The Ten Greatest Videogame Theme Songs
Everyone likes subjective lists that pretend to be definitive, right? Good! Because here’s another one that is completely objective and does not at all betray my preference for certain types of music. Cataloged here, for your auditory pleasure, are the ten greatest video game theme songs of all times. A lot of games don’t have official “themes,” so I’ve made some judgment calls to include some “opening title” music that is the closest thing.
Note: the links were stupidly dead when I posted this. They are now fixed!
10. Scars of Time, Chrono Cross
A confession: when the trailer for Chrono Cross first came out, I must have watched it 15 times, just for this song. When my Gamestop preorder arrived (back when there were cool, goodie-filled preorders and not just digital costumes; this one came with a poster, a clock, and a five-song soundtrack sample) I did weird dance-flips while listening to it on the family stereo system. It’s an energetic and magical composition, and deserves a place here for just being awesome.
So why isn’t it higher? Because while it’s an amazing song, it’s not really representative of the game. A theme song should embody the game’s, well, themes. Scars of Time has a certain exotic flavor that goes well with the game, but doesn’t really capture its essence.
But man, it still makes me want to do flips.
9. Icarus, Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I never imagined that I’d one day end up ranking Human Revolution’s theme above the original, but here you go. Deus Ex’s theme was catchy and spoke to the game’s ambition, but it was also over-the-top and a little corny (which did not stop me from walking down the high school halls and humming it like a madman.) “Icarus” takes the typical “progressively building epic” video game theme and tones it down, and to my ear it’s a lot more pleasing for its subtlety. It also manages to sound both human and mechanical, a perfectly reflection of the game’s protagonist.
8. Interstate ’76 theme, Interstate ’76
This theme cannot be separated from the intro video. These days, video games have a tendency towards bombastic, Hollywood-movie themes, action games more than most; but this wasn’t yet standard practice when Interstate ’76 was being developed in the mid-90s. Abandoning the synthesized orchestras of its peers, composer Arion Salazar (a founding member of soon-to-be-famous Third Eye Blind) used vintage instruments and ’70s-era recording technology to make a soundtrack full of funk, inspired by television themes of the period. Excellent music in its own right, it also paired well with the game’s dry sense of humor. Check out all the fake actors listed as “playing” the game’s main characters, and the appearance of Jade Champion in the credits despite having died in the preceding cold open. Funky as a barrel of monkeys.
7. Title, Battlefield 1942
Three features, three appearances of BF 1942. I think I may have a problem. But I could not, in good conscience, let this one slip by. As noted in my retrospective, the theme perfectly captures the massive scope of WW II and feeds the desire to take part in it. It’s good propaganda, basically. Sign me up!
6. Overworld Theme, The Legend of Zelda
I’m including this here because some Nintendo loyalists will show up at my doorstep and murder me if I didn’t include at least one Koji Kendo piece. As it is, I’ll just have to fend off the Uematsu diehards.
But seriously, there’s a reason this is one of the most well-known video game themes. It has a sense of childish adventure to it. This isn’t a serious, save-the-world cellos-and-drum piece; it’s a “Let’s go exploring and kill some bad dudes!” tune. Which is exactly what Zelda needs. It’s been remixed countless times, but the 8-bit version still stands on its own today.
5. The Farthest Land, Shadow of the Colossus
Fellow staff writer Ramunas Jakimavicius may question Shadow of the Colossus’ narrative quality, but he also acknowledges that “the aesthetics and landscapes wonderfully establish an atmosphere and setting of bleakness, of a world locked away and left to be slowly consumed by the elements.” I’d argue that the soundtrack is as important as the art design in establish SOTC’s peculiar sense of place. The whole soundtrack is great, but this is the theme that really ties thing together, that distills the game’s tone so well that they had to include it on the OST twice (really, it’s the same song twice with “reprise” listed on the second one).
4. Call of Magic, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Last year, I tried to teach myself to finger-pick this on guitar, and was horrified to learn that the Jeremy Soule piece I had always known as “The Morrowind Theme” was in fact titled “Call of Magic.” Jesus Christ, Jeremy, could you have picked a MORE generic title? Mr. Soule’s lackluster titling ability aside, it’s a beautiful song. Like The Farthest Land, it evokes a sense of a great expanse; but where that song’s is barren and haunting, this one is filled with promise, reminding you that Morrowind is an island teeming with possibilities. I’ve probably heard it 200 times based on how many hours I logged in Morrowind, and I’m still not tired of it.
The call of magic can be fatal.
3. Hang-On, Hang-On
I first encountered Hang-On in an arcade parlor in Yokusuka, Japan, A.D. 1986. I was killing time before going and finding some sailors down at the bar, and this seemed like the best thing going. It was this really nifty cabinet where you actually rode a fake motorcycle to steer your motorcycle onscreen. I was not very good at this, and died frequently. But I kept coming back because the game’s sole music track was SO AWESOME.
Eventually I had to go. I beat up the sailors and later went to Hong Kong to avenge my father’s death.
2. Metal Gear Solid Main Theme (MGS3 Version), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
The two songs in the top slots took a different route to making a theme song that meshed perfectly with its source material. How can one song capture a game whose action and tones are as varied as Metal Gear Solid 3’s? Easy: write 6 notably separate compositions, mash them together into a single song, and call it the theme! It’s kind of cheating, really, particularly given that you never hear the contiguous piece in the game; rather, you’ll hear four different bits of it spread throughout. But the parts are linked very well in the whole, and it’s such an epic mashup that it really is an entire Metal Gear game compressed into six and a half minutes.
1. Agnus Dei, Homeworld
Now, some may see this as actually cheating. This song wasn’t written for Homeworld: it’s a 1967 choral adaptation of Adagio for Strings (1936), one of the most famous pieces of classical music of the 20th century (or so NPR tells me). But this isn’t the Top Ten Themes Written For Video Games. It’s the Top Ten Song that are Video Game Themes. As far as I know, no game but Homeworld has used this piece, and it fitted the game so well that I’m unable to think of one without the other. Homeworld told a story of a people on a barren desert world that discover the buried wreckage of an ancient starship. The ship holds a crude interstellar map that suggests that the inhabitants did not originally evolve on their hellish world. The civilization bands together to expend all of the planet’s remaining resources into the construction of a massive mothership, with which they will find their lost home.
And it’s tragic. It’s a dark game that fully captures the distance, isolation, and peril of space. Millions will be left behind on the stripped world to die. In the opening mission of the game, a mysterious foe attacks the racks of thousands of cryogenically frozen passengers, and chances are the player won’t be able to save them. Thousands perish before the journey even starts. It’s a sad affair, but there is a glimmer of hope, and Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) contains that glimmer amongst its mournful voices.
So there you have it! As I said before, this is objective, so while you’d be a fool to disagree with my picks I’d love you to share your “honorable mentions” in the comments.