30 of the Best Video Game Theme Songs of All Time
I’ve been a gamer for most of my life, starting with simple games on my old Macintosh 128K, diving deep with the classics of my GameBoy and N64 collections, and then surfing up the years with XBOX and my growing collection of PC titles.
During these years, one thing has stuck out for me above all others: that the best games are those with a killer score. The most unforgettable games in my memory are the ones with music that stirred my soul. Whether somber or uplifting, a great video game soundtrack ties a game together and produces in the player a sense of what J.R.R. Tolkien might have termed “enchantment”, where the player is so totally immersed that they experience the game as a child might experience a story being told: totally brimming with life.
This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but contains a wide-ranging collection of my personal favorites from the world of video game soundtracks, as well as hitting at least one title from every decade starting in the 1980s through to 2021.
1 – System Shock 2 (1999)
System Shock 2 blew all other games of its era right out of the water, combing all the hallmarks of a shooter with the deeper story and character progression of an RPG. But the psychological component, most of all, drew the player in. A sense of forbidding dread permeated the world of System Shock, with techno-terror spelled out loud and clear in every facet of its theme.
Composed by: Eric Brosius, Ramin Djawadi, Josh Randall
Eric Brosius, Ramin Djawadi, Josh Randall created an incredible score that brought the world to life and immersed the player deeply in the twisting corridors of the story. They took their inspiration from the best cyberpunk and techno-noir thrillers of the day, blending all that great 1990s cyberpunk grit with the tension of a powerhouse thriller.
2 – Rimworld (2018)
Games like Rimworld need to run a careful balance with their music. The premise is colony-building, so in many ways, it’s an often relaxing game that can go a fair amount of time between action sequences (depending on the difficulty level). The score needs to fit the theme, needs to be interesting enough to keep the player engaged, but can’t be so interesting that it distracts the player from the actual act of playing.
Composed by: Alistair Lindsay
I think that Alistair Lindsay did a great job composing this one, blending classical Western motifs with a techno-pagan vibe that accompanies just about any playthrough perfectly.
3 – Starfox (1993)
A pure flight down nostalgia lane, the StarFox classic soundtrack is a mind-blowing exploration of simple synth glory. There was something delightful about all the poorly translated Japanese text, too, that seemed like a bit of a hallmark of its era (exemplified by the title text).
“The Lylat system…..The planet group which take a position in almost center of the vast galaxy. All the creatures in here were living in blessed environment as envy as other around stars, and enjoying the current of the comfortably times… Before he came into existence…” —CD front cover
Composed by: Hajime Hirasawa
Hajime Hirasawa’s unforgettable soundtrack was released a year after the game, in 1994, and quickly found its way into the CD Walkmans of every StarFox fan. The earliest tracks on the list, arranged by Norimasa “Kisho” Yamanaka, are some of my all-time favorites.
4 – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
A SNES title that took the gaming world of 1991 by total storm, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was one of the greats. This is the Zelda game that introduced the Hyrule castle, “Zelda’s Lullaby,” and so many other now-classic elements of the saga.
Composed by: Koji Kondo
There was such a wonderful sense of suspense in this game, a constant feeling of tension that the brilliant 8-bit music composed by Koji Kondo was largely responsible for.
5 – Doom I (1993)
Doom is the shooter that started the shooter genre, the game that all other games were forced to measure themselves against. The subject of massive fandoms and Congressional hearings, Doom gave players a non-stop thrill ride through hell and back (literally). For action video games, just like with movies of the same genre, music is absolutely key to their success or failure.
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Composed by: Robert Prince
Doom’s brilliant score, composed by Robert Prince, gave the game its vast tension and explosive action a centerpiece that connected all the other elements together and made the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
6 – DUNE II (1992)
Dune II is a classic example of the best that ’90s video games could produce, a wonderful mix of subtle mechanics, vibrant use of the source IP, and a gorgeous soundtrack that could keep players endlessly engaged. Honestly, just thinking about that soundtrack makes me want to load up my old discs and start playing again.
