Hello, Grand Theft Auto V, goodbye social life. When (developer) Rockstar’s latest open-world adventure lands on September 17th, it’ll almost certainly coincide with a lot of barren bars, undersubscribed cinemas and deserted discotheques. Why go out when this series, over its myriad iterations, has proved such a worthwhile second-life simulator? Albeit one with more guns and the occasional jetpack.
One of the most talked-about topics ahead of the release of GTA V – apart from the leaking of its huge game map - is its soundtrack, which features the usual array of high-quality tracks licensed from across the genre spectrum. Clash ran an article on the series’ greatest radio stations in July – check that out (and soundtrack your day, if you’re in the mood for pre-GTA V nostalgia) right here.
Amongst the artists contributing new material to GTA V’s soundtrack: a certain Tyler, The Creator. Flying Lotus has his own in-game radio station, and a total of 240 songs have been licensed alongside 20 movies’ worth of original score. It’s the largest soundtrack Rockstar’s ever managed.
And all this attention paid to a bunch of beats and pieces assembled for a video game got Clash thinking: what are our favourite video game soundtracks? We’re not talking about the licensed fare – as great as that space-shooter section accompanied by Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love’ is in Saints Row IV (see below). We mean original scores – and we don’t just mean from recent, seventh-generation software.
So, here’s seven of the best original video game soundtracks, in an order entirely arbitrary, and naturally not representing a definitive top seven drawn from Every Game Ever. There’s no Final Fantasy here, for one thing. And that’s some proper epic stuff – some of the time.
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Journey’s only brief, a game that can be completed inside an hour and a half. It’s not particularly challenging, more a meditative affair, the goal to guide a mostly silent character through landscapes that change from desert dunes to subterranean caves and onto a mountainside, the objective being to scale the peak at the end of this Journey. And how you scale it come the climax: quite the wonderful sequence, a real emotions-stirring moment.
And the feelings the player experiences wouldn’t be half as palpable without this Grammy Award-nominated score – the first-ever video game score to earn a place at the Grammys, in the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media category (it lost to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). Composer Austin Wintory has also written for films, but Journey is his breakout success: luxurious yet contemplative orchestral music that perfectly fits every frame of its parent game.
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Streets Of Rage 2 (1992)
From one of this generation’s standout scores to one from the 16-bit era: a wholly different style, but equally memorable. Streets Of Rage 2 is one of the Sega Mega Drive’s crown jewels, a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, simple to click with but tough to beat on its harder levels, which is still immensely playable today. And part of the game’s enduring appeal is its soundtrack, written predominantly by Yuzo Koshiro, a true innovator in his field.
Koshiro pushes the hardware to its limits here, taking techno to the bare-knuckle brawling of the gameplay and producing a fine standalone set in the process. What’s most amazing is that Koshiro was working with already out-dated hardware, an NEC PC-8801, when making this music – and yet it still sounds amazingly retro-futuristic, despite the Mega Drive’s own audio limitations.
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It’s Tetris, as a sphere! Sort of. To be honest, much as we’ve tried to get along with Tetrisphere since its release for the Nintendo 64 in the late 1990s, it’s never going to take the place in our hearts of the original, top-to-bottom falling-blocks game (30 years old next year… whoa). What is certainly worthy of praise, though, is Neil D Voss’ soundtrack.
Like Streets Of Rage 2, this looks to dance culture for influence, but the greater processing power of the N64 makes it stand up rather better to today’s producers than so many 16- and 32-bit efforts. It achieves a subtlety within its frenetic beats, a forerunner of material by Moderat and even Machinedrum.
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PaRappa The Rapper (1996)
An award-winner in terms of its music and how gameplay is so closely tied to it – this being an outstanding rhythm action game from a time before the peripherals of Rock Band et al – PaRappa, as its title implies, challenges the player to keep up with ever-more-complex rhymes, with only their PlayStation pad for inputs. The architect of this synergy between sound and vision was Masaya Matsuura, a founding member of Japanese pop-rockers Psy-S. A hit domestically, their success didn’t translate internationally – but PaRappa’s appeal certainly did.
Following this breakthrough, Matsuura worked on more music-based video games, including Vib-Ribbon (1999), the sequel-proper to PaRappa (2002), and iPod title Musika. This is the only interactive soundtrack on Clash’s 7 Of The Best, but we’ve plenty of time, too, for titles like the PS2’s Rez and Frequency – though both employ licensed material.
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Max Payne 3 (2012)
Rockstar’s big project pre-GTA V was this, the third entry in the Max Payne series – a gaming franchise that’s spun out into a Mark Wahlberg-starring movie as well as some fan-made short films. A relatively by-the-book third-person shooter, Max Payne 3 isn’t in the same league as some of Rockstar’s greatest creations – it’s no Red Dead Redemption, that’s for sure. But it’s a cinematic, albeit totally linear rollercoaster, full of action and unafraid to show some pretty grizzly stuff.
Its soundtrack is (mostly) the work of LA band HEALTH, later released commercially with ‘Tears’ issued as a promotional single. It plays to its makers’ strengths, pounding of percussion and buzzing of effects. It gets tense, only to break as Max chews up the scenery with his dual-wielded pistols.
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Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013)
A (brilliantly) ludicrous game, a (tremendously) ludicrous soundtrack. For Metal Gear’s foray away from stealth to something altogether more slicing and dicing, Konami commissioned Jamie Christopherson – he wrote the music to Boa vs Python, guys! – to deliver a collection of speed-metal(ish), mostly vocal-led tracks. Amongst the contributors: John Bush, formerly of metal outfit Anthrax, and ex-Machine Head/Soulfly axeman Logan Mader. You already know what this is sounding like, right…? Awesomely corny.
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Shadow Of The Colossus (2005)
From the sublimely stupid to something distinctly sobering. Shadow Of The Colossus is like Journey in some respects: not a lot happens, but it does so beautifully. The exceptions to this stillness come as battles with huge, you guessed it, colossi – 16 of them in total. The hero of the title, Wander, rides his horse, Agro, across plains and mountains to uncover the whereabouts of these massive beasts, slaying them in order to save the unconscious Mono. Sounds slight, but this is one of the most affecting games ever realised, a true masterpiece for those willing to take their time and savour every detail of the amazing craft that’s gone into its creation.
No spoilers here, of course (note that the clip below is of the first colossus battle, so don’t watch if you really want nothing given away) – the plot, such as it is, is so minimal that to mention any more than what’s above would ruin the experience for newcomers. What’s less minimal: the swelling, lurching, dramatic yet somehow downplayed music, composed by Kow Otani. (Oh, the music that plays when a colossus falls… shivers down the spine, still.) With several Gamera film credits to his name, Otani is the ideal choice to convey amazing size through sound alone. The SotC soundtrack was released on CD, but only in Japan. Sad face.
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