Game soundtracks get no respect. Not to sound like Rodney Dangerfield, but despite years and years of amazing music coming from games, gaming music is often treated by the public the same way your mom treated your 3rd grade art project. A dismissive pat on the head and a "good work, Danny, this is beautiful!"…followed by it being promptly buried under calendars, grocery lists, and "real" art on the refrigerator.
Things have been particularly rough for PC soundtracks where, due to a lack of audio hardware uniformity, music in the pre-CD audio era was a wildcard at best. Hell, even well into the late '90s there was no guarantee a PC even had a soundcard. Still, despite the limitations, we're not ashamed to say we not only respect PC game soundtracks, we flat out love them! The good ones at least.
Comparing soundtracks from different genres and different eras is extremely difficult and entirely subjective, which is exactly why we didn't compare them: The 30 soundtracks are listed in no particular order. Only one "rule" applies—we're only referring to original compositions here, licensed soundtracks need not apply.
Make sure to click on the game name / composer to take a listen over at youtube, and let us know your favorites in the comments.
Bastion - Darren Korb
When talking about Bastion's audio design, most of the praise goes to the fantastic narration, however, the soundtrack may be the real star of the show. A joy to listen to, the soulful, Folk-Western inspired compositions are dripping with as much color and richness as the game's much-lauded 2d backgrounds.
Unreal Tournament 99/2004 - Michiel van den Bos (99), Will Nevins (2k4), Kevin Riepl (2k4), Starsky Partridge (2k4)
For a multiplayer experience as fast and frantic as the Unreal Tournament games, you need music that's able to match that energy and intensity. The UT soundtracks easily rise to that challenge, and provide quite possibly the best music ever for rocket jumping, telefragging, and DOMINATING!
Shatter - Module
Much as we enjoy Shatter the game, it's a shame that such an outstanding soundtrack is tied to a simple Breakout clone. One of the best electronica albums—not just in game soundtracks, but of all time—Module's driving bass lines, soaring guitar riffs, and complex, multi-layered synth harmonies make great background music for just about everything, from working out, to writing articles about video game soundtracks. Daft Punk eat your heart out.
Heroes of Might & Magic III - Paul Romero, Rob King, Steve Baca
I have a confession: I'm a recovering Heroes 3 addict. I've probably clocked over 1,000 hours in the decade plus I've been playing it. And in all that time I never turned off the music. Never. And as impressive as the symphonic arrangements remain 10+ years later, this soundtrack was simply mindblowing back in 1999.
Quake - Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails
Quake made big waves back when it launched in 1995. In addition to basically writing the book on FPS level design and multiplayer, they also managed to land an actual rock star to compose the game's music: Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Reznor's work on Quake is some of his finest, showcasing gritty, industrial hardcore ambient tracks for the first time in gaming.
Left 4 Dead - Mike Morasky
You know what you want if the world and everything you know and love is dead and you’re stuck with three random strangers fighting for your lives in an apocalyptic zombie world? A great freaking soundtrack written by Valve’s in house composer, Mike Morasky, who scored both L4D and L4D2. That’s why we’ll be sure to stock our bug out bag of MREs, medpacks and 12-gauge shells and an MP3 player loaded with a Morasky’s Left 4 Dead theme.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Jeremy Soule
The Elder Scrolls games are big damn games. And Skyrim, with its dragons, giants, and Nordic sensibilities is the biggest, baddest Elder Scrolls game yet. Skyrim's soundtrack showcases the pounding timpanis, blaring horns, and all-male Viking choir you'd expect from a game of such epic proportions, but also mixes in a surprising number of quieter, more sensitive tracks—best for moonlit walks across snowy forests.
Deus Ex - Alexander Brandon, Dan Gardopée, Michiel van den Bos, Reeves Gabrels
While not all of the original Deus Ex's audio design was best in class—hell, the over-the-top stereotypical accents may have set back racial relationships a good century—Deus Ex's music is top-notch. This seminal soundtrack set the tone for cyberpunk as we know it—augmenting tense symphonic arrangements with a healthy helping of groovalicious synth.