Composed by: Frank Klepacki and Dwight Okahara
We all know that the best soundtrack for DUNE is the one by Toto from the 1984 David Lynch film, but a close second is a stunningly brilliant soundtrack from the 1992 game Dune II. This makes sense since Dune II was based on the 1984 film! Composed by Frank Klepacki and Dwight Okahara, the soundtrack worked well within the limitations of the technology available at the time to build an 8-bit track of elegant quality and emotional structure.
7 – FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
FTL: Faster Than Light is a rouge-like game where players take on command of a spaceship and her crew, on a desperate mission to save the Federation from the Rebel scourge! It’s actually one of my favorites, for its clever design, brilliant repeatability, and the way it can suck a player in for hours on hours.
Composed by: Ben Prunty
A large reason why the game is so addictive is that the soundtrack, composed by Ben Prunty, is supremely meditative and trance-like. Even the battle music builds its way through simple repetitive motifs (short “musical phrases”) that play upon their reoccurring themes in a simple yet delightful way.
8 – Quake (1996)
Quake took on Doom’s mantle of the top-dog shooter and went even further, giving players a dark and gritty dive through the gothic underbelly of the Quake-verse to stop the shadowy enemy attempting to extinguish humankind. This game was a total blast to play, quite literally at times, and the soundtrack covered it all in a glorious melange of ambient deliciousness.
Composed by: Trent Reznor
Trent Reznor, the lead vocalist for Nine Inch Nails, was brought in to do the ambient soundtrack, a layered soundscape that defied musicality in order to imbue the gameplay experience with an aura of the unsettling and the frightening. Reznor also voiced the main character in the single-player campaign.
9 – The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us came out in 2013 but still manages to be one of the most awe-inspiring games around, though its PlayStation exclusivity has limited a wide range of gamers from accessing it. Still, when the game came out it created the kind of waves normally associated with a cult film, and it quickly managed to gain a true cult following devoted to it for its epic and sprawling storyline, its gritty and realistic character arcs, and enough emotion-packed moments to make even hard-hearted action gamers break down in tears within the first twenty minutes.
A huge part of the reason why The Last of Us worked so well, in my opinion, was that the total concept design worked flawlessly to create a single immersive post-apocalyptic experience that hinged on emotionality.
Composed by: Gustavo Santaolalla
This emotional range was constantly maintained and driven by the incredible soundtrack, composed by Argentinian musician Gustavo Santaolalla (whose work previously won him Academy Awards for Brokeback Mountain and Babel). It’s a somber tour de force that permeates the whole playing experience of The Last of Us, sinking the player beneath the dark surface of the narrative atmosphere and leaving them there to sink or swim.
10 – Firewatch (2016)
Firewatch lit my fire for indie games. I discovered it right after finishing Beyond: Two Souls and I was in desperate need of a game that could offer me a little bit of that immersive story experience I so craved. The game trailer made me chuckle but also bore the overtones of a vast and chilling mystery, and I found myself instantly hooked and willing to buy-in.
What followed surprised me, thrilled me, and kept me up at night – unraveling the mystery at the heart of the forest proved a harrowing and excellent experience, and kept me on the edge of my seat with all its twists and turns.
Composed by: Chris Remo
The melancholic guitar motif underpinning the score has to be one of my all-time favorites. Subtle enough to not pull my attention away as I played, dissonant enough to unsettle me, and immersive enough to anchor me to the world. Chris Remo really hit the nail on the head with this one, and Firewatch owes a lot of its success to the way his soundtrack ties the whole experience together.
11 – The Sims (2000)
Players of The Sims will forever remember the vibrant lives of their sim creations. This was one of the first games that I remember getting completely lost in; you could spend whole lifetimes in your little world, redeveloping, fine-tuning the home for your sim family.
Composed by: Jerry Martin and Marc Russo
Unlike with the later Sims games, most of the music in The Sims was not created by big-name musicians, and the bulk of the music was provided by Jerry Martin and Marc Russo (who now tours with the Doobie Brothers). A few of the tracks featured lyrics in simlish, but most were instrumental numbers perfect for hours spent in building mode getting everything just right.
