Would a Pokémon battle feel as intense if there were no music in the background? How about if Grand Theft Auto games had no radio tunes? Video game music has the power to turn fun games into fantastic games. They can fill you with dread whenever there's a boss fight, or they can pump you up once you've made it to the next level. These days, making a video game soundtrack is practically an art form. Studios often employ experienced composers (even musicians from the film and TV world) to create memorable themes and ambient tunes. As of 2023, there's now a Grammy Award category for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media!
Fortunately, we here at Live365 have dipped our toes into various genres of video game music. So today, we'll be ranking our Top 10 favorite video game scores of all time! We've included a hefty mix of both old and newer games. We'll be sticking to one game per franchise, and games with original scores. So games that mostly utilize previously-published tracks won't count. (We're sorry to the Grand Theft Auto and Bioshock fans out there.)
Ranking video game soundtracks can be very subjective, but we're fairly confident our picks 1-up the rest. Find them below!
God of War - Bear McCreary
You may know Bear McCreary's marvelous composing work from shows like Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and Outlander. Some of our favorite pieces from him come from the 2018 action-adventure game God of War. For this reboot of the beloved hack and slash franchise, McCreary drew inspiration from more thunderous sounds of the Greek era, such as "deep choirs, pounding drums, and shrieking brass", and then reinvented them for the Nordic setting using Nordic ethnic instruments. You can clearly hear this technique within the game's fearsome main theme, which completely evokes the intimidating strength and raw power Kratos possesses.
But the soundtrack for God of War isn't just one-noted meaty masculine energy: there are some slower tracks, too. And they're wonderous. The lonesome violin in "Ashes" and gorgeous soprano solo in "Memories of Mother" send us one step closer to Ragnarök.
Mega Man 2 - Takashi Tateishi
Call us old-fashioned, but there's just something about the 1988 Mega Man 2 soundtrack that fills us with so much nostalgia and glee. This retro score by Takashi Tateishi contains a multitude of earwormy melodies. Standouts that come to mind include the title theme, "Dr. Wily's Castle" and "Bubble Man Stage".
For Mega Man 2, Tateishi was granted the help of Manami Matsumae, who composed the score for the first game. Tateishi's musical background was unusual compared to his peers at Capcom, as he had not been classically trained but was instead drawing from experience performing in a band. He sought to consciously move away from the more classical sounding game themes that were common at the time. Although some of his compositions were deemed "too cute" by Kitamura, they received great praise once they were released to the public...particularly when it came to the piece used for the first two Wily stages. Stylistically, Mega Man 2's score was influenced by Mezzoforte and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
8. Halo - Martin O'Donnell
Halo has a soundtrack so beloved, 80 young men once felt it necessary to chant the choral theme song in a bathroom. Soundtracks for sci-fi games have a reputation for leaning into more techno territory. The score for the 2016 remake of DOOM even dove into heavy metal sounds. But Martin O'Donnell spiced things up with his score for the Halo series, opting for more ethereal, reverb-heavy music. The result is a score that feels refined, yet still maintains an epic and combat-ready air.
There are some sweeping, action-packed, and suspenseful tracks in the first Halo game - such as the songs "Brothers In Arms" or the drum-heavy "The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe". But nothing ever feels too dramatic, heavy, or clunky. Halo has songs that set the tone of the futuristic atmosphere while still being memorable. It's all so grandiose: the same kind of feeling as John Williams' score to Star Wars. We couldn't think of a better soundtrack to fight alongside Master Chief with.
7. Donkey Kong Country - David Wise
We expect nothing less than a catchy playlist of jams every time we peel open a new Donkey Kong game. Donkey Kong Country, released in 1994, contains our favorite score of the series. Just listen to the layered "DK Island Swing" or the relaxing "Aquatic Ambience", and you'll understand why this soundtrack is so revered.
"Funky's Fugue" and the nautical-esque "Gang-Plank Galleon" are two other songs we can't get enough of. It's quite possible this soundtrack helped pave the way for other cartoonish scores that came after it, such as the songs in Banjo-Kazooie. We also love updated versions of tracks from Donkey Kong Country, such as the ones present in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
6. Final Fantasy VII - Nobuo Uematsu
We know everyone has their own favorite Final Fantasy game soundtrack. We'll admit, they're all fantastic. But Live365's personal choice is the score for Final Fantasy VII. Our dealbreaker? Final Fantasy VII was the first game to introduce that terrifying-yet-awesome "One-Winged Angel" theme for Sephiroth. The blaring horns, psycho strings, and Latin chorus? Iconic. It has the same impact as the theme from Jaws.
But more than "One-Winged Angel", Final Fantasy VII is filled with a collection of great tunes all from the mind of Nobuo Uematsu. "Let the Battles Begin!", "Fight On!" and "Cosmo Canyon" are sure to energize you as you play through. "Aerith's Theme" is so cinematic and pretty, it may make you shed a tear. Uematsu's approach to composing the game's music was to treat it like a film score and compose music reflecting the mood of the scenes, rather than creating strong melodies to "define the game." He explained that approach would be too strong when placed alongside the game's new 3D visuals. Uematsu was totally right, and ended up creating a soundtrack that felt grounded, realistic, and yet wonderfully emotional.
