A few years ago, I was just beginning my foray into video game soundtracks. I had just finished my first year of college, and during that time I discovered that while my usual playlist made it difficult for me to focus on my work, instrumental soundtracks had the opposite effect. So I wrote a blog post ranking my favorite songs at the time.
Since then, I’ve expanded my horizons and listened to music from movies, TV series, and even some video games I never played before. Even though I’m not a musician, I find myself picking up on different themes in the soundtracks of my favorite games. I pay attention to the music, and it enhances my experience.
In light of that, I figured it was about time to revisit my list of favorites. I gave myself a few rules this time around:
- No music with lyrics. So even though “Paper Boats” from Transistor is one of my favorites, it won’t make the cut. You should still listen to it though.
- Only one song per game/franchise/composer. My playlist is much more varied now, and I want that to show through on this list.
On a side note, I did try to list composers in addition to the game’s title! If I didn’t know who composed the exact song, I just listed whoever was credited on Wikipedia.
Without further ado, here are some of my favorite soundtrack songs that keep me going!
“Reach for the Summit” plays towards the end of the Celeste‘s main story as main character Madeline makes the last part of her climb to the summit of Celeste Mountain. This track feels a little bit like a cop-out, because it incorporates a lot of the music from earlier sections of the game. That being said, it actually makes sense in the narrative. Without giving too much away, Madeline is actually retracing her steps from earlier in this final climb, and the music changes as she moves from one section to the next.
This track isn’t just a simple splicing together of other songs, however. While the music is reminiscent of earlier levels, “Reach for the Summit” gives everything a more upbeat tone – it encourages you, the player, as you traverse the most challenging levels you’ve encountered. For me, it filled me with anticipation. I couldn’t wait to get to the top of the mountain, because I knew I would be proud of myself when I did.
If you want to read more about my experience playing Celeste, check out my blog post “Climbing My Mountain.”
Typically when you face a game’s final boss, the villain’s theme plays in the background – and it’s usually something dark and brooding (here’s an example). During the fight between Amaterasu and Yami, however, Okami flips the script. The final phases of the battle are fought to the tune of music inspired by Amaterasu, the protagonist. The name itself is an indicator – Amaterasu is the sun goddess, rising up to destroy her enemy.
As a result, Okami‘s final boss fight isn’t filled with fear or anxiety, but confidence. The player goes into the battle knowing that they will be victorious, and they leave satisfied in knowing that good has triumphed over evil once again.
Slumbering Weald – Minako Adachi & Go Ichinose
Pokemon Sword & Shield
I really enjoy all of the battle music from Pokemon Sword & Shield, but the Slumbering Weald music sticks out to me. It evokes just the right amount of curiosity, magic, and spookiness I would expect from a forest that mythical creatures call home. To me, it has an almost childlike mood to it, like the kind of music you would expect to accompany your favorite fairy tale.
A Proper Story – Darren Korb
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have this track from Bastion. Darren Korb has quickly become one of my favorite video game composers, and it was hard to choose between all of the awesome work he’s done for Bastion, Transistor, and Hades. That being said, I landed on “A Proper Story” because I think it does a great job of setting the tone of Bastion.
Now I CANNOT for the LIFE of me remember where in the game this song appears, but I assume it must be fairly early on since it’s the second track on the album. When I was first introduced to Bastion through the soundtrack, “A Proper Story” reminded of a stereotypical “old west” kind of vibe. While that’s not necessarily the case here, Bastion does take place in a world that feels untamed – full of adventure and danger. That this song is able to evoke such a feeling right off the bat makes it one of my favorites.
Bloody Tears – Kenichi Matsubara
All right, full disclosure: I’m a fake gamer and I’ve never played a Castlevania game, and I probably never will. Sue me (don’t actually). I was introduced to this song through Super Smash Bros. Ultimate of all things, since a remix of it was included in the game. It grew on me because I liked its high energy – it felt like something I could imagine an action sequence taking place to.
Every other song on this list is from a game I’ve played, and because I had that experience of hearing the soundtrack while playing, I think I formed a stronger emotional attachment to it. I’m not ashamed to admit that hearing music from Breath of the Wild makes me cry sometimes because it reminds me of my time playing the game. But for a song to have an impact on me without ever playing the game it’s from? I think that’s worth noting.
Hyrule Castle – Manaka Kataoka
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I was watching a video about this song the other day so I could fact-check myself before writing this post and the person was saying something about “walking in through the front gates of Hyrule Castle” and I thought what? You just walked in? I climbed halfway up the back of the castle in abject terror of being obliterated by a Guardian! I wasn’t about to go through the front gates!
My cowardice aside, I don’t think I fully appreciated this track until after my first few anxiety-filled adventures into the castle. By far my favorite aspect of it is that it incorporates variations of music representing each of the three main figures in the Zelda franchise. Link has the series main theme, Zelda appears with “Zelda’s Lullaby,” and Ganondorf is represented by his theme from Ocarina of Time.
But even aside from these musical Easter eggs, it’s just an epic song. I love that this is the music that takes you into your final battle (or, if you’re like me, searching every inch of the darn castle for that last memory you need…)
A Dragon Never Yields – Noriyuki Iwadare
Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
I’m still not sure what I think of the sixth installment in the Ace Attorney franchise, which means it’s probably time for a replay sometime soon. In spite of that, newcomer Dhurke quickly became one of my favorite characters. Of course, I won’t give anything away, but I was very emotionally invested in his story. This track from the game is his theme, and it’s very fitting.
Okay, maybe I do need to replay Spirit of Justice now…