Written by Ryan "Mayor" Reynolds
The folks at Nuraphone recently reached out to me and asked to collaborate in compiling a playlist of the best video game soundtracks of all time. That playlist is available now on Spotify. To accompany the playlist, we thought it appropriate to explain why each song and franchise made the cut, in order of appearance on the list. For the sake of clarity, the playlist itself doesn’t represent any sort of “ranking” but is simply a compilation of some of the great music tracks found in video games. Perhaps most importantly, all of these classics deserve to be heard through a great pair of headphones, like those that Nura offers.
Many people know that Id Software caught lightning in a bottle when they hired Mick Gordon to write and perform all of the music for Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal (2020). What some people might not know is that the original Doom game from 1993 had an incredible soundtrack as well, which is why “At Doom’s Gate” kicks off our playlist. “Rip & Tear,” one of the most prominent tracks from Doom (2016) is in the second spot but the entire soundtracks from Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal are worth listening to. It’s almost as if you’re not truly living if you haven’t heard these, all the way through. There’s nothing that will get your blood pumping more than these two soundtracks which arguably define the new Doom games, as much as or more than the gameplay itself. “Reich Between the Eyes” comes in at number three, paying homage to another great Id Software franchise and Mick Gordon OST.
As of the time that this playlist was assembled Bethesda (The publisher of Doom and Wolfenstein) and Mick Gordon are having a bit of a dispute and are currently not planning to work together again. Let’s hope that the winds shift and things change because this combo is truly one of the all time greats!
The soundtrack of Halo: Combat Evolve somehow managed to pull together booming drums, an orchestra and chanting monks to create some of the most inspiring battle music of all time. There is something special about the soundtrack that Marty O’Donnell and the team at Bungie created that injects the Halo franchise with a feeling of heroics, struggle, exploration and wonder at the same time. Those core concepts kept delivering throughout the course of the Halo trilogy. “Earth City” from the Halo 2 soundtrack will fill gamers will memories of defending Earth from the Covenant invasion, fighting what seemed to be an impossible battle. Like many great gaming franchises and soundtracks, there are simply too many great songs scattered throughout Halo’s history to choose from.
Many may not have expected Hunt: Showdown from Crytek to have made this list, which is why its inclusion is so important. Hunt: Showdown is a multiplayer horror game set in the late 19th century in which players step into the role of bounty hunters hired to take down monsters. The game excretes a unique tone with its bayou-like setting and time frame, during which players wield “wild west” style weaponry. From the moment that you boot the game up, the game’s theme song ‘Rise Up Dead Man’ will leave you bobbing your head while activating your survival instincts, which you will absolutely need to make it in the world of Hunt: Showdown.
A small company called Devolver Digital has been boldly revolutionizing the modern gaming industry by unapologetically publishing games that smack you in the face and never stop. One of their first breakout hits, Hotline Miami drips in style from it’s neon-infused visuals, fast-paced gameplay hook and incredible 80’s inspired soundtrack. Tracks 7 and 8 are taken from the soundtrack of Hotline Miami while Track 9 is featured prominently in My Friend Pedro, another incredible action game from Devolver Digital in which you perform John Woo style gunplay and acrobatics while taking orders from a talking banana. If you haven’t played Hotline Miami or My Friend Pedro and you consider yourself a fan of video game music, you need to change that right now.
Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise was one of the first video games to truly unleash the feeling of outer space on gamers. While many games before it had been set in space, the Mass Effect trilogy truly nailed the feeling of space exploration, intergalactic war and alien encounters. Track 10 represents the familiar theme of idling on your flag ship, The Normandy, a medley that any Mass Effect player will surely recognize. The 11th track was taken from the soundtrack of Mass Effect 2, which many consider to be the best soundtrack of the trilogy. No matter how you spin it, the Mass Effect games sport some of the best sci-fi inspired music in gaming history.
The Silent Hill franchise is known for its unique brand of horror, made possible thanks to the haunting themes of its famed composer, Akira Yamaoka. The “Theme of Laura” delivers and instrumental that tells a tale of adventure, sadness and running, something that you had to do very often in many of the survival horror games of the early PlayStation era. This track marks the beginning of the “horror” inspired segment of the play list.
