Visuals in video games have improved drastically over the last few decades, with characters and environments inching ever closer to realism, and it can make the graphics in older Nintendo or PlayStation 1 games look downright putrid. Video game original soundtracks (OSTs), however, can live on well after their games become unplayable.
While game soundtracks have evolved to frequently use orchestras and choruses to add a more dramatic atmosphere, there are absolute classics from the ’80s and ’90s that are just as entertaining and catchy today despite being generated with limited bits and synthesized audio.
Setting games to music is not a lost art by any means, though: There are plenty of more recent soundtracks already poised to become future classics. Here are the best video game soundtracks of all time — or, at least, our personal favorites.
Super Mario Bros. (1985)
When you hear the phrase “video game music,” there’s a pretty good chance that the opening tune to the original Super Mario Bros. will just start playing in your head. Whimsical, bouncy, and at a perfect tempo to keep you pushing forward, the music perfectly matches the sound effects made when Mario jumps in the air, breaks blocks, and warps down pipes. When you head underground, the volume drops and the music switches to a minimalist beat that signals the danger ahead. Inch forward in time with the “do do do do do do” of the music, and you just might make it out the other side alive.
Even when you fail, you can’t help but crack a smile, with those few notes punctuating your defeat. When you inevitably run out of lives, and have to start over from the very beginning, the game taunts you even more with a flat-key reimagining of the theme song’s opening notes. Before you have a chance to beat yourself up too much, however, it’s back into World 1-1 and the most memorable tune in video game history.
Mega Man 2 (1988)
The Mega Man games are notoriously difficult, but without picking up a controller or even seeing footage online, you can tell that Mega Man 2 is going to be relentless from its soundtrack alone. Every stage’s song is a breakneck, anxiety-inducing sprint that you’ll struggle to keep up with, and even the game’s slower tunes, which you’ll hear in Air Man’s theme, are still faster than the majority of music on the NES.
It isn’t until you finally defeat Dr. Wily and view the ending credits that you finally get a chance to breathe, as the music switches to a soft, melodic tune as a reward for all your efforts. Later games in the series, like Mega Man X, were certainly able to build on the foundation of Mega Man 2 and deliver something a little more complex, but there’s something charming about the soundtrack’s simplicity.
Super Castlevania IV (1991)
The Super Nintendo was capable of producing audio far superior to what we heard on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or even the Sega Genesis, and Super Castlevania IV might just be the best example of what the console could do. Combining the blaring organs associated with gothic horror with the rhythmic chiptune beat Castlevania fans had come to expect, the soundtrack often outshined the game’s visuals, which are still beautiful more than 25 years after the game’s initial release.
Even if you loved a particular song from the original Castlevania NES trilogy, there’s a good chance it’s in Super Castlevania IV, as well. Later stages use reimagined versions of these tunes, including the first game’s Vampire Killer, giving you a healthy dose of nostalgia as you push into Dracula’s Lair. Our favorite song has to be Simon’s Theme, however, as its punchy melody and blistering pace make it the perfect background music as you cut some ghoulish creatures down to size.
Chrono Trigger (1995)
Square Enix’ masterpiece, Chrono Trigger, has stood the test of time, with some regarding it as the best role-playing game ever conceived due to its complex story, fine-tuned battle mechanics, and Akira Toriyama’s signature character design, and Yasunori Mitsuda’s beautiful score. The opening title screen begins with a soft, ominous tune that hints at more bombastic music later on, but over the course of Crono’s adventure, we hear a wide variety of music. Frog’s Theme, for instance, is as stoic as the knight, but with a tragic undertone that hints at the struggles he’s faced since his transformation.
Our favorite music has to involve Magus, arguably the game’s best character. First believed to be an antagonist who wants nothing more than to send the world into peril, his eventually is revealed to be a more nuanced character who forms an uneasy alliance with the rest of the group. His theme reflects this, always appearing like it will reach a boiling point without ever actually getting there.
Star Fox 64 (1997)
The collective brainchild of underrated great Hajime Wakai (Pikmin, Wind Waker, F-Zero X) and the legendary Koji Kondo, the Star Fox 64 OST is a bombastic and dramatic space opera score that adds drama to what could have been a silly arcade game starring talking animals. Considering each playthrough only lasts an hour, the catchy music makes replaying the game over and over more enjoyable.
Each track perfectly captures the mood of the mission and planet. The classic Area 6 score evokes the desperation of four pilots on a suicide mission through a fleet’s non-stop barrage. Star Wolf was the perfect background for tense dogfighting against your cartoonishly-evil rivals. Slower tracks like the Meteo Warp and Aquas captured the deadly beauty of a galaxy just as dangerous as Andross’ forces.
