The best videogame soundtracks ever – and when to listen to them

Trapped inside with your consoles? Time to make some sweet, sweet music...

Be honest: how much time have you spent playing videogames these past few weeks? It’s fine. We won’t judge you. Budge up and we’ll join you. Right now videogames feel like escape, comfort, adventure; all of these very essential things.

Since you’re playing so many games to stave off coronavirus-induced self-isolation boredom, and since NME has its roots in music, we thought now would be the perfect time to pull together a feature that we’re calling THE BEST VIDEOGAME SOUNDTRACKS EVER. Read on, play on – what order you do that in is totally up to you. But listen

Best for… letting off some steam: the DOOM series

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The original DOOM games did their best to replicate the gameplay’s none-more-metal visuals with equally pummelling sounds – even taking riffs that sound suspiciously like those of genre heavyweights Metallica, Slayer and Pantera. And yet this being the early ’90s – DOOM was released for MS-DOS in 1994; DOOM II: Hell on Earth followed a year later – the sound technology used was obviously fledging.

When the series was rebooted in 2016, the game could now sound as good as it now looked. Australian composer Mick Gordon was called in, subsequently becoming the creative force behind the audio of both DOOM (2016) and the recently released DOOM Eternal (2020). Nine Inch Nails, the Prodigy at their most metal, and Nottingham’s industrial metal pioneers Pitchshifter are nu-DOOM’s key artists.

Best for… loving yourself: the Half-Life series

 

Composer, musician and programmer Kelly Bailey gave his all to his work on the Half-Life series. As well as providing Valve’s brilliant FPS series with a series of soundtracks that are truly genreless, bounding like a Headcrab (the game’s baddies) from techno to drum ‘n’ bass to industrial, he also gave the game’s protagonist a face; Gordon Freeman’s face is modelled on his own!

Best for… making life feel totally epic: the Final Fantasy series

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When Classic FM describe Nobuo Uematsu as ‘the Beethoven of videogame music’, they’re not kidding. The chief composer for Square Enix’s epic Final Fantasy series, his scores are noted for being uniquely beautiful, dramatic and – oh, Aeris! – extremely emotional. Not that lush orchestral wonder is all he can do. If you’ve never heard Uematsu’s prog band The Black Mages – formed with fellow Square Enix composers Kenichrio Fukui and Tsuyoshi Sekito – we suggest you rectify that ASAP.

Best for… whistling through the end times: The Last Of Us

 

With COVID-19 keeping the world locked down, it’s no surprise that the much anticipated The Last Of Us 2 – the sequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013’s astonishing post-apocalyptic adventure – has been postponed indefinitely. Listening to the first game’s soundtrack, composed by the Argentine Gustavo Santaolalla, who won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score for two years running (Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Babel in 2006), it’s clear that the series is a little close to the bone. Santaolaah’s soundtrack is sparsely beautiful and yet chillingly sinister. Keep a copy of Erasure: Greatest Hits on hand in case it all gets too much.

Best for… pranging out with existential dread: the Silent Hill series

 

Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka has worked on loads of videogame soundtracks, and yet it’s unlikely the work he’ll be remembered for will be NBA In The Zone ’98 rather than the Silent Hill series, which he’s composed for since 1999. For the uninitiated, Silent Hill is a collection of survival horror games made by Konami – the best of which are the first two, but they all have something decent to offer – that deal in the themes of memory, guilt, sexual desire, the existence of reality and many other subjects you could ruin your grandma’s Sunday dinner with. It’s near-impossible to imagine the Silent Hill games without Yamaoka’s strange, spindly, industrial-influenced sounds.

Best for… brightening up your day: the Katamari Damacy series

 

Namco’s Katamari Damacy (Japanese-to-English translation: ‘clump spirit’) is a game in which you, a tiny interstellar prince, attempt to replace the galaxy’s damaged stars, planets and moons by rolling up huge balls of earthly items (which might vary from a tiny pencil sharpener to a huge nuclear power plant), in an attempt to impress your (it must be said) incredibly demanding galaxy ruling father. It’s a game in which the desire to ‘have just one more go’ is rarely sated. A game as addictive and gloriously twee as Katamari subsequently needed a soundtrack that would endure long past the first couple of playthroughs. Katamari’s unique blend of samba, jazz and kitsch easy listening certainly delivered.

Best for… a cosy nostalgia kick: Parappa The Rapper

Before Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution and all manner of other games that necessitated you jerking about awkwardly in front of your games console, there was 1996’s Parappa The Rapper. A collaboration between artist Rodney Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura of the popular J-Pop band Psy-S, the PlayStation exclusive required you to mash your controller’s buttons to drive the game’s narrative, which concerned the titular Parappa, a dog, winning the heart of Sunny Funny, an anthropomorphic flower.. So far so boring, but bloody hell the tunes were good…

Best for… easy anxiety: the Echo The Dolphin series

 

When Sega’s Echo The Dolphin debuted in 1992 for the Genesis/Mega Drive, many were drawn to the game for its perceived offering of meditative, aquatic-based calm. After all, this was a game about a bottlenose dolphin, resolutely committed to cleaning up the ocean he inhabited. Which is one way of looking at it. The other is that it’s a game which is entirely about not running out of oxygen and suffocating to death, something which – once the game gets into its twisty, cavern-based segments (latter levels are set on a spaceship) – is nigh on impossible. Pink Floyd obsessive Spencer Nilsen provided the music for the series.

Best for… bracing yourself for the end: Fallout 3

 

Developers Bethesda turned to veteran Israeli-American composer Inon Zur to provide the audio for their hugely successful 2008 action-RPG Fallout 3, which aligns ambient soundscapes with olde timey jazz (our favourite of which is the genius use of The Ink Spots’ 1941 hit ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’), peppering the spaces elsewhere with rousing militaristic flourishes. It’s impossible to hear that tuba without thinking, ‘Oh gawd, what’s coming to kill me now…’

Best for… chilling the fuck out (and killing space bugs): Super Metroid

 

It’s been said that Kenji Yamamoto (who along with Minako Hamano composed the music for Nintendo’s immortal SNES classic Super Metroid) came up with his best ideas when riding his motorcycle to work. He’d hum them under his helmet, then get to work when he arrived, trying to capture the sounds in his head with the era’s rudimentary synthesizers. The result was one of the medium’s greatest ever soundtracks, with shades of what now would be describes as electronica. Not only that, but it’s a soundtrack that’s impossible to listen to without imagining blasting an intergalactic bug to death.

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