12 – Golden Sun (2001)
Golden Sun stole my heart and about two months of my life as I feverishly played through its epic story on my old GameBoy Advance, desperately trying new tricks to defeat the bosses or find my way through a twisting maze of whirlpools while lost at sea. There were so many things this little game did well, from its cracking-good aesthetic to its compelling storyline, to the way each character felt so totally realized.
Composed by: Motoi Sakuraba
There was just so much to do, so many amazing environments to explore, so many awe-inspiring powers to gain. But one of the things I remember best about it was how keenly the soundtrack worked for each location, or how seriously epic a battle felt when a killer new action track kicked on. I felt like I could explore forever to the ambient electro-synth orchestra, and the magnificent prologue music still makes me as excited as it did all those years ago.
13 – Metro: Exodus (2019)
Metro: Exodus stole my heart in a way that no shooter since Halo managed to do. I had tried the earlier Exodus games but, while I dug the story, the horror gameplay didn’t work so well for me. Exodus made the gameplay changes that I needed to enjoy play, but it also kicked up the storytelling to a wild new level, sucking me into the post-apocalyptic world of Artyom so completely that I hardly looked up from my computer for a week.
Composed by: Alexey Omelchuk
The delightfully dark and melancholy vibes of Alexey Omelchuk’s score reverberated through each chapter of the game, and yet the steady thrumming bass seemed to hint at a vibrant heartbeat beneath the surface of the ice-veiled world as if the warmth of hope still beat back against the cold and the dark.
14 – Super Mario Bros. (1985)
This bouncy and iconic theme song underscored one of my very first video game experiences and is forever etched into my memory, accompanied by the little “bloops” of all the Goombas and hidden boxes filled with mushrooms and coins. I played Super Mario Bros. for hours on a used NES that my parents grudgingly allowed me to get.
Composed by: Koji Kondo
One of the most amazing aspects of this game’s score is likely lost on modern gamers, but Koji Kondo delivered a dynamic score at a time when such a thing was utterly groundbreaking. Going underwater, or sliding to the underground level changed the music, and the music, therefore, stopped being just a backdrop to the game but an integral part of it. This one deserves recognition for being catchy as heck, but it deserves a place in the hall of fame for its unique place in the history of video game scores.
15 – Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Halo quickly became one of the most iconic and groundbreaking games in history, introducing players not just to Master Chief, the enigmatic hero of the series, but to the whole incredible scope of the Halo universe as well, which would go on to spawn many sequel games, book series, and even a short-form live-action series.
Composed by: Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori
Composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori blew it out of the park with their work on Halo: Combat Evolved. The music accompanied the powerhouse shooting action and impressive storyline of the original Halo amazingly, providing a sense of grandeur that the somewhat simplistic graphics did not always manage to capture.
Digital recording equipment, synths, and a range of instrumentation went into the creation of Halo’s score, including live performances by the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. I absolutely love it when video games choose to use real orchestral pieces for their scores, and I think Halo, as an action game, really set itself up well with the powerful swelling themes that made the action feel like just one piece of a much larger experience.
16 – We Happy Few (2018)
In a twisted alternate version of the 1960s, the city of Wellington Wells is crumbling literally and figuratively as the overuse of a mood-stabilizing drug, Happy, claims the morality and sanity of its population. A great and terrible secret, three unique character perspectives, and a wonderfully perverse aesthetic all combined in We Happy Few for an unforgettable gameplay experience.
Composed by: Nicolas Marquis
Nicolas Marquis created the perfect score for a 1960s alternate reality, with lots of classic synth vibes that made me think of The Prisoner or the early James Bond films, mixed with a bit of Star Trek’s more zany episodes. At times, part hellish elevator music, at others a writhing symphony of dissonance, and at still others a grooving jazzy dance-piece totally perfect as a contrast to the dark themes of the game.
