The 20 greatest video game scores of all time
15 June 2022, 13:35 | Updated: 15 June 2022, 13:49
From Final Fantasy to Super Mario – here’s the most exciting music coming from the world of gaming.
Video game music is one of the most exciting areas of contemporary music, with composers like Austin Wintory, Jessica Curry and Nobuo Uematsu winning fans the world over with their game scores.
Here are some of the very best out there, from the 1980s to today.
Super Mario Bros – Koji Kondo (1985-)
Koji Kondo’s theme for Super Mario Bros grabs your attention with its chirpy ‘ba dum bum ba dum DUM!’ intro, and doesn’t let go. Nobuo Uematsu called Kondo one of the best video game composers in the industry, adding that the Super Mario Bros earworm is such a masterpiece that it should become the new national anthem of Japan. High praise indeed. In 2007 a sequel, Super Mario Galaxy, came along and the space setting gave Kondo more flexibility in the music. Teaming up with Mahito Yokota, Kondo used a symphony orchestra for the first time in the series.
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The Legend of Zelda – Koji Kondo (1986-)
A lush fantasy and a key title for Nintendo, the various incarnations of The Legend of Zelda have become classics. The music from this game has become so popular that it's been expanded and developed into a four-movement orchestral symphony called ‘Symphony of the Godesses’. Composer Koji Kondo has worked for Nintendo since 1986 and is the mastermind behind many of their most famous titles.
The Final Fantasy Series – Nobuo Uematsu (1987-)
Japanese video game composer Nobuo Uematsu is probably the world’s most well-known, and something of a legend in his own country thanks to his stirring scores for the long-running Final Fantasy series. Through several entries in the series, Uematsu’s scores are a constant as players battle their way through dangerous and enchanted worlds. The scores have become so well-loved that concerts of Uematsu’s Final Fantasy works have been sell-out successes across the world.
Tetris – Alex Kostov, George Strezov arr. Korobeiniki (1989)
Classics don’t come much bigger than this in video games, but it might surprise you to learn that it started life as a Russian folk song called Korobeiniki from the 19th century. Thanks to its tinny appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 GameBoy classic, it’s become affectionately known as ‘The Tetris Song’. Plenty of the world’s top orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and Germany’s WDR Funkhausorchester, have done their own epic orchestrated versions – have a listen below.
Chrono Trigger – Yasunori Mitsuda (1995)
Yasunori Mitsuda reportedly worked so hard on the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger that he frequently passed out and eventually gave himself a stomach ulcer and was hospitalised. Now that’s dedication. The music for Chrono Trigger and the follow-up, Chrono Cross, have both enjoyed popularity in the concert hall as well as on the screen. With world music influences and almost Wagnerian dramatics, this is intense stuff.
Medal of Honor – Michael Giacchino (1995)
Before he was a Hollywood composer in demand for his atmospheric scores for JJ Abrams, Michael Giacchino was hired to record a suitably cinematic score for Medal of Honor, which featured a storyline created by none other than Steven Spielberg. As you might expect for a game that offers a realistic depiction of World War II, the main theme is part respectful anthem, part militaristic march.
Uncharted – Greg Edmonson (2007-2017)
We recommend ‘Nate’s Theme’ from this action adventure game. With a brass chorale effect and some thunderous drumming, composer Greg Edmonson brings a thoroughly cinematic dynamic to this short work. Uncharted and its various sequels have won several awards and sold upwards of 17 million copies.
Halo – Martin O’Donnell (2002)
The Halo franchise is one of the most popular in video games history and Martin O’Donnell’s soundtrack is suitably blockbusting as well. In fact, the original soundtrack is still the best-selling video game soundtrack of all time. Try the main theme – it’s gently choral with some serious orchestral clout (and electric guitar!).
