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The Greatest Music in Video Games

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

“Lost Woods” (Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Hajime Wakai)

I grew up on video games. It’s no exaggeration to say that the medium had a significant part in raising me–the implications of which can be left for some very qualified therapist to deal with, later. Whatever the case, for most of my life video games have been a constant presence. For the better part of the 2010s, however, I found myself adrift, separated from the nurturing glow of the screen, its display flashing “Press X to start” forlornly and endlessly to no avail. For one reason or another, I simply didn’t play video games from roughly the time I finished 2013’s The Last of Us, to the moment I bought myself a Nintendo Switch in the closing months of the decade, sometime in late 2019.

One of the reasons I decided to dive back into the medium with the help of a Nintendo Switch, specifically, was the proliferation of small, indie titles on the platform, as well as the ease, speed, and convenience at which you can play those games on it. Because not only can you carry the Switch everywhere you go, you can also just put the console to sleep at any time, freezing your game wherever you want, free to resume the action at your convenience. The portable console in general lends itself to bite-sized gaming sessions. The preponderance of quicker and less bloated indie games facilitates that further.

Despite that concern, one of the very first games I bought for my new Switch was pretty much the exact opposite of “small” or “indie.” It was Nintendo’s grand and sweeping statement of intent, and demonstration of what the Switch could do at launch: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Three years after its release, the legacy of this elegant, light-footed juggernaut is firmly established: This is simply one of the finest video games ever made. A truly mind-boggling example of game design and implementation, which players are still discovering new ways of playing to this day.

In terms of every single metric of quality gaming, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the very best experiences I’ve ever had. Its storytelling might be a relative let down compared to the insanely high standard seen everywhere–it’s a bit sparse, and unfulfilling–though that may simply be a necessary compromise with the tremendous amount of euphoric freedom the game grants you, but the fact remains: Breath of the Wild’s story didn’t hit nearly as hard as everything else in the game. What did hit hard, though, and unexpectedly so, was the music.

In terms of humanity, the world of Breath of the Wild is a quiet and lonely one. There are a few settlements dotted around here and there, populated by the descendants of the survivors of the calamity that emptied the land a century ago, but by and large the world tells its story not through the mouths of its inhabitants, but instead its mountains and valleys, forests and deserts, rivers and lakes. That, and the music helps. A lot. Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is one of the most unique and fitting of all time. Its central motifs, accompanying you while you traverse the land, play out on a sparse and reserved piano, atmospheric chords evoking wonder and slight trepidation.

The soundtrack shifts at key moments, launching into throat-tightening adrenaline bursts during combat or pastoral serenity while in one of the small stables found in the wilderness. There were a number of these colorful, evocative soundscapes that I considered when thinking of this list. In the end, though, it could only be one. After I hit on it, my mind was clear and my conviction certain. It had to be the “Lost Woods” theme. Without spoiling anything, “Lost Woods” plays while you wander a mysterious labyrinth. You could probably guess that just by listening to it. That’s how effective it is at conveying that exact mood, those haunting keys twinkling and evanescing, seeming to themselves lead you astray, an undercurrent of wonder and slight melancholy bubbling beneath it all. It’s a shining, ethereal gem on a soundtrack brimming with quality.

The Last of Us

“Main theme” (Gustavo Santaolalla)

Man, you wanna talk about melancholy, though? You wanna talk about a story so affecting and so full of melancholia and a feeling of such intense, crushing despair that it seeps into your bones so completely that seven years after you experienced it, you can hear the first three notes of an acoustic guitar arpeggio and boom!–just like that you are immediately in its grasp again?

Originally developed for the PlayStation 3 by the immensely talented people at studio Naughty Dog, The Last of Us was, quite simply, one of the very best games ever made when it was released, and it still holds that title now. The graphics were excellent, yes, and the gameplay well balanced and fun, but it was the story that really sent things over the top. A post-apocalyptic United States overrun and decimated by a deadly, human-zombifying fungus plague is the canvas upon which the studio painted a story of a grieving father and a lonely girl forging a deep and incredibly touching bond as they journeyed from one part of the country to another, undertaking the perilous journey out of a tiny, scarcely discernible glimmer of hope at finding a cure for the malady that has brought humanity to its knees.

The Last of Us was a bleak game. At times almost overwhelmingly so. It had an ending that was unparalleled in its impact–at least until its sequel appeared earlier this year. Yet through all that suffocating bleakness, at times beams of sunlight broke through. I could keep going on and on about The Last of Us (and its sequel) and the feelings it stirs up, but there’s no need because the main theme exists. To listen to it is to be instantly transported into the world the game conjures. Wait for the sublime moment at 1:39 when a shaft of sunlight pierces the fog, teasing hope before effervescing away and yielding to the minor key again.

