Today we’re going to go over one of my favorite realms of music, video game soundtracks! The possibilities for composers in this industry are endless. We’ve seen thousands of creative approaches to a game’s score that completely shape the tone of a bunch of tiny, moving, digital squares. This will be the top 10 route again, but to make things fair I’m not going to include soundtracks in Nintendo games (mostly). I will make a follow-up list for Koji Kondo and friends for all their glorious little ditties. Don’t worry if your favorites aren’t on the list, these are totally subjective to my personal taste and what I have actually played in my lifetime.

Honorable Mention: Undertale – Toby Fox

A victim of the internet meme train, Undertale’s soundtrack was masterfully written and perfectly fit this light-hearted epic. Unfortunately, I’ve heard these songs covered and overplayed in so many different forms that I never want to hear any of it again. I do enjoy hearing the lesser-memed themes such as in the town of Snowden. Also, everyone loves that dog theme.

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10. Bloodstained- Ritual of the Night

Ahhh, just like my film score list I’m going to cheat again!! Here’s a game I haven’t played yet because it just came in the mail and I’m busy writing this! I have not heard the soundtrack for this game yet, but from what I’ve heard about the game there’s a very good chance this would make this list if I were writing this blog next week. This isn’t going to be a total cheat though, this game is basically Castlevania, which totally deserves to be in this spot! Since I can’t decide which of the games to pick, I chose Bloodstained to give it a shout-out, but my confidence in that game comes from how much I adore the Castlevania franchises many epic tracks. I can’t imagine how tricky it was to get the personality of classic movie-monster horror into music without getting cheesy, but the composers for these games nailed it. There’s an embrace of classy baroque/romantic era composing that let this music go all the way into well-written complex tracks that couple perfectly with these games’ combat systems. Specifically, I would direct you to the NES Castlevania games as well as Symphony of the Night to take a listen.

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9. Timespinner – Jeff Ball

Here’s a game that snuck under one too many noses and deserves far more recognition than it was given. This soundtrack covers nylon acoustic guitar tracks, deep orchestral strings filled with dread, driving electro-beats, to trippy horror synth as this game gets pretty insane. And yet, with all these differing attributes to the soundtrack, Jeff Ball’s composing voice remains consistent throughout the game. The time travel mechanics of this game make it fitting for a mix of folk-styles of the past and mechanical in the future. This game takes some surprising turns that I won’t spoil, but the music follows along to accompany the changing genres tones.

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8. Sonic Adventure 2

I couldn’t leave the blue blur off this list! Some of the best terrible music has come from this franchise and you can’t tell me City Escape is not the most un-ironic butt rock jam. What about Live and Learn? If you haven’t lost your voice trying to belt all raspy while those hedgehogs go super saiyan you just didn’t have a childhood. In seriousness, the Sonic games have given us some incredible funky chip-tunes in the classic titles; but the awful, over-the-top rock tracks from the 3D games have to be recognized for some level of self-awareness. It’s a blue hedgehog capable of breaking the sound barrier caught in an eternal feud with a robotic engineer over a bunch of colorful rocks, obviously we set that to heavy metal. And yet someone thought Gangsta’s Paradise is a better idea…

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7. Stardew Valley

A game where you just live the simple life. Tending a field of crops, caring for livestock, fishing on the beach, befriending the local townsfolk, finding true love, and occasionally diving deep into a mine to beat up slime monsters. A lifetime of game needs a lifetime of music, and that’s what I believe Concernedape was going for with this soundtrack. You’ll hear all sorts of styles coupled with the seasons and the community as you explore Stardew Valley. The simple town features a basic banjo track, the saloon has slow-tempo ragtime piano, a night festival on the beach has quiet synth piano. This minimalist approach to composition, (not minimalism), fits precisely with the game’s theme of relaxing and enjoying life in the midst of hard work for yourself and those you love instead of some greedy, soulless corporation.

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6. Earthbound – Keiichi Suzuki & Hirokazu Tanaka

Now I know I said there wouldn’t be any Nintendo games in this list, but this soundtrack is so otherworldly and different for Nintendo’s typical approach to music that it feels right having it here on this list. Also, you already know I like to cheat on these lists. Fun fact, much of the reason we’ve never gotten to see many ports of this title is because the soundtrack has too many musical references, primarily to the Beatles, and these days copyright laws are just too dangerous. Anyway, this pleasant story of psychic children saving the world from a dimensional apocalypse is coupled with some of the most psychedelic tracks I have ever heard. Some of the battle themes are genuinely unnerving using oddly offbeat effects that warble through the synthesized tones. Coupled with the creepy colored visuals this game is a hallucinogenic drug all on its own. It’s trippy and I love it, get a SNES Classic and try it out if you didn’t get this one when you were a kid.

