The 20 Greatest Video Game Soundtracks of All Time – Part One
06.11.2020

The 20 Greatest Video Game Soundtracks of All Time – Part One

Words by Jacob Colliver

Video games are a truly special fusion of artistic mediums.

From audio to video, from narrative to sport, a game’s interactivity allows you to explore a wide combination of expression in an intricate and wholly original way.

Music is often one of the most important factors in their emotional resonance – the ‘feel’ of a game and the memories associated with it can all be brought to life by a great score. What is it about those slivers of sound that can affect so much inside ourselves? How does music make a video game so magical?

Quantifying the power of video game music is not easy. There are iconic themes that set the moods of history; the Halos, Tetrises and Super Mario Brothers’ of this world shall endure forever as cultural touchstones.

Similarly, beloved compilations – such as those found in the Hotline Miami or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series – have opened the ears of entire generations to new experiences.

To condense the world’s greatest works to a collection of 20 titles is challenging, to say the least. In order to assemble this list, we’ll need to focus on original compositions across a wide variety of genres – this means, sorry to say, that we will not be talking about curated playlists of licensed music today.

Efforts have also been made to weigh factors such as emotional impact and cultural significance, to provide a balanced variety of legendary tunes and underrated gems.

On our quest to find the best of the best, amongst mountains of incredible, soul-shaking moments in gaming history, there shall be surprises and omissions along the way. What can be guaranteed, however, is that all of this music resonates and touches in its own manner.

These are the soundtracks to birthdays, parties, loves, laughs, tears, friends and family; the compositions that are – in the multitude of ways they can be – masterpieces. We’ll see you on the other side.

20. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013) – Power Glove

Parody is difficult in most mediums, let alone in an interactive form. There’s the desire to confidently affirm what you’re referencing, but you don’t wish to cheapen it by aping it outright; you want the art to stand upon its own feet.

As much as this massive stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3 more than holds up as its own fully-fledged game, Power Glove’s slick ode to 80’s futurism for Blood Dragon both doubles as a tongue-in-cheek nod and an absolutely gutsy electro-rock tapestry.

Perfectly matching its unique retro-sci-fi surroundings, Blood Dragon’s synthwave throwback is a nostalgic, action-packed adrenaline rush. Rich with clanging, Terminator-esque bursts of industrial steel that clash against a grid of pulsing synth and drum machine, it’s both stylish and cool as hell.

The product of Melbourne brothers, Jarome and Joel Harmsworth (albiet under the very 80’s psuedonyms of Michael Dudikoff and Michael Beihn respectively), the soundtrack to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon sees Power Glove channelling all that is good about Sci-fi and Action films of the ’80s in the most musical sense, and doing so in a manner which is both nuanced and textured, augmenting the authentic analog synthesis of the time with more modern VST sounds and sequencing. 

The result is a soundtrack that stands on its own, being equally enjoyed outside the context of the game itself and for many, the high water mark for the Synthwave genre – at least in the context of broader video game culture.

Well done boys.

19. Hollow Knight (2017) – Christopher Larkin

Hollow Knight is the epitome of indie-game success. From a modest 2014 Kickstarter, Adelaide developers Team Cherry – a relatively modest company, boasting a total of three staff members – have built a global phenomenon that has sold millions of copies and enthralled the world with its size and heart.

The game’s sound design elevates its scope further, with Christopher Larkin’s score proving as – if not more – compelling than any big-budget hollywood fantasy epic.

From rattling curiosities to a sweeping array of bombastic crescendos, everything about Hollow Knight sounds gigantic, theatrical and dark. It’s a soundtrack characterised by its use of familiar orchestral devices superimposed over an increasingly diasporate and sonically diverse underlay, rarely settling in one place for very long while constantly moving the narrative forward at any cost. 

From its clever use of suspense laden staccato strings, right through to the recurring presence of classical piano and soaring solo viola throughout, it’s a soundtrack that is both thrilling and charming in equal measure, exuding a expensive cinematic sheen, somewhat at odds with the games humble origins.

Destined to be a classic. 

18. Banjo-Tooie (2000) – Grant Kirkhope

At the very peak of Rare’s strength, Grant Kirkhope’s legacy was cemented in the late 90s with hit after hit: Donkey Kong 64, Goldeneye 64 (with Blast Corps’ Graeme Norgate and Conker’s Bad Fur Day’s Robin Beanland) and his signature sound in the Banjo Kazooie series.

Both Kazooie and its sequel bounce along with a goofy, Saturday morning cartoon-era lunacy, but Tooie in particular showcases a strange sense of maturity and refinement without losing its jaunty wholesomeness. 

Jam packed with camp, high-tempo Polka and Waltz numbers (all delivered in 64-bit technicolour), the music of Banjo-Tooie is both slapstick and carnivalesque, exuding all the sonic sublety of a jack-in-the-box, but in a way which only enhances the cartoonish aesthetic presented on screen. 