5. Persona 5 - Shoji Meguro
We never thought we'd ever get 70s style funk music in a Japanese RPG game, but here we are. 2016's Persona 5 really pulled all the stops when it came to its music production. Thanks to several songs with lyrics, it's easy to listen to the bops in the soundtrack as standalone pieces rather than having to play the game in order to understand them.
"Life Will Change", "Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There", "Last Surprise" and "Beneath the Mask" are the standouts within Persona 5's score. It was composed, performed, and produced by series sound director Shoji Meguro. Meguro was given full creative freedom to work on the soundtrack, and over a three year period, produced about 80% of the total tracks. Seven tracks were performed in English by Lyn, a jazz and soul music singer. To express the game's unique mood, Meguro incorporated strong acid jazz elements into the score. He also wanted to make the music sound more realistic than previous entries, aiming to match the eclectic visuals.
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Jeremy Soule
We would give anything to feel the same way we did when playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the first time. Not just to experience the rush of fus ro dah'ing enemies for the first time, but also to re-listen to that beautiful atmospheric score by Jeremy Soule. Yeah, everyone knows that stirring "Dragonborn" theme. But have you ever listened to "Far Horizons" while taking a walk on a nice day? Have you ever replayed "Secunda" over and over to help you fall asleep at night? Because we have. And we know other people who have, too.
Skyrim is a long game. It's even longer if you decide to complete the plethora of sidequests offered. But what makes it all not-so-boring is Jeremy Soule's genius composing work. Listening to day and night anthems while plotting out your next route really puts you in the mindset of a fearless adventurer. Take Bear McCreary's brawny Norse-themed work for God of War and blend in the whimsy of Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings score, and you've got the magic of the Skyrim soundtrack. It's better than taking an arrow to the knee, that's for sure!
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Koji Kondo
The Legend of Zelda series has always maintained a reputation for inspiring soundtracks. But if we had to pick which installment has the most iconic, recognizable, and interactive score, we'd easily give it to Ocarina of Time.
This classic 1998 game has music practically built into its mechanics, as Link must use the sacred Ocarina of Time in order to utilize a variety of magical powers. Putting mini ocarina melodies aside (our favorite is probably "Epona's Song"), this game boasts beloved tracks such as the soothing "Title Theme", the steadfast "Gerudo Valley", and that chipper, bouncy tune for "Lost Woods". And of course, this was the game that really put emphasis on "Zelda's Lullaby", which would become a staple for the entire Zelda series. Few games have been as revolutionary as Ocarina of Time - not just in gameplay and aesthetics, but also when it comes to music.
2. Undertale - Toby Fox
Toby Fox's self-produced Undertale established him as a force to be reckoned with in both the gaming and music world. We have very fond memories of speeding through this quirky game, eager to hear what new catchy tune would play once we got to the next boss. Yes - the score of Undertale is a big reason why we finished it. As the game itself would say, this soundtrack "fills you with determination."
There's a well-blended mix of chiptune, lo-fi, orchestral, techno, rock, and ambient noises within Undertale's masterful score. Every major character gets their own defining, memorable theme. From the wispy, jazzy romp that is Napstablook's "Ghost Fight" to Papyrus' comedic "Bonetrousle", Mettaton's dramatic "Death by Glamour" and that rockin', courageous Asriel fight song "Hopes and Dreams", there's no shortage of bangers in Undertale. And let's not forget the fan favorite "Megalovania", which essentially became a meme song right after its release. The soundtrack for Undertale is so damn good, it almost feels criminal. While it may not be #1 on our list, this is our personal favorite video game soundtrack of all time. Quite like players do within the game, this score moves our soul.
1. Super Mario Bros. - Koji Kondo
This may seem like an obvious - maybe even underwhelming - choice for our #1 spot. But the stone cold truth is that without the legendary score Koji Kondo created for the original Super Mario Bros., video game music composition may not be considered the art form it is today. After all, at the time of this article's release, the Super Mario Bros. theme song is the only piece of video game music to be preserved in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
The Super Mario Bros. series has tons of iterations with great soundtracks. Versions like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, and the Mario Kart games come to mind. But they all lead back to this original 8-bit platformer released on the NES in 1983. It set the precedent for the upbeat tunes used in following Mario games. From the lighthearted theme song to the murky "Going Underground" and confidence-boosting "Star Theme", every simple melody enhances the experience you're going through alongside the Italian plumber. Even the whimsical "Underwater Theme" and spooky "Castle Theme" can be viewed as underrated despite how recognizable they are. If anyone asked us if we'd want to listen to the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack with them, we'd say, "Let's a-go!"
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