Game music in the early days is historically remembered as typically either horrendous or genius. However, great game music wasn’t always high art. Numerous classic games boast great theme songs, but lack engaging music throughout the core of the gameplay. Yet, some composers of the 8 and 16-bit eras took on the technical challenges and crafted impressive compositions – music that stayed with us long after we put down the game. These soundtracks are the complete package, entertaining from beginning to end.
10. The Guardian Legend
Composed by: Masatomo Miyamoto (Miyamoto Shant), 1988
The Guardian Legend soundtrack translates the mysterious yet sublime temperament of an alien world into impressively enchanting musical harmonies. Even years after its release, the dramatic tones of the “Crystal Labyrinth” or “Forest Corridor” make us want to explore and defend space all over again.
Composed by: Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima, 1986
Hollywood pretty much set the standard for monster movie music and it can be argued Castlevania set a similar standard for the monster game genre. It’s not all about the brooding tracks or eerie ditties that create suspense. The hero deserves some music that makes fighting the baddies fun, and let’s face it, taking out villains like Dracula is way more fun with “Vampire Killer” as your call-to-action theme music.
8. Earthworm Jim
Composed by: Tommy Tallarico, 1994
The humorous, psychedelic romp that is Earthworm Jim has a soundtrack that never takes itself too seriously and perfectly accompanies its snarky storyline. It openly invites the player to lighten up and have a good time, whether we’re kicking butt or getting our earthworm butt kicked. Tracks like “What the Heck!” are great for laughing out loud anytime.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Composed by: Masato Nakamura
The music of the original Sonic the Hedgehog was good, but Nakamura crafted a faster, better, stronger soundtrack for the sequel. Nearly every level in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 features a catchy track for the blue blur to zip around to. Songs like “Emerald Hill”, “Casino Night”, “Mystic Cave” and “Oil Ocean” are full of life and infused with a refreshing joie-de-vivre. Even though the melodies are short, they’re distinctive and catchy enough that we enjoy them on repeat.
Composed by: Tim Wright, 1990
The score to Lemmings re-assures the player, “Yes you can!” The up-beat, bouncy tracks are empowering and ever-encouraging, even when the levels get progressively more insane. Despite the challenge, we can’t help but dive in for more. Addictive gaming backed by an addictive soundtrack keeps both the eyes and ears coming back.
5. Streets of Rage
Composed by: Yuzo Koshiro, 1991
Life on the streets is rough, particularly when it consists of endless brawling. As simple as the gameplay for Streets of Rage is, the music keeps us moving with pop-synth beats reminiscent of what you might hear playing on the street in the late 80s. Whether playing the game then or now, the tracks successfully help recreate the era of awesome. The tempo of the ending themes appropriately changes depending on the player’s playthrough choices, adding to their weight and to the emotional climax of the story. Listening to this score on its own tells a story of rousing days and nights filled with triumph, loss, regret and brass knuckles.
4. Donkey Kong Country
Composed by: David Wise, Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, 1995
The soundtrack for Donkey Kong Country is on a jungle plateau all its own – a crazy blend of groovy and atmospheric tracks that works. The introductory theme song makes a loud, proud, in-your-face statement that this isn’t your mom and pop’s Donkey Kong, but rather something new and modern. However, the youthful revamp wasn’t anything to be taken lightly, particularly since the gameplay was more than a barrel of monkeys. Tracks like “Aquatic Ambience” and “Forest Frenzy” are multi-layered and lush, much like the gameplay and environments. But, even without playing the game, this is some great music.
3. Street Fighter II
Composed by: Yoko Shimomura, Yoshihiro Sakaguchi and Isao Abe, 1991
Street Fighter II brought a lot to the gaming world when it released to arcades in the early 90s, including an increased roster of characters. Ryu, Guile, Chun-Li and the rest of the street fighters each had their own stories, their own set of specialized moves and their own theme songs. Instead of churning out globally-inspired street fight music, Shimomura crafted distinctive melodies that matched not just the character’s homeland, but the character’s personality, as well. It’s no mistake “Ryu’s Theme” sounds resolute, enduring, strong or that “Chun-Li’s Theme” bounce along with youthful spunk and optimism. This soundtrack succeeds in taking us across the globe and helping us connect with more than ten unique fighters, solidifying their presence in our world for years to come.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Composed by: Koji Kondo, 1992
A fantasy adventure of epic proportions needs a musical opus to help us forget reality and embrace the fantastical events that unfold. The “Hyrule Overture” title theme that first appeared in the original Legend of Zelda heartily sets a heroic march to an adventurer’s drum. In A Link to the Past, the title theme returns and isn’t the only epic track. Themes for Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Villiage, Princess Zelda and Ganon are first heard here and would go on to become iconic in the Zelda universe. From the blissful tune playing in the Fairy’s Fountain to the doom tunes of Dark World, the world of Zelda comes alive through its score in a timeless, classic fashion.
1. Super Mario Bros.
Composed by: Koji Kondo, 1985
From the moment the game loads and the “Overworld Theme” plays, you know it’s Mario. Koji Kondo’s soundtrack to the original Super Mario Bros. not only adds a layer of depth to the amusing worlds created by Shigeru Miyamoto, but the songs are so catchy and distinctive they’ve become nearly as iconic as the mustached character himself. It only takes a few fanciful beats from the “Underwater Theme” to recall afternoons spent evading flying fish, or a few bars from the “Castle Theme” to remember grey bricks, lava and a fireball-spitting Bowser. Each track from Kondo’s score fits the gameplay flawlessly and is so synonymous with each level that just listening to any of the 8-bit melodies evokes nostalgic memories of the game. Few game scores transcend their game source to become legendary in their own right and this collection of 8-bit tracks paved the way for generations of great game music.
– Asma Malik