Bleep show: a brief history of video games, told through their soundtracks
© Sony Interactive Entertainment
Once considered the realm of hardcore fandom, today video game soundtracks are appreciated as works of art in their own right.
Video games are justifiably lauded for their combination of gameplay and graphics, but their music has been less revered historically. That doesn’t mean they’re not vital; soundtracks provide essential emotional context, helping instill fear, awe, concentration, and even sadness within us. Without them – and their often dynamic reactions to our on-screen adventures – games would likely feel lifeless, closer to the assemblies of code which they ultimately are.
Over the past 10 years, video game music has undergone both a critical and commercial reappraisal. Once considered the realm of hardcore fandom, soundtracks are now regularly made available as commercial works in their own right, either pressed to vinyl or available on digital platforms like Bandcamp and Spotify (compare this to the 1980s when video game music was literally inseparable from the cartridge itself). The thirst for remastered versions of old-school games has exploded in recent years, along with a renewed interest in their soundtracks too. Classics such as Streets of Rage 2 (which you can read more about below) and Final Fantasy VII have enjoyed the reissue treatment recently. But it’s not just a case of simple nostalgia – these releases can give props to composers who initially flew under the radar; better late than never.
A list of the very best video game soundtracks is ultimately an abbreviated history of video games themselves; from the 8 and 16 bit-era of the 1980s, the rise of 3D graphics with the world-conquering PlayStation, to a modern day landscape of smaller and more personal independent games and the current wave of Hollywood blockbusters. You can hear these shifts in the soundtracks. Harsh bleeps and bloops have given way to increasingly dense works of acoustic and electronic music, none more haunting than Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s work on The Last of Us and its 2020 sequel.
For now though, this retrospective rounds up the best game soundtracks spanning the past 40-or-so years. You’ll find links for individual game scores but it almost goes without saying that the best way to experience them is with a controller clutched in your hands, these computerised spectacles made all the more captivating by their wide-ranging music.
(Hirokazu Tanaka, NES, 1986)
In an interview with Gamasutra, Hirokazu Tanaka explained how video game music was starting to become more respected in the mid-1980s despite the field being dominated by “pop-like, lilting tunes.” His soundtrack for classic science fiction adventure Metroid was a conscious rebuttal of that trend, a moody and often impressionistic score which reflects the game’s esoteric design. It’s also worth noting that Tanaka intended the game to merge music and sound effects, an approach which would prove influential in the following decades. When a hummable melody does finally occur with the defeat of Mother Brain at the game’s climax, the endorphin pay-off verges on the ecstatic; the tension of the preceding hours washes away in an instant.
Streets Of Rage 2
(Yuzo Koshiro, Motohiro Kawashima, Sega Genesis, 1992)
It’s impossible to talk about the wider influence of video game music without mentioning Streets of Rage 2, the side-scrolling beat 'em up soundtracked by Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima’s cutting-edge electronics. It’s perhaps the best evidence available of the symbiotic relationship between club and console. Koshiro was famously inspired by western genres such as UK rave and Detroit techno, even sampling real-world Roland drum machines to give it an authentic feel. The resulting soundtrack, composed in conjunction with Kawashima, would inspire a generation of musicians including frequent Jay-Z producer Just Blaze and electronic artist Ikonika. Amidst all the justified talk of legacy, it’s easy to forget just how good the soundtrack is: Go Straight is a bonafide acid banger while the piano-house of Under Logic would get hands in the air at any rave worth its salt.
Ecco: The Tides Of Time
(Spencer Nilsen, Sega CD, 1994)
Ecco: The Tides of Time features one of the spaciest and new age-iest soundtracks of all time, but multiple versions were released back in 1994. Spencer Nilsen’s score for the Sega CD version is the pick of the bunch, taking advantage of the greater storage capacity offered by the then-nascent CD gaming technology. You can hear the burgeoning format in the score’s very first notes: watery arpeggios give way to trills of flute and delicate dolphin noises, all rendered in what must have felt like ear-popping high fidelity at the time. The synth-y soundtrack isn’t entirely serene, nor could it be with a story which encompasses aliens, time travel, and the destruction of ocean ecosystems. As the composer behind one of gaming’s first ‘cli-fi’ stories, and as a technical trailblazer, Nilsen’s early-90s work is unparalleled.
LSD: Dream Emulator
(Osamu Sato, PSX, 1998)
When it was released for the PSX in 1998, surreal first-person adventure LSD: Dream Emulator was arguably the weirdest video game ever made. Over twenty years on, the same can still be said. Its creator and composer Osamu Sato, also an esteemed visual artist, crafted a bizarre soundtrack to accompany players through a series of psychedelic environments. “Garglestep with a cat sound” is how one YouTube user describes a track, while another is referred to as “what being electrocuted feels like.” These might not sound like ringing endorsements but they get to the heart of what makes the game a trippy classic (recently playable in English for the first time thanks to hackers). LSD: Dream Emulator isn’t designed to make the player feel good -- indeed, parts are genuinely hostile -- but it’s emblematic of a period when games could take any form their makers imagined.
The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time
(Koji Kondo, N64, 1998)
Featuring the titular ocarina, referred to in Japanese as an “earthen flute,” Ocarina of Time is the most musical Zelda game ever released and Koji Kondo’s best work as the franchise’s composer. MIDI strings and horns abound in this expansive score, but it’s the breathy digitised wind instruments that really elevate this one. You can hear this clearest on Inside The Deku Tree, a track inseparable from ‘90s technology and capable of catapulting listeners into a mythical pre-history. While subsequent and increasingly elaborate scores would better channel Hyrule’s pastoral beauty (most notably Breath of the Wild), Ocarina of Time proves that less is more when conveying the mystery of its widely loved virtual setting.