Ico

“Castle in the Mist” (Michiru Oshima, Koichi Yamazaki, Mitsukuni Murayama)

All three games that soft-spoken, enigmatic videogame auteur Fumito Ueda has made so far are, in one way or another, about unspoken connection. In Ueda’s first, the cult classic PS2 game Ico, you play as a boy condemned to die alone in ritualistic fashion in a cell in a huge, foreboding castle purely because he had the misfortune of being the one in a generation to be born with horns.

Escaping his confinement one day by sheer chance thanks to a tremor shaking loose his cage, on his way out through the castle he meets a girl, Yorda, a mysterious, wraith-like being of pure white who is also a prisoner in the castle. Both speak a language the other does not understand, their feeble attempts at initial verbal communication proving fruitless. Yet despite that barrier the boy reaches out a hand toward Yorda. Yorda takes it, and together they endeavor to find their way out of their fortress prison, trying to elude all the demonic dangers that it poses.

Ueda’s follow up to Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, remains one of my favorite games of all time. It’s a masterpiece of mood evocation and minimalist yet wonderfully potent storytelling, building on everything Ico managed and improving it. Bucking all video game norms, the game is essentially just a series of sixteen boss fights, linked together with long stretches of quiet, lonely exploration filled with unspoken existential weight. Your only companion in a forsaken wasteland is your steadfast horse, the pair of you wandering the plains and forests and valleys in search of sixteen colossi.

Each one of these creatures is an absolute sight to behold. They are huge, elemental beings of rock and moss, awe-inspiring, and all so clearly organically and holistically of the Earth–primordial, yet neutral–posing no threat to anyone until you show up with your sword and bow, desperation and death in your eyes. You hunt them because you have been told that felling the colossi is the only way you will be able to bring a loved one back from the dead. And so you hunt and you kill, each death weighing on you more, any potential feeling that you might be doing the right thing soon buried amid the ruins of these majestic creatures.

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games I’ve ever played. A moving meditation on sorrow and regret and the lengths we go to for something we love. Yet despite its masterpiece status–which does extend to its soundtrack–Shadow of the Colossus still never quite managed to lodge a tune in my head as much as Ico did. There was something so perfectly haunting and beautifully sparse about that game’s “Castle in the Mist” that has stayed with me for a decade and a half since the first and only time I played Ico. I need only hear the first few notes of its acoustic drone and I am instantly transported to a vision of connection amidst forbidden spires and high walls. A shared bond in a lonely, hostile place. It’s a track that might not seem like much to people who haven’t lived in Ueda’s world, but to those who have, it’s dynamite.

Crash Bandicoot

“Main Theme” (Josh Mancell)

“Ok listen up, people! We’re gonna need a tune that captures the mood of a rambunctious, punch-drunk, jean short-wearing, grinning bandicoot.”

“A what?”

“A bandicoot.”

“We, uh, we don’t know what that is.”

“No one does. Don’t worry about that. The point is the jean shorts.”

“He’s wearing jean shorts?”

“Jean shorts.”

“And what does he do?”

“He jumps on boxes to eat apples and spin-attacks a giant-headed evil scientist.”

“Uh huh, okay. And just to double-check again: Bandicoot?”

“Bandicoot.”

“Got what you’re looking for right here, chief!”

That is literally the only way I can imagine the conversation and process that led to the creation of the main theme from Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog’s foray into 3D platforming for the original Playstation in 1996. In just a minute in a half–hell, just in those first three seconds of cheeky rising xylophone—it captures that pure zany energy–that raw nineties bounce–of the game, the character, and the youth of the PlayStation generation, better than perhaps any other theme of the time. The era was bursting with colorful mascots, some iconic, many now forgotten. But it’s Crash’s theme that sums up the energy of the almost exponentially expanding possibilities suddenly glimpsed by gaming bursting through into another dimension.

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin

“47 Makes a Decision” (Jesper Kyd)

Hitman is a series composed of equal parts ultra-professional assassinations and ludicrous slapstick straight out of an early Hollywood silent movie. In the games you play as Agent 47, the world’s greatest assassin. Cold, ruthless, efficient. By itself that would be a bit basic, so developers IO Interactive have always made sure to mix in a healthy amount of black humor to inject plenty of character into the proceedings. They take what could be dour and self-serious and turn it into gonzo slapstick.