What held the Star Fox 64 soundtrack back was its MIDI tools, which couldn’t quite live up to the orchestrated sound Wakai and Kondo were trying to achieve. But jump ahead to Star Fox Assault — which cribbed much of the same music — and the Super Smash Bros. games’ re-orchestrations for the Star Fox levels, and you’ll find that the music achieves its full Hollywood-esque potential.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is often regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made, and while that praise stems largely from its fantastic world design and time-travelling story, it would be downright criminal to discount composer Koji Kondo’s contribution to the title’s success. From the moment Link wakes up as a child and begins walking around Kokiri Forest, the light, calming music sets the mood — it’s soothing almost to hide the fact that the nearby area of Hyrule is soon going to plunge into darkness.
Handing you an ocarina, the game has you bring some of the series’ most iconic themes to life: Zelda’s, Epona’s and Saria’s themes not only stand the test of time, but also play important gameplay roles as you progress through dungeons or navigate the Lost Woods. Ganondorf’s theme, on the other hand, portrayed the villain’s menacing danger so well that it made a reappearance in several sequels.
Of course, few things are more exhilarating than charging across Hyrule Field on Epona as the music crescendos into a loud, booming chorus that gives you the confidence you need to defeat Ganondorf. Except, of course, for infiltrating Gerudo’s Valley, with its often-remixed score evoking exhilaration and danger while far from home.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
Punk rock and skateboarding grew up together, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater reflects that, setting an upbeat tone with pop, punk, and ska earworms that found a new audience, and a popularity that extended beyond the game. With tunes from acclaimed bands such as the Suicide Machines, Dead Kennedys, and the Vandals, the game had the perfect soundtrack to listen to for hours as you attempted to master your “McTwist” or replicate the 900 you saw Mr. Hawk complete on TV. One song has come to represent the THPS franchise’s cultural footprint more than any other: Goldfinger’s horn-infused ska track Superman is so relentlessly upbeat and catchy, it’s virtually impossible to get upset when you’re listening to it. The other games in the franchise all feature strong soundtracks, but without Superman, they all seem to be lacking something.
Halo 2 (2004)
The original Halo introduced us to the series’ signature, choir-heavy theme song, and the third game ended with an emotional piano number that offered what we thought was definitive closure to Master Chief’s story. But neither can compare to the electric guitar shredding of Halo 2. Early in the game, we’re reacquainted with the Covenant’s deadly Hunter enemies, which typically strike fear into our hearts the second they burst onto the scene. But with Steve Vai’s solo blaring in our ears, we had the confidence to charge in with our guns blazing. When we switch perspectives and take control of the Arbiter, the music takes on a horror tinge, one peppered with sullen, tragic moments that remind us of the impossible mission he must complete.
Of course, gamers who spent hours in Halo 2 matchmaking will remember the game as much for its heart-wrenching menu music like Heavy Price Paid and Unforgotten. Allegedly named “unforgotten” because the composer Marty O’Donnell forgot he had scored it until Halo 2 was nearly out, it really evokes the tragedy and memory of all the humans and duped Covenant dying in a senseless war. The theme unsurprisingly returned in Halo 3 and Halo 4.
Even the game’s controversial, cliffhanger ending was made more bearable by the soundtrack. As Master Chief utters his famous “Sir, finishing this fight” line, Marty O’Donnell’s score crescendos and the screen cuts to black. Fans would have to wait three years to discover how the war between the humans and Covenant came to a close, with the score ringing in their ears.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)
The Uncharted series can be described as a direct descendent of the original Tomb Raider games. The game’s music, however, is one of a few elements that helped Nathan Drake climb out of Lara Croft’s shadow. His theme song can only be described as “epic.” Hearing it transports us to one of the series’ many beautiful, treasure-filled vistas. Drake’s Fortune also knows when to ratchet things back to built up dramatic tension, especially in between gun battles. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” doesn’t even begin to describe these spooky, otherwise silent sections, where just one false move could send Nathan plummeting into a pile of skeletons or a group of gun-toting mercenaries.
Minecraft: Volumes Alpha & Beta (2011–2013)
It’s not too bold a claim to make that Minecraft probably wouldn’t have sold 200 million copies, becoming the second-bestselling game of all time, unless German composer C418 gave gamers a soothing yet alien soundtrack to fill the emptiness as they explored its near-deserted, endless setting.
Peaceful piano solos create a somewhat melancholic ambience as you navigate a world full of scared critters and violent monsters. Then, upbeat electronica gives you a burst of energy, hearkening more to the mood of gamers building blocky buildings and getting up to in-game hijinks with Minecraft mods.
