Last week Tech Insider spoke with video game music aficionado Emily Reese. She loves video games, loves music, and loves to talk about the new and unlikely creativity that emerges when the two art forms meet. That intersection is the subject of her show “Top Score,” a Minnesota Public Radio program that focuses on video game music. Really!
We asked Reese to send over a list of her favourite game soundtracks, and the results are absolutely overflowing with good ideas.
“There are so many more but I feel like this is getting out of control!” she wrote, “TOO MANY AMAZING SOUNDTRACKS!!!”
Collected here is a selection from that list. These scores broke technical or creative boundaries, and added depth to games — some of which weren’t so great otherwise. Nearly all the soundtracks are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, or Bandcamp. Because each one was crafted for a particular mood and activity, we’ve included some suggestions as to how you might bring them into your own life.
If after reading this you want to learn more about the craft of video game scoring, you can visit the “Top Score” show page here.
When 'Metroid' came out, game design was something very different than it was today, and soundtrack designers had to be hardware technicians as much as musicians. Composer Hirokazu Tanaka studied electrical engineering in college before joining Nintendo.
In a 2002 interview with 'Gamasutra,' he described writing individual 1s and 0s onto a chip. The soundtracks of that era had to take up about as much memory space as these few paragraphs of text. Where other composers used that technology to generate catchy tunes for the arcade, Tanaka had other interests:
I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects ...the melody inMetroids only used at the ending after you killed the Mother Brain. That's because I wanted only a winner to have a catharsis at the maximum level. For the reason, I decided that melodies would be eliminated during the gameplay. By melody here I mean something that someone can sing or hum.
In other words, Tanaka crafted a reponsive, mood-setting soundtrack that behaved more like a movie score. That legacy persists in many of today's best games.
Listen to the soundtrack in the video below:Youtube Embed:
Also good for: laser tag; retro bowling.
'Super Mario Land' was an early GameBoy release that broke the mould of the Mario franchise. Notable for its distinct style and artwork -- as well as the strategic innovations necessary to scale NES gameplay to the (then) new, handheld world -- it featured another Tanaka sound creation. Its melody is warm and inviting, looping without feeling repetitive. And the glitchy, syncopated beat has a deliberately incomplete feeling that propels you forward through the game looking for resolution. These elements combine to produce the sort of music you might actually want to listen to on a tiny, lo-fi paleo-mobile device.Youtube Embed:
Also good for: a cheerful Saturday morning stroll; a video of your dog playing on a beach.
'Kirby' is, in many ways, 'Mario'-lite. Both are 'platforming' games that have players move from left to right across a screen, jumping and dodging to avoid obstacles. But where 'Mario' follows a mustachioed plummer through increasingly difficult stages into some hardcore gaming, 'Kirby' features an adorable puffy bubble's much less frustrating quest. The series keeps things cute, friendly, and simple enough not to get frustrating.
Masahiro Sakurai, who went on to create 'Super Smash Bros,' created 'Kirby's Dreamland' in 1992 for the GameBoy console. The first game in the series, it featured a peppy, fun soundtrack by Jun Ishikawa to match its cheerful disposition.
Also good for: skipping across a field with your toddler; celebrating your promotion within a candy company.
'FEZ' is a modern game steeped in nostalgia for the pixelated games of years gone by. It broke new ground with its innovative blend of two-dimensional and three-dimensional gameplay, and unique visual style. Its music, composed by Rich 'Disasterpiece' Freeland, referenced early compositions like Tanaka's as well as the electronic music of the '80s. But Disasterpiece's moody synths produced something new and gorgeous in its own right:
(video provider='vimeo' id='37927394' size='xlarge' align='center')
Also good for: slow-mo blacklight dance parties in your basement.
'ibb and obb' (yes, it's spelled without capital letters) is another beautiful platform game. It's gorgeous, minimalist illustrations, gravity-bending game physics, and two-player, co-dependent gameplay style are all set to a score by Reimer 'Kettel' Eisling, an electronic musician from the Netherlands. 'ibb and obb' requires careful coordination and intense focus to solve its ever-more-complex stages. The soundtrack is the perfect compliment to that activity.
Also good for: studying for a test; driving down a highway in the middle of the night.
Not all gorgeous game soundtracks accompany platformers. 'Darksiders 2' delivers players unto Death, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. An action game, it could easily have been accompanied by a simple, blustery soundtrack. But BAFTA-winning composer Jesper Kyd produced a dark, sweeping score that just could easily have easily attached itself to a blockbuster fantasy film.
Also good for: duels with your mortal enemies; daydreams about pirate ships.
'Silent Hill' may have had the best sound design of any early PlayStation game. Released in 1999, the horror title -- now a major franchise -- played with arrythmic noise along with actual music in order to raise goosebumps on the backs of players' necks:
Also good for: extracting intelligence from renditioned detainees.
Where listening to 'Silent Hill' is a powerful physical experience, the 'Dead Space 2' score is a kind of high art. The sci-fi scare story takes players to a space station named Titan. Spooky, strings-driven, orchestral and tuned carefully to the emotional story of the game, its soundtrack won composer Jason Graves a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award -- the equivalent of a Grammy for the UK. Listen to Reese's interview with Graves here.
(video provider='youtube' id='4k485wbOBR4' size='xlarge' align='center')
Also good for: inner turmoil; hatching a plot at the tip of your Gotham skyscraper.
'Minimalist' is an overused adjective in the indie gaming world, but 'The Unfinished Swan' really does embody that aesthetic ethos. Its world is blank, and players paint their way through an empty white world to overcome obstacles and challenges. Think of it like this: you've got a paint gun in an empty white space, and shooting paint reveals the world hidden in white by adding contrast.
The soundtrack by Joel Corelitz is similarly open and bouyant, full of little riffs that imply the creative possibility that defines its gameplay.
Also good for: navigating your motorised paraglider over the Mediterranean Sea at sunrise; illustrating a children's book.
Everything about the 'Journey' soundtrack is wonderful and you should listen to it all the way through right now.
'Journey' is a gorgeous game that has players navigate their way through a desert adventure, occasionally silently encountering other players to work together on tasks. That image is an actual gameplay screenshot -- it's what you actually see playing the game. It's that gorgeous.
The soundtrack by Austin Wintory was nominated against 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' for a Grammy. It's available in its entirety with commentary from its composer below:
Also good for: daytime/nighttime; impressing the classical music snobs in your life.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.