Video game soundtracks can be used in various ways to bolster the overall experience of the game, but it takes a special kind of composer and a special kind of game to make the music really stand out. Below I’ve listed what I feel are the 10 best games that just nailed it when it came to providing an unforgettable auditory experience that made an already great game even better.
10. Hotline Miami
Notable tracks: “Horse Steppin”, “Hydrogen”, “Crystals”, “Knock Knock”, “Miami Disco”, “Release”
Hotline Miami is one of those rare games where all of the gameplay elements just fit. The soundtrack is a special blend of psychedelic fare that captures the game’s insanity and bass-driven electronica that harkens back to the 1980s club scene. What’s even better is how the music gets you more hooked on the gameplay, and can even help you become less-frustrated if you suffer from getting killed too many times in a row. I’m more than excited to see what Hotline Miami’s sequel has to offer.
9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
Notable tracks: “Scott Pilgrim Anthem”, “Another Winter”, “Skate or Live”, “Shine Bros.”, “Cheap Shop”, “Rock Club”
If there’s one theme to take away from Scott Pilgrim, it’s that the past has a way of smuggling itself into the present. Both the comic book and Edgar Wright’s clever film adaptation are stuffed to the brim with geek clichés and pop-culture references to times gone by. Scott Pilgrim’s life is rooted entirely in the past, both in his love with entertainment from his youth and having to deal with girlfriend’s past relationships. So, it’s only natural that the Scott Pilgrim video game takes the form of a retro beat ‘em up a la River City Ransom, and features a soundtrack composed by Anamanguchi that contains nostalgic nods to classic video game chip music and 90s pop-punk. The music in every stage adds to the action and is sure to conjure up childhood memories. The entire album is worth a listen on its own, but it sounds even better while beating up Ramona’s ex-boyfriends.
8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Notable stations: V-Rock, Emotion 98.3, Radio Espantoso, Wildstyle Pirate Radio
Choosing to use radio stations as a substitute for a musical score is perhaps one of the most clever aspects of the Grand Theft Auto games. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, I feel, contains the best radio stations out of all the GTA games for a couple of reasons. For starters, every station is a perfect representation of 1980s radio. GTA: San Andreas accomplished the same thing with 90s radio stations, but in a less structured fashion. Vice City, on the other hand, contains a solid mixture of mainstream pop music and underground tunes that highlight the excessiveness of 1980s American culture. Besides, is there any other way to do a drive-by other than in a golf cart while blasting Hall & Oates through the stereo? I think not.
Notable tracks: “One Night in Neo Kobe”, “Pleasure of Tension”, “Spreading Diehard”, “Endless Persue”
Neo Kobe City is an absolute mess. The streets run rampant with crime and disease and, to make matters worse, dastardly androids known as Snatchers have seemingly come out of nowhere to add even more misery to the city. In other words, Neo Kobe is the perfect setting for Hideo Kojima’s cyberpunk masterpiece. While Snatcher is a visual treat compared to most games from the early 90s, it’s the soundtrack the really brings out its atmosphere. The music conveys the perfect mood for each scene as it perfectly highlights the tense moments just as well as the tender moments. Not only that, but the soundtrack is filled with clever nods to the sci-fi films and crime movies that serve as the game’s inspiration.
Notable tracks: “Yo”, “Also Sprach Brooks”, “Zigeunerweisen Sarasate”, “Empireo Landing”
Video game director and composer Shōji Meguro is perhaps best known for his brilliant work in the Shin Megami Tensei series. While I absolutely love the music featured in that series, and especially in the Persona games, his best work is found in one of the best IPs released in 2011 – Catherine. The music ranges from the light jazz offerings in the Stray Sheep bar to bombastic classical pieces that heighten the suspense in Catherine’s nightmarish block puzzle stages. These songs are successful in reflecting the moral dilemmas and fear that Vincent, the game’s protagonist, is going through as he struggles with relationships and self-doubt. Adding great music from the Persona games to the jukebox found in the bar is a nice touch, as well.
Notable tracks: “Terminal March”, “Spike in a Rail”, “Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)” “Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme)”
Bastion is a fascinating game about exploration and discovery. With strong narration and colorful visuals, Darren Korb’s wonderful folk-rock infused music works brilliantly to make every aspect of Bastion work together in harmony. Much like Hotline Miami, I really don’t see the music for Bastion being presented any other way. This is a solid soundtrack worthy of any video game music playlist.
4. Mega Man 2
Notable tracks: Dr. Wily Stage 1, Flash Man, Wood Man, Bubble Man, Metal Man
Oh, how I love this game. Like Ron implied in his Mega Man soundtrack review (props to giving Mega Man 7 some much needed love, by the way), not only is Mega Man 2 the best Mega Man game in the original series but the soundtrack set the bar for every Mega Man game to come after. The songs for each of the Robot Masters are a clear representation of their stage, and each track is instantly recognizable. The best song in the game, however, is from Dr. Wily Stage 1; being able to listen that jam during the initial area of Wily’s Castle is a great reward for beating all eight Masters.
3. Final Fantasy VI
Notable tracks: “Omen”, “Kefka”, “Terra’s Theme”, “Aria di Mezzo Carattere”, “Dancing Mad”
I could have easily picked most any Final Fantasy soundtrack for this list, but Final Fantasy VI is too iconic to pass on. I’ve always considered Final Fantasy VI to be one of the grittier games in the franchise, and the soundtrack captures the dread and doom that consumes its world perfectly. Some of the most brilliant moments in Final Fantasy VI are ushered in by a score that draws you deeper into the game, even during the game’s masterful opening sequence. The music also helps to boost the fun moments found in the game, and sets just the right mood for the more touching scenes.
Notable tracks: “Threshold”, “The Road of Trials”, “Atonement”, “I Was Born for This”
Composer Austin Wintory might have lost out to Trent Reznor’s score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at the Grammy’s, but his nomination was well deserved. For a game that effectively toys with your emotions throughout its entirety, the music hits all of the right notes and makes Journey leave an even bigger impact. Now let’s see if Wintory can accomplish the same with his next project, the Leisure Suit Larry remake. I’m not joking, that really is the next soundtrack he’s composing.
1. Streets of Rage 2
Notable tracks: All of it.
No explanation needed. Just listen.