The first commercial videogame involved navigating a rocket ship; it was created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1971. Music has been around for um… a lot longer than that. But the two have been intertwined from the nearly the beginning of gaming, as far back as Atari 2600, which allowed gamers to play alongside background “music,” which was really a series of simple loops.
The quality of the sound wasn’t exactly wonderful. Early systems had a very finite amount of space, which severely limited the options for sound engineers and producers. As technology advanced, sound got more advanced as well. The only constrictions for sound engineers became their imaginations.
But it wasn’t until gaming-system technology sufficiently advanced that games finally began incorporating full songs into games. No longer were the blips and bleeps the only ingredients. Now everything from synthesized violins to bongos can take their rightful places in the gaming pantheon as large contributors to musical scores.
Game developers, producers, and publishers recognized the public’s growing interest in game music. Virtually every gamer knows the Halo theme, and many mainstream people probably do too, even if they don’t know from where the song originates. People can buy gaming soundtracks at places like Amazon.com and Best Buy after such stores realized how much of the public wished to listen to soundtracks on their own time, wherever they liked, instead of being relegated to a television or computer screen.
Gaming’s core demographic includes a substantial percentage of the younger generation and increasingly large parts of the previous generations, so marketing companies began tailoring soundtracks to specific ages. You likely won’t come across too many Frank Sinatra or other big band-era groups unless the songs fit the game’s era (e.g. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which has music that is a gigantic hit with those who grew up during the ‘80s or even have a recollection of pop music from that time).
The approach of including songs that fit the game as opposed to the demographic has become more popular as time passes, as evidenced by BioShock’s numerous period pieces. And thankfully, some developers and producers have great taste in music; that taste is exhibited in the choices below.
A few stipulations apply to this list: no music games (far too easy) and for the most part, no songs tailor-made specifically for a game, which would make the process of choosing songs way too elaborate. Plus many people will have no idea what the song is when it’s titled “Orchestral Score No. 5.”
So without further ado, 20 of the best songs to appear in videogames. As always, feel free to leave additions in the comment section. We can’t play every game, and we can’t hear every song (but we try).
20. Goldfinger - Superman | Tony Hawk Pro Skater
The original Tony Hawk Pro Skater kicked off a series of skating games that have significantly declined in quality from one iteration to the next; that can happen when you release a game (or two) every year on almost every system for the last decade. But the first was a revelation for gamers, allowing them to skate through empty warehouses and perform impossible aerial feats by randomly pressing buttons while airborne.
While the tricks were going on, Tony Hawk Pro Skater’s soundtrack blasted in the background: song after song of energetic hard rock and punk that granted the game even more of a rebellious personality. While some songs, well, sucked, others made up for it - one of those being Goldfinger’s Superman, an upbeat ska track reminiscent of Reel Big Fish. It greatly suits the high-flying, fun-loving (use clichés much?) tempo of the game. Goldfinger’s cover of “99 Red Balloons” isn’t half bad either.
19. Primus - Jerry Was A Race Car Driver | Tony Hawk Pro Skater
Primus has always long been known for their strange brand of metal - a version of Red Hot Chili Peppers with (more) significant brain damage. Their music still holds up. The quick, high-pitched baseline that intros Jerry Was A Race Car Driver creates an angular flow that propels the song forward, much like the angles of feet on pavement and skateboards against walls.
While their sound isn’t for everyone, their influence cannot be ignored. As one of the crazier live acts of their era, Primus created a niche for themselves that few other bands entered. The developers of Tony Hawk Pro Skater took notice and thought Primus’ sound would be terrific for the game. And they were right.