As great as they might sound in concert or on our turntables, it’s impossible to separate the best videogame soundtracks from the games they were made for. You can’t hear the strains of a Zelda or Final Fantasy without immediately thinking of fantasy lands like Hyrule and Spira, and the adventures and relationships you forged there. Music is such an important part of creating a game’s mood and personality, and it’s so powerful that I’ve enjoyed otherwise bad games based solely on a great soundtrack. None of the games below fit that category—they’d all be worth playing even if the only music they had was “Yakety Sax”—but every single one of them has been elevated and improved by its music.
Before we dive in, let’s explain a few things. We’re only considering original scores and soundtracks—nothing licensed, so no famous pop or rock songs. These are works of music created specifically for the games in which they appear. Secondly, we easily could’ve made up this list using installments from only four or five different series, so we’ve lumped all of those into single entries. So that’s one entry apiece for Zelda, Final Fantasy, Mario, Metroid, and other games that otherwise could’ve dominated this thing. Finally, we aren’t ranking anything. This whole list is in alphabetical order, from Animal Crossing to VVVVVV. Feel free to rank ‘em however you see fit in your own mind.
With that, let’s do it. Here are the best videogame soundtracks of all time.
Music has always been a crucial part of Animal Crossing’s foundation. In addition to the large library of original songs performed by the game’s resident rock star K. K. Slider—each one delivered with his signature sped-up voice, indecipherable lyrics, and occasional howls—Animal Crossing has also featured a number of unique pieces themed to different seasons and even times of the day. Longtime composer Kazumi Totaka—who K.K. Slider is named after and based on—has shown a mastery of different styles, sounds and moods over the 20-year history of the series, and the composers on Animal Crossing: New Horizons have done a great job keeping up with him.—Garrett Martin
I recently wrote about revisiting 2011’s Bastion once again on the Nintendo Switch, returning to play an “old friend” of a game I’ve enjoyed multiple times on my PC, but if I’m being truthful, half the reason for buying another copy of Bastion was to hear its soundtrack from the comfort of my couch. Produced and composed by songwriter Darren Korb, a childhood friend of Bastion designer Amir Rao, it’s a study of someone creating an OST that manages to perfectly complement and enhance the experience of its game. Bastion would feel utterly hollow without the eclecticism of Korb’s tracks, infused with the adventuring spirit of what Korb once referred to as “acoustic frontier trip hop.” Like a meeting point between dusty folk and electronic dance beats, nearly every track of Bastion feels both exotic but familiar, thrumming with anxious energy that is especially encapsulated in the boss fight segment of “Terminal March” my wife refers to as “shit hitting the fan music.” The real star attraction, however, is the song duo of “Build That Wall” and “Mother, I’m Here”—two beautifully mournful tunes used to introduce and encapsulate two specific characters, which are then combined into one even more powerful song in the form of “Setting Sail, Coming Home.” Taken separately, each is a brilliant piece of songwriting, but seeing how much richer the two are together is something else entirely. There’s a reason why random uploads of this OST on YouTube have close to 4 million views—it’s one of the most perfectly executed game soundtracks of the last decade. —Jim Vorel
Bayonetta’s long list of composers (seriously, there are nine of them) had a lot of gall appropriating Bart Howard’s jazz standard “Fly Me To The Moon” and converting it into a juicy, bombastic J-Pop theme song. The series has a fascination with these cabaret classics, later doing something similar with “Moon River” for Bayonetta 2. It’s the only piece of media to recodify “Fly Me To The Moon” and really make it into something unique and essential since Neon Genesis Evangelion. Bayonetta deserves respect for the sheer drama she brings to the table.—Austin Jones
What’s a good boss battle without an accompanying theme? With a sixty-five-piece orchestra and thirty-two-member choir, FromSoftware’s team of composers knew exactly how to score Eldritch, mind-altering encounters of the third (or furry, depending on where you are) kind. There’s a reason we discuss Bloodborne as if it were a horror game. Bloodborne’s OST is the sound of sanity standing on its last legs.—Austin Jones
