A strong soundtrack, while not essential to a game’s success, does wonders for its presentation and memorability. A plain house becomes a home, one that’s warm, safe, and familiar, when provided the proper music. I appreciate this far more in recent years than ever before in my life. My iPod, as a result, is full of my favorite video game music and almost nothing else. Now that I’m more immersed in game music than ever, this feels like the perfect time to write about it.
Originally, I planned to rank this list. The classic, if cliche “Top X [Plural Noun Here]” list format is fun and almost guaranteed to draw interest, after all. Turns out that ranking soundtracks is easier said than done. When it comes to my favorites, how can I definitively say one game’s myriad melodies are better than another’s? I adore so many different songs for different reasons, and it’s often a game of comparing apples to oranges. Heavy metal to classical. Chiptune to violin. Thus, I settled for a simple list of my favorites in no particular order.
Kirby Air Ride
Favorite track: “Legendary Air Ride Machine”
It wasn’t until later in life that I payed proper attention to the soundtracks of games I played. A few songs stood out to me, but for the most part, it was rare that I put active thought into the music I enjoyed during my game time. This led me on an eventual quest to rediscover the greatest music from my childhood.
Enter Kirby Air Ride, one of few games almost synonymous with my childhood. As I continued to replay it throughout the years, a realization hit me: the soundtrack is fantastic! I always remembered the gloriously gratifying trumpets of the “Legendary Air Ride Machine” theme; assembling a legendary machine was worth it for that track alone. But what I didn’t remember was how far the soundtrack’s quality extended. Excellent tracks permeate the game’s entire structure; menu screens, race tracks, City Trial events, and even results screens are more than easy on the ears. When I finally put an attentive ear to this soundtrack, I was astounded to find so much that I didn’t know I already loved.
“Checker Knights” and “Legendary Air Ride Machine” are huge standouts for their energy and momentum that would be a perfect fit for a marching band. “Tac Challenge” and “Item Bounce,” on the other hand, are fun, funky, somewhat jazzy beats. They’re catchy, too. “Dense Fog Today” takes the opposite approach and surprises with its perturbing atmosphere. Nintendo, please. If you ever remake Kirby Air Ride like I so desperately want, then fully orchestrate the soundtrack. It would be a miracle.
Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire
Favorite track: “Route 104”
Oh, what a time it was to be a kid. Innocence, wonder, imagination, and optimism: without proper care, all are easily weathered by the passage of time. For many of us, these traits are difficult to recognize in our adult selves. An experience that can effectively draw from the well of our youth to emulate those childhood traits would be quite powerful indeed. While there isn’t a singular experience I know of that does this perfectly, or would appeal to everyone in the same way, there is a soundtrack that makes me feel a lot like a kid again: Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire’s.
Some would argue that this effect is mostly because Pokemon Ruby was a landmark of my childhood. Personally, I don’t believe that. For years, I very rarely listened to its soundtrack. I had finished the game a long time ago, and it was quite a while before I actively listened to music. The few times I did give it a listen, it was enormously nostalgic. That was one of the greatest feelings in my life, to be honest. Cut to my young adulthood, when GameFreak released the original Ruby and Sapphire soundtrack on iTunes. It wasn’t much longer before I bought my first iPod. Since then, countless plays of my favorite songs from the game have eroded their status as a childhood throwback. They no longer elicit that rush of nostalgic intoxication.
Maybe that sounds sad, but it has allowed me to view Ruby and Sapphire’s soundtrack without the tint of rose-colored glasses. What I see now is a sprawling soundtrack that, in its best moments, appeals to childlike imagination and adventure. Many of the route themes, in particular “Route 104” and “Route 110,” invigorate and delight. It’s difficult not be swept up in a powerful forward march toward thrilling new horizons and a bright future. It’s safe to say I love this soundtrack as much today as I ever did, nostalgia or not.
Wanna know what’s awesome? Smiling. Anything that can put a genuine smile on my face deserves a huge thumbs up. Sure, the triumphant “Battle! (Gym Leader)” theme is amazing. And quaint, homely town themes such as “Littleroot Town” are a nice treat. I’ll also give props to “Abandoned Ship” for capturing how it would feel to explore sunken ruins. But none of it can hope to compare to this soundtrack’s power to make me smile.
There’s a lot of Ruby and Sapphire music on my iPod’s “Feel-Good Music” playlist for a reason. Play “Petalburg City” for me, and I can’t help but hum along with a smile on my face. There’s such innocence and joy in these songs that one would be hard-pressed to feel anything but happy when listening to them. That little bit of happiness goes a long way at a time when I’m learning to appreciate life much more.
