Visuals in video games have improved drastically over the past few decades, with characters and environments inching ever closer to realism, and it can make the graphics in older Nintendo or PlayStation 1 games look downright putrid. Video game original soundtracks (OSTs) are a not often talked about aspect of games, but can live on well after their games become unplayable.
While game soundtracks have evolved to frequently use orchestras and choruses to add a more dramatic atmosphere, similar to big-budget films, there are absolute classics from the ’80s and ’90s that are just as entertaining and catchy today despite being generated with limited bits and synthesized audio.
Setting games to music is not a lost art by any means, though: There are plenty of more recent soundtracks already poised to become future classics. Here are the best video game soundtracks of all time — or, at least, our personal favorites.
Super Mario Bros. (1985)
When you hear the phrase “video game music,” there’s a pretty good chance that the opening tune to the original Super Mario Bros. will just start playing in your head. Whimsical, bouncy, and at a perfect tempo to keep you pushing forward, the music perfectly matches the sound effects made when Mario jumps in the air, breaks blocks, and warps down pipes. When you head underground, the volume drops and the music switches to a minimalist beat that signals the danger ahead. Inch forward in time with the “do do do do do do” of the music, and you just might make it out the other side alive.
Even when you fail, you can’t help but crack a smile, with those few notes punctuating your defeat. When you inevitably run out of lives, and have to start over from the very beginning, the game taunts you even more with a flat-key reimagining of the theme song’s opening notes. Before you have a chance to beat yourself up too much, however, it’s back into World 1-1 and the most memorable tune in video game history.
Mega Man 2 (1988)
The Mega Man games are notoriously difficult, but without picking up a controller or even seeing footage online, you can tell that Mega Man 2 is going to be relentless from its soundtrack alone. Every stage’s song is a breakneck, anxiety-inducing sprint that you’ll struggle to keep up with, and even the game’s slower tunes, which you’ll hear in Air Man’s theme, are still faster than the majority of music on the NES.
It isn’t until you finally defeat Dr. Wily and view the ending credits that you finally get a chance to breathe, as the music switches to a soft, melodic tune as a reward for all your efforts. Later games in the series, like Mega Man X, were certainly able to build on the foundation of Mega Man 2 and deliver something a little more complex, but there’s something charming about the soundtrack’s simplicity.
Super Castlevania IV (1991)
The Super Nintendo was capable of producing audio far superior to what we heard on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or even the Sega Genesis, and Super Castlevania IV might just be the best example of what the console could do. Combining the blaring organs associated with gothic horror with the rhythmic chiptune beat Castlevania fans had come to expect, the soundtrack often outshined the game’s visuals, which are still beautiful more than 25 years after the game’s initial release.
Even if you loved a particular song from the original Castlevania NES trilogy, there’s a good chance it’s in Super Castlevania IV, as well. Later stages use reimagined versions of these tunes, including the first game’s Vampire Killer, giving you a healthy dose of nostalgia as you push into Dracula’s Lair. Our favorite song has to be Simon’s Theme, however, as its punchy melody and blistering pace make it the perfect background music as you cut some ghoulish creatures down to size.
Chrono Trigger (1995)
Square Enix’ masterpiece, Chrono Trigger, has stood the test of time, with some regarding it as the best role-playing game ever conceived due to its complex story, fine-tuned battle mechanics, and Akira Toriyama’s signature character design, and Yasunori Mitsuda’s beautiful score. The opening title screen begins with a soft, ominous tune that hints at more bombastic music later on, but over the course of Crono’s adventure, we hear a wide variety of music. Frog’s Theme, for instance, is as stoic as the knight, but with a tragic undertone that hints at the struggles he’s faced since his transformation.
Our favorite music has to involve Magus, arguably the game’s best character. First believed to be an antagonist who wants nothing more than to send the world into peril, he is eventually is revealed to be a more nuanced character who forms an uneasy alliance with the rest of the group. His theme reflects this, always appearing like it will reach a boiling point without ever actually getting there.
Star Fox 64 (1997)
The collective brainchild of underrated great Hajime Wakai (Pikmin, Wind Waker, F-Zero X) and the legendary Koji Kondo, the Star Fox 64 OST is a bombastic and dramatic space opera score that adds drama to what could have been a silly arcade game starring talking animals. Considering each playthrough only lasts an hour, the catchy music makes replaying the game over and over more enjoyable.
Each track perfectly captures the mood of the mission and planet. The classic Area 6 score evokes the desperation of four pilots on a suicide mission through a fleet’s non-stop barrage. Star Wolf was the perfect background for tense dogfighting against your cartoonishly evil rivals. Slower tracks like the Meteo Warp and Aquas captured the deadly beauty of a galaxy just as dangerous as Andross’ forces.
What held the Star Fox 64 soundtrack back was its MIDI tools, which couldn’t quite live up to the orchestrated sound Wakai and Kondo were trying to achieve. But jump ahead to Star Fox Assault — which cribbed much of the same music — and the Super Smash Bros. games’ re-orchestrations for the Star Fox levels, and you’ll find that the music achieves its full Hollywood-esque potential.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is often regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made, and while that praise stems largely from its fantastic world design and time-traveling story, it would be downright criminal to discount composer Koji Kondo’s contribution to the title’s success. From the moment Link wakes up as a child and begins walking around Kokiri Forest, the light, calming music sets the mood — it’s soothing almost to hide the fact that the nearby area of Hyrule is soon going to plunge into darkness.
Handing you an ocarina, the game has you bring some of the series’ most iconic themes to life: Zelda’s, Epona’s, and Saria’s themes not only stand the test of time but also play important gameplay roles as you progress through dungeons or navigate the Lost Woods. Ganondorf’s theme, on the other hand, portrayed the villain’s menacing danger so well that it made a reappearance in several sequels.
Of course, few things are more exhilarating than charging across Hyrule Field on Epona as the music crescendos into a loud, booming chorus that gives you the confidence you need to defeat Ganondorf. Except, of course, for infiltrating Gerudo’s Valley, with its often-remixed score evoking exhilaration and danger while far from home.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
Punk rock and skateboarding grew up together, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater reflects that, setting an upbeat tone with pop, punk, and ska earworms that found a new audience, and a popularity that extended beyond the game. With tunes from acclaimed bands such as the Suicide Machines, Dead Kennedys, and the Vandals, the game had the perfect soundtrack to listen to for hours as you attempted to master your “McTwist” or replicate the 900 you saw Mr. Hawk complete on TV. One song has come to represent the THPS franchise’s cultural footprint more than any other: Goldfinger’s horn-infused ska track Superman is so relentlessly upbeat and catchy, it’s virtually impossible to get upset when you’re listening to it. The other games in the franchise all feature strong soundtracks, but without Superman, they all seem to be lacking something.
Halo 2 (2004)
The original Halo introduced us to the series’ signature, choir-heavy theme song, and the third game ended with an emotional piano number that offered what we thought was definitive closure to Master Chief’s story. But neither can compare to the electric guitar shredding of Halo 2. Early in the game, we’re reacquainted with the Covenant’s deadly Hunter enemies, which typically strike fear into our hearts the sec