Everyone…I tried. I tried REALLY hard. I’ve spent weeks thinking back fondly on my favorite games, remembering every quintessential song from their soundtracks, and trying to come up with a way to order them in a ranking. I’ve gone back and listened to dozens of hours of music, sometimes remembering tracks I had forgotten and other times finding a new secret inside of a song I’ve known for ages. But I’ve hit a wall. I just can’t do it. Ranking these soundtracks is like trying to organize the grains of sand on a beach by color. Attempting this task would tear my brain down into little pieces, and I know that I would never be happy with the final order. These masterpieces are far too great for a schmuck like myself to attempt to order them in a list of superiority, and they deserve better. So rankings thrown to the wayside, here is a list of my eleven favorite video game soundtracks.
I’ve also created a YouTube playlist that has all of my picks, which I’ll drop here. Enjoy!
This gem from Team Cherry is chock-full of incredible soundscapes, from the delightfully peaceful Greenpath, to the dark and oppressive Deepnest. The score largely consists of string and piano pieces that perfectly communicate the wondrous kingdom of Hallownest as you delve further and further into its maze-like passages. The player is continually encouraged in their mission by calm melodies throughout each zone: upbeat tunes are generally reserved for battles against powerful bosses. But be it loud or soft, every song leaves a lasting impact.
Recommended tracks: Greenpath, City of Tears, Mantis Lords, Soul Sanctum
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
While the previous games in the series might have been the inspiration for some of its music, I would argue that Ocarina of Time goes the extra mile in setting the standard for a high-quality, memorable soundtrack. Almost every song is an ear worm. Dungeons are replete with intimidating atmospheres, while Link’s excursions through the overworld remain light and peppy. Bosses are accompanied by appropriately intense themes, especially the morose and desperate grand finale. Zelda games are known for their music, and this is one of the best…
Recommended tracks: Lost Woods, Forest Temple, Spirit Temple, Ganon Battle
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
…But only one of the best. Majora’s Mask veers off the typical path for a Zelda soundtrack and sets its footing firmly in the melancholy. Every area you venture through seethes with a corrupted aura: even the lighter Clock Town theme becomes more eerie and sinister as the game’s three days progress. This is also one of the few Nintendo games that focuses on death, and it shows in this soundtrack that constantly works to tug at your heartstrings…or even sever them altogether. A more haunting Zelda adventure has never been undertaken.
Recommended tracks: Majora’s Theme, Clock Town, Song of Healing, Stone Tower Temple
Metroid as a series falls short only to Zelda in terms of exciting and unique tracks (in my opinion), but it was this title in particular that launched the series’ music from “Great” to “Amazing.” Every single sound is blended organically into the world of Tallon IV. From the dreamy snowfall of Phendrana Drifts to the boiling callbacks to Norfair in the Magmoor Caverns, Prime sets the auditory bar high from the very beginning and never lets it come down. Serenity. Panic. Wonder. Danger. All of these and more are captured and portrayed perfectly by this masterful soundtrack. Do not miss out on it.
Recommended tracks: Phendrana Drifts, Crashed Frigate, Parasite Queen, Meta Ridley
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
What better way to capture a Slavic atmosphere than by bringing in a group of folk musicians who specialize in that exact old-world sound? That’s precisely the route that CD Projekt Red took for The Witcher 3. Its dismal world is perfectly represented by a low cello, plucky strings, and a plethora of other period instruments that weave sound into magic. Every mood is captured during this adventure, from warm and heartfelt to bone-chilling eeriness. The Witcher 3 was tailor-made excellence from the ground up, and its musical aspect is no exception.
Recommended tracks: Kaer Morhen, The Hunter’s Path, Ladies of the Wood, Spikeroog
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Most soundtracks earned a spot on this list because of their memorable melodies: Skyrim is here because of the opposite. That’s not to say that I don’t remember the music of this masterpiece, but it is integrated so well into the game that it’s sometimes hard to even separate it from the rest of the adventure. Themes blend seamlessly when transitioning from caves to fields to cities to battles. Jeremy Soule’s epic compositions are as much Skyrim’s lifeblood as its engrossing world, immersive gameplay, and insanely meme-able glitches.
Recommended tracks: The Streets of Whiterun, The Bannered Mare, Watch the Skies, Sovngarde
Sonic 3 and Knuckles
2D platformers in the 90s came laced with addictive tunes, but none so much as this double finale to the Sonic series. The Sonic 3 portion of the adventure continues the saga’s tendency for excellent music, while the latter half of Knuckles lends itself to compositions both mystical and oppressive. Each zone is divided into two acts, with each having its own variation on the same melody. This only adds to each song’s enjoyment. I’ve always loved video game music, but this is the title that first grabbed my ear and kept me coming back for more.
Recommended tracks: Ice Cap, Lava Reef, Death Egg, Doomsday
How good is Celeste’s chill-hop-infused soundtrack? Good enough that after playing through the game, I booted a different entry off the list and put this in its place. Lena Raine’s music is simultaneously catchy, relaxing, dreamy, and even sometimes downright terrifying. It takes the player to the very lowest of lows, then rockets them up to powerful triumph. Madeleine’s journey to overcome her anxiety and depression could not be better supported. I’m so happy that I played Celeste before publishing this post!
Recommended tracks: Resurrections, Scattered and Lost, In the Mirror, Confronting Myself
Playing through Banjo-Kazooie is like being in control of a Saturday morning cartoon: it’s only appropriate, then, that its music is suitably kooky, light-hearted, and catchy as all get out. From the light and plucky Treasure Trove Cove to the spooky sounds of Mad Monster Mansion, Grant Kirkhope knocks it out of the park with every track. Out of everything on this whole list, Banjo-Kazooie is the one I find myself going back to when I want something to pep myself up at work or just enjoy a nice day with the windows open.
Recommended tracks: Gruntilda’s Lair, Mad Monster Mansion, Freezeezy Peak, Click Clock Wood (but seriously, just listen to the whole dang thing)
The fact that Toby Fox single-handedly created Undertale himself is astounding, especially given the rabid popularity that its music saw upon release. Virtually every YouTuber that specialized in gaming song covers took part in the craze of cashing in on Undertale. Megalovania probably saw the most traffic, but every piece from beginning to end is worth listening to. Whether cheery, sad, mysterious, frightening, epic, or hopeful, this soundtrack has it all in spades.
Recommended tracks: Bonetrousle, Waterfall, Another Medium, Hopes and Dreams (again, just listen to all of it…it’s too good to miss out on!)
This list might not be formally ranked, but there is no question that Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is my favorite one here. It seems to be standard that classic JRPGs come rife with excellent music, but this gem goes above and beyond…WAY above and beyond. The ebb and flow of the story is perfectly matched by songs that can fill you with burning resolve or tear your heart wide open with sorrow. Every scenario is perfectly matched with its music. If you are a connoisseur of video game music and haven’t listened to this masterpiece, you owe it to yourself to change that.
Recommended tracks: Secret of the Forest, Frog’s Theme, Corridors of Time, World Revolution (…But just go for the whole thing…It’s absolutely worth it…)
That brings us to the end, but those are just my picks! What gaming music do you get the most enjoyment out of? Let me know with a comment! Thank you for reading! And as always, friends, game on!