Wind Waker and the Legend of Zelda Series
Favorite track: “Dragon Roost Island”
The musical history of The Legend of Zelda speaks for itself. Across 31 years of games, it has produced numerous classic songs such as the main Legend of Zelda theme, “Gerudo Valley,” “Zelda’s Lullaby,” and more that are indelibly etched into gaming culture. Therefore, I cannot pick individual games from the series without expanding this list beyond what I have time for. I need to feature The Legend of Zelda in general and decide on a favorite for focus, but don’t assume that choice is difficult. Even in a series that stands out as much for its music as its gameplay, Wind Waker is the clear winner.
A big part of what makes Wind Waker a standout Zelda entry, in my opinion, is its uncanny sense of adventure. And sailing the open seas is backed by a greatly adventurous soundtrack. Immediately, the title screen itself is home to one of my favorite Zelda songs ever. This song, named “Title” is of a great vitality that makes me want to wave my hand in the air like a conductor. It tells of a grand journey to come. Then, “The Legendary Hero,” the track for the game’s prologue, captivates like a skilled storyteller. This is followed by the peaceful, upbeat “Outset Island” theme. In line with Wind Waker’s plot themes, it conveys the comfort and familiarity of home before Link is forced to move on and begin a new stage of his life. And setting out for the new frontier of the vast sea is made as majestic and free as it should be by the unforgettable “Ocean” theme. Make landfall at Dragon Roost Island, and its theme is nothing less than the magic of exploration translated into the universal language of music. This soundtrack hits all the essential beats for a captivating adventure unlike almost any other.
Favorite track: “The Road of Trials”
Most other game soundtracks on this list are very typical for video game music. They feature relatively short, looping tracks that are built to accompany specific spaces such as levels, menu screens, boss battles, etc. Their composers need to craft themes that can stand entirely on their own and be heard ad nauseam without growing old too quick. But Journey is an exception. This game is nothing but an artistic endeavor from start to finish. Forget layers of menu screens, hub worlds, turn-based battle screens, and almost anything else that requires context-specific music. Journey is a linear experience where each level and musical track is designed to transition naturally into the next.
That’s why including Journey’s soundtrack on this list is like choosing one very long song. It varies of course, but it’s possible, with two exceptions, to listen from start to finish and have a singular musical experience. In fact, I’ve done exactly that during college homework sessions. It’s an excellent soundtrack to relax with, one that’s serene and spiritual even when things get relatively intense. “The Road of Trials” mimics the joy of life itself, and as such is delightful. Tense, foreboding tracks like “Descent” achieve their purpose without overbearing. And to cap off the journey, “Apotheosis” is pleasant and uplifting. Like the game itself, Journey’s soundtrack is short-lived in a good way. I can relive the emotional highs and lows of its transcendent violin strokes in about an hour, and I’m sure I will continue to do so through the years.
Favorite track: “Dreiton”
Solitude and nature are vital sustenance for my soul. Some of the best days of my life were spent among nature’s splendor in the great outdoors. I’m lucky to live near great hiking locations. If I didn’t, I might have to rely on video games for a simulated nature fix. None can truly compare to the real world of course, but of the few that come close, Minecraft would be my first choice.
Multiplayer is where Minecraft shines brightest as an entertaining game, while single-player survival is where it’s at its most profound. Each time I play, many of the moments that stand out most are the simple joys of exploring the game’s gorgeous landscapes. Quiet and contemplative, Minecraft achieves the beauty of isolation in nature like no other game I know.
A soundtrack unbefitting of that tone would throw it off balance. Yet somehow, it is as if Minecraft’s soundtrack was designed with precisely that tone in mind. And as it turns out, it seems that it was. In an interview with the musically-focused FACT Magazine, Daniel Rosenfeld (or C418), the game’s composer, expressed that he aimed to match “the kind of loneliness that the game exudes.” And I find it incredible that Rosenfeld practically stumbled into the job; his work on Minecraft sounds more like a deep artistic comprehension of the game from a lifetime fan than that of an amateur composer who didn’t have anything better to do. I owe a few of the most memorable moments in my gaming life to that man, all thanks to his work that so gracefully matches one of my favorite games.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Minecraft’s soundtrack is wonderfully ambiguous. As a randomly-generated, free-form game, its soundtrack must be atypical by necessity. It’s impossible to compose area-specific themes when the player’s location is a constant unknown. Rosenfeld understood this very well: “I could make ‘cave’ music for that, ’cuz you’re in a cave. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s a cave, I’ve just assumed that.” So, he made certain that his music didn’t have intentional themes. In his own words, Minecraft’s soundtrack is open to interpretation, as “it all shares the same sort of melancholy.”