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5. Dark Souls III – Yuka Kit

Enough relaxing, wake up and move before that dude stomps your head for the hundredth time. Bit of a tonal change to one of the most beloved series in modern gaming. As much as the community talks endlessly about boss strategies, min-maxing stats, finding the best gear, raving about this wonderful world’s visuals, and digging for story details; no one talks so much about the music. Dark Souls takes a unique approach to its soundtrack by restraining itself so the majority of the time you get silence. As you tip-toe in fear of what’s around the next corner you’ll hear nothing besides your own footsteps and maybe some beast in the distance. This all changes once you encounter a boss. Suddenly, a haunting, operatic chorale and orchestra sound off and tell you that it’s time to get serious. The music wails of despair and doom, yet there is a peaceful hope hinting within each piece to tell you hold on tightly to your determination and persevere. If you fail, the music fades as the screen fades to darkness and you’ll be hearing it all again soon enough. Just the same, it fades when you finally succeed because your journey must continue until the final foe is vanquished and the credits roll. Many of these tracks may be cinematic in scale, but they are not at all distracting. In fact, I feel like they get your blood pumping and help you focus against these difficult foes. Interestingly, the only place you’ll hear a soundtrack in this game besides the boss battels is in your “homebase” at the Firelink Shrine. So now the game plays with our mind a bit with a duality of music meaning safety, but also hopeless, mortal danger. Dark Souls is a modern incarnation of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, all art forms combining to serve the design of the performance, and the culmination of this series certainly put on a show.

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4. Hyperlight Drifter

You think I would make it through a list without a shout-out to good ol’ Disasterpeace? Every OST by this dude is a masterpiece….disasterpiece….whatever… but Hyperlight Drifter is my personal favorite. I listen to this and go for a late night walk to wash away whatever anxieties are plaguing my mind. I love how he injects this synth-wave style with a sense of adventure, curiosity, and appreciation of beauty. I can just see a starry moonlit night set besides a peaceful creek running through a simple woods. All of that imagery out of a digital art form, that’s what I’m talking about! 

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3. Banjo-Kazooie – Grant Kirkhope

In honor of the many silly rhymes of this game, let’s see if I can do this. The man, myth, legend of Rare most assuredly wrote this score with care. Every nook and cranny of Banjo-Kazooie is overflowing with original flair. Who wouldn’t love this game? Unless you’re too lame and cannot appreciate things of such fame. This track isn’t crummy with jams sweeter than honey so get off your bummy and play it already. Seriously, just go play it and I guarantee you’ll love all the music from this classic.

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2. The Messenger – Rainbowdragoneyes

Yet another indie game that got overlooked that is one of the best games I have ever played. Not only that, but this soundtrack is killer! As thematically expected, there is heavy influence of eastern music styles as this is a game about a ninja and the music is all chip-tunes; but this gets even more interesting. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say the music is adapted to this game’s most unique mechanic and I cannot praise its creativity enough. You could probably convince me that the music of this game is straight out of a long-lost classic SNES title that Nintendo forgot to release back in the day. 

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1. Gris- Berlinist

Near and dear to my heart, Gris is a gorgeous indie title that my wife and I completed entirely in one sitting. Almost as though it was made for us, this game utilizes the two art forms of watercolor paint and music to create an emotional journey on the struggles of depression and how that mental state tries to silence our creativity (my wife is an artist, btw). Obviously, with these themes that would require a masterfully written score for manipulating the player’s emotions to connect with the message, Berlinist delivers. There are countless moments of this game where the beauty of the visuals in accompaniment with the score are so overwhelmingly effective in catching your imagination that you can’t help but shed a tear. I would say this is one of those masterpieces you just have to experience for yourself to fully appreciate what was accomplished with this game. Start this one up with the same mindset you would when you’re about to enter an art exhibit and let it take you far away into all it has to offer. This game would be my example for why video games are an art form, the big name companies are just too busy making nursery scribbles to slap on a fridge for us to remember what game developers are truly capable of giving us. As much as I recommend finding this game’s soundtrack to listen to online, I would suggest experiencing it in the game first.

So there’s my top 10 almost-not-Nintendo gaming soundtracks! I’ve been playing games since I was a toddler so I certainly have a long history of potentially hundreds of games under my belt. Even so, I haven’t played everything under the sun and maybe you have some recommendations you think are my style or just want to talk about your favorites. Let us know in the comments or even shoot me an email if you’d like!

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