THE MUSIC THAT MOVES US
In a new segment, the Punished Backlog writers are out to determine some of video games’ all time bests. With our tens of thousands of combined hours logged, spanning games from every genre imaginable, we’ve compiled the video game soundtracks that have redefined industry standards, providing something truly spectacular.
While individual songs like “One Winged Angel” or “Zelda’s Lullaby” created standout moments that will live on for generations, we wanted to take a moment and recognize the games that provided–not just one “Wow” musical-driven memory–but an entire arsenal to draw upon, giving us an unparalleled sense of scope one minute, drawing tears the next, inspiring triumph and fostering innocent joy. In no particular order, here are the games we believe stand miles beyond the competition.
David Silbert – Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross
You can’t make a serious list of all-time great gaming soundtracks without including a nod to legendary composer Yasunori Mitsuda. While many may argue that Nobou Uematsu and Yoko Shimomura have provided more for Square Enix with their numerous contributions to the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts franchises, Yasunori Mitsuda deserves special mention for his work with two games in particular that, frankly, need no introduction.
Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross are the epitome of classic JRPG music. The former introduced a style of groovy, foot-tapping jazz that has yet to be surpassed by even current Japanese video game standards. Cross, meanwhile, shifted its focus to a tropical, island-vacation sound that not only managed to rival its predecessor, but also carved out a unique feel and focus all its own.
The truth is, I could run my finger through either game’s 3-disk, 60-odd-track list of songs, select one at random, and chances are, it’ll be worth listening to. The music is that good.
From the very beginning of either game, Mitsuda’s music welcomed us into new, strange, and exciting worlds. From the calm, cascading harp notes of “Morning Sunlight” and soothing strings of “Peaceful Days”, to the warm, welcoming melodies of “Arni Village – Home World” and “Arni Village – Another World”, Chrono’s music lifted our souls and set our expectations high for the journeys to come.
Setting off from home and traveling across the worlds of Chrono Trigger and Cross, we listened to curious and whimsical overworld themes, including “Memories of Green” and “Wind Scene” as well as “Fields of Time – Home World” and “On the Beach of Dreams – Another World”. Meticulously crafted by Mitsuda, these themes encouraged us to wonder as we wandered, to dream of faraway lands, and to envision the world as it carried our protagonists, Chrono and Serge, from place to place.
Certain tracks, such as “Corridors of Time” and “Drowned Valley”, introduced us to exotic locales and mysterious ruins. Others, like “Battle with Magus” and “Schala’s Theme,” set the stage for epic battles and illuminating discoveries. “A Far Off Promise” and “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” made us cry, only for “To Far Away Times” and “The Dream That Time Dreams” to lift us up again, ready to dream anew.
(Sidenote: “Schala’s Theme” was good enough in and of itself to make the backdrop for Wiz Khalifa’s “Never Been.” “Memories of Green,” meanwhile, accompanied Dom Kennedy’s “Locals Only.” Not only is Mitsuda one of the greatest gaming composers of all time, he’s also a bonafide hip-hop influencer.)
And of course, who could forget “Chrono Trigger” and “Time’s Scar,” Chrono’s powerful, iconic themes that greet players every time they dust off their local SNES cartridge/DS chip/PS1 disk to relive its stories and renew its magic? These anthems are timeless reflections of an era of JRPGs long past, encouraging players to pick up their controllers and jump back into Chrono’s worlds for “just one more playthrough.”
The music of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross spans different genres, styles, eras, and alternate realities. Any other game soundtrack would have buckled under the level of ambition on display here, but Mitsuda makes it look easy. Whether you’re listening for your hundredth playthrough or for the very first time, Chrono’s music stays with you long after you set the controller down.
PJ Manning – Persona 5
If you read my review of Persona 5, you may remember I vowed to fight for its place on our inevitable Soundtrack List. A few weeks later and here we are. I’ll begin this entry by admitting I have a massive bias towards bass. I’ve been learning for a while, but have harbored a deep appreciation for guitar’s big brother for as long as I can remember. I have never heard a game with more jazz, swing, pop, or soul than Persona 5 due entirely to its masterful bass lines. A good soundtrack, though, does more than provide excellent, standalone tracks. A truly excellent soundtrack lends itself to the theme and atmosphere of the game, strengthening the artistic direction and interjecting life to the plot.