To wit: In one of the games your target is a famous opera singer. Like every mission in the Hitman games, how you go about this is up to you. The freedom is what leads to the murderous mischief. You can choose to plan and execute a meticulously thought-out and elegant hit by slipping quietly past every obstacle and guard, switching up disguises on the way and dispatching your target without anyone ever knowing that you were there. If you don’t fancy being a consummate professional, you might perform a messy yet still relatively tidy hit with a long-range shot from a silenced rifle. Or, if you really want to infiltrate the cogs of the world presented to you, you can dress up as a maintenance man and sneak into the backstage area to swap out the prop gun being used in the performance for the real thing and then observe events taking their course from a seat in the audience–and if you fancy rigging the giant chandelier to drop down on the stage at just the right time on top of it all then, well, buddy, that’s on you.

That kind of dark humor ran prominently through the veins of the second game in the series, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, which took the somewhat messy first entry and polished things significantly. One of the markers of the developers’ increased ambition was the soundtrack, which to this day remains one of my favorite overall game soundtracks of all time. Here was a game about a bald assassin with a barcode on the back of his neck dropping chandeliers on opera singers mid-performance. So what did IO Interactive think would be a fitting accompaniment to that? Why, a grand and epic fully scored soundtrack performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Choir of course! It’s such a deeply strange choice on some levels, but when you see it firsthand, the gravitas provided by the soundtrack somehow works perfectly with the deadly, deadpan slapstick introduced into the universe by Agent 47. Arguably no piece exemplifies this gonzo combination better than ‘”47 Makes a Decision.” It sounds like it should be accompanying the last breath of an old warrior reflecting on the blood he has spilled in his life and deciding to use what strength he has left to save a life for a change.

But nope, chandelier on head go boom!

Perfection.

Mass Effect 2

“Galaxy Map” (Jack Wall)

The Mass Effect trilogy is a vast, well-written space opera that merges mature themes with Hollywood popcorn-fest action and–at the time–some of the best acting performances in video games. It’s a rousing, galaxy-spanning epic of terrifying lows and euphoric highs. Its soundtrack reflects these extremes. Yet the one track that has stuck with me all these years is the one that isn’t afraid to go mellow. Like, supremely mellow.

In Mass Effect you play as Commander Shepherd, humanity’s last hope against extinction in the face of an ancient cosmic evil. Your base of operations is the good spaceship Normandy. From there you gather a crew and rally the forces you will need to defend the galaxy. All very grand, dramatic stuff.

And then there’s the “Galaxy Map” theme, which plays whenever you access the titular map aboard the Normandy in order to plot your next course. “Galaxy Map” is a sea of tranquility in a galaxy of fire. Its bubbling synths and gently rising tones had me hypnotized from the first moment I activated the map.

Here’s a tip for any spaceship designers: Don’t install “Galaxy Map” as your ship navigation music, because nobody will ever get anywhere. We’ll just drift off into a happy place for hours on end, dreaming of C-beams and Tanhausser Gates. There’s no better way to describe it than this: “Galaxy Map” just sounds like sci-fi.

Super Mario Bros.

“Super Mario Bros. Theme” (Koji Kondo)

What the hell else is there to say? If the “Galaxy Map” from Mass Effect 2 sounds like sci-fi, the “Super Mario Bros. Theme” sounds like video games. In many ways it is video games. It’s the sound of an epochal shift made playful.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

“Metal Gear Solid 2 Main Theme” (Harry Gregson-Williams)

Bloody hell did I ever go back and forth about which piece of music from Hideo Kojima’s off-the-wall, indulgent, singularly brilliant series I would choose for this. I’ve been a Metal Gear fan since the 1998 Playstation classic, Metal Gear Solid. The game that brought Hollywood-level production values to the medium for the first time. The title that more than any other (sorry, Tenchu) birthed the stealth genre. The game narrative that captivated me more than any other before it, and that remains lodged in my mind as a sort of gold standard of sorts for what the medium can do.

The Metal Gear Solid games, mad and grandiose as they are, have all had appropriately glorious, unhinged soundtracks, mixing epic orchestras, haunting choirs, surf guitar, and drum ‘n’ bass beats, among many other sounds, into their crazy cocktails. And somehow this crazy hodgepodge always totally works. Much like the games, which feel as if they should collapse under the weight of all their oft-disjointed, bloated, jarring parts–but never do–so too do the soundtracks sound like they shouldn’t work on paper, yet in execution they always bring results.

But which track to pick for this? Which is the one that stands out from all the rest? Would it be the original Metal Gear Solid theme, which first introduced so many of us to that epic melody? Would it be “Snake Eater” from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, that absolutely ludicrous and perfect James Bond echo, with its soaring vocals that include the immortal line “Someday you’ll feed on a tree frog”? Or would it be the emotional and reflective “Metal Gear Saga” from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which combined the classic Metal Gear riff with the fantastic new melody introduced in the excellent PSP entry, Peace Walker?

