For someone whose life is so occupied with music, it often surprises me that I’ve generally had so little interest in game soundtracks! Now, of course I might appreciate them while I’m playing, but apart from a couple of listens to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack and a bit of Thunder Force now and again, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to listen to any in-game music.
That’s also not to say I don’t have favourite pieces of gaming music (despite owning a ZX Spectrum for much of my formative gaming life!) and that’s why we’re here and now! I’ve been thinking about this for a good few months, after seeing a couple of gaming soundtrack best-of videos on YouTube. Not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. We’ve also split the whole thing in two because I didn’t quite anticipate its epic nature until about a quarter through, but that also builds up the suspense and gives you something to look forward to! But apart from that, this is what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coming up with so far, starting at 25 all the way to 11…
25. Fear of the Heavens From Secret of Mana on SNES
I only got to Secret of Mana – originally released in 1993 – for the first time playing through everything that the SNES Classic Mini had to offer when that came out, and not being a JRPG connoisseur it got shoved right to the back of that queue, meaning my history with it is very recent at the time of writing. Also not being a JRPG connoisseur, my play-style possibly meant I wasn’t making life as easy for myself as I might (more here), but I eventually got hooked on the grind and completed it, and at the very least got to experience its wonderful soundtrack as originally intended!
This is actually the title music to Secret of Mana, kicking off a masterful soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta, but I think it only really got its claws into me when it appeared again in the game itself when I found the Mana Tree. We’re starting our list here with something simple, but for the most part beautifully haunting too (but don’t worry, we’ll soon change that!). Just an electronic piano kind of melody with occasional flourishes from a cymbal, then a a melodic bassline takes over as some very electronic woodwind provides harmonies, then it ups the ante a bit for a brief combined climax before heading back to calm. A nice reflection of the game itself!
24. Splatterhouse 3 Title Theme on Mega Drive
You didn’t think it was going to stay all fairy-nerd for long did you? This is more like it, when Splatterhouse mixed things up by going all Streets of Rage! I love this series, and the original side-scrolling gore-fest is one of the few arcade games I’ve ever completed; the PC-Engine version is also one of my favourite arcade conversions. We then get to more of the same with Splatterhouse 2 on the Mega Drive, and it feels right at home there, but 1993’s Splatterhouse 3 didn’t just add new dimensions to the violence, but also to the gameplay as a whole, being a far more non-linear affair. And that possibly makes it the best game in the series… Mmmm, not sure about that thinking about PC-Engine… We’ll come back to that!
Eiko Kaneda’s whole soundtrack here is classic horror b-movie, and the when this song kicks in on the title screen you know exactly what you’re in for! After an intro that mainly serves what’s happening on the screen behind it, we start out proper, right in Munsters territory, with spooky haunted house melodies gradually joined by some gentle percussion and overlapped with a shifting, more complex and more electronic melody (and occasional very Doom-like monstrous sound effects). By the end it’s transitioned to something very upbeat, which strangely you’ll have barely noticed happening, though that might be down to the insane strobe effects complementing the title image going on throughout!
23. Xenon Sector One on Atari ST
Apart from what’s right at the top, this track was one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about this list. The Bitmap Brothers were absolute groundbreakers in sheer graphical and audio polish when they launched with this most metallic-looking ever vertically-scrolling shooter appeared in 1988, and that never stopped through Speedball, both sequels, Gods, The Chaos Engine, maybe some of the later stuff I never really played… Xenon 2 remains one of my very favourite ST games, though that’s more to do with that incredible organic aesthetic it has than “Music by Bomb the Bass” as proudly emblazoned on the box – not my cup of tea!
In terms of music though, the original Speedball title music is narrowly pipped here by the similar vibe, but just more bombastic first-level music of the original Xenon. They’re both by the incredibly prolific David Whittaker, whose stamp can be found all over eighties and nineties gaming! This one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!
22. Metal Squad From Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive
I love the Thunder Force games – gorgeous multi- or just side-scrolling, weapon-switching space shooters that I think I’ve mostly experienced backwards, from Thunder Force V on PlayStation to IV then III on Mega Drive to AC (an arcade port of III) on Switch, then most recently Thunder Force II back on the Mega Drive! It’s a toss up betwen IV and AC as to where my favourite lies, possibly for no other reason that I’ve played them both the most – along with Road Rash II, they are both my regular football half-time games depending on which room I’m watching it in! Thunder Force IV is an absolute stunner, with some incredible parallax scrolling, but in reality doesn’t add much in gameplay terms, and that’s absolutely okay!