Konami’s gothic hack ‘n’ slash classic introduced the world to some of the most memorable gaming music ever, as written by Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima. Later composers adapted and added to their work, perhaps most notably Michiru Yanabe with Bloodlines and Symphony of the Night. Castlevania fans endlessly debate which game has the best music, but it’s hard to argue against Yanabe’s work on Symphony.—Garrett Martin
Demon’s Souls soundtrack (composed by Shunsuke Kida) is remarkable in that it achieves something that others fail and later games would abandon—the majesty and scale of the weird. With a deep understanding of Romanticism and German Expressionism and the confidence to meld the bombast of mired gloom with the shimmering of the baroque, Demon’s Souls realizes the magnitude of the player’s quest and the world they are thrust into. The crashing of drums, the dissonant sear of organ, and the bellicose blaring of brass forge a tremendous sonic ruin, and choir and strings weave the majestic and occult into a treachery both grand and minute.—Dia Lacina
Kristofer Maddigan’s original score is a vital part of Cuphead’s aesthetic. Full of new ragtime and big band compositions, it captures the jazzy spirit of the era of animation that Cuphead pays tribute to, almost perfectly recreating the sound and feel of early ‘30s orchestral jazz. It transports players back to the days of Count Basie and Duke Ellington just as Cuphead’s art revives the style of Fleischer Studios and early Disney shorts. It’s impossible to imagine this game working as well as it does with different music.—Garrett Martin
The sprawling Final Fantasy series is responsible for more fantastic and beloved soundtracks than any other. To try and capture the breadth of its music, it’s the only entry on this list that has multiple write-ups by multiple writers.
With lutes and recorders, Kumi Tanioka’s
>Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles score surprises with a medieval Celtic whimsy. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a world incapable evolving, yet still finding meaning in extant survival.—Austin Jones
Final Fantasy X saw Nobuo Uematsu’s first collaborative work alongside Final Fantasy’s current mainstay composer Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano. It gave us some of gaming’s instantly recognizable songs, including “To Zanarkand” and “Hymn of the Fayth.” With more complex and moving arrangements, Final Fantasy X leapt into the new millennia more tangible than ever before.—Austin Jones
Final Fantasy XIII, the first in the series entirely composed by Masashi Hamauzu, is arguably the series’ most diverse soundtrack. The closest competition feels like it would be Nobuo Uematsu’s score to Final Fantasy VIII’s, which has melodic and comforting tracks like “Balamb Garden.”—Natalie Flores
Hotline Miami is an 8-bit, third-person shooter with a pixelated soundtrack to match. Fast-paced chiptune tracks from a variety of artists and bands put a nostalgic spin on the low-res bloodbath you’re responsible for. Electronic beeps and whirs come together to create an auditory image of shuffling and strobe lights. It’s about what you’d expect if you took your Sega Genesis to the seediest part of town for a Tetris tournament.—Jarrod Johnson II
The House in Fata Morgana is a Hawthorne novel come to life, with its particular brand of gothicism being unreliable and distant. Its soundtrack contains over 65 original, mostly vocal compositions split between 5 composers, imitating the immersive experience of visiting a theater. The lyrics are mostly in Portuguese but are peppered with Latin and French—it leaves the listener decentered, lost in the expansive hallways of Fata Morgana’s winding chronology and aching gloom.—Austin Jones
This game is centered around on a team of rollerbladin’ graffiti artists trying to express themselves in the face of vicious gang violence and a totalitarian government. Hideki Naganuma and Richard Jacques’ synth-punk soundtrack thoroughly embodies the rebellious, expressive spirit that drives the game. It’s full of bizarre vocals, funky basslines and retro iconography.—Jarrod Johnson II
How do you make a dungeon crawler stand out? Turn muddy textures and snail’s pace combat into something thrilling, memorable, and utterly captivating? If you’re Tsukasa Saito, you get weird. You go off message. You bring a DAW to a ren faire and lay down funky beats and acid jazz bass. Create creeping swirls of diaphanous choral loops and elongate them into the barest, ghostly ministrations of fingertips. And then just so everyone remembers what this is they’re playing, you drip the skeletal urgings of harpsichord to truly unsettling effect.—Dia Lacina
