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A good game soundtrack is as indispensible as a well-written narrative and solid gameplay mechanics. The right song can set your heart pounding in a hectic action sequence, fill you with dread before entering a dungeon or abandoned building, or drive you to tears at a tragic ending or death of a beloved character. Talented composers working with world-class orchestras have made video game music an art form in itself, and concert tours such as Distant Worlds are helping to spread this art around the world in new and exciting ways.
Over the years, I’ve collected a somewhat sizable library of game soundtracks, and this list is a compilation of 10 of my favorites, along with a few honorable mentions. I thought about just doing a list of my favorite overall soundtracks, but I wanted to dig deeper into specific songs and moments from games that left a lasting impression. Obviously, this list is just opinion and not meant to be the defining list of the best video game music. If your favorite didn't make the list, let us know in the comments what additions you would make.
10. Yafutoma Dawn
Game: Skies of Arcadia
Composer: Yutaka Minobe and Takayuki Maeda
Yafutoma has already made my list of favorite video game locations in a previous post, and a big part of that was because of the environment music of the area. This place feels like a feudal Japan that just happens to be floating in the sky, and if the physical aesthetic doesn’t already take you there, the music will. In Skies of Arcadia, Yafutoma is a distant and hidden land of mystery that drives the imaginations of intrepid explorers wild. “Yafutoma Dawn” captures the grand scale of this hidden world with a sound that has a deep oriental feel as well as something below the surface that you can’t quite put your finger on, much like the land of Yafutoma itself.
9. Skyrim Atmospheres
Composer: Jeremy Soule
This is one 42-minute track that makes up the entirety of the last disk of the four-CD Skyrim soundtrack. “Skyrim Atmospheres” isn’t so much a song as it is a compilation of all the background music and sounds you encounter throughout your exploration of the vast game world. I chose this over any one song in the massive soundtrack because I think this track fully encompasses the grandeur of the Skyrim experience. Rain falls and birds chirp over the backdrop of soft ambient music, then for a few moments, the music goes silent, yielding to the sound of wind blowing through the trees. Listening to “Skyrim Atmospheres” takes you through the entirety of this game’s environments from the frozen coasts of Haafingar to the Autumnal forests of The Rift.
8. All I Want
Game: Crazy Taxi
Composer: The Offspring
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Is there anything else to say? There probably aren’t many songs that can define a game like The Offspring’s “All I Want” has for Crazy Taxi. This song gets you pumped and in the zone for all the ridiculous stunts you need to perform throughout your fare. On its own, it’s a good song, but something about speeding down the opposite lane, half on the sidewalk, then doing a barrel roll off a cliff makes it a great song. With all the fun you have in the game, you almost don’t even notice that the song has played over and over again for a good 20 times.
7. Daughter of the High Summoner
Game: Final Fantasy X
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
This song plays during your viewing of Braska’s Sphere, found on Mt. Gagazet toward the last leg of Yuna’s pilgrimage. In this sphere, Braska leaves a message of encouragement for his now grown daughter, letting her know that she must choose her own path and that she will always have his full support. Watching character spheres are some of the more lighthearted, and at the same time, emotional parts of FFX, and this one is my personal favorite. The track that goes with it is an overall theme for Yuna’s relationship with her long-dead father and the footsteps that she is following in her own pilgrimage to become high summoner. “Daughter of the High Summoner” is a tale of love and hardship in a world where people like Yuna and Braska are the only ones that can keep a tumultuous peace alive.
Game: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Composer: The Pointer Sisters
There’s enough ‘80s here to make your chest hair grow into a wild jungle of retro manliness. Vice City’s Club Malibu is another location that made my earlier top 10 list, and like Yafutoma, the music played a big role in that. While the ‘80s isn’t my favorite musical era, the collection of songs chosen for this game’s soundtrack is a great definer of the age. It was hard to choose a favorite for this list, but when “Automatic” by The Pointer Sisters came on in Club Malibu, all bets were off. I would come down from Tommy Vercetti’s totally badass office wearing the bank robbery hockey mask and jumpsuit, then jump around in the orgy of people in the best attempt at dancing I could muster. Then I’d toss a Molotov on the floor because why the hell not? This is GTA.
5. Mafia Main Theme
Composer: Vladimir Šimůnek
Played during the opening cinematic of the game, the main theme of Mafia is as dramatic and sweeping as the story itself. The theme plays out as the camera pans over rocky cliffs, open farmland, and the sprawling city where you will play as a cab driver turned Mafioso in what is, in my opinion, one of the best gangland-themed games of all time. This track, performed by the Czech Symphony Orchestra, sets the stage for a grand tale of Prohibition-era gang life on par with great movies like "Road to Perdition" and "The Godfather." I loved starting a new game in Mafia just so I could watch the intro again. To this day, it’s one of the few opening cinematics to a video game that still gives me chills.
