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 NES or even PlayStation games look downright putrid. Music, however, is a different beast entirely. While game soundtracks have certainly evolved over the years, there are absolute classics from the ’80s that are just as entertaining and catchy today as they were three decades ago. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.