The most magical thing about video games is that they are the culmination of every other medium. They use art, music, film, and more to help create an entire world and one of the most easily recognizable components of a famous video game is its soundtrack. The moment you hear the opening to the theme of one of your favorite games, you know instantly what it is and you associate it with all the feelings that the game instilled in you during your playtime.
The mark of a great soundtrack is one that not only leaves a lasting impression but matches the themes and overall tone of the game. This might be one of the hardest lists that I have had to create simply because there are so many great options. I even contemplated making this list a top 20 but that time has not come quite yet. There can be only one entry per franchise, so I will pick the soundtrack that seems to stand out the most in 2021.
There are few soundtracks in gaming that have as much power as Halo’s. Martin O’Donnell took everything that he learned with the first couple of games and perfected them with Halo 3’s music. This album probably also has the most playtime of any video game soundtrack for me. Each piece on this album makes you feel like you are either in the most epic battle of your life where the fate of humanity rests in your hands or you are exploring ancient secrets long forgotten in the universe.
For an album to be able to do both is incredible but what makes Halo’s so impressive is that it is often able to elevate a game to new heights. Halo without its soundtrack might have been a lot more of a generic experience without the blood-pumping composition of its soundtrack. That is the mark of a fantastic gaming soundtrack and one that will live in my memory forever.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim gets a bad rap nowaday since it seems to be the only RPG that Bethesda can still release. However, its soundtrack manages to capture something that only one other soundtrack has fully realized in my mind: a sense of ancient secrets and wandering through fantastical places. It is the video game soundtrack equivalent to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some inspiration from the iconic film score.
Whether you are climbing the tallest mountain, exploring the deepest ruins, or prancing through a stream, Skyrim’s music accompanies your actions perfectly and helps to entrench the epxeriences you have deep in your brain. If we ever get the next Elder Scrools game, I hope that it can match this iconic selection of music.
Super Mario Odyssey
Mario has some of the most iconic themes in pop culture, but Super Mario Odyssey was able to evolve those famous themes and introduce brand new ones that complemented the world that were introduced really well. The soundtrack can delve into big band explosive pieces that have your doing the jig in your couch to the more mellow pieces that invite you to take in the world.
I can’t help but love the direction that Nintendo took Mario’s accompanying sound in this package. Each level is defined well with its music and there are even pieces that are only played during a special moment in the game, like “Jump Up, Superstar.” This little Mario celebration in the middle of this game was when I realized that Odyssey was special and that its soundtrack perfectly encapsulated the fun that Mario stands for.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
If Skyrim had the perfect sound for ancient secrets and wanderers, Ocarina of Time has the perfect music for the adventurers. The moment that you hear the notes of any of these songs, you can immediately place the location that the song represents. The soundtrack does more than just accompany the player’s action; it helps to give a sense of time and place. It shows the good and the bad through audion cues that alert the player to changes in the air.
But even if you are just starting out on your first adventure through this edition of Hyrule, the starting notes of the title theme where Link and Epona are trotting through the fields of Hyrule will have you grabbing your own supplies to go n an adventure. The music instills the motivation to keep moving forward in your task to see the world and make it right.
I have always described Banjo Kazooie as the perfect comfort food. The meal you go for on Saturday after a long week at work and all you want to do is get lost in its cartoon silliness, and the soundtrack captures that weekend carefree attitude. From the lumbering horns of Mumbo’s Mountain to the light and quick bells and flutes in Freezeezy Peak, the tracks that are present are able to give off completely different vibes that mesh with each world.
Each world is as defined by its music as it is its unique objectives and setting. Banjo and Kazooie is able to give an additional layer of identity to many of its levels and moments by the music that Grant Kirkope managed to design. If I had to play Banjo and Kazooie on silent, I feel like I would be losing more than half the experience.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
It’s easy to forget about Brotherhood since it came out ten years ago, and quite a few Assassin’s Creed games have been released since then, but I have struggled to forget about it for two reasons: it’s awesome rare armor and its soundtrack. The tracks have two modes which are made up of the slow and methodical. The tracks you can imagine hearing as you discuss the history of Italy with Leonardo DaVinci.
And the fast-paced tracks where Ezio is sprinting over shingled rooftops while guards chase him from the streets. The music is able to balance both of these situations very well and make me want to jump in the Animus for another run through Rennaisance Italy.
The year that Cuphead was released, I played this soundtrack non-stop while I was studying. It was my go-to for anything academic because it was fast-paced and jazzy, which is exactly what I need to focus and that focus translates to the gameplay too. Cuphead is all about being perfect in your movements in order to take down the different bosses, and the music that Kristofer Maddigan was able to create compliments this perfectly.
Besides pairing with the overall fast-paced gameplay really well, the soundtrack is an extension of the overall art style animation. The animation, rubber hose as it is often called, and art style make it look like a cartoon straight out of the early 1900s, which matches perfectly with the slick jazz notes of Maddigan’s score. Everything in this package is so tightly interwoven with one another it’s one of the best complete packages in the industry currently.
Stardew Valley is a massive game. There is so much to do, but sometimes all the player is doing is watering the same 70×70 plot of ground for the 13th day in a row. In order for this game to be successful, there needed to be a soundtrack that would elevate the more mundane parts of the game. The soundtrack is able to give the player a sense to play on while also helping to indicate time, season, and danger. That is a lot for a single album to do, but Stardew does it masterfully.
Don’t even get me started on the opening track with the slow plucked strings and flute greeting the player when they open the game up. It brings me back to one of the most stressful times in my life when Stardew Valley was able to give me an escape. To think about something else, even if for just a moment. I was in peace.
Do you know what’s not peaceful? The gameplay of celeste, though it is incredibly fun. Celeste is one of the most intense and yet heart-felt platformers that I have ever played, and the soundtrack meets both of those ends. As Madeline is performing crazy jumps from falling icicles and moving platforms, the music aims to match it. It will start out slow, as if you have just started on your journey, but as the action picks up, the music is soon to follow. It will increase the tempo and layers of the music almost as if it too were participating in the platforming madness.
However, there are moments where the gameplay becomes introspective as Madeline reflects on her own life and must deal with her own trauma. In these moments, the music will slow again or become a kaleidoscope of sound as it struggles to match the circling feelings that Madeline has racing through her mind. It’s surprisingly well done.
Finally, the Uncharted series is known as the video game version of the Indiana Jones films, and there is a good reason for that. With a famous treasure, Nathan Drake playing the stand-in for Indiana, he has his own theme song too. The tracks are epic, with rarely any sense of dread or fear. As if the impossible is always possible, the tracks lead the player to believe in their own abilities and Nathan’s as they scale cliff walls and race through ruins and cities.
These games are pure action-adventure Hollywood made into a video game, and the tracks are like anything you would hear in a Spielberg or Michael Bay film, and that’s not a bad thing.