For some, the sunny polka-like earworms will prove an absolute delight, for others, they are nothing more than a fast track to madness.

Either way there is little denying that very few titles have managed to pack this much highly stylised original music into the one game (nine hours at only 200MB), a testament to the tireless work ethic of both Kirkhope and the Rare team through those late 90’s halcyon years.

Perhaps with Banjo-Tooie, the brilliance lies not just in Kirkhope’s ability to make us believe that hopped up MIDI-Polka is the folk music dejour of this non-existent world, but to leave us still wanting more, even after nine-plus hours of hyperactive, Bavarian lunacy.

In a word: Bonkers.

17. Florence (2018) – Kevin Penkin

The first game from Melbourne-based Mountains – a studio founded by Monument Valley’s lead designer Ken Wong – Florence is a short interactive story that takes about 30 minutes to complete.

The player solves small puzzles to piece together the dreams of aspiring artist Florence, as she begins a relationship with cellist Krish. How these simple ideas are brought to life in such beautiful fashion is nothing short of magical, and thanks in no small part to a deceptively powerful score from Kevin Penkin. 

A soothing patter of piano and violin reminiscent of Yann Tiersen’s iconic soundtrack for 2001’s Amélie, Florence’s score expertly maintains a difficult balance; it bursts with whimsy and imagination, but resonates with a real and relatable emotional complexity. With very little dialogue, Florence is guided primarily by the sonic waves and lulls Penkin generates, which reward your energy and investment tenfold.

Penkin’s work often elevates strong and quirky concepts, such as 2017’s Made in Abyss anime or 2020’s visual novel Necrobarista (about a Melbourne coffeehouse for the dead), but Florence is the work that exemplifies his capabilities: a blend of harmonious melodies that swell and comfort. 

It’s a spritely, considered score that serves to perfectly capture the very human experience of being caught in the natural momentum of living, whilst also being sentient enough to reflect on it in realtime.

They may be short experiences, but both game and soundtrack alike are sweet, elegant and unforgettable. The Academy seemed to agree, seeing fit to nominate the soundtrack for a BAFTA, upon release in 2018.

Truly one of a kind.

16. The Gardens Between (2018) – Tim Shiel

An ode to childhood friendship, The Gardens Between is a sweet and affecting puzzle game from Melbourne-based game designers The Voxel Agents. A story examining how simple memories build the foundation of our very core, the game truly shines brightest in the glorious work of musician and broadcaster Tim Shiel.

Shiel’s no stranger to games, having previously compiled some appropriately bouncy and shimmering scores to 2013’s platform-hopper Duet and 2017’s physics-puzzler Induction. What truly elevates The Gardens Between’s score, however, is an intricacy and tenderness both perfectly fitting and beyond expectation.

Shiel experimented with the contributions of 20 different Australian musicians – including composer Luke Howard and Gotye’s Wally De Backer – and the result is an echoing electronic ambience, expertly mimicking the soft blur of a cherished memory. At once therapeutic and bittersweet, the music of The Gardens Between is melancholy in a bottle. 

Like its city of origin, The Gardens Between OST is futuristic, nocturnal and forward thinking, combining moody synth pads, field recordings and lashings of tasteful percussion to deliver an incredibly accurate sonic approximation of Melbourne’s unique clash of urban and natural landscapes.

The result is a soundtrack that is at times, melancholy, regenerative and beautiful-the perfect accompaniment to a game centred around our relationship to place, space and each other.

And people say we have no culture…

15. Rakuen (2017) – Laura Shigihara

Developed, published, designed and composed by the supremely talented Laura Shigihara, Rakuen is a tender, heartfelt and deeply underrated experience.

Perhaps best known for her work as lead composer on Plants Vs Zombies, Shigihara wields Studio Ghibli-esque flutters and swells to tremendous strength, crafting a whimsical world of fantasy for a hospitalised boy and his supportive, tower-of-strength mother.

A tale of emotional exploration and finding hope against overwhelming adversity, Rakuen’s score is truly the soul of the game – a journey of healing that soars, soothes and aches.

Shigihara has an amazing capacity for producing music that is sweet and earnest, but never saccharine; every ounce of Rakuen carries a grounded, relatable sentimentality that can make you beam or weep with a few piano flourishes. Rakuen glows with a warm and unforgettable aura.

Primarily a piano and string based affair, the soundtrack to Rakuen bears an almost ‘Merry Christmas, Mr.Lawrence’ like ability to combine both Western and Eastern musical influences into a highly effecting score, taking what are in essence, relatively delicate, self effacing piano motifs and letting them develop and flourish into anthems of strength and resiliance.

14. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015) – Jessica Curry

Jessica Curry’s dark folk choir exquisitely highlights and counteracts the emptiness of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s abandoned village by filling it with bold, sublime  soundscapes. An eerie and powerful reverberation of vocal chorus shakes through this exploratory adventure.

Paying tribute to the British apocalyptic sci-fi of the ’60s and ’70s, Curry expertly represents that distinct texture in her own bold style. By transposing the supposedly idyllic qualities of the English countryside into an unsettling, aching assembly of strings and woodwinds, she weaves a dialogue of melancholy and absence.

Where the soundtrack truly shines, however, is in the incredible talents of the London Voices and Metro Voices choral ensembles and the widescreen, reverberant scope with which they are captured. 

Stunningly lush and with vocal and string parts that expertly compliment and consolidate in equal measure,the different sections within this soundtrack work together to make this a weeping, transcendental meeting of angelic proportions. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture simply has to be heard to be believed.

13. Pokémon Red / Blue – Junichi Masuda

When Junichi Masuda booted up his Commodore Amiga computer – a device which only featured simple PCM sample playback – and converted his music to the Game Boy with a home-written program, was there ever a moment when he realised that his tunes would become some of the most identifiable works for an entire generation?

You know what Pokémon Red and Blue are. You know what they sound like. Most importantly, however, you understand the size of their impact.

Pokémon is a testament to the power of a well-written composition: each and every tune packs a sense of regality that feels so much larger than the simple 8-bit device it was written for.

Masuda’s soundtrack screams “adventure” – it is grand, joyous and exciting at every turn. When the battle theme flings you into no-holds-barred confrontation from a wholesome, carefree laze, it should be a jarring experience – and yet, it’s gripping with each throw.

Featurning brilliant use of counter point and accented dyads to bulk up the limited track count-and with a penchant for chromatic flourishes over the bar that can only be descibed as enthusiasm incarnate, it’s a soundtrack that is as economic as it is utterly intoxicating. 

A romantic ode to expedition, Masuda’s creation exploded well beyond the limitations of its platform, becoming a legend in video game circles – and rightfully so.

12. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (1995) – David Wise

To grow up in the 90s is to have grown up with the magic of David Wise. Much like Grant Kirkhope, Wise’s work with Rare is unmistakable; he was the company’s sole musician until 1994, by which time he had become a legendary figure. From Battletoads to Diddy Kong Racing, Wise’s imaginative takes have left a deep impression on gaming’s history. 

The Donkey Kong Country series in particular glows with vibrant melodies and eclectic genres. From the synthesised swashbuckling of its opening levels to the melancholic trance of ‘Stickerbush Symphony’, Wise squeezed every ounce of potential out of the Super Nintendo’s SPC700 chip for Diddy’s Kong Quest. Listening to it in 2020, it’s remarkable the amount of tonal nuance and detail on display when compared to other soundtracks of the era. It’s a different thing altogether.

From the ADSR trickery found within the synth elements, right through to the proto-fidelity and wide pan of the various drum samples found throughout, it’s the sound of a composer banging thier head on the door of technical limitation (and using every trick under the sun to exploit it).

As a soundtrack, it’s aged like a fine wine, particularly in its reliance on tasteful Roland CR-78 style percussion and widescreen Wavestation pads and lead lines, proving just as transcendent today as they were back in 1995. 

 An enthralling rollercoaster of pure joy from start to finish, the music of Donkey Kong Country 2 is as influential as it is universally adored, with the track ‘Haunted Chase’ even being sampled by Drake on ‘6 God’ from his 2015 mixtape If You Are Reading This It’s Too Late.

11. Portal 2 (2011) – Mike Morasky

When it was first released in 2007, Portal received universal acclaim for its innovative approach to puzzle-solving and sharp humor, tied together with a haunting and ominous electronic atmosphere by Kelly Bailey and Mike Morasky.

In 2011, Portal 2 achieved the almost impossible; not only did Morasky return to retain the glitchy power of the instant classic, but somehow managed to amplify it, in a game three times as big.

Morasky created a procedurally generated adaptive music system for the game that alters in real time, depending upon the player’s actions.

It’s a mathematical mangle of chiptune tones and odd rhythmic samples that somehow cobble together into a grand symphony of excitement. It’s all there and all of it working in complete symphony with the games unique premise and visual aesthetic.

If there was any justice in the world, the sense of pure adventure conjured by Morasky in Portal 2 should place him alongside the likes of John Williams’ and Hans Zimmer in the pantheon of great composers for the visual medium.

How does one cry to a machine gun turret singing an operatic aria with the synthetic voice of Ellen McLain? How can music be enough to evoke a sense of fear from something as innocuos as  a series of rotating wall panels? How is any of this possible? 

While Morasky’s creative approach does leave us with more questions than answers, one thing we can definitely agree on is that it’s profoundly effecting, bearing all the hallmarks of true genius.

Stay tuned for the second part of our list to arrive soon!