Most Minecraft OST fans gravitate toward the first album’s simple classics like Moog City, Sweden, and Subwoofer Lullaby. Don’t sleep on Volume Beta, though, as it moves beyond pieces that are simply “peaceful” or “sad” and creates tracks like Taswell and Kyoto that feel like distinct performances, each evoking its own strange new world.
Composer Austin Wintory spent three years creating the soundtrack for Journey, and this dedication paid off in an incredible soundtrack that was the first and only one to be nominated for a Grammy Award. Wintory made cellist Tina Guo the center of the soundtrack and said in an interview that the game is “like a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you.” Eventually, as you climb the mountain, the cello emerges from the orchestra to represent the completion of your journey. Plus, the soundtrack changes to add new instruments when you meet with other players.
Add in his work on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Abzû and the Banner Saga trilogy, Wintory makes a strong case for being the best game composer of the last decade.
Rayman Legends (2013)
Aside from rhythm games such as Thumper and Guitar Hero Live, it’s rare to see a developer work its music directly into its game’s mechanics, but that’s exactly what Ubisoft Montpellier did in Rayman Legends. After several traditional platforming stages — each complete with their own lighthearted songs — each world ends with a lightning-fast platforming sequence set to a popular rock or pop song.
Classics such as Black Betty and Eye of the Tiger are recreated with Rayman’s oddball humor (the latter is played entirely on kazoo) as the limbless hero sprints toward the finish line, and his jumps are in perfect time with the songs. Symbol crashes, for instance, ring out whenever Rayman is about to be hit by a cannon blast, and this all happens within the game world, with enemies joining in to perform a concert as they try to kill our hero. Don’t mess up the timing: You’ll ruin the song!
BioShock Infinite (2013)
If Rayman Legends managed to tie its soundtrack to its gameplay in a way no other game had before, BioShock Infinite achieved a similar meld of music and story. From the moment Booker DeWitt steps foot in the floating city of Columbia, he’s greeted with music that doesn’t exist yet. The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, is sung by a barbershop quartet, even though the song wouldn’t be written for about 50 years. As the space-time continuum further disintegrates around Booker, he hears tunes from bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and even new-wave legends Tears for Fears.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the entire game can actually be skipped if players aren’t nosy enough. After entering a basement, Booker can pick up a guitar and perform Will the Circle Be Unbroken? as a duet with his companion, Elizabeth. You feel their emotions through the speakers, and the song left us thinking about how its lyrics related to the universe, or multiverse, for weeks afterward.
Child of Light (2014)
Canadian singer-songwriter Cœur de pirate created a moving soundtrack that matches well with the mood of the game, heavy with melancholic violin and thoughtful piano solos before upping the tempo into percussion-heavy battle ballads. Mostly set in an portal fantasy world and starring a young girl desperate to return home to save her dying father and thwart her evil stepmother, this dark twist on a Cinderella story with violence and no Prince Charming shines in part thanks to its beautiful music. Even as Aurora gains powers and friends, the combination of sadness and whimsy reminds us that this journey is not as enjoyable for her as it is for us.
Most gamers would pick Darren Korb’s excellent Bastion soundtrack for this list, but for our money, Transistor represents Korb’s best work by far. You play as Red, a singer whose voice has been sealed away inside of a mysterious sword and who must fight to defeat the robotic intelligence that is absorbing the city inhabitants into itself. Unable to speak, Red can hum along to the music of each level, and you’ll also hear several former performances of hers over the course of the game.
Korb described the genre of the soundtrack as “old-world electronic post-rock,” which really just translates into an intense cyberpunk vibe that matches the action-heavy gameplay and desolate, futuristic world. Add in singer Ashley Lynn Barrett’s amazing voice, used to great effect in songs like We All Become and The Spine, and you get a soundtrack that’s worth listening to over and over.
Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)
The graphical beauty of the Ori franchise is only matched by its truly gorgeous soundtrack, which was performed by an entire orchestra and choir and features multiple solo performances from Aeralie Brighton, Rachel Mellis, and Tom Boyd. The vocalists’ harmonies sound as if the game’s forest setting is serenading Ori as he progresses along his quest, with solo performances often arising during cutscenes when Ori has taken a step further in cleansing his home of the sickness infecting it.
Its excellent production value aside, the Ori and the Blind Forest soundtrack succeeds thanks to Gareth Coker’s thoughtful composition, which creates a new, magical-sounding melody for each new area you encounter and leitmotifs that reflect upon the recurring characters you meet.