Yoko Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts has made her one of the most iconic composers in the world of videogames. The piano is the heart and soul of the series’ soundtrack, delivering the somber and wistful yearning of Kingdom Heart II’s “The Other Promise” that mirrors Roxas’ longing for identity as effortlessly as the energetic, bouncing notes of “The 13th Struggle” that dance like figures on the battlefield.—Natalie Flores
Koji Kondo’s work with Nintendo has given us the two most instantly recognizable pieces of game music ever. One of them, of course, is the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda. (You’ll read about the other one lower down the list.) Kondo’s epic score has been revisited, revised, adapted and added to over the last 35 years, as he and a number of partners have collaborated on the soundtracks of almost every major Zelda game since. Our personal favorite is the music to 2003’s Wind Waker, which beautifully evokes the game’s spirit of adventure. With 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Nintendo broke from tradition, replacing a cinematic score with a more immersive and ambient soundtrack that was more like the suggestion of music; as spearheaded by Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata and Hajime Wakai, this minimalist approach gave Breath of the Wild a startling and powerful soundtrack.—Garrett Martin
What’s the last game you can remember that wrangles convincing brushed snares from a 16-bit sound chip? I’ll wait.
It’s Mario Paint. That’s it. That’s the one.
From the chipper bossa nova influenced title screen theme Mario Paint gives artists of all ages the lo-fi chill out tunes to create and play as it journeys through spacey chirps to more swanky jazz to driving rumba beats when you decide to take a compositional break to swat flies. Composers Hirokazu Tanaka, Ryoji Yoshitomi and Kazumi Totaka outdid themselves with this one. Nintendo may have pursued elevator music elsewhere, but never so successfully as here.—Dia Lacina
The defining tones of Metroid are isolation and claustrophobia. You’re supposed to feel as alone and trapped as Samus is as she explores these alien planets, and then feel relief as she gradually grows out of the near-powerlessness that she finds herself in at the beginning of every game. Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s score for the original Metroid establishes this instantly, with the slow, creepy, dirge-like quality of the opening theme. Tanaka’s work was adapted and expanded on in future games by Kenji Yamamoto, who has worked on almost every Metroid game since 1994’s Super Metroid. His work has consistently struck a creepy, foreboding tone that sounds inherently alien, perfectly complementing the series’ setting and art design.—Garrett Martin
The soundtrack (composed by C418) does a good job of creating an all-encompassing immersion into the virtual environment. The first few notes of “Subwoofer Lullaby” and “Wet Hands” are so therapeutic when emerging from a cave after hours of mining that the cadence can feel planned, like the game knows exactly what you need to hear. The soundtrack is full of pieces that wander and contemplate, so as to remind players there’s a world of possibilities out there, you just have to create them.—Jarrod Johnson II
NieR: Automata’s myriad lyrical songs are unparalleled in their haunting beauty. Refined to breathe life into a desolate world, the vocal tracks of this game—sung by powerhouses J’Nique Nicole and Emi Evans—are some of the most ethereal songs among videogame soundtracks, and the instrumental tracks from Keiichi Obake’s score are every bit as captivating.—Natalie Flores
Persona 5 is a loud and stylish game: its rich reds, beaming yellows, and bold blacks make it ooze with flair almost flauntingly—but its vibrancy is established most of all through Shoji Meguro’s incredible soundtrack. You spend Persona 5 largely feeling much cooler and powerful than you realistically should as a teenager. While not every piece in the soundtrack delivers this feeling, songs like “Life Will Change” and “Last Surprise” are bound to make you dance and feel ready to take on the world.—Natalie Flores