Turns out it would be none of those.

No, the track that would snag the top spot would be the one from probably the least-mentioned game in the series. The original Metal Gear Solid is rightly venerated and held up as a ground-breaking classic. The third game in the series is beloved for shaking up the series formula and for creating arguably the strongest narrative. The fourth game is memorably divisive and ludicrously ambitious. The fifth took the series into the next generation with the finest mechanics it had ever seen.

But the second?

The second was a follow-up to the one of the defining hits of the 32 bit era. In taking the series into the PlayStation 2 generation, expectations were through the roof. Expectations that, for a number of reasons, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty apparently couldn’t live up to for a lot of people. It couldn’t have helped that Metal Gear’s iconic protagonist, Solid Snake, was cheekily swapped out after a short prologue chapter with a character who was in many ways his tonal opposite. The overly dense script–even by Metal Gear standards, and that’s saying a lot!–would’ve likely dampened a lot of people’s enjoyment too.

Yet it’s precisely that script–with its obsession with memes, mass manufactured ignorance and consent, and shadowy figures operating behind digital curtains–that has made the game age maybe better than any other in the series. A lot of people have been re-appraising Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in recent years, finally understanding it on its terms. For me, it was a classic from day one. Heartfelt, epic, and more than a little bit crazy. Its music matched that ambition. Its main theme is still the best representation of how the series’ music projects its essence into another medium.

Assassin’s Creed 2

“Ezio’s Family” (Jesper Kyd)

The Assassin’s Creed games are as much a part of the modern gaming landscape as microtransactions and downloadable content. To some people, they are just as annoying. Publisher Ubisoft certainly haven’t done themselves any favors in this regard, with their insane, industry-saturating release schedule meaning that there have been eleven mainline games and another eleven mobile and other format games released since the series debuted in 2007. That’s a lot of bloody games. No wonder people are sick of them.

Compounding this contempt by familiarity is the series’ approach to change, which has been mostly incremental from game to game, often to the point of being negligible. Apart from the (admirable) attention paid to the ever-changing historical settings of each game, when it comes to things like game mechanics, the developers have evolved the series in a pretty quasi-static way. A new, uninspired gadget here, a new botched mechanic there.

This moribund approach has often been reflected in the writing too, with a gallery of bland, uninteresting cardboard figures being paraded out in front of audiences for nearly a decade. There have been exceptions, but mostly the games have been severely lacking in this department. Which is a shame, because once upon a time nobody could accuse Ubisoft of not knowing how to create a great character.

When Assassin’s Creed 2 came out eleven years ago, Ubisoft delivered one of the most charming, compelling, and dynamic characters in modern gaming. In contrast to the first game’s protagonist, Altair–a laconic and stoic player surrogate–its sequel introduced the world to Ezio Auditore da Firenze–a cocky and charismatic young man, a persona already fully formed when we first saw him, exchanging insults and engaging in a mass brawl in the streets with a rival family in Renaissance Florence. In terms of characterization, it was a quantum leap from Altair to Ezio.

Shortly after the brawl Ezio leaps playfully and acrobatically across the rooftops and balconies with his brother. They ascend to a picturesque peak overlooking the city where they proclaim (in one of the most iconic opening lines of modern gaming): “It is a good life we lead, brother. May it never change. And may it never change us.” Practically bursting at the seams with a hunger for joy and life, Ezio was a blast of fresh air compared to not only his predecessor, but to the legions of dour, self-serious video game protagonists that had taken over the medium. To this day he stands as one of the finest examples of video game protagonists.

Part of the reason behind that is the depth and pathos that Ezio’s journey was marked by. The opening chapter of Assassin’s Creed 2 cuts the joy we see at the start short, and it replaces it with tragedy and heartbreak. Over the course of the three games Ezio would star in he would be the centre of a moving and cinematic ode to loss, maturity, legacy, and–above all–family. The one track from those games’ soundtracks that conjures the grand sweep of Ezio’s story is, fittingly enough, called “Ezio’s Family.” Its exceedingly simple riff has become iconic for good reason. The way it repeats, adding layers of instruments without ever over-complicating the arrangement resonates powerfully with Ezio’s journey. The theme plays over the start of Ezio’s story too, as his brother and he gaze out over Florence, the limitless possibilities their lives seeming to sparkle in the night as brightly as the lights of the city. That joy and hope is present in those notes, as is the sadness of what is to come.

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Written By

Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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