Persona 5 is incredibly stylish, diving head-first into its cartoonish, high contrasted art style. Songs like “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” and “Last Surprise” (Persona 5’s meme-tastic battle theme) are funk masterpieces for any medium. This soundtrack isn’t on the list for two good songs, however. Persona 5 is home to some intense, climactic boss fights. The heightened intensity owes a lot to songs like “Life Will Change” and “Rivers in the Desert.” In these moments, Persona 5 drops the ever-bouncing bass lines for a crunch-infused backing to showcase a stellar electric guitar and string arrangement, respectively. One in the ever shifting genres: Korean singer Lyn Inaizumi’s remarkable vocals. Though some lyrics hit clumsily, they are delivered masterfully.
Let’s take a step back from all of this, for a moment, and focus on one song in particular. Anyone familiar with the franchise knows dungeon crawling and JRPG elements are only half of the game’s focus. More often than not, you run through the streets of Shibuya to the song “Beneath the Mask.”
This restrained song showcases one of the game’s best bass lines, coupled with an incredibly chill vocal arrangement by Lyn, one of her best for it’s simplicity. While there are no instances of borderline screaming as in “Last Surprise,” she delivers a tranquil experience that leaves me wanting to stand in the Shibuya streets for hours, just soaking everything in. Many games may have one or two stand out songs, but for a soundtrack to nail such a unique aesthetic as Persona 5’s and display mastery of several unique genres is practically unheard of. Persona 5 does both, and keeps up the balance for its 100+ hour story (by the way, I was still actively listening to the songs on my phone, even after “Fin.” ran across the screen to close the final, anime cutscene).
Kei Isobe – NieR and NieR:Automata
Yes, I’m lumping the two together, because I just couldn’t pick one.
This isn’t a particularly novel choice (it might have been back in 2010). Both games have been lauded for their soundtracks (NieR:Automata’s soundtrack actually hit #2 in the weekly Oricon album charts, which is basically Japan’s top 100 billboard. A video game OST at #2 is seriously unheard of). NieR’s ratio of vocal to instrumental tracks is close to 4:1, and vocalist Emi Evans puts in serious work.
NieR’s soundtrack is sung in an imaginary language that melds Gaelic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Japanese sounds. The score does an unbelievable job of setting the scene, be it for the idyllic, sleepy way of life in Nier’s hometown, a cold, detached, and isolated village, an eerie, metallic, abandoned scrap heap, or a boss battle with a massive, grotesque monster.
NieR:Automata traded some of the vocal focus for a more alien-feeling soundtrack, but the standouts are still Emi Evans beautiful vocals. A Beautiful Song is killer. Every variation of Birth of a Wish is spine-chilling. But where Automata steps it up is the mixing, where tracks will seamlessly switch from quiet to dynamic and frantic, out of battle and into battle, with vocals kicking in at just the right moments to increase the tension.
And I would be remiss to not mention two gut-punching ending credits songs. Ashes of Dreams (I’m personally a fan of the Nuadhaich version), even in its gibberish language conveys the tragedy of NieR’s ending perfectly. And Weight of the World, from NieR:Automata’s ending credits, never fails to get me emotional. I don’t know which version I prefer more, Emi Evans’ Chaos language version (I think her vocals are the strongest), the Japanese, with its melancholic and crushing lyrics (singer Marina Kawano ends up crying while singing towards the end), the English for its more uplifting message, or The End of Yorha’s development team chorus. Never have I been more affected by a game than in the endings of NieR and NieR:Automata, and the music certainly contributed to that.
Augustine Villanueva – Final Fantasy VIII
Representing the only Final Fantasy entry on this list, how could I not include my all-time favorite game Final Fantasy VIII. Aside from my obvious bias towards this game, its soundtrack is seen as undoubtedly one of the best in the entire Final Fantasy series by many fans, even earning itself a top 4 spot on Japan’s Oricon charts. Succeeding probably one of the biggest games in gaming history in Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII attracted a lot of unwanted criticisms. However, where it did lack in gameplay mechanics, it more than made up for it in its amazing and immersive soundtrack.
Composed by the legend himself, Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack does an unreal job at perfecting the scene’s mood. All 74 tracks are meticulously created and perfectly placed in order to fit the atmosphere and moment that the player is in. Even just by listening to the soundtrack, you can almost relive those exact cutscenes, reenact specific pieces of dialogue, or refight those bosses which I have never experienced in any other game. Whether it is endlessly walking around the massive and breathtaking SEED academy that is Balamb Garden, riding over that moonlight water before engaging in your first real test as a soldier before The Landing in Dollet, or even just getting ready to crush some kids in Triple Triad, there is always the perfect song for every moment. Final Fantasy VIII being my favorite game, nostalgia clearly plays a role in my thought process here. However, Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack is perfectly made to match the themes and motifs that are in the game.