With Tokuhiko Uwabo’s score, Phantasy Star 2 paints a daring, sprawling adventure in blobby ovular synths that often give way to staccato bubblegum. There’s chimes and bells, and warm swirling hums. Every moment is primed with driving rhythms that only ‘90s Nihon Falcom ARPGs can touch. Even at its most sinister Phantasy Star 2 never forgets that it’s a charming, ‘80s, anime adventure. It’s Space Romance as fuck, and fills this colorful, utopian world on the brink of an unknown collapse or impermanent salvation with a sprightly life all its own.—Dia Lacina
Sure, Lucas Pope’s 2018 enthralling puzzle game that’s both whodunnit and howdunnit would be an outstanding game even if accompanied by a less inventive soundtrack. In Return of the Obra Dinn, the detective work required to determine the identities and fates of all aboard the now empty merchant vessel of the title is exactly the type of arduous, immersive experience that leaves a mark. But though Pope himself was a little dismissive of the “similarity” of its short pieces in a 2018 tweet touching on the possible release of the OST—”All kinda similar though so reduced marks there”—the music that accompanies each uncovered vignette of memory leaves a mark of its own. After finishing the game, I didn’t return to the soundtrack immediately, but when I did, I realized both how downright cheery many of the short tunes are despite the fact they all accompany scenes of death and, in some cases, horror. Ah, the mixture of Eureka! and death—that’s the stuff. —Michael Burgin
No other horror game relies on twisted beauty like Rule of Rose. Most of Yutaka Minobe’s tracks contain little more than strings and piano, drifting somewhere between funerary and manic, a bit like a deconstructed golden age Disney film or a Grimm’s fairy tale come to life. More than anything, it’s a peek into the cruel, meaningless world of intimacy, a kind hand turned sinister in a moment’s notice.—Austin Jones
Sayonara Wild Hearts is practically a playable colorful album that is immediately alluring through its gorgeous over-saturated visuals and Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng’s bright, bubbly indie-pop sounds. It’s almost psychedelic with its synths and dreamy melodies that make you feel energized to get up and dance.—Natalie Flores
There’s a meandering, sinister throb at the center of the title screen theme. It’s crucial, but as a dull flame for swirling, ethereal synth chimes to flitter around. There’s the pressure of meat and stone, a driving heartbeat and the deep rumble of granite wall that the mystical and strange permeates like sapient ivies. It’s not a fantasy soundtrack, or a horror one, but all the creep and gloom and danger—as well as the shimmer of the miraculous—thrives in Hiroyuki Masuno’s compositions. Shadowgate uses a sonic palette that seems incongruous with the world, but could not be more borne of the haunted and the ensorcelled Castle Shadowgate and the lethal, confounding, and exquisite quest you’ll embark on inside.—Dia Lacina
Shadowrun is wall-to-wall bangers. It might be the apex predator of all cyberpunk soundtracks. It’s not the crunchy synth-driven industrial metal that everyone thinks of, or a Tony Hawk-like collection of punk riffs. It’s all of it—the accumulated cultural detritus commodified and reinterpreted through that sick Genesis sound chip. Weird time signatures? A stray vocal sample? Surf guitar and country motifs? Native American Flute riffs straight from the Natural Wonders? Got it. Composer Sam Powell leans deftly into hypercapitalistic orientalism for tone and theme, and wraps it all in a concrete layer of Kosmische Muzik-tinged urban noise.—Dia Lacina
A good deal of Silent Hill’s impact is thanks to chief sound designer and guitarist Akira Yamoka’s compositions. During his stint with the series, Yamaoka became known for fusing the then-current stylings of industrial with heavy influence from his favorite composer Angelo Badalamenti. Yamaoka’s work was at its peak in Silent Hill 3; it’s cavernous, watery and desperately vulnerable. Few soundtracks capture the abject terror and twinkling beauty of loneliness so well.—Austin Jones
With dynamic arrangements that morphed according to the moods on-screen, Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda crafted the audacious sense of adventure that made Skies of Arcadia near synonymous with the Dreamcast. It’s quintessentially Sega, but also maintains a unique identity. Everything sounds like a discovery when you’re soaring through Arcadia.—Austin Jones