4. Symphony No. 9 in E Minor
Composer: Antonín Dvořák/Shoji Meguro
For the Catherine soundtrack, composer Shoji Meguro remixed several classical music pieces which are played during the puzzle levels of the game. While all of these remixes are exceptionally well done, Meguro’s reimagining of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is hands-down my favorite in the game. This song plays during the Quadrangle stage, which is a frozen tower riddled with ice blocks that could send Vincent sliding to his untimely demise with one wrong step. Parts of the song are fast-paced and tense, much like the difficult and often frustrating puzzles themselves, but there are also parts where things slow down, and the whimsical, somewhat chilling (pun intended) piano work does an amazing job of feeding off the ominous, freezing atmosphere. This song, much like the game itself, is an emotional roller coaster that, by the end, will have you feeling like you’ve just completed a truly epic journey.
3. A Chapel ~ Battle Theme #3
Game: Final Fantasy Tactics
Composer: Hitoshi Sakimoto
I’m not a big fan of random battles in RPGs, and FF Tactics was no exception, but if this music was playing during my battle, then I didn’t mind so much. Out of all the battle themes, this one was my favorite. Even during minor skirmishes, the song made me feel as though I was in an epic boss fight. Battle music has always been a gem of the FF franchise, but with random battles, it can get pretty repetitive (I grew particularly bored of it through my many hours in FFX). FF Tactics having so many different battle songs helped keep the fights a little more fresh. As I grinded my way through Ivalice, I always hoped in every random encounter that I might hear this song playing as the camera rotated around the square, blocky map (which nowadays could probably be mistaken for something out of Minecraft).
Game: Mass Effect
Composer: Jack Wall and Sam Hulick
Fans of the series will recognize this as the main menu song from the first Mass Effect game. More importantly, however *(minor spoilers inbound)*, it also plays during your conversation with the Prothean V.I. named Vigil in the ruins of Ilos (the music track for Ilos also being one of my favorites from this OST). While this track makes a few appearances in ME2 as well and could really be considered another theme for the series, I felt it had a particular impact during the conversation with Vigil. It comes near the end of the game, but the things you learn from the ancient V.I. confirm that this is only the beginning of a mind-blowingly huge journey that will take you through every spiraling arm of a wondrously vast galaxy. The track “Vigil” is at the same time soothing, ominous, sentimental, and reflective. After the conversation with the V.I., you can’t help but listen to this track on the main menu with new ears. The emotional weight of that moment comes back every time as the history of the Prothean war with the Reapers and a cycle of galactic extinction that has lasted for millions of years is encapsulated in one song. “Vigil,” I think, is a perfect example of what any good video game soundtrack song should be.
1. Empty Loneliness
Game: Valkyria Chronicles
Composer: Hitoshi Sakimoto
In Mr. Sakimoto’s second appearance on the list, we have “Empty Loneliness” from Valkyria Chronicles at number one. I had a feeling a song from this game would be number one, but choosing which one was almost another top 10 list in itself. While the regal, gut-pounding “Main Theme” and tear-jerking “Those Who Succeeded” were strong competitors, “Empty Loneliness” is an emotional slap in the face every time I hear it. Like other songs on this list, I chose this particular track because it always takes me back to my favorite moments in the game. Listening to this song, I become reminiscent of Alicia and Welkin’s nighttime chats on the Edelweiss or their perilous stealth trek through the Kloden Wildwood. Like Mass Effect’s “Vigil” (which really was almost a tie with this track), “Empty Loneliness” is an example of a song that, for me at least, fully encompasses the range of emotions that the game brings to the table on the journey from start to end. Hitoshi Sakimoto has composed the soundtracks for some of my favorite RPGs, and I think he’s at the top of his game in Valkyria Chronicles.
Chop Chop Master Onion Rap
Game: PaRappa the Rapper
Composer: Masaya Matsuura
Honestly, the only reason this isn’t in the top 10 is because I’ve never actually played this game myself. I have watched friends play, though, and this song is undeniably a classic in the video game world. When I talk to friends about this game, “Chop Chop Master Onion” is the first thing that everyone starts to sing.
Game: Beautiful Katamari Damashii
Composer: The iDOLM@STER
This song is just a musical form of squeal-inducing happiness, much like the game it’s featured in. I like to imagine that JPop was playing during the formation of all the planets.
You’re Not Here
Game: Silent Hill 3
Composer: Akira Yamaoka and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn
This song was featured during the end credits of the “Silent Hill” movie, but it first made its appearance as what is likely considered the theme of Silent Hill 3. While you don’t hear this song during the actual game (at least not that I remember. I could be wrong), listening to it takes you right back to the game’s opening at the eerily quiet Central Square Shopping Center, the dark corridors of the subway level, or to the hellish Silent Hill amusement park. While “You’re Not Here” doesn’t define any particular moment of the game, it’s just one of those songs that can make a player reminisce over their entire journey through Silent Hill 3’s story. It’s also a really good song on its own.