Just like in movies, music plays a huge role in setting the atmosphere and influencing the general experience of a game.  Here are my ten favorite game soundtracks.

First, a short explanation.  This list is compiled based on a game’s entire soundtrack, not just the main theme.  I primarily based this list on how well the soundtrack integrates with the experience, as well as how it compliments the storyline.  Another consideration was how enjoyable it is to listen to the soundtrack independent of playing the game.  I have done my best not to allow nostalgia to influence any of my choices, although admittedly it is impossible to prevent nostalgia from having some influence.  It was EXTREMELY difficult to whittle this list down to ten, so please forgive some of the glaring omissions; the decision to not include them wasn’t taken lightly, I assure you.

Please note that, with the exception of the first three entries, these games are presented in no particular order.  Here we go!

1.  Half-Life 2

Rarely does a soundtrack fit the atmosphere of a game as well as Half-Life 2.  Filled with psy-inspired breaks, live orchestral instruments, and impeccable synth work, the soundtrack to Half-Life 2 is every bit a masterpiece as the game itself.  It even plays a major role in the music that I produce.  This one is tied at first for my favorite soundtrack of all time.

2.  Deus Ex

Deus Ex’s soundtrack is another one that fits the atmosphere of the game perfectly.  Industrial-inspired beats combined with various electronic instruments make for a soundtrack that is simultaneously futuristic and retro.  There are more than a few parts that have a passing resemblance to Goldeneye‘s soundtrack, especially early on in the game.  This one is tied at first for my favorite soundtrack of all time.

3.  Mass Effect

Mass Effect’s soundtrack was heavily inspired by classic sci-fi like Blade Runner…and it shows.  Amazing synths and slowly shifting textures are combined with sweeping orchestral fills, which makes for one hell of an epic soundtrack.  Mass Effect’s soundtrack truly is a masterpiece.  This one is tied at first for my favorite soundtrack of all time.

4.  Quake II

Modeled after Trent Reznor’s work on the soundtrack for the original Quake, the soundtrack for Quake II was primarily created by Sonic Mayhem.  Crunchy, creative guitar riffs are at the forefront, with tightly-EQ’d drums and bass guitar providing the foundation for most of the songs.  A GREAT soundtrack to get tabs for if you are trying to get into playing guitar.

5.  Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack is a sweeping epic made of 16-bit win.  From the tribal-inspired sounds of The Veldt to the haunting melody in the opera house, Final Fantasy VI had a legendary soundtrack to match its legendary place in gaming history.

6.  Diablo

If you were to compare Diablo and Diablo II, Diablo II is obviously the superior game.  However, as good as the soundtrack is in Diablo II, the soundtrack in Diablo is positively haunting; it makes the game truly scary at some points.  Try playing the original Diablo in the middle of the night with all of the lights out, with headphones…while going through the catacombs.  See if you can make it through that whole portion of the game without getting completely freaked out.  I dare you.  Also, who could forget the stunning classical guitar work used in the Tristram town theme?

7.  Metroid Prime

In addition to the new music it brought to the series, Metroid Prime took a number of the classics from the original and SNES versions, and updated them from 8- and 16-bit classics to modern synth-filled masterpieces.  The updated (and new) music truly matches the sense of wonder and adventure inherent in the game, and it matches the environments on Tallon perfectly.  Metroid Prime also has what is quite possibly the best main menu music in video game history.

8.  Super Mario Bros/Land/2/World/64/Sunshine/Galaxy/etc

There are literally dozens of Mario games out there, and all of the major entries in the series have amazing soundtracks, whether they were on NES, Game Boy, SNES, N64, Gamecube, GBA, DS, or Wii.  From the iconic 8-bit theme in the original to the sweeping score present in Galaxy, they are all awesome.  The original Mario tune is one of gaming’s most recognizable tunes, and can be picked out even by non-gamers.

9.  Sonic the Hedgehog 2

All of the Sonic games have had great soundtracks, but unlike the Mario series, there is one game in the series whose soundtrack is the best: Sonic 2.  Like all Sonic games, each area had its own unique music…and I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this.  That’s right; the Chemical Plant theme is one of the greatest tracks in gaming soundtrack history.  It is also worth noting that having to choose between Sonic CD’s soundtrack and Sonic 2′s soundtrack was a VERY tough decision.

10.  Muramasa: The Demon Blade

This amazing gem-of-a-game has a fantastic soundtrack to match its breathtaking visuals.  If you are into traditional Japanese music, this is the game soundtrack for you.  The whole thing is absolutely incredible, and makes me wish that the next entry in the music genre was “Shamisen Hero”.

There are a ton of games that I couldn’t fit into a list of only ten, so here are some of the runner-ups.  These games all have amazing soundtracks as well, and I very highly recommend you seek them out:

  • Halo (entire series)
  • Secret of Mana (aka Seiken Denetsu 2)
  • Secret of Evermore
  • World of Warcraft
  • Toe Jam and Earl
  • Fallout (entire series, although Fallout 2 is best)
  • Katamari Damacy
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Super Smash Bros (entire series)
  • The Elder Scrolls (entire series, although Oblivion is best)
  • Any song recreated with Mario Paint

Feel free to add your own in the comments below!