Jazz Jackrabbit - Robert A. Allen and Joshua Jensen
The term "homage" is extremely important when working in creative fields. Is Jazz Jackrabbit, a game about a tough talkin', fast runnin' green rabbit a ripoff of Sonic the Hedgehog, a game about a tough talkin', fast runnin' blue hedgehog? Of course not! It's a loving homage, right down to its similar upbeat, fun-loving synthesized soundtrack.
Sonic Generations - Jun Senoue
And speaking of Sonic the Hedgehog, here's our one "cheat" on the list. How do you include some of the best ever console music in an all-PC soundtracks list? Simple, by including Sonic Generations, which features not just the original classic tracks, but also remixes and reinterpretations that stay true to the jazz-meets-electronica, infectiously toe-tapping style of 16-bit Sonic. Oh, and there's a whole lot of jazz flute, too.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - Stuart Chatwood
The Prince of Persia games have always had a very strong sense of place. It's not Prince of Detroit, it's Prince of Persia. Sands of Time's Mideastern-flavored soundtrack is equal parts hypnotic and rocking and sets the perfect foundation for the Prince's platforming adventures. It also features the best (and possibly only) Persian power ballad of all time, Time Only Knows.
Hitman 2 - Jesper Kyd
Agent 47 prides himself on being a silent assassin. Thankfully, Hitman 2 saw fit to accompany 47's sneaky escapades with one of the greatest orchestral arrangements to ever grace the silver…monitor. Using the full range of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra along with pulsing electronic undertones, Jesper Kyd's stirring soundtrack adds a chilling grandeur to the stealth thriller.
Assassin's Creed II - Jesper Kyd
More fantastic work from the talented Mr. Kyd, the entire Assassin's Creed series represents some of the finest music in all of gaming, with Assassin's Creed II being the strongest of the lot. Much like Hitman 2, AC2 juxtaposes organic folk and ethnic instrumentation with electronica, a blend that perfectly complements the sci-fi-meets-history elements of the game's setting.
Beyond Good & Evil - Christophe Héral
Ubisoft seems to really like World music. Ubi's Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed games already have enough ethnic music and percussion to employ half the world's ethnomusicologists (all 12 of them). Beyond Good & Evil takes it a step further, with an eclectic blend of symphonic, ethnic, and outright otherworldly instruments that somehow coalesce into a brilliant soundtrack that's truly out of this world.
Iji - Chris Geehan and Dan Byrne-McCullough
Another out of this world game, free indy action-adventure game Iji even looks like Out of This World, the innovative 1991 platform adventure. Its equally stellar soundtrack is a techno/prog-rock headbobber that's equal parts Metroid and Rush.
Braid - Jami Sieber, Shira Kammen, Cheryl Ann Fulton
One of the main reasons Braid is credited with starting the indy "revolution" of the last few years is its focus on quality and style over quantity. Braid's soundtrack, though short, is beautiful, brooding, and at times even breathtaking, as it evokes the game's themes of wonder, loss, and regret.
Baldur's Gate II - Michael Hoenig
Though the entirety of the Dungeons & Dragons themed Infinity Engine games (both Baldur's Gate games, both Icewind Dale games, Planescape: Torment) have fantastic soundtracks, Baldur's Gate II gets the representative callout here. The game's powerful choral and brass main theme that heralds the game launch is forever tattooed into our collective brains…in a good way—no illithids, renegade mages, or psychotic demigods needed.
Dragon Age: Origins - Inon Zur
Though not Baldur's Gate in name, Dragon Age: Origins is certainly Baldur's Gate in spirit, right down to its amazing sound work. Scored by impressively prolific Israeli composer Inon Zur, Origins' soundtrack is appropriately grandiose enough to fit the game's massive scope while also being hauntingly beautiful for the more emotional moments.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne - A Film Noir Love Story - Kartsy Hatakka, Kimmo Kajasto
The original Max Payne theme was memorable but the title score written for Max Payne 2 still haunts us nine years after the game was first released. Kartsy Hatakka, of the band Waltari, and Kimmo Kajasto are credited with composing this score that will stay with you long after you finish reading this story.
