If you’re friends with me for any long period of time, one of the things you end up having to deal with is how much I like video game music.
I source this love to being a pretty sheltered kid – I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio, but I was given pretty much free reign in regards to soundtracks. Disney movies, of course, were a big favorite for me (I still sing a certain song from Mulan to myself every time I encounter Attila in Civ 5), as well as various Broadway shows (while I never made the jump to being a true theatre kid, I went through a Phantom of the Opera phase like so many others) and instrumental movie soundtracks. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not musically inclined at all, really – I played both oboe and cello briefly but the combination of ADD and my instructor’s palpable frustration with my short-term memory being garbage caused me to throw in the towel pretty quickly. But the few times I could manage to figure out a song on my own when fiddling around with a piano or keyboard? Always, always movie-related. I’m pretty sure my mom got tired of my showing off my attempt at the Indiana Jones theme on her piano to any unsuspecting visitors!
So despite my lack of technical talent, I still saw the world in terms of how it should be scored. My best friend and I spent huge amounts of our time in middle school trading soundtracks (she introduced me to Star Wars first by way of its score, and when she got me to play some Sonic game with her the only thing I was interested in was using my tape recorded to capture some stage’s bgm that I found particularly attractive) and making lists of how we’d soundtrack particular situations, people, etc. We were lucky enough to be in an “advanced” English program together that actually allowed us to make radio plays and short movies with our classmates, and I’m pretty sure we annoyed the hell out of our classmates when we demanded to put in the extra work of background music for some scenes. I still remember the look on one kid’s face when I told him I thought we should edit in a particular Jackson Browne song as the audio for a scene about some video we were making for class. I think both due to the fact that I was a 12-year-old suggesting a Jackson Browne song (hey, my dad was OBSESSED with him and that love turned out to be genetic) and the fact that I was voluntarily suggesting more work. Heh.
Anyhow, all this is to say, that it was probably completely unsurprising that when I started playing video games in college, one of the aspects that could hook me on a game was its soundtrack. Years later, my friends still have to deal with my nerding out over the music in a new game and spamming their messenger with various youtube links to whatever tracks have caught my fancy.
After doing this the other day with regard to some music in Blade & Soul (ohgod I love the faction pvp music so much), it occurred to me that I could totally inflict that habit on unsuspecting readers here, too.
And thus, this post is born. I’m thinking I’ll do a few posts for variety – favorite character themes, favorite battle themes, favorite ambient background themes, etc. But this one, the first one, will simply by my overall top fifteen video game tracks of all time, with one caveat: only one pick per game. Otherwise this list would be way, way too weighted towards the Tales Of and Shin Megami Tensei series.
So let’s get right into it!
15. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door – Rogueport
First off, if you haven’t yet played this game and you have the means to do so, get on that shit. TTYD is so incredibly good that, even if you’re not normally a Mario person (…those types of people exist?), odds are that you will still enjoy this game. Rogueport is the first hub – and really, the main city of the game – that you encounter, and there’s something so jauntily perfect about it as a background for a seaside town full of endearing-yet-morally-questionable characters!
14. TERA Online – Blood And Triumph
I quit playing TERA a few years back, but this song still has a fond place in my memories. It’s one of the more common boss themes, but I associate it most strongly with farming Killian in Labyrinth of Terror, just because I spent so much quality time with him while working on gearing up as fresh 60s with my main duo partner. While there was probably better money to be had elsewhere, we just really liked that dungeon and the fight – though if you asked me to go back and run it now, I would remember absolutely nothing. I think there was some sort of massive fire aoe? Maybe?
13. Devil Survivor – Garuda
One of my favorite games of all time, easily, and probably my favorite SMT game – though I know that will offend some mainline series purists.
This song plays during one of the most essentially “SMT Bullshit” (™Sirlionhart) battles of the game, and I loved every second.
The song is also just simply amazing, so there’s that as well. Has anyone ever figured out why it’s titled Garuda, though…?
12. Tales of Destiny – Lion, Irony of Fate
I’m putting the original PS1 version of the song here, but this theme has been rearranged and remixed more times than I can count – Leon/Lion Magnus, of Tales of Destiny fame, has been such a long-time fan favorite that he actually had to be retired from the yearly Tales series popularity polls (alongside Vesperia’s Yuri Lowell) in order to give other characters a chance at the top spot. His frankly awesome theme probably contributes to why so many of us have an eternal fondness for this tragic little toolbox. I’m really partial to this arrangement that sometimes played as a replacement of the generic battle theme if you equipped Tales of Xillia’s Jude Mathis with Leon’s cameo costume, but honestly? The original is the best variant, in my opinion.
11. Dragon Age II – Fenris Theme
Speaking of tragic toolboxes! I know that Fenris has his diehard fans, but I’m kind of middle-of-the-road with him as a character. I enjoyed him well enough as he had some interesting backstory and party banter, but sometimes you just wanna throttle the dude. I am usually Isabela-or-bust when it comes to my DA2 romance, but I did end up rival-mancing him as a mage Hawke eventually and the scenes with this theme in the background really made the whole endeavour worthwhile.
