When they arrived in the 1970s, video games were a completely new form of entertainment. They dazzled with cutting-edge graphics and memorable theme songs, sound effects and scores. At first, people fed quarters into machines at arcades, playing Pong and Pac-Man, each game’s music providing an uptempo accompaniment as players traversed level after exciting level. Then came the advent of home consoles, which brought games into living rooms and dens everywhere.
Video games have given us many memorable characters and songs — think Mario and Luigi, with their indelible opening refrain and accompanying sewer music. One composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, worked so hard on the intricate theme for the famed 1995 title Chrono Trigger that he had to be hospitalized with stomach ulcers!
Like many of us, I’ve spent lots of happy hours with a controller in my hands trying to up my scores and achieve gaming victory. Here are my personal top 10 favorite video game themes and soundtrack scores.
It’s difficult to overstate how influential this music was. Even its initial three seconds are historic! Super Mario Bros., in many ways, cemented the video game revolution post-1983. It’s since spawned TV shows, memorabilia, movies, sequels and many imitations. Composed by legendary Nintendo™ music director Koji Kondo, the theme is bouncy, cartoonish and absolutely classic. Check it out here.
Amazingly, this was also composed by Kondo (in a single day!) after realizing the song he’d hoped to use was unavailable. This rousing march sets the heart-pumping tone for LoZ’s hero Link, and has topped numerous lists for best game theme song of all time. It’s also appeared in a number of other Nintendo titles, from Super Smash Bros. to Ocarina of Time. Check it out here.
It’s easy to get pumped-up listening to the invigorating music between bouts as boxing protagonist Little Mac trains like a pixelated Rocky Balboa. Composed by Yukio Kaneoka, Akito Nakatsuka and Kenji Yamamoto, this thrilling theme is a veritable 8-bit symphony with swells of intensity. Featured in homage in a recent episode of Family Guy, the song remains a fan favorite. Check it out here.
Though simply designed, gamers will likely play Tetris well into the next century. The classic 1989 version, which came with the first Gameboy, features charming music that recalls traditional Russian folk songs (specifically the 19th century “Korobeiniki”) to honor the country where the game was first invented. Written by Hirokazu Tanaka, the theme remains catchy, even dozens of levels in. Check it out here.
While many memorable theme songs occur during the game’s introduction, this one, composed by Nobuo Uematsu, is heard amidst gameplay when characters ride atop Chocobo, a yellow ostrich-sized bird who serves as the de facto mascot of the Final Fantasy series. The theme has actually evolved over the decades, but started like a jaunty accordion over a brisk acoustic guitar. Check it out here.
This sticky digital ditty is the quintessential musical accompaniment for a speedy main character. Sega introduced Sonic, a prickly blue ball of energy, in 1991 to help launch its first 16-bit console. J-pop songwriter Masato Nakamura composed a theme as bright and crisp as a spring day — one you can even pleasantly leave running in the background when not playing. Check it out here.
Perhaps the most cinematic theme song in video game history, this opening number, composed by Martin O’Donnell, begins chillingly and quickly crescendos into battle cries and tribal drums. It introduces players to the groundbreaking title for the then-brand new Microsoft™ XBOX console. Together, the game and score make for a significant 21st century audio-visual paradigm shift. Check it out here.
This adventure remains one of the most influential of its time, as does its theme song and soundscape. During gameplay, our hero traverses giant landscapes solo, looking for enemies. To pair with the expanses, composer Ko Otani utilized minimalist sound effects and ambient orchestral music for battle. The game’s atmospheric soundtrack enjoys a large cult following today. Check it out here.
The first video game song to be nominated for (and win!) a Grammy®, this pioneering theme, composed by Christopher Tin, broke the mold. In many ways, it’s more akin to a movie score than a traditional video game tune — all you have to do is compare it to the Tetris theme to hear the sonic evolution. Check it out here.
Composed by Jessica Curry, the layered score for this eerie title earned a coveted BAFTA award in 2016. The work is operatic, complete with dynamic, sky-piercing vocals and an orchestra. During the game, players explore a mysterious (fictitious) English village whose inhabitants have vanished. Instead of other people, though, gamers interact with glowing floating lights. Check it out here.
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