It’s often argued whether or not video games are an art form. Personally, I’m in the camp that would suggest that they are, but that’s an argument that I’m sure will rage far beyond my years. While some may disagree that games are art there are things to be said for other factors within the games themselves. Take soundtracks, for instance. It’s true that music is widely considered an art form, yet music in games is usually ignored. Sure there are some great OSTs out there that defy this logic and are openly praised, but for the most part game soundtracks aren’t digested as something other than a piece of the final product we all play on our consoles or PCs.
I can’t fault people for this, it’s something all of us do in one form or another. Gamers can only take in so much, and sometimes, in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on and the game has us white-knuckled and overwhelmed, soundtracks are the first thing drowned out. Why is that, do you think? I think it’s because music is passive experience, while gaming is inherently something that you must be invested in with our more tactile and immediate senses. That’s all a shot in the dark, and honestly it’s more thought than fact, so I could be wrong. But, it makes sense to me... at least it does as I write this out.
So, here we come to this list, this ode to the top ten soundtracks of all time. Some of them you might have overlooked, while others are well known and established cornerstones held in high esteem by most of the gaming community. Either way, this list, compiled by me, features 10 of the most wonderful musical journies that have ever accompanied gameplay. These soundtracks, when listened to on their own, channel an entirely different experience… a musical experience that, in some cases, is as powerful as the game itself. So explore the list below, and, as always, feel free to chime off or challenge. I’d love to know your input. Enjoy!
10. Super Mario 64
While Super Mario 64 may not feature a soundtrack as elaborately composed as some of the other OSTs that appear on this list, it’s definitely one of the most memorable. Most people that grew up during the Nintendo 64 era received Mario 64 bundled in with their consoles, making it their first game back when the console debuted in 1996. Because of that reason alone, most gamers I know can hum bits and pieces of this soundtrack with no problem. It doesn’t help that it’s probably one of the catchiest OSTs ever written. Whether it’s the subtle percussive “Title Theme”, the playful synth of the “Super Mario 64 Main Theme” or the menacing “Ultimate Koopa” track, one thing is for sure: it’s infectious.
9. Dark Souls
Most people know Dark Souls for its brutal difficulty, amazing bosses and unforgiving odds, but how many people know it for its remarkable soundtrack? The brilliance of this OST lies in its use of subtlety. Music is varied and ambient, lulling about for minutes on end, milking the most it can out of each and every sustained note. Normal music wraps the player in false comforts while bosses are treated to crushing Timpani, zealous choruses and deep swooning low brass. All these pieces add up to a brilliant musical whole that increases the overall sense of dread, wonder and intrigue making the game feel as melancholy as it is dire.
8. Halo (Entire Series)
Back when the original Xbox launched in November of 2001 (can you believe it’s been that long?) it was a fledgling console that struggled to find a seat within the gaming community, especially one that was so entrenched in the success of the PlayStation 2. Enter Halo. This game was the definition of a console seller, and to fans of the series it still is. I remember playing the game for the first time, watching as that halo rotated across the menu screen and the chorus of ominous monk-like tones chimed in so subtly. It was amazing then, and it’s just as amazing now. As the series grew, so did its music. That iconic Halo theme has emblazoned itself in gamers minds all over the world and has been remixed, sampled, and used by hundreds of musicians, including the great Steve Vai. How cool is that?
Journey is one of the more recent entries on this list, but it’s no less deserving than any of the others. Those that have had the opportunity to play this PlayStation 3 exclusive know how much of an emotional experience this game is, and the music… my, god, the music… It does wonders to compliment the feel and elegance that the rest of this spectacular title radiates. The haunting strings and woodwinds that crescendo and decrescendo throughout the entirety of the soundtrack are coupled brilliantly with the delicate use of percussion resulting in a brilliant composition that evokes as much of an emotive response as the game itself. Spectacular!
6. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption was a sure thing when Rockstar released it in May of 2010. The game was critically acclaimed and a smash hit with players. It’s wide, open world approach to the lawless west stepped into brave new territory that few games have managed to capture successfully. Its soundtrack is a flawless masterwork that depicts a perfect blend of spaghetti western charm and evocative instrumentation about as beautiful as the scenery found within the game itself. Most players will remember one standout moment though, and that’s Mexico. Jose Gonzales’ eerie and haunting song “Far Away” is a minimalist guitar masterpiece that must go down as one of the best pieces of music ever written for a video game.
It doesn’t take much to notice that Skyrim was a phenomenon. The game sold millions of copies, single-handedly sparked memes (insert arrow to the knee jokes here), and harbored a community of modders that have, and still are, creating spectacular content. But, the game’s soundtrack and iconic “Dragonborn” theme are instantly recognizable by most gamers familiar with this past generation. Some people I know would go so far as to argue that the entirety of the Elder Scrolls series deserves to be featured on this list, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but this game stands tall above the others in terms of composition and production making it a worthy entry.
4. God of War III
God of War III is a game that I became well acquainted with when it came out in March of 2010. I was big into trophy hunting at the time and I played through it about three times in pursuit of that precious platinum. It wasn’t until I was almost done with my second play through of the game that I noticed just how good the music was. Of course I had heard it in my previous journey through the title, but it wasn’t until my second clash with Zeus that it dawned on me just how epic it all was. To this day this remains one of my favorite OSTs because of the way it so perfectly captures the raw intensity of Kratos’ persona. Kratos isn’t the best character ever written, but the music in God of War III did an amazing job defining the anguish and inner turmoil that is so deeply embedded in his character.
Bastion is a success story unlike any other. Take a indie developer like Supergiant Games, add in some brilliant design, memorable characters, and intriguing gameplay and you have a hit that has appeared on pretty much every available platform in this generation. One of the best parts about Bastion is its soundtrack and the way the music itself tells a story. Featuring bright acoustic guitar, crisp chimes, a touch of Middle Eastern flair, and a deep rooted country appeal and you have music that ends up being as remarkable as the game itself. Considering how recent it is, most of you already know how awesome the soundtrack is, so without further ado I’ll let the embed below speak for itself.
2. Final Fantasy (Entire Series)
Final Fantasy is one of the most revered series in all of gaming. The titles have fallen from grace a bit in more recent years, but the classics are still held in high regard. The music is something that has always been memorable though, even during the chips and chirps of the NES and SNES era. Of course, certain games contain more highlights, but overall the entirety of the series is a staple for what is possible in the world of gaming soundtracks. Highlights include, but are not limited to FFIII, FFV, FFVII, FFIX and FFX.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Well, we’ve reached the number one slot, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I know, I know, I’m getting into specifics with a franchise that has had a variety of impressive soundtracks, so why not include them all? Well, there’s a reason for this one particular entry, and that reason lies in its innovative incorporation of music. The game’s soundtrack isn’t just a passive experience, some of the most memorable tunes are actually tools at Link’s disposal. In fact, you can’t progress without learning, playing and performing these tracks, making the game’s music much more than something just lingering in the background. Musically, the songs featured in Ocarina of Time are all over the place, both playful and longing, some even genuinely menacing. Who doesn’t remember playing iconic melodies like “Serenade of Water” on that tiny blue Ocarina, or just racing through the valleys of Hyrule on Epona while listening to the “Hyrule Field Theme”? There are just some songs that are timeless, and the fact that this game has been updated and re-released on Gamecube, and 3DS since its original inception goes to show that its genius wasn’t just limited to a generation.
Below you’ll find a few entries that didn’t quite make the cut, but deserve mention nonetheless. There’s a variety to the games below seeing as they come from entirely different generations, but they’re all wonderful nonetheless. If you’re looking for classic fantasy, I suggest checking out Arcanum. If you want a bit more of a modern electronica feel then try out Mass Effect, Sanctum or Frozen Synapse. And, of course, if you want more tones from the classic SNES era then you can’t go wrong with Chrono Trigger or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Article by: Palmer Sturman
Article by: Palmer Sturman