Starting with the introductory song, Liberi Fatali (roughly translated to Fated Children), being one of the only two vocal tracks, sets the tone for the entire series in not only its name, but with its high paced tempo, intense build ups, and clashing Latin vocals. Accompanied by amazing visuals for its time, I don’t think there is any other opening to a JRPG that can get you more hyped up. The other vocal track, Eyes on Me, sung by Kako Someya, and its instrumental renditions perfectly catches the emotional and romantic theme of the game; almost perfectly describing the relationship between the two star-crossed main characters. Romance being a major theme, it would be unjust to not mention Waltz for the Moon, Roses and Wine, and Fragments of Memories, all having that calm, smooth, and heartwarming feel to them.
Now Final Fantasy VIII isn’t all sappy and romantic. The mystic is another theme of this game. Songs like Compression of Time, The Extreme, and Succession of Witches clearly give off a spooky and mysterious feeling with their minor keys which after getting further into the story are a perfect match. Like with most JRPGs the battling and exploration makes up the biggest portion of the game. The world theme Blue Fields gives that feeling of openness and the desire for exploration which gets even better once you unlock the games airship and it starts playing probably my favorite song in the entire game Ride On. The main battle themes, Force Your Way, The Man with the Machine Gun, and Premonition all fill the player with different kinds of emotions from a serious, everything is at stakes battle to one that makes you just bounce in your chair, all equally making you ready to take on even the toughest of foes.
I could go on and on about all of the amazing tracks on the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack, but at that point I would be mentioning every single track. Unlike with many other games, Uematsu’s soundtrack contributes to Final Fantasy VIII in such an extraordinary way. It completely immerses the player into the world, making you understand the emotions and moods that every character is going through. For those of you who haven’t played the game, or have shied away due to the slow start and janky game mechanics, I would definitely recommend playing for its story accompanied by this beautiful and captivating soundtrack.
PJ Manning –Twilight Princess
Two things to address right off the bat: Wind Waker is far superior to Twilight Princess (Editor Note: Lol get that s**t outta here), and everyone you ask will have a different, equally valid entry to represent Zelda. One thing cannot be argued, however. Koji Kondo is the greatest video game composer who has ever graced the industry. While he skipped several entries in the Zelda franchise (so forgive me if I misattribute particular songs to his portfolio), he has undeniably created tunes that have permeated throughout video game history and undoubtedly inspired countless more legends. Citing a few songs of note: Legend of Zelda Main Theme (NES), Palace from Zelda 2 (which became a cult hit thanks to Melee), Song of Healing (Majora’s Mask), Wind Waker Main Theme, Ocarina of Time Main Theme, Gerudo Valley (Ocarina of Time), Lost Woods (Ocarina of Time), Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time), Song of Storms (Ocarina of Time).
(Side note: the Japanese N64 version featured a song that almost prevented Ocarina of Time from making it over to America, featuring chants reminiscent of an Islamic prayer)
Okay, the natural follow up to that criminally under-representative list is “PJ, why didn’t you just chose Ocarina of Time to represent Zelda in this article seeing as you just cited like forty ‘essential’ Zelda songs from the game?” Simple, “Song of Storms” also appeared in Majora’s Mask so that immediately disqualifies Ocarina of Time from this list. Kidding, obviously. Almost every song from that game is undeniably iconic, so much so they’ve been perpetually re-skinned for future entries. However, aside from being hyperbolically two unique measures stuck on repeat for however long you’re in a particular area, they don’t function well as a combined unit. Music is a breathing entity, able to raise or destroy the quality of a game with its flow. For this list of best soundtracks, we wanted notable music that weaves together for a largely unified style to the undeniable embetterment of their games. Ocarina of Time is loaded with an unreal amount of stand alone hits, some of gaming’s best music ever. But they don’t play well together, sing the same song, push the same buttons, speak the same language. As a collection, they’re too individual, completely unlike Twilight Princess.
Twilight Princess, on the other hand, maintains a consistent, orchestral identity. The game is one of Zelda’s most cinematic entries (as well as literally dark, hence *Twilight*). With that in mind, Koji Kando wasn’t looking to make the best, one-off songs. He wanted to build the world and push Zelda into a mature, sophisticated space, especially after the uproar against Wind Waker’s “kiddy art style” (a complaint that has been unanimously rejected in recent years). Because of the grandiose piano, epic choir, and full string ensemble, each Twilight Princess song sounds so “Twilight Princess.” It’s one of his most unified works in that regard. But enough build up, here are the songs to listen to.