17 – Final Fantasy 7 (1997)
The Final Fantasy series is one of the largest and most monumental works in the RPG genre, and Final Fantasy VII is widely considered to be one of the best in the already fantastic series. With the sheer scope of the game, with its storyline spanning a brilliant landscape and an emotional arc that changed lives, Final Fantasy VII required a score that could capture the sheer range of the story being told.
Composed by: Nobuo Uematsu
Nobuo Uematsu proved up to this task, constructing a symphonic experience as rich and evocative as any orchestral classic, and where other elements of the game design like the graphical elements, have grown steadily dated over the years, the music remains as compelling as the story was genius.
18 – Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Horizon Zero Dawn caught my attention when it first came out, but it took me a while to actually purchase the game… and boy am I glad I did. The world is so expansive and vibrant that you feel totally transported, and listening to Aloy’s footsteps as you cross the vast open landscape, backed by the tremendous tribal-synth scoring of the soundtrack, is very nearly a full meditative experience. And, since there is a total of more than four hours of the combined soundtrack, there’s never a point where the majesty begins to fade.
Composed by: Joris de Man, The Flight, Jonathan Williams, Julie Elven, and Niels Van der Leest.
The brilliant soundtrack for Horizon was composed by Joris de Man, with additional work done by The Flight, Jonathan Williams, and Niels Van der Leest, with awesome vocals by Julie Elven. Lucas van Tol, Horizon’s music supervisor, really wanted to highlight the individual instruments of the score rather than going for what he called a “blockbuster sound” that so many modern games tended toward.
This concentration on an intimate sound was explored deeply within the game’s “tribal” styled music, where the composers worked hard to stay away from treading into waters occupied by real-world ethnic musical styles. Instead, they worked hard to imagine how modern instruments might be played by people in the far future who would have no knowledge of how they were meant to be played, and used this thematic overtone to help further deepen the game experience.
19 – Elder Scrolls III (2002)
The first fully open-world game that I ever played was The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and to this day it remains one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I also loved Oblivion and Skyrim, and poured hundreds of hours into both, but the world of Morrowind felt so totally alien, and immersed me in that sense of adventure so totally, that all future titles paled in comparison.
Everything from cities made out of giant mushrooms, to the scuttling Stilt Striders that would carry you across the world, to that moment barely twenty minutes into the game when a wizard mysteriously falls from the sky clutching a dubious “Scroll of Icarian Flight” and dies, SPLAT, in front of you on the road — Morrowind proved to be unexpected, silly, dark, and brilliant.
Composed by: Jeremy Soule
Jeremy Soule’s work on the Morrowind soundtrack certainly played a massive part in my enjoyment of the game, especially the Morrowind title song, later known as “Nerevar Rising,” which I still find myself randomly humming to myself to this day. It was just a grand little piece of music, and it fitted the strange and mysterious island of Morrowind to a T.
20 – Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Silent Hill 2 is often heralded by fans as the best in the series and for a good gosh-darned reason. This psychological horror masterpiece offered players a chance to experience the full gamut of human emotion in a tension-filled roller-coaster that never once let up. It was shocking, provoking, and delightfully unearthly in its approach, never once leaning into the cheap-thrill side of the horror genre that so many other games tend toward, but instead playing with the melancholic, the weird, and the unsettling nature of sorrow.
Composed by: Akira Yamaoka
Akira Yamaoka is the genius behind Silent Hill 2’s score. Yamaoka challenged everything that a soundtrack for a video game could be, creating something Twin Peaksian in its subtlety and ability to bring the game world together, and yet delightfully engaging and powerful on its own.
21 – The Medium (2021)
The Medium is a modern psychological wonderland ride, delving into the depths of human fear, loss, and heartache to find something totally splendid and unique. I cannot stress enough how viscerally potent the storyline of The Medium is, how totally it captivates; it really is like being immersed inside a Zdzisław Beksiński painting… and, because of the incredible score, not being sure you ever want to come out again.
