When it comes to appreciating video game soundtracks I was actually rather ignorant for many years. I’d always enjoyed the infuriatingly catchy plinkety-plonk of Super Mario World and the more epic and evocative A Link To The Past, but it wasn’t until 1997 when, playing through Super Mario 64 for the first time at the age of thirteen, I first leapt through the painting that took me to Jolly Roger Bay. From the moment of hearing that music my appreciation for the art of creating game music skyrocketed.
It should be noted that all but one of my six suggestions are from the last ten years, mainly because, as much as it’s lovely to reminisce about the music for Golden Axe or Streets of Rage, the truth is that production values have skyrocketed since then and, as a result, so too has the quality of music written for the games we play. There will be no rose-tinted spectacles here thankyouverymuch. So, without further ado, here are my six favourite soundtracks in no particular order.
The Reason: If there is a game out there with a more mind blowing soundscape than Killer7, please do get in touch and let me know. Set inside the shattered mind of wheelchair-bound assassin Harman Smith and focusing on the physical manifestations of his seven split personalities, it’s a game shrouded in darkness, blood, mindless violence and ambiguity. Killer7 needed a score that could somehow not only reinforce those qualities, but fill players with dread, make them laugh, or allow them some breathing space from the twisted goings on in their battle against the giggling Heaven Smiles. It is an electrifying, terrifying and witty masterpiece.
The Standout: Masafumi Takada’s masterful soundtrack contains what would be categorised as a “breathing space” track, coming as it does midway through the level entitled “Blackburn”, so called due to it being the surname of your target. To describe this as chilled bliss would be a gross understatement. Pro Tip: works great for hangovers and goes very well with sunshine in the garden.
2. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
The Reason: Well firstly, it’s Amon Tobin! The man is a genius. Putting aside my inherent love for one of Brazil’s finest exports, Chaos Theory has been, and perhaps always will be, the standard bearer by which all subsequent games in the series have been judged. Not only for how it nailed stealth in a way which should make Hideo Kojima blush with embarrassment and shame, but for its at once sinister, pulsating, adrenaline pumping and brooding soundtrack. Not since Monty Norman conjured cinematic dynamite with his theme for the world’s most famous secret agent has anyone managed to convey being a spy in such a powerful way.
The Standout: Picking a standout from Chaos Theory is not easy, but after much deliberation I have plumped for the above song. It doesn’t actually have a name other than “that awesome tune from the level where you rob a bank” amongst fans, mainly because it’s the only piece that isn’t actually on the official soundtrack for some ungodly reason. Tobin at once encapsulates being a super spy, gadgets and tech, thieving in the dead of night, the ultimate heist, nearly getting busted by security – I could go on. The Ocean’s Eleven vibe is very audible and it is, quite frankly, wonderful.
3. Jet Set Radio Future
The Reason: Jet Set Radio Future represented Sega at the height of their creative power, and their ability to hire quality composers to give their games an extra punch was never more apparent than when they unleashed their rollerblading spray ‘em up sequel to the Dreamcast classic in 2002 on Xbox. If there was ever a competition to find the coolest game ever made, JSRF would win hands down. Funky, bouncy, eccentric, off the wall and at times just plain strange (Count Latchula anyone?), JSRF’s soundtrack is perhaps what the game is most famous for, more so than its still stunning graphics and vastly improved level design.
The Standout: With such a huge and diverse selection of funkiness to pick from, fans will have their personal preferences, but it is likely that, if you ask a fan to pick their favourite, chances are it will be Aisle 10 by Scapegoat Wax. There’s almost no point trying to explain why. It’s got the aforementioned funky beat, but it’s also surprisingly sweet and romantic and works great at house parties. Its quality is more easily explained by just listening to it.
4. Super Mario Galaxy
The Reason: It wouldn’t be a greatest video game soundtracks list without the undisputed master of gaming music, Koji Kondo, now would it? Super Mario Galaxy is a landmark soundtrack, not only for its quality but also for the fact that a Mario score was now fully orchestrated. SMG is a brilliant game, but what elevates it to masterpiece is its exemplary score. It is to SMG what John Williams’ score was for Star Wars; it encapsulates all that Mario is and has been about: speed, movement, humour, fun and exploration. One can’t help but also get the feeling that having an orchestra allowed Kondo to go nuts creatively. It resulted in arguably his finest work since he started working for Nintendo in 1984.
The Standout: As with Chaos Theory, picking a favourite from SMG was not easy. Ultimately though, I have gone for “Wind Garden”, the theme of Gusty Garden Galaxy. Have you ever heard a more rousing and stirring piece of music in a game, let alone a Mario game?
5. Gitaroo Man
The Reason: If you love games that remind you of how bonkers the Japanese can seem, than you can’t go wrong with Gitaroo Man. As U-1 you had to prove your guitar playing skills against various bosses and enemies (bar one very famous level which we’ll get to shortly) in songs that varied from crazy J-Pop to all-out funk. Almost every song in Gitaroo Man is so utterly mad you cannot help but fall in love with not just the music, but the game too. A PS2 classic with a soundtrack to match.
The Standout: If you ever played Gitaroo Man you’ll know there’s one song that towers above all others. Yes, it’s the “Legendary Theme”, played in order to help U-1 woo Little Pico, his perfect girl, under a tree in the evening sun. That’s all that needs to be said.
6. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
The Reason: It’s the closest gaming has ever got to having its own Indiana Jones (despite there being an excellent little game you may have heard of called Fate of Atlantis), not simply in Nathan Drake himself but in the calibre and sound of the scores that accompany his mass-murdering-but-somehow-charming antics. Of the trilogy it’s the second instalment that boasts the most complete and fulfilling score. It hits all the right beats, both action and emotional, and has a beautiful Eastern feeling threaded throughout, not surprising given its setting. Though having produced a decent score for Drake’s Fortune, with increased production values Greg Edmonson truly hit it for six with this follow-up.
The Standout: It has to be The City’s Secret, so sinister and filling the player with a sense of uncertainty about what lies around the next corner. It superbly sums up everything Uncharted is in terms of exploration and peril, and using brains rather than the nearest AK-47 Nathan Drake can get his hands on. A slower and more thoughtful piece, it evokes feelings of longing (for his then will-they-won’t-they squeeze Elena), mystery and sheer scale of the task at hand. Absolutely superb.