Music makes the game. A well-composed score written to accompany narrative and gameplay is vital to preserving the game's overall theme. The right song at the right moment can establish mood in a new setting, charge an encounter with emotion, and make the player forget where he or she is altogether. If a video game is a recipe, then the game's score is the seasoning. You may be able to enjoy a game without good music, but you can never savor it to its greatest potential.
The following slideshow is a collection of video games made infinitely greater by the soundtracks that accompany them. For each of these games, I've done my best to select one song to represent that game's personality. Keep in mind that this is not a ranked list, and that given the opportunity to create one, your list might be different than mine.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Ok, let's get this one out of the way. I almost didn't include The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, purely out of principle. What can be said about this game that hasn't already been said? Of course Ocarina of Time has good music. What Zelda game doesn't? But is the game's music vital to your enjoyment of it? If the game's score were taken away, would the game suffer?
As much as I hate to say it, I have to answer "yes." Not only does the game use unique songs to give each major character and location in Hyrule its own unique personality, the ocarina itself makes knowing these tunes vital to progressing the game's narrative. Music isn't just a set piece in Ocarina of Time; it's a tool.
I'd venture to say that without the music accompanying Katamari Damaci, the game is little more than a terrifying technicolor acid trip. Sure, it's a game where a cute little alien rolls things into a ball, but eventually those things are screaming civilians, houses, and entire cities. And don't forget that when you're finished, the ball gets turned into a star. Your goal in Katamari Damacy, essentially, is to abduct an entire population and burn it alive.
Fortunately for us, the ringing, honking, and clamoring of the Katamari is backed by a lighthearted, J-Pop-infused score that reminds us all not to take the game too seriously. Which is good, because the game is absolutely bonkers.
When Fallout 3 was released in 2008, I was twenty years old. My favorite musical artists were Gorillaz and Daft Punk. There is no reason that I should have fallen in love with 1940's showtunes, but I did, and to me there is no greater indicator of how well Fallout used music to establish atmosphere.
The capital wasteland should be a bleak and terrifying place, but with my Pip-Boy tuned to Galaxy News Radio, abandoned buildings felt warm and inviting. I looted bodies to Bob Crosby. I fought the Enclave to Tex Beneke. I was a mighty, mighty man, young and in my prime, and I loved every minute of it.
Keiichi Suzuki & Hirokazu Tanaka
Earthbound, like Ocarina of Time, is a game about collecting melodies. Unlike Ocarina, where each song has its own unique purpose, Earthbound's Eight Melodies combine together to form a single song--one that is meant to save the world.
The video above includes an arranged version of those Eight Melodies. It's called Smiles and Tears, and I can't think of a better way to describe it. This song is the final punctuation on a childhood adventure, accompanied by music ranging from silly to strange, kooky to creepy, mysterious to maddening.
And if I can make an unrelated remark: you owe it to yourself to play Earthbound in any way that you can.
Howard Drossin & RZA
The Afro Samurai video game is flawed in a lot of ways. The combat can be clunky and awkward at times, and the platforming sections can be downright infuriating, but it's the music that gives this game the tenacity and spirit it needs to push forward, excelling in spite of its own shortcomings.
While the Afro Samurai anime is cool in its own right, the Afro Samurai video game is one of my favorite games of all time, adapting the story in such a way that makes it far better than the original experience. This is an artistic feat that was made possible thanks to innovative swordplay mechanics, gorgeous visuals, and the same musical professionals who partnered with RZA to create music for the anime. I don't know why hip hop goes so well with feudal samurai action, but it does. Just ask any fan of Samurai Champloo.
Jet Set Radio
Jet Set Radio (called Jet Grind Radio in the west) is a game about Japanese punk music, rollerblading, and graffiti, all set in the fictional setting of "Tokyo-To" (it's like Tokyo, but slightly in the future). You play as one of the "GG's," a gang of rollerblading "rudies" who tag up the town to the rallying sound of the game's eponymous radio station.
It's hard not to move your body when playing Jet Set Radio; even the game's characters can't help but constantly groove to the beat. Playing the game feels rollerblading through episode of FLCL, and that's all thanks to the game's excellent soundtrack.
Hotline Miami is a game that I almost didn't finish, largely due to its difficulty. It wasn't until I replayed the game on PlayStation Vita with my headphones on that I was able to press on and complete it. Like the game's protagonist, once I put that speaker to my ear, I was hypnotized.
The Hotline Miami soundtrack is fifty shades of suspenseful, charged with adrenaline, mystery, and dread. While the tunes are repetitive at times, the repetition is just enough to drive home the game's sense of madness.
Shadow of The Colossus
Ok, let's be real here: Shadow of The Colossus is my favorite video game of all time. As it turns out, my favorite anime of all time is Outlaw Star, which I didn't learn until recently shares the same musical composer--a man named Kow Otani. Both works share a key Otani quality--the use of brass and strings to transition suspenseful moments into triumphant ones.
In Shadow of The Colossus particularly, Otani is able to craft beautifully eerie melodies that perfectly supplement the empty loneliness of the Forbidden Lands--melodies that transition gloriously when the player discovers one of the lumbering Colossi. It's a score that tells a beautiful story, even on its own.
Fez could have very easily featured an upbeat, poppy chiptune soundtrack akin to something out of an eight-bit Mario game, but it instead goes down a different path--one that I believe arrives at a better conclusion. The music in Fez is crisp and grainy to complement the game's visual style, but bears more resemblance to the eerie tunes of Shadow of The Colossus than it does to its platforming counterparts.
What I mean to say is that Fez does what it can to make you feel alone in a mysterious world, which to me seems appropriate. Given the power to explore the hidden dimensions of a flat existence, you're essentially exploring the untouched corners of a world hiding right in front of you. Every sophisticated, complex, yet un-peopled structure is indicative of some long lost civilization, and whatever calamity took them. This is not a story that is explicitly told to you, but one that the game's atmosphere creates in the silence of your mind.
While Bastion is one of my favorite games of all time, I wouldn't say that it's because of the gameplay. If you were to isolate the gameplay from the rest of the art, you're left with a somewhat mediocre game. Logan Cunningham's narration and Darren Korb's musical score didn't just carry Bastion, they sprinted away with it.
The video that I've provided is my favorite example of Darren Korb's musical and lyrical prowess. The first song is "Build That Wall," a folksy piece sung by the character "Zia." The second is "Mother, I'm Here," a lonely tune by the character "Zulf," which is utilized powerfully in the game's third act. The third is a mash-up of the two, played during the game's credits.
I wasn't particularly attached to either of these characters, but these songs did make me cry--a moment I owe entirely to Darren Korb.
Honorable Mention: Journey
I'd love to speak on Journey's behalf, but I've sadly never played the game. Still, I knew from hearsay just how important music is to this game's narrative, and felt any list omitting it would be incomplete.
If you can think of any games that would be sorely lacking without their outstanding music, please feel free to mention them in the comments below!