The soundtrack by composer Takeshi Yoshida is among the strongest on the Mega Drive too, and not just because it must be among the most complex to ever come out of that FM sound chip, but it’s probably the most metal too! If you listen to the whole thing you’ve got about an hour and a half of jaw-dropping creativity, but we’re stopping here at Stage 8 for an incredible piece of space-thrash, where layer upon layer of pure metal energy emerges on top of this pulsing bassline and high-octane drumbeat. If Judas Priest called up Dragonforce and said let’s make some Mega Drive music, it would sound like this!
21. Hard Road From Arcade Super Hang-On
One of the few benefits of not having regular exposure to arcades in the eighties was that by the time the my Atari ST came along, as far as you could remember (if you were lucky), most arcade conversions were pretty much arcade perfect! Star Wars, Operation Wolf, Pac-Land, Bubble-Bobble, Championship Sprint… Loads of them! With Super Hang-On, it’s really not far off either, with everything intact except maybe for a bit of pace and some graphical fidelity, and it was on the Atari ST that I first came to properly appreciate the soundtrack, even if that turned out to be a little less impactful than the original too, which I’ve more recently enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and 3DS.
It might not be as magical as its sibling, Out Run, but the four tracks by Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki that you get to choose from at the start of each race in Super Hang-On absolutely scream out arcade game music circa 1987! Hard Road has always been my go-to track regardless of platform, with pacey rock drums supporting a lead-guitar-like bassline and an increasingly intense (dare I even say prog at its heady heights!) keyboard track, that in its defence mostly veers between eighties b-movie theme and early Spandau Ballet in its some of its chord changes. I’ve just described the best song ever…
20. Big Blue From F-Zero on SNES
When I bought my launch day Game Boy Advance, I also got my first exposure to legendary space race series F-Zero – sitting on a toilet in the Milton Keynes hotel room I was staying in for a work night out because that’s where I could get the most light onto its pitch-black screen! That was Maximum Velocity, and I’d later work my way through later GBA releases, then GX on the GameCube and finally back to where it started in 1990 on the SNES, or for me the later Classic Mini variant.
It doesn’t take long for you to get to the original F-Zero Big Blue theme. You’ll know it because for a second you’ll think you’ve reached the final boss on some insane bullet-hell shooter instead of beginner track number two! I often think this course was all about showing off colour on the SNES, and I reckon composers Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida wanted to deliver the the audio equivalent with this. Electronic drama, an impossible bass-line and enough melody for a dozen bonkers eighties cartoon soundtracks!
19. Warhawk on Commodore 64
Warhawk is very nearly a very forgettable vertically-scrolling shooter from 1986, just like a hundred other budget tiles from the time. It’s generic, it’s hard as nails, and is one of those games that we all took a punt on because it was only £1.99, but that was also all the money you had in the world and it just became an object of regret! Except this one had the most incredible music!
One name is synonymous with C64 music – Rob Hubbard! He was truly at one with the machine’s SID chip; its sonic cyborg! And this track won’t be the last time we’ll hear from him in this list… Stripped back melodies alternate with supernatural synthesiser ambience before launching into this epic, complex, driving fist-pounder, then doing it all over again. It’s a shame the gameplay itself didn’t offer similar peaks to complement its troughs! It’s also a shame that whilst the title track also plays while you’re playing, you won’t hear most of it because it’s sharing the same chip as the sound effects, and that fire button is also going to be taking a pounding!
18. Robocop 3 Title Music on SNES
The original Robocop, which I loved on both Spectrum then Atari ST, was a masterclass in polished, varied, fun movie tie-ins. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel, which just tried a bit too hard and was less fun as a result, and less fun can also be used to describe the third instalment from 1992, but that’s now down to it being way too hard… and then it made you start from the beginning every time either the difficulty or the dubious collision detection killed you! In its defence it’s got a great look, but once you get past the title screen there’s not a lot else to recommend it!
If this was a list of the best NES music, Jonathan Dunn’s Robocop 3 title music on there would be at the top. This version is not my favourite SNES music (and not even my favourite Robocop music!), but it’s certainly an unmatched take on this amazing song, and certainly has the most accomplished rhythm section you’ll ever hear in a game! Moody guitar licks layer on top of each other, with subtle but complex synth melodies adding colour to, er, panpipes, but don’t worry – it all works, and it all screams Robocop!
