Once mere blips and bloops meant to accompany the action on screen, the music that soundtracks video games has reached cinematic heights over the past three decades or so. That has been particularly evident through the curation of orchestrated performances of some of the gaming world’s best OSTs, such as the renowned touring orchestra known as the Symphony of the Goddesses. This massive undertaking employs dozens of talented musicians, who recreate the songs heard throughout the Legend of Zelda series into movements accompanied by footage from those same games. So, for example, when they perform the legendary (no pun) “Hyrule Field,” you’ll see Link traversing the field in its many incarnations. And you’ll do so alongside hundreds of other Zelda fanatics, as these shows often sell out or come damn near close to it.
This is all to say that video game soundtracks are most definitely a “thing,” though you already knew that if you, too, have been actively playing games for a majority of your lifetime. Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s chill beats from Out Run got stuck in your brain all summer while you couldn’t help but get hype fighting bad guys to Yuzo Koshiro’s Streets of Rage bangers. And what of the pure joy of Grant Kirkhope’s Banjo-Kazooie tunes? These OSTs and others have found a new life not just on YouTube but on vinyl, as merch purveyors such as Mondo and iam8bit realized that nostalgia sells.
It’s not just nostalgia, though, because there are plenty of modern soundtracks that deserve love, too. Hell, there are plenty of soundtracks from the past 30 years or so that I could have highlighted here but they either a) just missed making the list, b) weren’t available on vinyl or c) weren’t composed of entirely original music. Sorry, guys, as much as I, too, loved the finely curated GTA V radio stations—and yes, some of them did have original tracks—I went with purely original compositions here. Dig in, and enjoy.
Let’s start with a bang, shall we? Or should I say bangers, because Koshiro’s work on all the Streets of Rage games is absolutely amazing. That’s not hyperbole, either. Here’s a dude who was composing songs for a friggin’ beat-’em-up on the Sega Genesis that sound like they’re from the future. It’s a future filled with house music that had luminaries like Just Blaze think that Koshiro was a cat from Detroit and not a young 20-something from Japan just trying to show love to a sound he saw blowing up. Just listen to “Fighting In The Street” and “Big Boss” and get back to me in a few minutes. I have time. … All set? Great, now you’re getting it. And hey, all you DJs out there, I sincerely hope you’re considering playing one of these in your next set.
OK, I’m cheating a bit here, because this version of the Ocarina of Time soundtrack isn’t the direct audio. Instead, it’s all performed by the 64-player Slovak National Symphony Orchestra (and sold through iam8bit), who took legendary composer Koji Kondo’s stunning pieces and made them soar. Tracks like “Zelda’s Lullaby,” “Kakariko Village” and, yes, “Hyrule Field’ were already gorgeous in their more traditional state, but hearing them like this? It’s how we were supposed to hear the Ocarina soundtrack. After all, they switched to an orchestral approach in the actual games with the release of Skyward Sword on the Wii U, so it makes sense. But I’m getting away from the bigger point here, which is that Ocarina took the musical bits and pieces of previous titles and fully embraced them. The ocarina itself in Ocarina is just as essential as the Master Sword, and it allowed millions of us to play some of the most beautiful and simple melodies ever in gaming.
Can we all slow down for a second and have a good cry? Because goddamnit, The Last of Us is so beautifully heartbreaking that I have to take a break from gaming after playing through it again. Even when you’re shooting zombies in the face, there’s an air of desperation and dread that’s seemingly inescapable. And composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s understated, guitar-driven soundtrack is a big reason why. You can listen to it without ever playing Last Of Us—but, um, why would you do such a thing?—and still catch some feels. Of course, you probably expected that if you’ve heard the Argentine artist’s Academy Award-winning scores for Brokeback Mountain and Babel. His ability to not just set but capture moods within Joel and Ellie’s story is enough to choke me up just writing about it. Curse you, Last of Us writer/director Neil Druckmann! Ugh, let me go play the next game on my list to calm down.
Banjo-Kazooie arrived at a time when Nintendo was really running with its whole “we’re doing what we know how to do and fuck y’all if you aren’t on board.” Meaning, they went with cartridges for the N64 when the competition (namely Sega and Sony) were doing the opposite and embracing CDs. And even though discs were obviously the preferred route for more storage (and hopefully better audio), the N64 had more than its fair share of titles with stunning OSTs. One of the composers behind several of them was Grant Kirkhope, also highly regarded for his impeccable work on the Donkey Kong Country series. But for my money, his compositions for Banjo-Kazooie (also one of the best platformers ever) is untouchable. It’s bursting with its own, wholly unique charm that is addictively jubilant and, just, fun. Banjo-Kazooie was all about its quirkiness, and Kirkhope fully embraced that—and then some—when creating this soundtrack.
