rom the sartorial advice of early Mario games (‘denim, denim, denim’) to the earworm that is the Tetris song, nothing quite transports us to a time and a place quite like video game music. A few bleeps here, a few bloops there – it can evoke enough nostalgia to bring down a Tamagotchi.
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And then there’s the video game music that just goes far beyond the norm, a track or theme that bangs so hard you’ll keep playing for the pure vibes alone. All of which is another way to say that we’ve put together a list of moments when gaming and music combined to ludicrously good effect.
So why don’t we get straight to it? Kicking off the list is ‘Guile’s Theme’, the musical equivalent of downing five espressos and snorting an entire bag of Haribo Tangfastics…
‘Guile’s Theme’ – Street Fighter II (Yoko Shimomura)
While ‘Ken’s Theme’ was heavily inspired by a true-life rock hit (Cheap Trick’s ‘Mighty Wings’, to be exact), ‘Guile’s Theme’ might as well have birthed a new genre entirely such is the way in which it banged like no fighting game song had done before. Rightfully a cult classic nowadays, it’s been given both the Acapella and Fresh Prince of Bel Air treatment, but no matter how many times you hear it you’ll never get sick of that riff: it just doesn’t let up, boasting more key changes than a locksmith convention and delivering waves of crushing power synth and electronic piano in a sonic boom of arcade machine glory. Nothing is impossible after listening to this relentlessly upbeat track on repeat. A-level exams? They’ll give you a PhD. Cooking for the family? Michelin star. Everyone could do with being a bit more Guile.
Pause Menu – Goldeneye 007 (Grant Kirkhope)
As superbly parodied in this TikTok skit, Rare had no business creating one of the sickest beats of all time only to stick it in a pause menu for a movie tie-in game on the N64. Still, a collective tip of Oddjob’s hat must go to Scottish composer Grant Kirkhope who, albeit unintentionally, blessed us with one of the first examples of Trap music in 1997’s Goldeneye. Years ahead of its time, this cold slice of industrial bass is still as intense as ever, inviting you to crank the volume louder with every passing minute. The beats are tighter than Jaws in a bathroom ventilation shaft, and who can forget the Bond theme played on a xylophone? We’ve no idea why it works so beautifully but it does. Fully befitting the Grandaddy of console deathmatches, they killed it with this one.
‘That’s the Way It is’ – Red Dead Redemption 2 (Daniel Lanois)
It’s no secret that Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is better than most western films put together, and it even has a world-class soundtrack to match. We’d have settled for Lil Nas X‘s ‘Old Town Road‘ come the end credits, but ‘That’s The Way It Is’ hits you in the feels like a buckshot to the gut. Produced by Daniel Lanois, who worked with the likes of Josh Homme and Willie Nelson for the game’s soundtrack, it’s a sentimental slice of country without the cliché, and, dare we say it shades of The National, too, mixing whispy vocals, twanging guitar and luscious harmonies to terrific effect. Written about acceptance, Lanoid apparently wanted a song that riffed on protagonist Arthur Morgan taking stock of his life. Beautiful? For sure. Bleak? It’s the Old West, what did you expect?
‘Main Theme’ – Quake (Trent Reznor)
That’s right – in case you’d forgotten, the composer of Quake’s soundtrack was none other than Trent Reznor, who (Nine Inch) nailed the theme of id Software’s 1996 Doom follow-up with the sort of hard-wired ambience he would later use to score films including David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s easy to underestimate just how good Quake‘s soundtrack was first time around, its scuzzy rock matching the medieval/sci-fi landscape to a tee, not least its intense opening theme. The FPS was also first major computer game to use true 3D real-time rendering, which, much like the brilliance of the soundtrack, may have been lost on many at the time but can’t fail to impress gamers today. Oh, and that tinny noise wasn’t just your old PC speakers back in the day, either. The ‘aaaaaaah’ really does sounds like that. Hellish.
‘Aquatic Ambience’ – Donkey Kong Country (David Wise)
Picture the scene: you’re a video game composer who’s been asked to score music to a giant gorilla riding a swordfish underwater. What do you do? Well, if you’re long-time DK instrumentalist David Wise you conjure up one of the finest pieces of ambient music to grace any video game, transcending not only the Super Nintendo but arguably time and space itself. ‘Aren’t we all, in some small way, Donkey Kong riding a swordfish underwater?’ you’ll ponder as this searing arrangement rattles around your braincells. Give it a few listens and you’ll understand why it holds a special place in the hearts of many of Donkey Kong fans. And that kazoo solo – who the hell saw that coming?
‘Tristam Theme Song’ – Diablo series (Matt Uelmen)
‘The Tristam Theme’ – related to the village of the same name in the early Diablo series – is both next level and about an actual level. It’s the ideal soundtrack as players scurry around under moonlight exploring a place where horror lies behind every corner and where you never quite know what to expect, upping the dread with whirling guitar and shrill percussion (not all that dissimilar to the folky foreplay of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, as it happens). As intense as it is unpredictable, it’s become something of a favourite among fans and even spawned countless guitar covers on YouTube. And though it may sound like it’s been crafted by the Devil himself, it’s actually the brainchild of renowned VGM composer Matt Uelmen, who has scored everything from Diablo to World of Warcraft to Starcraft, and clearly had no trouble turning the scares up to 11 here.
‘The Choice’ – The Last of Us (Gustavo Santaolalla)
Gone are the days of VGM trying its best to sound like the stuff you’d hear in the charts. Clocking up over 50 million views on Spotify and its own vinyl release to boot, The Last of Us is a perfect example of how many of today’s game soundtracks are huge releases in their own right. For both Part I and Part II of Naughty Dog’s apocalyptic thriller, Gustavo Santaolalla’s stirring tracks provided the game with much of its heartbeat. Performed by the Nashville Scoring Orchestra, it’s not even so much what notes are struck at times, but rather which aren’t, giving gamers and characters alike a chance to breathe. We must of course give a shout out to the moment Ellie plays a cover of A-Ha’s eighties classic ‘Take On Me’ in Part II, which is both technically brilliant and charming in the same way an X-Factor audition by a 17-year-old girl from Southport whose Nan is unwell would be, but the original score itself is unmatched, shifting tone from dreamy acoustic to heart-pounding terror with a flick of a string. ‘The Path’. ‘All Gone’. ‘The Choice’. In fairness we could have chosen any track but the latter, with its gorgeous piano and fuzzy ambience, provides a real melancholy among the madness.
Entire score – RimWorld (Alistair Lindsay)
Brian Eno meets Max Richter meets another artist you’re likely to hear in a bank advert – the soundtrack of management-sim RimWorld is nothing if not soothing. It certainly helps when you’ve the hopes, dreams and lives of an entire off-world colony on your shoulders but could equally work for when you’ve had a tough day at the office and want to jump into a big ol’ bath of suds and fancy a little ambience to unwind to. It’s an absolute stone cold banger of a soundtrack. Huge credit has to go to Ludeon Studios, the indie developer which had the gumption to bring the game to life in the first place, and secondly, to Alistair Lindsay, the genius behind the music you’ve spent hours playing this game to. No stranger to management-sim scores, Lindsay previously worked on music for the Rollercoaster Tycoon series. Good to see he’s done so well for himself after so many ups and downs.
All of the above tracks can be found on YouTube. Obviously.