17. Gotham City Street From Batman on Mega Drive
The world went Bat-crazy in the summer of 1989 for Tim’s Burton’s uber-stylish Batman movie. The Bat was everywhere, and Prince’s iconic soundtrack wasn’t far behind! Batman: The Movie came out on everything 8- and 16-bit in 1989, was equally stylish and didn’t just give you some fighting goons across platforms, but you also got to drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing (and play a Bat-version of Mastermind). The Atari ST version especially blew me away, but it was no Prince to listen to! A year later, the NES got its own game that was very much its own thing, then once Nintendo’s strangehold on the license expired, the Mega Drive got something far closer to the plot of the movie. It looks really nice, but is distinctly average in its sub-Castlevania platforming and side-scrolling shooter sections, and although you can beat it in 45 minutes, you probably won’t!
The very first level, Gotham City Street, sees you simply beating people up from left to right, but while the action here is a bit sparse, you’ll be thankful for the lack of interruptions to Naoki Kodaka’s beautiful piece that accompanies you (especially when the rain kicks in and demands that bit more atmosphere). Some big drum hits instantly set the drama as these almost siren-like synth sounds start to weave you around what would surely have been the best Batman cartoon theme song ever, then the drums start filling and accentuating, and these wonderful chord changes bring you back around and it’s all over way too soon!
16. Mega Turrican Stage 1-2 on Mega Drive
My history with Turrican begins with the February 1991 Zero magazine dual-format Atari-ST and Amiga cover disc, and in yet another decisive victory over the Amiga, a Turrican II demo that only worked on the ST! And it gave you 99 lives for very good reason because if you escaped the level with half of them intact you were doing very well! As we’re discussing music though, if I was stuck with only the ST or Commodore 64 versions I’d be happy taking either Turrican II soundtrack here! By 1995, Super Turrican 2 on the SNES was a different matter, all well-balanced shooting and grappling and some less well-balanced Mode 7 effects! The first level features some absolutely stunning backdrops too, with the wrecks of these old galleons atmospherically rotting away against a desert sunset! I got to 1993’s Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive much later, which is another graphical stunner that plays great, with huge levels full of secrets and huge enemies, weapon upgrades and a sci-fi twist on Sonic the Hedgehogs spin-dash!
There’s little that this game does wrong, especially in the music department! Chris Huelsbeck’s synth-rock soundtrack clocks in at an hour, and the craftsmanship never relents, but you’re getting the best first, with the intro, then the first stage, and then when you’re wondering where it can possibly go next, Stage 1-2 comes along and blows you away! If Nick Kershaw had stuck some words over this ten years earlier it would be on every hits of 1983 compilation ever, with its painfully catchy melodic interplays over those seminal Mega Drive drums driving your attention. It’s simply Turrican in song form!
15. Central Park Music From The Last Ninja 2 on Commodore 64
Winter Games was the first thing that really blew me away on Commodore 64 – those trees! It took a couple more years to get to The Last Ninja, but that did it all over again – those flowers! It wasn’t always as good to play as it was to look at (or listen to), but all the same, this was eighties ninja obsession being acted out in the palm of your hand (by your joystick) – who needed to rent American Ninja 2: The Confrontation by the time this appeared alongside it in 1987? Well, luckily someone did or we’d never have got all the way to number five!
What’s incredible about the soundtrack here is how much music maestro Matt Gray got out of so little memory! There’s about an hour’s worth of deep, expertly composed and bewilderingly polished audio in six distinct stage themes and one for the final boss, and it’s all in about 40K of data! The Central Park music starts ominous – like a John Carpenter horror theme – then so much texture comes out of nowhere, climaxing in a classic action-hero melody that meanders into this atmospheric extended drum break and back into classic slasher territory before going even more action-hero than before! I can’t remember the theme to American Ninja, but I really hope it sounded just like this!
14. Agent X Title Music on ZX Spectrum (and the 48K one no less!)
We’re now on sacred ground, with my number 12 favourite game of all time (more here)! Never did £1.99 provide such quality and attention to detail from such variety, as you took your Bond-type character through four stages of multi-load heaven! First it’s isometric driving, then a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that slightly numbs the pain of the Spectrum Kung-Fu Master horror show, then it’s indoor Operation Wolf before chasing off the dastardly villain Airwolf-style but with sensible difficulty! I love this game now as much as I did in 1987 (to the point I had to interrupt writing this until I’d completed it again).