Composed by: Akira Yamaoka and Arkadiusz Reikowski, with Mary E. McGlynn
Akira Yamaoka and Arkadiusz Reikowski took their already impressive artistic abilities to a whole new level with this one. This soundtrack has all the melancholic power of the Silent Hill games, but it goes farther, coalescing into an updated sound that drives constantly at the sense of oppressive terror The Medium aims to instill. With the included talents of amazing vocals of Mary E. McGlynn in a number of of the special tracks, this is one soundtrack that could easily be the accompaniment to a major motion picture.
22 – Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Few games have come close to topping the Mass Effect series for sheer breadth, character depth, and gorgeous emotional range. Mass Effect 2 made a particular impact on fans, improving on the mechanics of its predecessor while also deepening the storyline, taking players on a wonderful journey that they would never be able to forget.
Composed by: Jack Wall
Jack Wall’s intense and potent soundtrack carried through all the manifold choices that Mass Effect 2 offered, immersing the player in a world of orchestral synth that seemed deep enough to dive into and down… down… down… forever. The utterly unforgettable track “Suicide Mission” is such a delight to listen to that it frequently finds its way into my “deep writing” ambient playlists, always capable of enlivening my soul.
23 – BioShock Infinite (2013)
Until BioShock Infinite came along, I hadn’t bothered much with the BioShock series. I’d long before run out my interest with limited horror games, which just couldn’t hold my interest compared to more interactive story-based RPGs. But BioShock Infinite offered an incredible combination of the two that I did see again until Metro: Exodus came out. There were just so many perfect moments in this game as the story developed and the mystery at the heart of the game slowly lay bone-bare before me…
Composed by: Garry Schyman and Jim Bonney
Garry Schyman and Jim Bonney created an amazing score to tie the game together, delivering an aural tapestry that wove the central themes of the story into a sweeping soundtrack. One of the most brilliant aspects of the musical component for Bioshock Infinite was how the inclusion of old-timey renditions of modern songs was subtly worked in, not merely for effect but as intentional foreshadowing, an absolutely brilliant move.
24 – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
The Castlevania series is one of the most delightfully twisted, dark, and thrilling in the video game canon, and Symphony of the Night was one of the best. When the PS1 came along, gaming changed forever; Sony gave developers the hardware and the support they needed to produce the kind of games that truly broke the game/art barrier. In the case of Symphony of the Night, the story may have been excellent, but it was the score that will be forever remembered as a masterpiece.
Composed by: Michiru Yamane
Michiru Yamane blended a techno-classical symphonic experience for the game that left players immersed in something that transcended its boundaries. Who can forget the haunting power of “Prayer,” or the subtle undertone of the pipe organ throughout the score that cried “this is Castlevania” so powerfully?
25 – Journey (2012)
There is only one time where I can recall being so moved by a soundtrack that I instantly had to go out and buy the game… and Journey was it. I could not believe how brilliantly the game managed to play with my emotions, considering how simple the overall gameplay was. But as time went on, my experience of walking and gliding through the vast desert world of Journey became increasingly intense… and then exploded into an emotional overload that haunts me to this day.
Composed by: Austin Wintory
A huge part of what makes this game so fundamentally brilliant is the score developed by Austin Wintory, winner of almost a dozen awards, who spent nearly three years developing it from the ground up. This is one of those incredible products of musical talent that transcended its intent and became a work of art in its own right but blended as intended with the compelling world of Journey it becomes downright sublime.
26 – Pokemon Red and Blue (1996)
Pokemon is one of the most universally recognized games, with a cult following in the millions, a score of TV series and films, and a massive host of video games that continue to delight players young and old. But there are few of these games as iconic as the classic Pokemon Red and Blue for Gameboy, the games which started it all and exploded the Pokemon craze across the globe.
Composed by: Junichi Masuda
I played these games religiously, loading hours and hours of my youthful time into the creation of the perfect team, fending off Team Rocket, and working to be the best Pokemon trainer in the land. I also loved the soundtrack, a majestic 8-bit piece that still sounds to me like complete and total comfort — the warm safety of all things good about my childhood. It’s one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and my love of it is shared by millions worldwide.