The Killing Floor franchise takes its queues from the popular Call of Duty “zombies” mode and doubles down on everything that makes it great. What can be better than teaming up with some friends to take on endless hordes of zombies? Doing so to an amazing soundtrack of course! zNthetic leads the way to a soundtrack that blends heavy metal and electronic dance music to keep your feet tapping and your head banging while you clear out the undead.
Wrapping up the horror segment of our play list is the “Save Theme” from the original Resident Evil. Anyone who spent time with the fear and anxiety inducing horror of the original Resident Evil game will immediately recognize the track that played when you entered a safe room to save your game. These rooms served as rare moments of respite and down time in between fighting for your life and scavenging for supplies in the zombie-infested mansion of Raccoon City. Few musical tracks throughout gaming’s great history can boast of delivering such a relaxing and cathartic vibe to players.
Though Sega has certainly changed as a company as time has progressed, it would be impossible to detail video game history without acknowledging their contributions, including the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. While the Sonic franchise has been host to many tracks that will activate nostalgia in gamers, the theme of Green Hill Zone is among the most memorable.
Originally released for the Sega Dreamcast, both Jet Grind Radio and Jet Set Radio took the counter-culture scene of urban graffiti and made it into a video game that was driven by its stylized visuals and an equally as impressive soundtrack. Anyone who played either Jet Set game will almost certainly be able to recall several tracks from the the game’s iconic soundtrack. Both Jet Grind Radio and Jet Set Radio were among the first games to utilize music in a manner that helped define the game itself instead of simply serving as a backdrop.
Just as they did with Jet Set Radio, Sega once again revolutionized videogame music with Rez, a game unlike any before it. Rez is a trippy, arcade style shooter that literally makes the game’s music a part of the gameplay experience. Everything that you do in each of the game’s levels, plays sounds that integrate themselves into the music itself. As if that weren’t enough, each of the game’s levels has a unique visual and musical vibe that make playing the game a psychedelic experience like no other. If this sounds even vaguely intriguing, we highly recommend checking out Rez and playing it however you can as it stands as one of the most unique sensory experiences that gaming can offer.
While it is difficult to honor just one of Nintendo’s many contributions to great gaming music, it’s hard to argue against The Legend of Zelda franchise being one of the most iconic. Whether it be the primary theme of the original games standing the test of time, or the more recent Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda franchise has repeatedly found a way to re-imagine itself, delivering music that pays homage to the classics while also striking a new tone that plays into each game’s themes. It’s just so hard not to listen to music from any Zelda game and feel inspired to arm yourself with a sword and go adventuring.
If you were a teenager during the early 2000’s, you almost certainly played one of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, which introduced an entire generation to the culture of skateboarding. Hand in hand with the act of skateboarding itself was a wealth of punk rock and underground hip hop that rose to prominence. As anyone who played the original Tony Hawk games will certainly remember, it’s impossible to choose just one standout track from the games’ so we went with Dead Kennedys.
After the second Devil May Cry game failed to live up to expectations, Capcom returned to form with Devil May Cry 3, which is where our 21st track is pulled from. The Devil May Cry games somehow manage to blend gothic themes with bravado, swagger and a ballet of stylish action that unfolds on screen with original music to match. What kind of music do you set to sword swinging and dual-pistol wielding battles against demons? This kind.
World of WarCraft was the first time in many gamers’ lives where they truly felt like they were stepping into a living, breathing, virtual universe. The original theme and login screen music from World of WarCraft will certainly be recalled by every single person who ever played the game. It’s theme delivers an array of fantasy, medieval battles and dangerous foes that await you upon logging in. The minute you booted up World of WarCraft and heard this tune, you were transported to a different world. While World of WarCraft has delivered dozens, if not hundreds of iconic scores and tracks throughout its lifetime, our 22nd track of the playlist belongs to Azeroth.