If you locked Brian Wilson away with a 48K Spectrum and one-too-many packets of Chewits, the Agent X title music is probably what he’d have come up with! This impossible polyphonic rave by Tim Follin simply shouldn’t exist on a Spectrum! The 128K Spectrum might have had all the sounds – including some marvellous stuff in the less than marvellous Agent X II – but I can’t think of any original Spectrum music that came close to this for originality, for sucking the machine’s sonic capabilities dry, or for sheer bonkers-ness. Absolute genius!
13. Robocop Title Music on Game Boy
At this point I’m wondering if any other top 25 gaming anthems list ever has ever approached its halfway point with a 48K Spectrum game followed by something on the Game Boy? Maybe more likely there’s been one with two Robocop games in it though, because everyone knows that Robocop is the best music! Anyway, Game Boy Robocop came out in 1990 and isn’t quite as brutal as other Robocops we’ve already talked about here, but being a conversion of a late-eighties arcade machine, isn’t far off! It’s a side scrolling gun ‘em up with occasional first-person hostage rescues, and it’s no Operation C, but it’s alright.
As hauntingly beautiful as it is (yes, we’re still talking Game Boy!), I’m not entirely sure why this title music by Jonathan Dunn (remember him from the other Robocop?) exists – it’s not only pretty much hidden away on a niche handheld game on a screen that’s gone in the click of the Start button, but it’s also completely at odds with anything to do with Robocop! This is a lesson in melancholic composition that is somehow perfectly at home on this ridiculous audio output, creating far more raw sound than it has any right to! It also turns out to be perfectly at home on home appliance adverts and well-known rap songs, but you can’t carry them around in your pocket!
12. Pacific Coast From Mega Drive Road Rash
As we already discussed, Road Rash II on Mega Drive is what I’d describe as my gaming comfort food. Road Rash is a series I knew from the outset, but could take or leave until relatively recently – I think it was playing the original game for the first time on Master System in about 2017 that properly converted me. It’s an incredible technical feat even if it’s not massively challenging for a very long time. But I loved it, and migrated to the Mega Drive version, then everything the PlayStation had to offer (which is mostly soulless in comparison despite some wonderful licensed alt-rock sounds), then back to the third instalment on the Mega Drive which was great until I got to number two on the wonderfully curated Mega Drive Mini and it just absolutely clicked for me.
There’s some great music in all three Mega Drive Road Rashes, especially the gothic Knight Rider vibe of the Redwood Forest course in the 1991 original, but even that mystifying concept is narrowly surpassed by the sublime intensity of Pacific Coast in the same game. The complex rhythms; the dramatic melodies; the high-speed pan pipes being overtaken by this haunting guitar-thing… oh, the intensity! If you’re going to punch a fellow motorcyclist in the head, you want to be doing it with this on your Walkman! Oh yeah, it’s by C64’s best-known musician Rob Hubbard too. Don’t tell those Commodore fans!!!
11. Magical Sound Shower From Arcade Out Run
Yes, you’re reading that right – eleven not one! Out Run completely upped the ante for video games when it was unleashed in the arcades in 1986. Nothing else looked like it, sounded like it, played like it, or was quite so exotic, exhilarating and aspirational! I wrote about my favourite sights in all of gaming here, and the moment where the coastal highway spreads out into six lanes near the start of Out Run easily tops the list. It’s just stunning! No surprise it’s also one of my favourite games ever (even more here), but what might be a surprise given how rubbish at games I generally am is that I’m actually quite good at it too – every route on pretty much every version now! Only took 35 years of practice…
Before every race you’re tuning in your radio to choose from what’s still one of the most iconic soundtracks to any game ever – Passing Breeze, Splash Wave and, of course, Magical Sound Shower. (You’ve also got post-race Last Wave later too). Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi has tied everything together with a kind of Latino-Calypso feel, part rock and part jazz, but all feel-good! They’re all to love too, but I’m going with Magical Sound Shower just because it can transport me right back to the mid-eighties just a little bit quicker than the others! If Miami Sound Machine had written the theme to Miami Vice it would sound exactly like this, and if you were driving down that coastal highway in a Ferrari with your hot girlfriend by your side, there’s no other track you’d want to have blaring out of your cassette player! That said, my wife just walked by as I’m listening to it and said that’s the most irritating music she’s ever heard! Maybe she’s more of a Splash Wave girl…
Anyway, as we exit that glorious coastal highway we conclude our journey for now, and look forward to the next instalment where we count down the top ten.
NOTE FROM THE FUTURE. Part two is here.