Tim Follin was an early master of videogame music, and his most impressive work can be heard in the NES game Solstice. The bombastic prog explosion on the title screen announces that you’re about to hear something you’ve never heard a game do before, and Follin’s moody, atmospheric, and consistently unpredictable score more than keeps that promise. The impact and power of that intro can’t be diminished, though—over 30 years later it remains one of the greatest moments in the history of videogame music.—Garrett Martin
Here’s a controversial one. Sonic CD is famous for its two different OSTs, its original Japanese score by longtime Sega composers Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, and its American score by David Young and Spencer Nilsen of Ecco The Dolphin fame. For what it’s worth, the American score slightly edges the Japanese out for me, drawing more heavily from house sounds of the ‘90s and offering genuine atmosphere in the Bad Future rearrangements.—Austin Jones
It’s unlikely anything will ever supplant Koji Kondo’s score for Super Mario Bros. as the most iconic music in videogame history. Kondo has worked on every mainline Mario platformer with a variety of collaborators, updating his original music for new technology while writing new pieces tailored for each game. From the jazzy, tropical swing of Super Mario Sunshine to the orchestral grandeur of Super Mario Galaxy, Kondo and his partners have continued to make Mario one of the best-sounding games you’ll ever play.—Garrett Martin
Undertale’s soundtrack displays the power of brilliantly used leitmotifs. Many of Toby Fox’s songs incorporate the same character-focused themes, slowed down or sped up into versions of each other that are almost entirely unrecognizable. But the moment when you realize their commonalities arrives, and it makes the abundance of emotional moments all the more powerful. The range of the soundtrack embodies the ease with which Undertale’s writing showcases lighthearted humor and heartwarming emotion in equal measure.—Natalie Flores
Rhythm games typically move to the same kinds of rhythm: either popular licensed rock and pop hits, or high energy electronic dance music. Thumper, which is proudly dubbed a “rhythm violence” game by its creators, goes for something completely different. Its noisy, percussive, claustrophobic racket has more in common with noise music than other videogames, which shouldn’t be a surprise, as Brian Gibson from the legendary band Lightning Bolt is responsible for the game’s music and art. It sounds more like something you’d hear on a college radio station in the depths of the overnight graveyard shift than in a videogame, and so it makes perfect sense that it was eventually released on vinyl by Thrill Jockey, the experimental rock label that has put out records by Trans Am, Tortoise, Matmos and more. (Including, yes, Lightning Bolt.) Thumper feels like a game that grew out of a completely different culture and tradition than almost every other videogame, and Gibson’s music is a huge reason why.—Garrett Martin
The finest offering from the “death game” genre also has the finest soundtrack. Shinji Hosoe’s airless techno and scraping, glossy industrial perfectly aligns with the mind-bending twists Kotaro Uchikoshi is known for, an excellent case for the sounds of anxious warehouse clubs in the game world. Our audiophiles will want to play this game with headphones—Hosoe’s known for his precise, dagger-sharp arrangements.—Austin Jones
Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV is unwieldy in title but incredibly precise in execution, a puzzle-platformer with a Super Meat Boy-level difficulty curve. It’s light on story but high in challenge factor, the kind of game that expects you to try dozens of times at seemingly simple tasks before finally making it through to the other side. That kind of gameplay can be abusive, quickly driving the player away unless there’s a hook that makes the loop of failed attempts addictive in some way, compelling you to keep going. For VVVVVV, that key is its outstanding chiptune soundtrack by Magnus Pålsson, composed almost entirely of songs that only get more endlessly hummable as they repeat on loop. Each track is typically attached to one particularly grueling test of human reflexes, and they add immeasurably to the epic feel of narrowly dodging death over and over again. Tracks like “Pushing Onwards” and “Positive Force” would be perfectly at home on an EDM dance floor, while the well-named “Passion For Exploring” manages to capture an undefinable aura of adventure as the player makes their first journey into the overworld. Over time, the tracks begin to feel like an audience, cheering you on to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles set before you. —Jim Vorel