10. Grim Grimoire – Magic Classroom
GrimGrimoire is an underrated real-time strategy game that easily tops my list of most-wanted portable, well, ports. This song plays during one of the very first plot-dump character interactions, and the beautiful music combined with the visually stunning art/animation style had me totally sold within the game’s first ten minutes. There’s a lot of really good music in this game, but I selected this track just because those first few moments made such an impression on me!
And yes, almost everyone character’s name is a pun on some type of alcoholic beverage. Why? Who knows, but I kind of love it.
9. Eternal Sonata – Broken Balance
If a game based on the dying dreams of Frederic Chopin, of all people, somehow didn’t have excellent music… well, it’s hard to express just how sad that would be. Thankfully, the soundtrack of this game delivers, and then some. I had a really rough time deciding between a few tracks – the boss battle theme that plays when you fight lesser bosses like Fugue, for example, will probably pop up on a favorite battle tracks post, whenever I get around to making one.
8. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – Morale
Ah, Strange Journey. Am I the only one that remembers when this game was supposed to be the fourth in the main series, only to quietly be dethroned by SMTIV? Or was that just some sort of fever dream on my part?
The game itself is a bit of an underdog in the SMT fandom, due to being a newer game that played more like the older iterations of the series. Simply put, I think a lot of people felt it was a step back from Nocturne gameplay-wise, though I certainly enjoyed it and spent an embarrassing amount of time (fiend-hunting in SJ was… something) getting all the various endings.
Morale is, more or less, the Neutral theme, and it absolutely knocks the Law and Chaos themes out of the park. Shit, it knocks them out of the planet’s orbit. It’s easily my favorite alignment theme in the series, and I remember when it cut short on my first playthrough while Commander Gore was giving his Neutral-recruitment speech because I’d already locked in to Chaos via my prior choices (Mastema was just too shady and it just kinda happened due to my aversion to anything he suggested) I had a total moment of “you done fucked up” over losing out on such a great alignment theme.
7. Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 – Theme of Nova
This is simple. Richard Rider, alias Nova and/or Nova Prime, is THE superhero of all superheroes to me, and I bought this game entirely for his presence. The fact that his theme turned out to be this awesome, energizing, 80’s-esque anthem was just icing on the cake.
I totally still have this on my workout playlist. Richie for life.
(Please read his late-2000s solo series and the Annihilation event if you want to understand why Nova is my all-time favorite comic book hero. Booster Gold comes very close, but Richie is the ultimate comic book boyfriend in the end.)
6. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Atmospheres
I am totally cheating here, since this actually includes several different atmospheric tracks that play all over the world of Skyrim. But, you know what, it appears on the soundtrack as one track (albeit over forty minutes long… but still, one track!) so I’m going with it because other wise this would be a really, really tough choice. I love the atmospheric bgm of Skyrim – I can’t count how many hours of work have been to this playing softly in the background simply because it’s just so chill and beautiful.
5. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne – Metatron
Metatron’s theme appears in multiple SMT games in different arrangements, but the Nocturne version is probably the most iconic/definitive version at this point. While I generally prefer Neutral or Chaos alignment, when it comes to the music, I guess I’m being dirty law scum by ranking Metatron’s theme higher than anything else from the entire series. Yes, I like it even better than the Fiend battle music. Yeah, I know.
I can’t help it. I love Metatron and his laser eyes, I love how he’s so fuckoff huge when you have to fight him so you know just how precisely in the shit you are, I love his design, and most of all, I love his theme so so so much.
Assuming that Metatron is real – he’s from my own religious canon, after all, soooo – I hope he appreciates how epic his theme music is, because it is so good.
4. Tales of the Abyss – Awkward Justice
Remember that I said were it not for the self-imposed “one track per game” limit that this game would be overrun by the Tales series? This game is a big reason why, because its soundtrack is just absolutely sublime. The world map themes, the dungeon themes, the city themes, the opening theme, the battle themes… I honestly don’t believe there’s a dud in the entire game.
Awkward Justice is the battle theme of the recurring enemy squad, the God-Generals, who also happen to be some of the most enjoyable boss fights I’ve ever experienced in any game. Some of that is probably because Tales of the Abyss was one of the earliest JRPGs that I ever played, so there was more of an inherent challenge as someone unfamiliar to the genre and what to expect in battles, but I just loved how individual and unique each God-General’s fighting style was – and having this badass music playing while I was trying to study and understand each of their combat abilities and how to best defeat them was just so satisfying to me.
If you’re wondering, Sync was my favorite of the GG, both as an opponent and as a character. I played as Guy, aka the yellow dart, whose superiority is well-known to all, amen.