Nier: Automata (2017)
The opening hours of Nier: Automata are accompanied by a melancholy and occasionally cheery soundtrack that mostly exists in the background as you move throughout the open world. The song Rays of Light has a memorable and simple piano tune that you’ll often find yourself humming — as there is little noise when in the game’s City Ruins — but the final few notes of the jingle shift toward a more depressing tone that is evocative of the emotional torture you’re about to endure over the course of the game.
Emi Evans, the vocalist for many of the tracks, researched linguistics in order to make up a convincing, fake in-game language, Chaos, then harmonized with Keiichi Okabe’s composed melodies in that fake language. Aside from having a beautiful voice, Evans added authenticity and immersion to the game’s outlandish world by creating and singing words that sounded as if they could be a real far-future language.
The game’s final moments are where the fantastic soundtrack really hits its high point. An initially quiet, somber tune, The Weight of the World, starts with a solo performance before giving way to an orchestral anthem, with an entire choir of voices joining in as you make your way to the game’s touching conclusion. Even after 2B and 9S finished their journey, we still wanted to “shout it loud.”
Persona 5 (2017)
The jazzy Persona soundtracks are a big favorite with video game audiophiles, and the Persona 5 OST is full of energetic music encouraging you to “wake up, get up, get out there”. Composer Shoji Meguro frequently uses the electric piano and guitar in the game’s music, adding a synthesized tone that makes your character’s daily Tokyo routine feel just as exciting as the Metaverse.
The highlights of the soundtrack come from singer Lyn Inaizumi, who performs a dozen or so pop / R&B songs that will stick in your brain and have you humming them well after you beat the game. They appear as both vocal and instrumental versions depending on the time of day, which is a neat touch. Plus, the game even adds lyrics to some of the fight music, a choice that few other games have ever been bold enough to try.
Celeste is a challenging game, not only in terms of gameplay, but also in subject matter. The soundtrack perfectly keeps up with the tone set by the game, pulling double duty as background music and sound design. Following your events perfectly, Celeste’s soundtrack almost feels like a character in the game, sticking with you on the long and often lonely journey up Celeste Mountain.
Furthermore, Celeste‘s soundtrack perfectly bends the mood of the game to its will, with the opening First Steps offering a hopeful tone in the early moments of the game and songs like Reflection offering a deeper, more methodical tone as your physical and psychological journey continues into a darker place.
Celeste also has “B-Side” levels with increased difficulty and fast-paced remixes on the original level themes. While all trippy and adrenaline-pumping in their own way, Reflection (Center of the Earth Mix) is an incredible stand-out track, with the discordant chanting reflecting upon the absurdly deadly environment that your character keeps diving into headfirst.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018)
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate helped Nintendo transform the Nintendo Switch into the biggest and most impractical MP3 player of all time. Players can access over 30 hours of original tracks and remixes from a huge variety of video game franchises from the game’s Sounds menu and across its 100+ stages. The game lets you listen to your favorite franchises and create custom playlists. Or simply select shuffle and relive some of the best video game music in history, including compositions from several of our other all-time best picks.
The Smash Bros. series impressed everyone with the combination of new orchestrations as well as remixes of old classics. Similar to Star Fox 64, Nintendo used advanced musical tools and sound libraries to recreate outdated MIDI soundtracks, giving music from Mario, Metroid, Fire Emblem, Zelda, Kirby, and many other franchises a breath of fresh air. Each new DLC character, such as Joker from Persona 5, arrives with new music as well.
Strictly limiting our picks to 20 would mean that we wouldn’t even be able to have one title for each of the 35 years that NES has been in households worldwide. So we’ve assembled our top 20 runners up, which are worth checking out, even if they didn’t quite make it into the top category.
- Super Mario World (1990) by Koji Kondo
- Earthbound (1994) by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka
- Final Fantasy VI (1994) by Nobuo Uematsu
- Secret of Mana (1994) by Hiroki Kikuta
- Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest (1995) by David Wise
- Banjo-Kazooie (1998) by Grant Kirkhope
- Chrono Cross (1999) by Yasunori Mitsuda
- Final Fantasy VIII (1999) by Nobuo Uematsu
- Super Mario Sunshine (2002) by Koji Kondo
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003) by Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, and Koji Kondo
- Super Mario Galaxy (2007) by Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo
- Persona 4 (2008) by Shoji Meguro
- Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009) by Jesper Kyd
- Halo 3: ODST (2009) by Martin O’Donnell and Martin Salvatori
- Bastion (2011) by Darren Korb
- Sonic Generations (2011) by Jun Senoue
- Life Is Strange (2015) by Jonathan Morali
- Undertale (2015) by Toby Fox
- Hue (2016) by Alkis Livathinos
- God of War (2018) by Bear McCreary
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