There's some irony in the fact that the technological advantages the PC held over other platforms in the 1990s may have limited the longevity of some of its music.
We had CD-ROM, hard drives, and discrete soundcards years before anyone else, and those advances pushed many studios toward not only full-motion video but elaborate, orchestral music rather than the chiptunes possible on the NES, SNES, and other sound palettes—a sound that has become a beloved aesthetic and genre in and of itself. Nintendo’s (and even Sega’s) platforms inspire a ton of affection, but there’s still a lot of worthy professional and amateur PC gaming music floating around the web.
Songe is an unbelievably talented multi-instrumentalist, mixing everything from flutes, drums, and ocarinas (when appropriate) to multiple guitars and piano, to his own vocal backing, like on his terrific takes on Warcraft II’s Orc theme or the Skyrim Dragonborn theme. Among his dozens of tracks, his Spelunky Mines Medley stands out as a reverent interpretation of a song heard thousands of times by any dedicated Spelunker.
“Baba Yetu,” Civilization IV
The only piece of game music to win a Grammy, this performance by a Los Angeles choir is my favorite among the many that have been recorded. Composer Christopher Tin was, interestingly enough, the roommate of Civilization IV lead designer Soren Johnson.
Performed by: Angel City Chorale
Original composer: Christopher Tin
Buy on Amazon
“UNATCO,” Deus Ex
This rock-metal cover of UNATCO (the organization of which Deus Ex’s JC Denton is a member) was one of the favorite things I found online, mainly due to how restrained it is. So many of the metal covers of game music fall drift dangerously close to parody with over-applied kick pedaling and overlong guitar solos. Skilton keeps it simple here while producing an exciting take on what was a pretty sedate, austere tune originally.
“FTL Theme Epic Rock cover,” FTL: Faster Than Light
We really like Ben Prunty’s stuff around here—so much so that we asked him to compose an original song for our podcast—so it’s great to see an FTL track covered so well by Canadian guitarist James Mills. Give Mills’ System Shock 2, Hearthstone, StarCraft, and Dragon Age: Inquisition tracks a listen too.
“I’m Your Medic,” Team Fortress 2
From the “Weird Al genre” we have this rap from Captain Spalding, a regular on the PC Gamer TF2 server circa 2008-2010.
Doom: The Dark Side of Phobos
Way back in 2005 OCRemix, the web's biggest game remix community, assembled a team (that included Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowsky) to produce a massive two-disc, 23-track tribute to Doom. The best way to get it is by downloading it through OCRemix's official torrent.
“Suicide Mission,” Mass Effect 2
There’s an insane amount of Mass Effect covers out there paying homage to Jack Wall (and others’) incredible work. Sadly, an uncomfortable amount of it is dubstep. Tim Skilton’s take on the wonderful Suicide Mission theme isn’t, thank goodness.
“Hunt or Be Hunted,” The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Tidwell is well known to fans of game music covers (you can find a lot of his stuff on Spotify), but he rarely covers songs from PC games.
Super Meat Boy! - Choice Piano Cuts
Danny Baranowsky is absolutely prolific, having most recently composed for musical dungeon crawler Crypt of the Necrodancer. With his style of mixing modern composition with instrumentation from the 8- and 16-bit era, it’s no surprise that Baranowsky got his start on OCRemix. Super Meat Boy remains his essential work and while the official Super Meat Boy album contains a bunch of covers, I love the official piano collection by Brent Kennedy, a 10-track set that can be had for $5.
"Act on Instinct," Command & Conquer
A list of PC gaming music wouldn't be complete without Frank Klepacki. Almost two decades after its release Red Alert's "Hell March" track gets the most play, but rather than recommending one of many, many takes on that boot-stomping classic, I think stuff like "Act on Instinct" represents Klepacki's grinding, industrial oeuvre much better.
Performed by: Tim “Timofetus” Skilton
Original composer: Frank Klepacki
X-COM: UFO Defense theme
You won’t see X-COM getting a lot of recognition for its music in remixing communities, but this track from Fnotte manages to make something good out of the memorable intro sequence to UFO Defense.
Performed by: Fnotte
Original composer: John Broomhall