Nearly as iconic as the characters themselves are the soundtracks that accompany our favorite games. It’s hard to find anyone who couldn’t recognize the opening riffs of Super Mario Bros or the iconic Zelda treasure jingle. We’ve assembled a list of some of the best video game soundtracks across time for your listening pleasure.
The Final Fantasy series has been running for over 25 years, with 16 main games and countless spinoffs. Core to maintaining its identity across titles is the series’ majestic tunes, helmed by Nobuo Uematsu since its inception. The soothing harp arpeggio of Final Fantasy’s “Prelude” is instantly recognizable, but the music’s main strength is its variety.
For instance, Final Fantasy VII’s final boss fight against Sephiroth would never have seemed as intense without “One-Winged Angel” blaring during the encounter. However, Uematsu has not constrained himself to one sound, with jams like FFXIV’s “A Long Fall” making a deep dive into decades of Final Fantasy video game scores a worthwhile endeavor.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The eight notes of the “puzzle solved” jingle is no doubt the best-known piece of Zelda sound. But the rousing orchestrations traditional to the series were supplanted in Breath of the Wild, composed by Manaka Kataoka, Hajime Wakai, and Yasuaki Iwata.
The soundtrack highlights the downtrodden open world new to the game, featuring an orchestra heavy on flutes and harps when Link encounters pockets of civilization. Although the minimalist take on game music is a big deviation from what the series traditionally went with, the compositions perfectly fit when you’re the one exploring the ruined land of Hyrule with Link – and isn’t that the primary goal of video game music?
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Millions of players have spent time roaming Skyrim’s iconic open world, maybe or maybe not doing any of the main story along the way. Their many hours of wandering were joined by Jeremy Soule’s immersive and epic soundtrack. Most pieces are heavy on soft violin and an atmospheric chorus so as not to distract from exploring the forests and mountains. But when the big moments hit, the Dovahkin’s Shouts are exemplified with banging drums and rousing chants.
Doom’s 2016 revival shattered any lingering skepticism when rave reviews praised its high-speed, high-violence first-person shooter action. The brutal metal soundtrack by Mick Gordon got any player ready to “Rip and Tear” as they killed hordes of demons with a well-placed shotgun shell to the head.
Heavy metal being so rare in the video game landscape lets Doom’s OST stand out even more among its contemporaries. While playing Doom 2016, the soundtrack adjusts dynamically to the player’s current activities, but Gordon remixed each track for specific out-of-game listening if you seek out the game’s official soundtrack on Spotify or elsewhere, making it also one of the best video game soundtracks for enjoying outside of the game itself.
Bastion, the debut action RPG from Supergiant Games, set the stage for the beautiful art and attention to music from composer Darren Korb. While the percussion and cello-heavy soundtrack has a great techno-western feel, the standout tracks are the two vocalized themes by two of the main characters, “Build that Wall” and “Mother, I’m Here.” Their perfect placement at climaxes in the story elevated Bastion to one of the best video game soundtracks of the early indie era.
Cult favorite series Persona broke out with Persona 5, combining its turn-based RPG gameplay with an unrelenting sense of style that permeated the game’s incredible length. Core to that aesthetic is the soundtrack by Shoji Meguro, with many tracks sung by Lyn. Smooth jazz like that of “Beneath the Mask” typifies the sound of the game and makes even slower moments a joy, while rock numbers like “Rivers in the Desert” bring some extra power to battle scenes that deserve it. The amount of cohesion across a game the size of Persona 5 is unique and makes it a strong contender for one of the best video game soundtracks of all time.
Yoko Shimomura faced a tough situation when tasked to compose music for Kingdom Hearts, the beloved action RPG mixing Square’s Final Fantasy with beloved Disney characters. Final Fantasy already had a beloved sound of its own, and the songs sung by Disney’s animated characters are cherished worldwide. Thankfully, she was up to the task, capturing the vibes of every Disney property visited in the series while mixing in some of that classic Final Fantasy orchestral power. “Vector the Heavens (-Xion-)” is an ideal example of the emotion Shimomura’s soundtrack can inspire in the listener.
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is frequently lauded as the best entry in the classic survival horror franchise. Composer Akira Yamaoka went in a surprising direction when asked to compose the soundtrack.
Most of the songs are calming and peaceful, with soft piano being the dominant instrument throughout. It was a masterful choice when placed in the game’s creepy environments, somehow seeming all the more eerie for how friendly the audio can be. “White Noiz” perhaps represents this eeriness best, while “Promise (Reprise)” evokes the feelings of melancholy plaguing the player character James Sunderland.
Super Mario Bros
The first seven notes of Koji Kondo’s theme for Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 are instantly recognizable worldwide. He has kept up composing duties for the main Mario series (though sometimes with co-composers) for the nearly three decades since, from the fun banjo-heavy “Athletic Theme” in Super Mario World to the bombastic full orchestra in Super Mario Galaxy 2’s “Storming the Sky Fleet.”
Mario has been a top-selling franchise for nearly as long as video games have existed, and its enduring legacy is a convincing reason to name the Mario series as having one of the best video game soundtracks out there.
Donkey Kong Country
Donkey Kong Country is a solid game in Super Nintendo. At the time, the game’s graphics were what turned heads most, its technique of compressing 3D models into 2D sprites being a technological wonder on the system.
Today, the game is perhaps best remembered by David Wise’s soundtrack. The greatest strength is in how the music ties to each individual environment, highlighted best by “DK Island Swing:” bird chirps accompany a heavy percussion track stage before a funky bassline leads into the melody nearly a minute into the song. “Aquatic Ambiance” does the same for underwater levels, with a softly ebbing and flowing synthesizer setting the mood before the relaxing melody fades in.
When Yasunori Mitsuda was hired at Squaresoft as a composer, he found himself doing sound engineering work instead. So, he threatened his bosses that he would walk unless given composing work to do. To our benefit, he was placed on the now-classic JRPG Chrono Trigger.
True to its genre, the game has many moments of high action and emotional climax points as its story spans literal millennia. Pieces like “Burn! Bobanga! Burn!” highlight the harshness of prehistoric life, and “Zeal Palace” gives the feeling of being in a mysterious magical flying city of antiquity. These tracks make Chrono Trigger one of the best video soundtracks of the 16-bit era.
Other Video Game Soundtracks
- Hotline Miami
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- Red Dead Redemption
- NieR: Automata
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- Super Mario Galaxy
- Shadow of the Colossus
- Sonic The Hedgehog 2
- Sonic The Hedgehog 3
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
- Streets of Rage
- Sonic Adventure