Gameplay, graphics, controls and multiplayer tend to be the most common factors people bring up when talking about video games; yet, soundtracks and sound design are often glossed over. It’s understandable; after all, sound is more embedded in the background of the experience, subtly complementing the gameplay, art and visuals. It may seem like a small piece of the gaming puzzle, but sound is integral. It can be the difference between a good game and a great game. If a soundtrack is too distracting, it can draw the player out of the experience; if it doesn’t fit the tone of the game, it can make an otherwise intense moment seem goofy; if the music is stripped back, it can make a game seem empty. Just try playing a 3D platformer without the music – it can make the most vibrant and colourful worlds feel dismal. Luckily, most developers bring their A-game when it comes to sound design (despite getting little credit for it.) Well, credit where it’s due: here are five games with kick-ass soundtracks.
5. Rayman Legends (2013)
2D platformer Rayman Legends got a fair bit of credit for its gorgeous hand-drawn-style visuals, and rightly so: it’s a bloody beautiful-looking game. But its sound design was even more worthy of praise. Tempo and timing are central to the platforming experience in Legends, leading the devs to make the soundtrack a key part of the game. The smart sound-work makes for one of the most refined, varied and satisfying soundtracks I’ve ever heard in gaming. It doesn’t hurt that the game features strong contributions from the likes of Incubus, Slimkid3, and DJ Nu-Mark.
For me, the best moments of Rayman Legends come from its rhythm-based levels. In these levels, every time you kill, collect or interact with anything in the environment, it cues a musical element in the level’s music. Basically, whatever Rayman‘s doing on screen actively affects which instrument plays on the track. For example, on the ‘Black Betty’ level (video above) I nabbed 30 collectables in rapid succession – only to hear a face-melting 30-note guitar solo – the feedback is extremely satisfying. These sections are hands-down my favourite gaming experiences of 2013, and The Last of Us came out that year. You’d have to be a proper stiff not to enjoy the game’s renditions of popular songs such as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor and ‘Black Betty’ by Ram Jam.
4. Donkey Kong Country (1994)
Donkey Kong Country squeezed every drop out of the Super Nintendo‘s processing power; it arguably looked better than some of the early PlayStation 1 titles. It definitely sounded better, and we have composer David Wise to thank for that (along with Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, who also contributed). In my eyes (ears?), Wise’s compositions are some of the most recognisable and revolutionary in the industry to date. They meld atmospheric music with prominent melodies, environmental sound mixes and bongo-burstin’ percussion.
Wise was still a freelancer when he started marking these compositions, thinking that Donkey Kong‘s importance would lead Nintendo to replace them with Japanese composers’ tracks. That wasn’t the case. “I guess someone thought the music was suitable, as they offered me a full-time position at Rare,” said Wise. Thank God for that; although, I still can’t get ‘Jungle Groove’ out of my head, and it’s been bloody 20 years now… Needless to say, I’m insanely excited for Wise’s sound-work in the upcoming 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee.
3. Infamous Second Son (2014)
Ah, the third instalment of Infamous, Sucker Punch‘s open-world superhero series. Many people seem to really hate this game. Sure, the story was predictable, and the gameplay was super-formulaic (even by open-world standards), but its spectacular visuals, its fluid mobility and – most notably – its euphonic soundtrack still bring back fond memories for me. The music is absolutely phenomenal; its dark, underground and oft-catchy design is instantly recognisable. “We wanted a score that had an edge and an emotional context,” said Chuck Doud, the game’s music director. “But we also wanted enough musical hooks that you could really start to identify the game through the music, to give it a signature sound. Something that you hadn’t heard before.” They nailed it.
The game takes place in a fictionalised version of North American city Seattle, and it’s easy to see how meticulously Sucker Punch went above and beyond to capture the unique sound of the city. The game’s composers – Marc Canham, Nathan Johnson and Bryan ‘Brain’ Mantia – mainly composed Seattle-inspired grunge to make up their gritty, ambient soundtrack. The developers even put audio equipment in real-world Seattle forests – all so they could replicate the city’s true-to-life sounds, including the chirping of American robins. It’s ironic really: Second Son‘s sound design has 100 times more depth than its flat-ass narrative. Still, the game’s soundtrack is one of my all-time favourites, and I regularly go back to it.
2. Doom (2016)
Just like the original, the soundtrack in 2016’s Doom is fucking phenomenal. I’m a sucker for metal music – check out my top five songs of last year if you don’t believe me – so it should come as no surprise that I adore Doom‘s music. It’s not often I get to hear an original heavy-metal soundtrack in a game and even rarer for it to be this excellent. There’s more to it than that, though: the game’s blistering thrash metal riffs and hardcore breakdowns perfectly complement the first-person shooter’s action. It’s composed in such a way that the last blood-squelching shot of each skirmish ends the track with a super-satisfying open guitar chord. It’s the perfect finishing touch on one of the best first-person shooter campaigns of all time.
We have industry sound-design veteran Mick Gordon to thank for the game’s rockin’ soundtrack. (Richard Devine made some rad contributions, too.) Gordon completely rearranged tracks from the first game, as well as thinking up some head-bang-inducing new songs. The composer retained the feel of the original’s soundtrack, but he injected a little more oomph into it, which I didn’t even think was possible before hearing Gordon’s work in all its glory. The low guitar tones – created by the use of seven- eight and even nine-stringed guitars – make Gordon’s sound-work instantly identifiable. Even without this killer sound design, Doom (2016) would have been one of the best shooters of all time, but – for me – Gordon’s soundtrack has solidified it as one of the best games of all time.
1. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000)
This one’s a bit of a personal one, but – hey – it’s my list.
If there’s one game that’s shaped – nay, defined – me as a person most, it’s Neversoft‘s seminal skater romp Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. The game singlehandedly convinced a 10-year-old me to start skateboarding, listening to metal and punk music, and watching skate documentaries and movies – things I still do 16 years later. I honestly wouldn’t be the person I am without this game, and the soundtrack is a huge part of that. I really, really owe this game a lot. I know it sounds like I’m being dramatic here, but – given the dodgy area I grew up in – THSP2 marked a pivotal time in my life. Let’s put it this way: I probably would have gone down a much worse life path if it weren’t for this game.
Whether you like metal or hip-hop, THPS2 has something for everyone – there’s even a nod to both genres with the inclusion of ‘Bring the Noise’ by Anthrax (featuring Chuck D. of Public Enemy.) The 15-track list might be short compared to the 50-song-plus offerings of newer Tony Hawk games, but THPS2’s rollicking list is focussed, quality and varied. I’ve heard each of the 15 songs hundreds of times over the years, but these handpicked gems are so damn good that they’re still as great as the first listen. My top picks are Bad Religion‘s ‘You’, Rage Against the Machine‘s ‘Guerrilla Radio’ and Papa Roach‘s ‘Blood Brothers’, but every track is amazing in its own unique way.