(Michiru Oshima, Koichi Yamazaki, Mitsukuni Murayama, PS2, 2001)
Ever since its groundbreaking debut nearly twenty years ago, Team ICO’s output has retained an unmistakable atmosphere despite its soundtracks becoming ever more conventional. Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian are both video game classics, but their swirling orchestral scores are no match for the intimate sounds of the studio’s first title. As players guide the titular Ico and princess Yorda through a misty castle, all while pursued by shadow creatures, the soundtrack skips between sombre guitar, eerie electronics, and occasionally heavy drones. Best of all is Heal, the save-game music which unequivocally lives up to its title. It’s so good, in fact, that one canny YouTuber created an hour-plus loop of the ambient track so we might all experience its soothing qualities in perpetuity.
Silent Hill 2
(Akira Yamaoka, PS2, 2001)
In Silent Hill 2, what you can’t see is often scarier than what you can. The game’s infamous fog clings to outdoor environments while dank interiors are often impenetrably dark. This is where Akira Yamoaka’s soundtrack steps in, filling the world with a sonic dread which seems to exist just outside of your eyeline. Guttural groans and scraping metal pepper the horror soundtrack’s most textural moments, while an eeriness seemingly borrowed from Twin Peaks fills the lullaby-like Promise (Reprise) and gloomy Null Moon. Like the game itself, Yomaoka’s score captures the disorientation of navigating a reality which has been upended: slippery, grotesque, and unnerving as hell.
(Yuu Miyake, Asuka Sakai, Akitaka Tohyama, Hideki Tobeta, Yoshihito Yano, Yuri Misumi, PS2, 2004)
Like LSD: Dream Emulator, Katamari Damacy is one of the most delightfully eccentric video games ever created. The set-up is simple but suitably absurd: you play as a 5-centimetre-tall prince given a magical ball to roll up the earth’s objects. Things start small – tacks and other tiny items – but as the ball grows larger, houses, ships, and eventually entire continents are incorporated into the ballooning mass. This slapstick action is set to the game’s whimsical pop-inflected soundtrack which only enhances the game’s loveable personality. Katamari On The Rocks is frenetic Japanese rock, Fugue #7777 sounds like MIDI baroque, and Walking On A Star channels beautiful early-00s electronica. Like the very best video games, it’s impossible to think of Katamari Damacy without its note-perfect music.
(David Kanaga, PC, PS Vita, PS3, 2013)
When Proteus was released in 2013, the first-person explorer’s lack of goals prompted critics to ask whether it could even be called a video game. Players weren’t tasked with “beating” Proteus in any traditional sense, but its setting – a serene procedurally generated island – was, and still is, as transportative as any big budget open world. Central to its appeal is David Kanaga’s bright-eyed soundtrack which shifts according to players’ exploration of the pixel-art environment. Traverse from a sandy beach to a lush forest and the score morphs seamlessly from meditative ambient to fluttering melodies, slowly growing more ominous as in-game seasons progress. Thanks to this dynamic music, perfectly synchronised with the virtual world, Proteus is a rare video game that feels genuinely alive: a work of magic in a medium elsewhere governed by code.
(Shoji Meguro, PS4, 2016)
Persona 5, a 100-plus hour JRPG following a group of Japanese high schoolers, shouldn’t feel as breezy as it ultimately does. Alongside snappy dialogue and crisp anime visuals, Shoji Meguro’s exceptional Japanese city pop-inspired soundtrack is a key factor behind its light-footedness, and a big reason why so many players kept returning to the game’s seemingly everyday drama. Totalling over three hours and 100 songs, Meguro’s score naturally covers a lot of ground, from the chill Beneath The Mask to the high-energy, disco-influenced Last Surprise. But amidst this tonal shuffling, the soundtrack remains effortlessly cool -- helping players and the game’s heroes experience a life less ordinary.
Hyper Light Drifter
(Richard Vreeland, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, 2016)
Richard Vreeland’s score for Hyper Light Drifter is like the game itself: nostalgic yet forward-looking, personal but epic in scope. As you direct the game’s blood-spluttering protagonist through an irradiated wasteland, piano feeds into warm synthesizers before ratcheting the tension as encounters heat up. Chimera, the game’s climactic track which accompanies the final boss fight, is a sheet of cataclysmic drones backed by a thumping kick. “I love creating a sandbox for myself, like a limited ruleset,” said Vreeland, in a 2016 interview with FACT magazine. This approach gives the soundtrack remarkable consistency while still conveying the full emotional range of the game, from the quietest moments of resignation to trepidatious exploration and seat-of-the-pants action. The Los Angeles-based composer also scored Hollywood hits It Follows and Under The Silver Lake, but Hyper Light Drifter stands as his crowning achievement: a work of bruising elegance.
The Last of Us Part II
(Gustavo Santaolalla & Mac Quayle, PS4, 2020)
Gustavo Santaolalla's contribution to the second installment of Naughy Dog’s grim post-apocalyptic adventure series is even more vital than his first. Everything in The Last of Us Part II is cranked up to eleven: from the length and emotional intensity of the story, the look and sound of its violence, to the scope of the game’s ruinous city environments. While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the on-screen action (mostly soundtracked with brooding electronics by newcomer Mac Quayle), Santaolalla’s sparse guitar offers much-needed respite. He taps into the sombre moments between the carnage, fleeting instances when the characters reckon with the violence of life itself.