Video games can be impactful in many ways. They can captivate with a deep storyline, challenging mechanics, beautiful graphics, or relatable characters. All of these can stay with you for long after you finish a game, but one of the most iconic aspects of many of the greatest games to date is the soundtrack. It’s the part that gets stuck in your head, becomes the soundtrack of your childhood, or even supersedes the game itself in popular culture.
In making this list – which is by no means definitive – I’m approaching video game music as an audiophile interested in impactful and detailed OSTs, hoping to introduce good music and good games to new people. With that said, lets begin.
This first entry should come as no surprise. Cuphead was an instant hit and so was its music. Composed by Kris Maddigan, the soundtrack was heavily influenced by Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin, and focused on a 30’s big band and ragtime style.
This was surprisingly Maddigans first major composition. He has since said he thinks he only got the gig because he was the only musician the Moldenhauer brothers (the creators of Cuphead) knew. All three of them grew up together in Regina, and Maddigan later moved to Toronto. He is the principal percussionist with the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra.
This soundtrack hits all the marks. If you’re a jazz lover I highly recommend, and if you’re not a jazz lover I still highly recommend it as it may convert you.
The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim
Now this one is an obvious pick. The title theme has become one of the most iconic game themes of all time. I can still remember the words, and I have no idea why.
This soundtrack is an interesting juxtaposition from Cuphead, as Cuphead‘s was the composer’s first original work, while Jeremy Soule, the one responsible for most of the Elder Scrolls games, is a seasoned composer having worked on games such as Total Annihilation and five Harry Potter games. Soule has been composing for games since 1994 and has won multiple awards for his work, notably for The Elder Scrolls IV and V. Soule began studying composition at age 11 and at 19 sought out work in game composition to pay for his education, thinking he would last a couple years and then become a teacher. Since then he has worked with many studios and founded his own composition studio, Artistry Entertainment.
Skyrim was largely recorded with orchestral and live musicians, and brings an incredible mix of epic dramatic highs, and eery, calming ambient tracks. If you want an elevator pitch, just listen to the opening theme and see if it makes you want to charge into battle.
Ori and the Blind Forest
I listened to all of these soundtracks to make this list and I will outright say that this is one of my favorites. The music on this soundtrack is both calmingly soft, and epically beautiful. The sign of fantastic music for me is if I find myself compelled to lie in complete dark and listen to the music with my eyes closed. This soundtrack is the epitome of that feeling. Even at its most intense moments, while evoking strong emotion, it still manages to keep you calm.
Ori‘s soundtrack was composed by Gareth Coker, who was given free rein by the studio to create the music as he likes. He chose to approach scoring areas of the game with instruments akin to the environment; for example, using wood-based percussion instruments for the Ginso Tree area.
Coker has worked on games such as the Ark series and Halo Infinite, while also composing for film and TV. Ori and the Blind Forest is his most defining work and was met with critical acclaim, winning three awards. If you love the music from this game like I do, I recommend listening to Osamu Kitajima. You will not be disappointed.
We’re going back-to-back with some of my favourites on this list. For many reasons though, this soundtrack is my absolute favorite. At the most basic level, it’s because as a musician this is the kind of music I wish I could make (Curious? Searching for my name wherever you find music). Much like Ori, this is music you can listen to in the dark. It’s all encompassing.
Composed by Andrew Prahlow, this soundtrack has a mix of some of the most hauntingly beautiful ambient tracks I’ve ever heard, and incredible instrumentals. The mix of instrumentation on this soundtrack is amazing, with a large presence of synthesizers but also the addition of banjos, guitars, string sections, and so much more.
Prahlow has an impressive background of works, including Legend of Korra, Star Wars, The Martian, Blade Runner 2049 and Star Trek. Beyond being my favourite soundtrack on this list, Prahlow has quickly become one of my favorite artists in general, and I urge you to listen for yourself.
This is a bit of a change from the last two. We’re shifting from somber ethereal soundtracks to some hardcore funky tracks. You could probably run a marathon in 35 minutes listening to the Persona 5 soundtrack.
The OST is Composed by Shoji Meguro with Toshiki Konishi and Atsushi Kitajoh. Meguro stated that the use of English lyrics in the Persona games was to help create music that was less distracting to Japanese audiences. This soundtrack features some incredibly funky basslines and killer organ, not to mention the stellar guitar.
Meguro was given full control over the soundtrack and produced 80% of the music himself. He incorporated heavy acid jazz elements into the score, and aimed to make the sound more realistic to match the game’s visuals.
Meguro also decided to change how the music flowed compared to previous Persona games by thinking of it as one continuous piece. While largely consisting of heavy rock anthems, it isn’t afraid to cut to a mellow track every once in a while, and offers really good pacing throughout.