Similar to Streets of Rage, the Out Run soundtrack sounds so far ahead of its time it’s borderline ridiculous to think that it came out in 1986. But that’s the magic of the music composed by Hiroshi “Hiro” Kawaguchi, who had no business writing tunes this good for an arcade game. Everything you hear on the almighty Out Run soundtrack is the precursor to the earworm jams from, say, Mario Kart 8. Hiro made your favorite racing game’s soundtrack what it is (or was), and everyone needs to hear this. And that goes for whether or not you want to play the actual game and, you know, feel like driving around like a total badass in a tropical locale (OF COURSE YOU DO). Seriously, how good is “Passing Breeze”? Answer: Too good.
Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably heard or read about No Man’s Sky for all the wrong reasons. Namely, it was a bit of a flop when people realized it wasn’t exactly the endless space explorer that the hype would have led you to believe. Instead, it was something much more cathartic and meditative, a moody exploration device set to one of the best original soundtracks of the past few years. You may not experience the action necessary to truly capture the feeling and tension of 65daysofstatic’s post-rock approach, but you also don’t actually have to play the game to enjoy the music, either. This is really a prime example of the Sheffield, London, band doing what they do best: building emotion through instrumentals outfitted with electronics, bursts of guitars and plenty of ambient patches.
I’ll caveat this entry with the knowledge that there are apparently some issues with this stripped-down, picture-disc release of the famed FFVII soundtrack. As in, listeners reported issues with surface noise in addition to there being a number of missing tracks. I’d argue that the entire soundtrack is such a monolith that it’s almost absurd to think about it being pressed to vinyl, but I digress. The tracks selected for this limited-edition picture disc are among some of the best on the OST, including many of the character themes (I’m not crying at “Aerith’s Theme,” you are), the super-tense boss themes (“J-E-N-O-V-A” and “One-Winged Angel”), and the beyond-sublime “Lifestream,” “Farm Boy” and “Prelude.” Those are enough to bring those nostalgia-induced feels straight to the surface, and remind you that the remake for the PS4 is looking promising.
Despite the fact that tapping into nostalgia has become so formulaic and obvious over the years, it remains absolutely arresting when done correctly. Enter Shovel Knight, an amazing homage to Mega Man, DuckTales, and other old-school classics that sometimes made you want to break your controller in half. And of course, the game (which came out in 2014 and you must play if you haven’t) wouldn’t tap into your nostalgia feels quite so hard without killer tunes. That’s where Jake Kaufman, a gifted composer who got his start with a Q-bert reboot for Game Boy Color, comes into the picture. Dude just did it right. The soundtrack sounds ripped straight from the glory days of gaming, when you thought blowing into a cartridge made it work properly. Not only that, but Kaufman even reached out to one of modern gaming music’s creators, Manami Matsumae of Mega Man fame, and collaborated with her on several tracks. This is how you nail nostalgia.
Look, I had to include a Castlevania game on this list and because the OST for Symphony of the Night isn’t on vinyl yet, I went with the next best thing. Simon’s Quest may not be the best game in the series—it’s not even the best on the NES—but the music? Oh my, the music. The duo of Kenichi Matsubara and Satoe Terashima opened this soundtrack with a straight-up banger (“Bloody Tears”) and never let up. “Dwelling of Doom” slaps, “Monster Dance” is on another level of creepiness, and “The Silence of Daylight” is one of the better songs to come from this era of gaming. The melodies will be what instantly grab you on here, but it’s the little extra bits—particularly the breakdown on “The Silence of Daylight”—that make Simon’s Quest stand out. And this is coming from someone who holds a grudge for being beyond-confused as to how I was supposed to beat this game as a kid.
Gamers have come to expect musical brilliance from Richard Vreeland, better known to us all as Disasterpeace. He broke through in 2012 when people got their hands on beloved indie game Fez and heard his music, but his acclaim didn’t stop there. In addition to hopping over to film to score 2015’s It Follows, Disasterpeace crafted the altogether-brilliant OST for Hyper Light Drifter the following year. And essentially, it’s everything you would want for a game with this particular aesthetic. That is to say, imagine playing A Link To The Past and suddenly hearing something that would make John Carpenter proud coming from your speakers. If that doesn’t sound compelling to you, you may need to re-evaluate your life choices.
Andrew Martin is the head of content for Ayima, who has written about music for Bandcamp, Vinyl Me, Please, Potholes in My Blog and Complex.
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