So, What does this soundtrack mean to me, personally? Several different things. I agree with Rosenfeld’s choice of the word “melancholy” as a general descriptor, but it does much more than that. Often it is soft and introspective. It’s the perfect music to play in the car on a rainy day. The track “Mice on Venus” opens with an emotionally charged piano piece that has made me cry on more than one occasion. “Haggstrom” simply makes me happy. I love when it pops up while I’m trapped in the monotony of farming or mining, as if to lift my spirits. And much of the music featured in the game’s second album, Minecraft – Volume Beta, stimulates in a subtle manner that aids focus. I like to think that’s why most of it plays in Creative mode. Alas, this is only my interpretation of Rosenfeld’s work. While all music is subjective, this soundtrack is especially so. That’s part of what makes it so special.
Final Fantasy XV
Favorite track: “Stand Your Ground”
As a game in the works for a decade, it didn’t surprise me to find that Final Fantasy XV was riddled with flaws. No, my surprise came from the opposite. Like an anime hero conquering their greatest foe through the power of friendship, FFXV mustered the collective might of its strengths to lift the burden of those flaws.
The mightiest of its strengths happened to be its soundtrack. I was completely new to Final Fantasy before FFXV. And (sadly, I admit) I had barely heard of its lead composer, Yoko Shimomura. Though I was aware of many gamers’ great love for Final Fantasy soundtracks, I was skeptical. After all, the series had been around for nearly 29 years. Could it deliver a memorable score three decades into its lifespan? Heck yeah it could! Unlike the game’s story, FFXV’s soundtrack will stick with me for a long time to come.
As I played, I found myself often more excited for the soundtrack than the gameplay. I would seek combat not just because it was fun, but for the pleasure of FFXV’s rousing battle themes, especially “Stand Your Ground.” The full force of an epic orchestra lent power to every swing, strike, and counter-attack. I would duck and roll with precision through ceaseless enemy onslaughts, enlivened by the fervid score. I couldn’t wait to settle down for the night and make camp, either. “Relax and Reflect” could not be better-suited to an evening around the campfire with great friends. Even the title screen kept its hooks in me; an eloquent theme such as the somber “Somnus (Instrumental Version)” is a surefire way let the players know they’re in for an exceptional experience. FFXV is a bumpy road trip, no doubt. But thanks to Shimomura’s phenomenal work, at least there’s plenty to listen to on the way.
Favorite track: “Megalovania”
I stated in the introduction that this list was meant to be ranked. The problem was I couldn’t decide on some soundtracks over others. However, the clear choice for the #1 spot was always Toby Fox’s Undertale.
Some may find the idea offensive, but it is generally difficult for me to enjoy music. I never listen to the radio. And while the playlist on endless repeat where I work boasts a sizable array of hit songs, I only enjoy one or two of them. It’s hard to say why. Maybe I got it in my head that I don’t like “normal people” music. Or perhaps the sad state of modern, mainstream music has made a cynic out of me. Maybe I’m just picky? Who knows? My point is that I rarely enjoy a song the first time I hear it. I need time to get acquainted with new music before I can tell if it fits my palette.
Undertale smashed my innate musical cynicism to tiny little bits.
The very moment I heard Undertale’s opening piece, “Once Upon a Time,” I was enamored with the game’s irresistibly catchy, instantly memorable tunes. Now, I need to make it clear that my love for Undertale goes far beyond its soundtrack. I make no effort to hide that it easily ranks among my favorite games of all time. If Undertale were the exact same game, except with only a decent soundtrack, it would remain a masterpiece. So it speaks volumes to the genius of Toby Fox’s musical score when I say Undertale’s soundtrack is the best part of the game.
In parallel with the game’s own story, the soundtrack ranges from silly, to exciting, to mysterious and poignant, even downright tear-jerking. Every last boss theme is a masterwork. Well over a year and a half later, I still jam out to them almost every day. There is not a single level of the game whose tone is not perfectly matched or exceeded by its accompanying song. And in less exciting moments, where another soundtrack might display weakness, Undertale surprises with top-quality tracks such as “Sans” and “Hotel.” Toby Fox’s composition work is a masterclass in variety and quality, and won’t soon be forgotten.
That’s it for my absolute favorite game soundtracks! What did you think of my picks? More importantly, what are your favorites? Thanks for reading! Maybe you can rest your eyes now while you listen to some awesome music. This post was so much longer than I planned…