Brining it back to a classic, we have the original Halo soundtrack. Much like Skyrim, Halo has a huge icon status when it comes to the soundtrack. I’m sure you’ve seen multiple videos of high schoolers crammed in a locker room singing the main theme. This soundtrack has some of the most iconic vocal tracks of this generation.
Composed by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, this soundtrack mixes a lot of vocals, percussion, and string elements. Upon release it gained positive attention, and it was widely agreed upon that playing the game was not required to enjoy the music. The duo have worked together on soundtracks since 1997, and have produced music for games such as Destiny and Golem. They have a long-standing relationship with Bungie, having worked on most of the Halo games.
The track Halo, which features the iconic vocals and strings associated with the series, was the first piece of music written by O’Donnell for the game. It was written and recorded in three days, and became the basis for the remainder of the soundtrack.
This soundtrack requires the least description as, if you’re reading this, you are already familiar with it. Even if you haven’t played the game, you’ve heard its theme before.
This one really requires no explanation. Minecraft is one of the most popular games of all time, and the soundtrack is timeless and iconic. Everything, from the overworld background tracks to the music discs, stands on its own. This soundtrack is perhaps the most iconic on this list and definitely can rival Halo and Skyrim in its presence in pop culture.
Overall, there are nearly 12 hours of music composed for this game since 2008. Most of the soundtrack was composed by Daniel Rosenfeld AKA C418. Rosenfeld was introduced to music production by his brother in the 2000s through Ableton. His brother used the name C818, which was the inspiration for Rosenfeld’s name. He joined an indie game development forum in 2007 called TIGSource which is where he came to meet Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft.
Rosenfeld was responsible for the sound effects and music for the game, and still owns all of the rights to the music. One of my personal favorite tracks from the game was part of the Nether update in 2020 and is actually by a producer named Lena Raine (you’ll hear about her again later). She produced four songs for the game that all play in the Nether, my favorite being Rubedo. It starts with a somber keyboard which eventually becomes muddied in the background of ambient synth and string sounds that drone on. All of this builds to a rising synth line, until suddenly a chorus of synth voicings ring out before the track descends back into calm.
It’s also interesting to note that another alumnus of this list, Gareth Coker of Ori and the Blind Forest fame, has produced music for a Minecraft expansion in the past, but Raine is the only producer to contribute music to the main soundtrack besides Rosenfeld.
Furi hits with fantastic electronic tracks right out the gate. It’s filled with lots of high energy synth-heavy tracks, and ranges from gritty ambient to 80s synthwave. If you want a mental image of what this soundtrack sounds like, picture yourself in sunglasses driving a classic muscle car at full speed, weaving through highway traffic. Don’t let that fool you though, when this soundtrack is at its grittiest it can feel like you’ve just witness a crime and are being chased through the pouring rain at night.
This soundtrack is the first one on this list to be produced by a large team of people, with seven producers in total; Carpenter Brut, Danger, The Toxic Avenger, Lorn, Scattle, Waveshaper, and Kn1ght. The seven are all electronic music producers that release their own music, but notably Carpenter Brut, Lorn and Scattle have produced music for various video games and films independently, including Hotline Miami, Hotline Miami 2, Killzone Shadow Fall, and the Ghost in the Shell film.
We are following a synth-heavy soundtrack with another, and we are going to talke about Lena Raine again. Raine has a track record of fantastic music as, and while our previous entry was a lot of high energy synthwave, this soundtrack is a lot more mellow. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some intense tracks in Celeste, but you wouldn’t hear any of these in a club.
Raine breaks up a lot of the electronic soundscape with very somber piano over certain tracks, which provides a very impactful contrast with the heavier songs on the soundtrack.
Raine has produced music for many other projects, including Stephen Universe: The Movie, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and obviously Minecraft.
Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is a mix of original works for the game and pre existing songs licensed from artists, although all artists were involved in the project and can be found as cameos in the game and its credits. Scattle, who joined the project as it entered the later stages of development and grew from a small flash game into a bigger project, scored a large portion of the last section of the game.
The soundtrack is largely comprised of electronic and synthwave tracks, but has additions of neopsychadelic songs from Sun Araw, who is my favourite artist on this entire list. This soundtrack ranges so widely in tone and pace that it’s hard to nail it down and describe it as one thing.
While encompassing the aesthetic of the iconic pink and blue neon of the game, it goes beyond that to be a fantastic standalone soundtrack. This is likely the most enjoyable soundtrack on this list as a standalone piece of work independent from the game.
If you were to listen to every soundtrack on this list front to back, it would take you 29 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds…over a third of which is Minecraft. While I’m not necessarily saying you have to do this, I am heavily suggesting it. You will not find a second of bad music.