3. Muramasa: The Demon Blade – Brisk Winds, Bright Moon A and B
Another game that could easily be a list unto itself. Muramasa, also called Oboromuramasa, is a Vanillaware game that – much like their other entry on this list, GrimGrimoire – marries absolutely gorgeous music with beautiful art, animations and backgrounds and a graceful and dynamic combat system that’s both deceptively simple and challenging to master. Moving into combat is a relatively seamless affair, signaled by the background track of the area (A) blending into the a more feisty arrangement of itself (B) and then changing back into the calmer version once you’ve defeated all enemies on screen. So while technically this position holds two tracks, I’m going to be lenient and count them as one because you’re constantly flowing between the two during actual gameplay.
2. Mass Effect – Noveria
The Mass Effect series has a lot of very, very good music. However, for whatever reason, the bgm of Noveria’s Port Hanshan has always been far and away my favorite music across all three games.
I’m sure that part of that is due to the environment you’re greeted with as this music plays: Port Hanshan is a hyper-modern building that would seem very stark were it not for the combination of the steamy water pools dotting the main plaza area and the constantly raging snowstorm-of-the-century going on outside, visible through the glass walls. There’s something both decidedly chilled and yet cozy about the area, and the blissed-out music really solidifies the feeling. For me, this was the area I most looked forward to reaching in each playthrough, just because I never lose that awesome feeling when wandering around the initial complex.
The fact that it is still so evocative to me makes it easily top two material.
1. Tales of Legendia – The Birds Chirp, I Sing
This song! Aside from the obvious, that it’s absolutely beautiful, this music is special to me because Tales of Legendia also happens to be my all-time favorite video game. After the initial plot-dump cutscene and teaser battle with Walter “I Should’ve Been Playable” Delques upon starting your playthrough, you are unleashed onto your first properly explorable zone: Fallingwater. It’s full of lovely scenery with carved red stone, waterfalls,
Mimi the Wonder Baker and this. Awesome. BGM.
I remember taking my first few steps as Senel while hearing this music start up, and just knowing that this game was going to be something special. The fact that I turned out to be more right than I could ever have expected solidifies the song’s place in my heart and spot at the top of my list for all-time favorite video game tracks.
Also, just as a note – Legendia was released during that period where the Tales games went into overdrive with lore and world-building. The singing in this track is actually in the fictional language of Relares, a language that was entirely invented for Tales of Legendia, and is used consistently within a lot of places, abilities, character names, and more. While no official lyrics were released, some fans did try their hand at transcribing what they heard based on the Relares language guide that was posted on the (now defunct) official ToL website.
So the first line, for example, could be translated to “Holy many ocean, using magic, great distant, migrate shining migrate”
…which, if you squint, actually makes sense as – SPOILER ALERT – the ancient race that used this language lived on the game’s world, Shining Blue, back when it was a planet entirely covered by water. They spanned the entire world, given strength by the water and the deified personification of the ocean itself known as Nerifes.
So I’d probably localize it as “Holy vast ocean of power, shining across the entire world” – but that’s just my interpretation!
Uh, this got real nerdy real fast, so… let’s move on!
Civilization V – Gandhi Peace Theme (Raga Asa)
Since this is actually based on a non-game piece of music, it would feel a little weird to actually include it in the list, but I feel it still deserves a mention because it’s by far my favorite civ theme. Infinite “lol Gandhi peace theme must be a bug all the nukes!” jokes abound, but man, is this ever gorgeous. It takes a moment to build into its full potential, but when it does – just pure love.
Tales of Symphonia – Town of Wind and Ruins
This song hasn’t really held up enough in my eyes to honestly make the list of my favorites – even picking from other Symphonia tracks, it would be dwarfed by, say, Sheena’s theme, or Beat the Angel, or Presea’s theme, or or or… but Tales of Symphonia was the video game that brought me back into gaming, after a LONG (I think I hadn’t really played much since, like, Sega Genesis days) period where games simply weren’t even a small part of my life. A good friend of mine gave me a GameCube and some games, and this game was one of them. Somehow – possibly because this song’s location, the town of Asgard, was early enough for the world to be opening up but far enough in for me to be getting the hang of my first JRPG – this game, more than any other, is the one I associate with that very first playthrough. So, in a sense, it gets a mention because it’s the track that started it all, in the video game context of things, at least.
I know that I went a little heavy on certain game series and studios, but I expect that actually makes some sense – a lot of what goes into my favorites isn’t just the music on its own, but how it was layered into the game itself. I think some gamemakers tend to excel at this, and since I find a satisfying soundtrack/story/world setup so important, it follows that I continue buying games from companies and series that produce that feeling for me.
However, there were certainly a lot of other games that almost made the list, but not quite. Mana Khemia, Ace Attorney, Ori and the Blind Forest, Folklore… well, I have a lot to pull from for future posts, huh? I guess you’ll have to… stay… tuned…
… Yeah, I realized what I was saying right as I typed it, but I’ll leave that cringey pun intact. Enjoy!
There are affiliate links present in this post; please see the site disclaimer for more info. If you use any of these links for purchases, THANK YOU!