Top Five Most Memorable Game Soundtracks

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In any fine piece of cinema, the score sweeps the viewers from detached spectators into active participants. In a fine video game, this effect is amplified. You are engaged with the experience, sometimes on many different levels. No matter what the visuals tell you to do or how to think, it is the score that truly makes you feel things. Many games deserve recognition for presenting awesome musical arrangements, but here are the top five that seem to stand foremost in our minds.

5. Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

The gameplay for SotC was, to say the least, memorable. Thoughtfully constructed battles that implement puzzle elements sharply distinguished the game from superficially similar titles. This contrast is echoed in the soundtrack itself, where an epic encounter is heralded by a spectacular musical accompaniment. These moments are made even more poignant by the game’s relatively soft ambiance. Just think of all the games that played their music on a constant loop – they tired you out. You probably had to turn the music off altogether. When advanced technology threatens to bombard our senses in overstimulating virtual worlds, it’s nice to see properly arranged musical journeys.

4. Jet Set Radio Future

Jet Set Radio Future

Ask any elderly person what they believe to be the greatest threat to civilization, and four out of five responses will have something to do with skating. Sadly, games like JSRF did little to combat the ugly stereotype of skaters involved in illicit activities, and no amount of “Fight The Power” maxims will convince folks otherwise. The reason for the game’s great success? Well, being downright fun to play certainly helps, but there’s a good chance the soundtrack was a factor as well. A range of techno beats, hippity-hop, bleepity-bloop, and who knows what else, can be heard throughout the levels. Their cheery beats and quirky lyrics wriggle into the deep recesses of the brain, where they remain embedded until their little larvae cause you to erupt in song several days later. You have been warned.

3. Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Zelda: Ocarina of Time

There was a time when game scores sounded almost indistinguishable from the sound effects. A melodic series of electronically reproduced notes were sometimes all that could be perceived—something that today would be too ludicrously simple for even a cell phone ring. Around the time the Nintendo 64 rolled out, synthetic scores were starting to sound a bit more like the real thing. Mario’s theme sounded great on the N64, but it was the iconic return of Zelda that really did wonders for game music. Signature instruments provided unique flavors for every region of Hyrule. Who can forget the chipper tribal tones in the Goron’s mountain fortress, or the choral chanting echoing in the Temple of Time? Even a seemingly insignificant event, like opening a treasure chest, was made into a revelatory victory by that eye-opening crescendo. To really set things over the top, Ocarina of Time had players using the namesake instrument to make music, which was vital to achieving your goals and making your way through the vast lands of Hyrule.

2. Bioshock

Bioshock

Bioshock’s setting in a deep sea utopia-gone-wrong offers plenty of opportunities from a musical standpoint. The alternate universe, set a few decades ago, plays with the atmosphere, allowing the player to be transported to a world that is both familiar and alien. The game alternates between exhilarating action and nail-biting horror that must be adequately conveyed in the score, without burdening the ears of the player. Exceptional use of strings help to underline the recurring tension as you make your way through Rapture, where the insurmountable pressure of water against glass threatens to come crashing down at every turn. Also of note are the classic vocal performances, which haunt the hallways and mock your fear with joyful, sometimes gushy melodies. When a love song floats in the air and you know there are monsters in the darkness, the juxtaposition can be quite disturbing.

1. Halo

Halo Combat Evolved

It goes without saying that Marty O’Donnell does great things for Bungie. If a game is only as great as its music, the shooter classic Halo should have a fittingly fine score. In addition to the action-oriented battle music, the composer captures a much wider range of emotions than typically found in a first-person shooter. Halo has it all—the tragedy of lives lost, the sacrifice of heroes, and the awakening of an ancient threat. From the moment you set foot on this massive artificial world, you are enveloped in its mystery. The score’s implementation was also dynamic, as triggering events would cause the music to change fluidly, not merely fade as most other games did at the time. The Gregorian chant of Halo’s main theme will easily go down in history as one of the most recognizable and evocative scores ever to grace a video game.

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Dan Liebman
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