After delivering countless classics with the Halo franchise, Bungie sought to start anew with the Destiny franchise which has become one of the biggest properties in gaming. Despite a public split with long-time composer Martin O’Donnell, who still contributed to the game’s original score, Destiny and Destiny 2 continue to deliver themes that cover the player base’s brains with notes of splendor, awe and challenge. Though Destiny sports many similarities to Halo in its themes and inspirations, the soundtracks also have enough differences to make them musically and emotionally unique.
While the wait for Half-Life 3 has become one of the biggest memes in gaming, Half-Life 2’s soundtrack still holds up today and has proven to have been ahead of its time. Many of Half-Life 2’s tracks crank up the bass and sound like they could have been written and released by Valve in 2020. If you’re looking for a trip down memory lane that doesn’t have a retro feeling, look to Half-Life 2’s soundtrack!
Another one of Valve’s contributions to gaming history, the Portal games took the unique physics of Half-Life 2 and made an entirely new franchise out of them. While not all of the Portal games’ soundtrack evoke memories, “Still Alive” is etched into gaming history. Players who finished Portal soon discovered this song awaiting them which is seemingly performed by the game’s AI antagonist. The song cutely and sarcastically sums up the events of the game while acting as a plot point itself, revealing that GLaDOS was indeed, still alive.
Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise is remember for many things with the soundtracks of the series being no different. While the Metal Gear franchise featured numerous memorable boss themes and anthems, Metal Gear Solid 3’s theme song “Snake Eater” could pass for the theme of a James Bond film. Kojima injects everything that he does with insane levels of production value, as showcased here. Perhaps even more memorable is the series’ iconic “encounter music” that blasted in your ears every time you were spotted by an enemy, reinforcing the franchise’s stealth mechanics. Every time you heard that song play, you knew that were in danger and pursuit was on. If you’ve played Metal Gear Solid, you almost certainly associate feelings of tension and excitement with Track 28.
It seems like it would be hard enough to make a game that revolves around playing as an infant, while intertwining religious overtones and themes but Edmund McMillen and Danny Baranowsky somehow pulled it off. The resulting score of the rogue-like game which famously features the player dying early and often sounds menacing and creepy while also feeling a bit silly and childish. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing fear through the eyes, ears and heart of a child. The Binding of Isaac is one of the games on this list that you can experience for a very low price of entry on almost any platform so go check it out.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to Far Cry 3 that went all in on the throwback to the 1980’s that the early 21st century has brought upon us. Everything about the game is heavily influenced by 1980's action films from its protagonist, color palette, laser firing dragon enemies to its soundtrack. You could honestly transpose Blood Dragon’s soundtrack with just about any 80’s action movie and you’d be right at home with Arnold, Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme. If you’re a fan of the sounds of the 1980’s, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is right up your alley.
While we certainly hope that you’re enjoying the music of this playlist and finding many familiar tracks, Track 31 may introduce you to something new; Fez. Fez is a side-scrolling platformer that made use of clever 3D mechanics to present challenging puzzles to the player. It just so happens that the game features a retro-inspired soundtrack that will take you back to the early days of gaming and cast an enchanting spell on the listener. While Fez might not be a multi-billion dollar franchise like some of the other games on this list, it is both a game and a musical score that should be experienced by all.
The Last of Us was a landmark moment for storytelling in video games but like many great works of art, features a great soundtrack which brings its world to life. Unlike many of the soundtracks on this list, the tunes of The Last of Us likely won’t excite you or make you tap your foot. They will however, tell a story of pain, loss, grief and forgiveness, just like the game itself. If you want to take an emotional journey, The Last of Us and its accompanying score is the place to do it.
The soundtrack of God of War (2018) will sweep you away to a mythological world filled with wonder. You should expect nothing less for a protagonist that has literally slain Gods. God of War’s soundtrack will help you embody the spirit of Kratos, one of the ultimate warriors in gaming history, while also introducing you to a world of seemingly endless beauty which is marred by violence and war. Like any great adventure, God of War wouldn’t be God of War without its signature sound which rounds out our playlist on an epic note.
We hope that this playlist has reminded you of just how great some of gaming’s best soundtracks are, while also introducing you to some new ones along the way.
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