Kingdom Hearts – Yoko Shimomura (2002)
The composer behind the 15th chapter of Final Fantasy, Yoko Shimomura is notable for the lightness of her music. The game itself is a role-playing adventure (a co-production between Disney and Sqauresoft) featuring a voice cast including Haley Joel Osment and Hayden Panettiere, and the music reworks melodies originating from previous Disney films, alongside original themes by Shimomura.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin – Jesper Kyd (2002)
With a full orchestra and a Latin-singing chorus, Danish composer Jesper Kyd's expansive soundtrack for Hitman 2 could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood score. He also wangles in some light electronics for many of his compositions, so expect to hear something slightly different every time. Kyd also won a BAFTA for the soundtrack to Hitman 2’s sequel, Hitman: Contracts.
World of Warcraft – Russell Brower and more (2004-)
With new quests to embark on and new enemies to defeat, comes new cinematic music in the bumper World of Warcraft series, which boasts eight soundtrack and a host of main and contributing composers. Russell Brower appears as a main composer six times. Glenn Stafford and Neal Acree five times, and Derek Duke and Sam Cardon four times, with Eímear Noone, host of High Score on Classic FM, contributing several themes to the musical blockbuster, which also credits orchestras and musicians from around the world.
Civilisation IV – Christopher Tin (2005)
Christopher Tin’s theme from the strategy game Civilisation IV was the first video game soundtrack to win a Grammy award. Recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Soweto Gospel Choir, it has the same accessibility and verve of Karl Jenkins.
Metal Gear Solid – Harry Gregson-Williams (2008)
Harry Gregson-Williams made his name as a film and TV composer before dipping his toes in the world of video games music. Films like Enemy of the State and Shrek gave him a suitably cinematic background before he started work on the legendary Metal Gear Solid games. With electronic effects over an orchestral bed, Gregson-Williams perfectly captures the espionage feel of the game.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Jeremy Soule (2011)
This swords-and-dragons epic has a suitably soaring soundtrack, provided by Jeremy Soule. For the recordings, Soule enlisted a 30-strong choir of barbarian voices singing in the game’s own invented language. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Soule is known as ‘the John Williams of video game soundtracks’ – this is symphonic, tuneful and exciting, and it even made the Classic FM Hall of Fame!
LA Noire – Simon Hale (2011)
Taking a smooth, late-night jazz bar vibe and applying it to a video game might not sound like a natural move, but British composer Simon Hale’s soundtrack for LA Noire does exactly that. And it clearly works, because Hale was the 2012 recipient of the video game original music BAFTA.
Journey – Austin Wintory (2012)
Austin Wintory’s soundtrack to Sony’s Journey caught the world’s attention when it was shortlisted for the Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack for Visual Media, up against the scores for The Dark Knight Rises, Hugo and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (which ended up winning the gong). The nomination brought Wintory’s soundtrack to a whole new audience and cemented its place in the pantheon of great video game music.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – Jessica Curry (2015)
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was a first-person game that was as much artwork as game. And the stunning soundtrack was written by Jessica Curry (who has presented three series of High Score on Classic FM). The story begins like this: you’re in a village in Shropshire and everyone has disappeared. The whole village is transfused with a beautiful golden light, but every living thing has gone.
Monument Valley 2 – Todd Baker (2017)
Unlike most of the games on this list, Monument Valley 2 is a mobile game. The concept is simple: you have to guide the characters (Ro and her child) through a series of puzzle mazes that include optical illusions and intricate moving parts. And the elegant simplicity of the design and concept are reflected in the music and sound design by Todd Baker. He said: “I wanted to create a sound aesthetic that felt gentle and spacious.”
God of War – Bear McCreary (2018)
Sony’s 2018 instalment of the God of War saga was one of the most anticipated releases of the year. And it proved to be one of the most acclaimed – not least because of Bear McCreary’s epic soundtrack. The atmospheric soundtrack includes contributions from an Icelandic choir, Nordic instruments like the nyckelharpa and hurdy gurdy and plenty of grumbling orchestral bass.
Returnal – Bobby Krlic, The Haxan Cloak (2021)
British, LA-based composer Bobby Krlic (who operates under the pseudonym ‘The Haxan Cloak’) has written music for major TV series, including post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer. His score for Returnal, which won Best Music at the 2022 BAFTA Games Awards, offers a gripping undercurrent to Selene’s journey through the barren landscape of an ancient, alien civilisation, where she fights for her escape and suffers defeat at every turn.