When initially pitching Twilight Princess as Zelda’s music ambassador, David Silbert urged me to check out “Lake Hylia” again and remember how excellent an arrangement it is. That song creates an ease and tranquility I have seldom experienced in games, at least not to that level. Once the location is purged of twilight, this song kicks in and Link is left swimming through the zone’s vast pools. I can’t remember another song/location pairing that feels as right as this. In addition, “Twilight Princess’ Main Theme” is excellent, perfectly encapsulating the grandiose cinematics I previously mentioned. The “Blizzeta Battle” effectively utilizes high-strung instruments to instill an anxiety-ridden roller coaster in two, distinct parts. While not my favorite boss theme (Here’s looking at you, Molgera), the arrangement emphasizes the weirdly other-world-y vibe from the frozen bed chamber and the–literally–looming threat she possesses. It would be a crime to omit the “File Select” theme as an incredibly re-envisioned “Great Fairy Fountain.” But, one song stands out above the rest as so restrained, yet unbelievably powerful. I won’t say a single word about it, just leave it posted below.
What? Who’s crying? There’s just a bit of twilight in my eyes. No, you need to grow up! Whatever Mom, I’m going out. Yeah, fine, I’ll pick up bananas on my way home.
Jack Linnehan – Life is Strange
I could just as easily continue the trend of this article and talk about incredible OSTs. And for the hell of it, I’ll just briefly mention that The Last of Us has by far my favorite OST. But as usual, I’m straying a little bit outside the box from the rest of my fellow writers. I’m going to instead sing glowing praises about the Life is Strange soundtrack, comprised of 14 licensed songs used in various parts of the 5-episode game.
Fair warning, it’s exclusively comprised of indie folk/rock songs, so if that’s not your cup of tea then you won’t be a fan. However, I’m a huge fan of that genre, so I loved it. But to be frank? It shouldn’t matter if you don’t like the genre, because it fits the theme of the game perfectly. Indie rock is a very popular genre in the Pacific Northwest, and Arcadia Bay is supposed to be in Oregon. Check. Max is a moody, existential, not terribly popular student. Indie rock is the perfect genre choice for someone like her. Those long cutscenes where she’s staring out the car/bus window create for a powerful sense of reflection, and the music matches this with it’s somber tone.
One of the standout tracks, for me, is Crosses by Jose Gonzalez. It’s so good that you get hear it twice in the game. Unfortunately brief at 2:43, Gonzalez’s tremendous acoustic guitar (his specialty) carries through an optimistic lyrical message presented by his soft, yet driven voice. The lyrics tell of the narrator looking out for someone, and that no matter what they’ll be alright. It’s a fitting message for how often you (as Max) have to look out for Chloe. Another track that carries the soundtrack is Something Good by Alt-J (∆). Alt-J is tremendous at taking emotional and thought-provoking lyrics and masking them with upbeat music, and this song is no exception. The lyrics literally tell of the death of a matador, and by extension that the narrator needs “something good” to forget about a certain someone. Max seeks something good throughout the course of the game, which she finds in the form of Chloe, to forget about her vision of the storm that will destroy Arcadia Bay.
Using licensed songs instead of original songs makes it far trickier to match the theme of the game, but Life is Strange nails it. Even if it’s not your style normally, when you play the game this soundtrack just feels right.
How’d we do? These were some of our all time favorites, but there is so just so much more out there we couldn’t cover. Comment down below to let us know what soundtracks you constantly go back to. Maybe we got the game right but left out that one song that really gets you moving. Gerudo Desert (for instance) is a strong spiritual successor to its Ocarina counterpart, but you can only talk Zelda for so long.
We’ll be creating new Punished Favorites every week on topics ranging from the normal (Best Boss Battles) to the “niche” (The Greatest Soups in Video Games). While the latter may never see the light of day, check in next week to see what video game topics we feel passionately about. Lastly, this isn’t our first music themed article. Check out David Silbert’s ranking of the Top 10 JRPG Town Themes (even if he forgot Lavender Town).
Author: PJ Manning
PJ has been gaming for the better part of 15 years. His first console was the iconic, purple Gamecube with a copy of The Wind Waker he often revisits. His love of Nintendo persists to this day. In addition to unapologetically defending his Wii U, his current arsenal consists of a PS4, Vita, and 3DS. While studying English at Boston College, his roommate introduced him to the wonderful world of speedrunning, a community PJ now actively follows.
PJ is an avid Zelda player and complete trash at any competitive shooter. He once bought a JRPG and was never seen again. Send help.