controversies may have put on the DOOM Eternal soundtrack.
11. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim- Basicscape led by Hitoshi Sakimoto
I’m bending my own rules a little with this entry. I’m usually pretty strict with myself when it comes to only using games specifically from this year but 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was originally released in Japan in November of 2019. It was released worldwide in September of this year though and it’s an incredible enough soundtrack that I’m breaking my rule for it.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was composed by a company of musicians known as Basiscape International, headed by veteran Japanese composer Hitoshi Sakimoto (who has worked on the Final Fantasy series). Sakimoto worked alongside several other people on this soundtrack including Mitsuhiro Kaneda, Yoshimi Kudo, Rikako Watanabe, Yukinori Kikuchi, Masaaki Kaneko, and Miki Ito. With such an expansive team behind Basiscape, it is easy to see how 13 Sentinels became such an amazing and eclectic score.
The game itself is a mishmash of genres, blending sci-fi elements with school narrative drama. Much like the game itself, you would think that these varying genres would not work together but the execution (with both the game and the music) is done so brilliantly that it not only works; it excels. One element of the gameplay is battles featuring mecha’s- otherwise known as Sentinels- battling “kaiju”. Not the Godzilla kind though. These are more of a technological kaiju as they resemble monsters but are actually robotic creatures. The story is pretty science-fiction-driven too, featuring characters from various decades, past, present, and future (though the game is primarily set in a fictional version of 1985). Because of these themes, a strong sci-fi style of music runs throughout. There is a lot of synths, techno, and electronica that reflect this well. However, there is also a ton of orchestral themes, jazz melodies, and string-based music. Despite this wide-ranging mix of genres, all of the songs mesh together perfectly as a soundtrack. Nothing feels out of place and for a soundtrack for a game that is so varied with its content, it is undoubtedly an incredible feat.
Top Track- Brat Overflow
Yes, I have gone with the main theme again. Sue me. “Brat Overflow” was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and is quite short, with a run time of two minutes exactly. This makes it all the more impressive that it fully encapsulates the science fiction themes of the game within a small time frame. “Brat Overflow” features some vocalizations that fit neatly in with this futuristic theme alongside some pumping electronic beats. The closing few moments are an insane techno dream, perfectly capturing the vision of giant mecha’s fighting bad guys. “Brat Overflow” is more than a simple piece of music; it is an essential element of the game that runs throughout as Sakimoto states in an interview with VGM Online, “Brat Overflow” runs through the core of 13 Sentinels. I conceptualized it as a lean motif that can easily be plugged in where necessary, but one that wouldn’t obfuscate the game’s other key themes.” Despite there being plenty of awesome tracks throughout that capture the different genres of the game (a personal favourite of mine is “Seaside Vacation” which is a softer piece), “Brat Overflow” is an awesome way to open a game and encapsulates the sci-fi themes that are prevalent in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.