27 – Halo 2 (2004)
If Halo: CE redefined what the shooter genre of video games could be, Halo 2 refined it and polished it to a shine. Halo 2 remains, easily, the best video game of the Halo saga, with an unparalleled space opera storyline that broke the conceptual mold for games of its era and action mechanics that had to be seen to be believed.
Composed by: Martin O’Donnell and his partner Michael Salvatori
But where would Halo 2 be without its awe-inspiring soundtrack? The brilliance is evident immediately in Mjolnir Mix, where the classic Halo refrain and superb strings section received a killer electric guitar and vibrating synth upgrade, a layer crescendo of sound that builds upon itself to elicit a feeling of otherworldly heroism that fairly makes your heart stop. Darn fine stuff.
28 – Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
“Fus Ro Dah!” Skyrim took the world by storm when it first released in 2011, forever altering the landscape of gamer expectations about what any game, but especially an “open-world” game should be. With 14.5 square miles of immersive explorable world brimming with hidden questlines and epic storytelling, Skyrim offered players hundreds of hours of potential playing time (and that’s not even considering the incredible content provided by the modding community).
Composed by: Jeremy Soule
Jeremy Soule put the score for Skyrim together with his own hands, laying recordings of real instrumental tracks atop one another to provide an orchestral experience that enriches the game beyond measure. I don’t think that Skyrim would have been anywhere near as popular if not for the incredible music that helped players connect emotionally to the game world’s rich and vivid internal mythology. It’s no wonder that Soule’s signed copies of the score flew off the shelves for months after the game’s release!
29 – Fallout 3 (2008)
The first Fallout game I ever played and the one that stole my heart forever. All the successor games paled in comparison (though the original Fallout 1 & 2 proved to be wonderful when I went back for them). There were so many great moments playing this game, and the storyline was so totally compelling. In the later Fallout games, the main story often ended up feeling somewhat superfluous to the rest of the game, but in Fallout 3 it always seemed to come through organically as you explored the vast open world.
My two companions on my journey through the Wasteland were Dogmeat and Three Dog. The first was an actual dog, my faithful canine friend. The second was my beloved radio announcer, the man whose crackling voice would make me chuckle as I wandered the ruins, and whose incredible collection of classic tunes gave me an earthy sense of forgotten times as I strolled through ruined cities beneath a canopy of endless stars.
Original score composed by: Inon Zur
I cannot tell you enough how totally transformational this game was for me, musically as well as in terms of what I came to expect from games since. The soundtrack offered me a taste of music I had rarely if ever, listened to before, and I found myself falling in love with these classics in a way that might never have otherwise occurred.
Likewise, the delightful ambient soundtrack, composed by Inon Zur, offered a wonderful layering effect under and between my radio tracks as well and managed to be an interactive part of the playing experience, rather than a loopy experience that would have detracted from the immersion. It remains some of my favorite and most memorable video game music of all time, offering all the swelling power of an orchestra, and all the energy of a tidal wave.
30 – Beyond: Two Souls (2013)
In case you were wondering, Beyond: Two Souls is one of my all-time favorite games and I will forever feel ruined for all other gaming ventures by its incredible storyline, its breathtaking script, and the literally award-winning performances of Elliot Page and William Defoe. It’s one of those brilliant pieces of artistic video game design that challenged the player to experience the medium in a different way, to think about choices differently, and to take a more visceral role in the experience of embodying a virtual character than most other games even consider.
Composed by: Lorne Balfe (after Normand Corbeil passed away)
It also “scored high” because of the incredible soundtrack produced by no other than Hans Zimmer and composed by composition icons Normand Corbeil and, after Corbeil’s untimely passing, the incomparable Lorne Balfe. The work that this team did on the music for Beyond: Two Souls is utterly supreme and remains to this day some of my absolute favorite video game scoring to listen to. Every piece feels so completely perfect for the emotional range of the game, immersing the player in a layer of sound that feels more like pure emotion and music. A sheer joy to listen to and engage with, and the game wouldn’t be the same without it.
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