L.A. Noire - Andrew and Simon Hale
Though this list is about original soundtracks not licensed music, surprisingly enough, the bulk of L.A. Noire's outstanding period-appropriate jazz soundtrack is new, original work. While they mostly nail the soul of '40s jazz, a keen ear can detect some anachronistic cool jazz and post bebop influences here and there. But we'll hit the truth button and take Team Bondi's word that these are intentional anachronisms.
Mass Effect 2 - Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, David Kates, Jimmy Hinson
Mass Effect is as space opera as it gets, and you might assume that involves a John Williams score or Worf belting out Gav'ot Toh'va. Instead we get a soundtrack that draws upon Mass Effect's '70s sci-fi aesthetic, with big-wave synths on full display. Yes, the orchestral pieces are also great, but it's when Mass Effect is channeling its inner Vangelis that its soundtrack is at its synthy best.
Gemini Rue - Nathan Allen Pinard
Gemini Rue's soundtrack may best be described by combining the audio aesthetics of the last two entries: L.A. Noire and Mass Effect. And strange as this combination may seem, the jazz meets orchestra meets synth soundtrack is a pitch perfect companion for the future noir mystery adventure.
Mirror's Edge - Solar Fields
When describing soundtracks, "ambient" is almost a dirty word; basically another way of saying "there's no real melody and it's forgettable." Composed by ambient artist Solar Fields, the Mirror's Edge soundtrack nails the "no real melody" part but is in no way forgettable. Soothing, ethereal, and zen-like, Solar Fields' work feels like it's straight from a future where humanity has evolved beyond its need for simple melody.
Machinarium - Tomáš Dvorák
Machinarium is all about contradictions. It's a new-school style/old-school adventure game and its soundtrack is somehow both ambient and melodic at the same time. The music uses nearly every instrument imaginable (as well as several unimaginable) and combines them with creative metallic, mechanical, and robotic sound effects to bring to life the whimsical steampunk adventure.
Medal of Honor series - Michael Giacchino
Before he composed the scores for the Incredibles, Lost, Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, Michael Giacchino was probably best known for his score on Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. Of Giacchino’s many great scores our favorite is his work on the Medal of Honor Allied Assault.
Doom II - Bobby Prince
Doom II is the epitome of METAL: from its metal album-esque cover screen, to the high-speed, uber-violent gameplay, to, yes, the super shredding music. Doom II's soundtrack is essentially heavy metal in MIDI form, and defined by its liberal (possibly gratuitous) usage of synth electric guitar. The track list was massive for the time, and the hard-hitting tunes set the bar for action FPS for years to come.
Super Meat Boy - Danny Baranowsky
Including Super Meat Boy on this list isn't "the next best thing" to having NES-era console game music—it's better! A love letter to the 8-bit stylings of yore, Super Meat Boy combines classic chiptunes with more modern instrumentation to create a unique soundtrack that really feels like the modern-day successor to NES musical powerhouses like Mega Man and Castlevania.
VVVVVV - Magnus "Souleye" Pålsson
Another classic homage, just like VVVVVV's graphics are pretty damn close to what you'd get on a C64, Magnus "Souleye" Pålsson's VVVVVV music stays pretty true to its chiptune roots. Souleye's outstanding soundtrack (sold as PPPPPP) shows the flexibility of chiptune composition and proves it's still an expressive and viable form of electronic music.
Oni - Paul Sebastien, Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori
Before Bungie was making some obscure console series called "Halo" they were hard at work making awesome PC titles. Oni is set in an anime-ified cyberpunk world, complete with mechs, ridiculously huge guns and all the android females you could ever want. As such, Oni's soundtrack is straight-up bass-thumping techno cause in the fake future of '90s anime, all action is accompanied by club-style techno.
Star Trek: Bridge Commander - Danny Pelfrey
Star Trek’s loyal fans are just as devoted to the music as they are to the minute details of a starship’s nacelle design, so violate that 4th wall and you have hell to pay. Danny Pelfrey’s work on Star Trek: Bridge Commander has always impressed as having the same “look and feel” of Star Trek music without borrowing from the shows' cues and themes. He also scored Star Trek: Command III, Armada, and Elite, too.