By MajorMitch 11 Comments
It’s time again for one of my favorite personal annual traditions: looking back on the year in video game music, and sifting through my favorite soundtracks to share in a fun collection. It’s a testament to the strength of the medium that I can do this every year, and looking over this year’s list, I can’t help but marvel at the continued diversity and quality of video game music. There’s something here for everyone, and there’s plenty more good stuff past these 10 games. Please feel free to share any of your own favorites; I’d love to hear them and discuss all that 2019 had to offer. Music only makes the games we play better, and that’s worth celebrating.
As always, a few notes about this list. First, I only considered music from games I personally played, as I feel like context is a big part of what makes this music so meaningful to me. Second, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to embed here, though all of these games have many songs worth listening to. Finally, these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy listening!
Featured Track: Fledgling Queen (by Phonetic Hero)
Just like Advance Wars before it, Wargroove has a catchy, endearing song to match the personality of each of its many lovable commanders. This is the kind of personality I grew up loving in video game music, and Wargroove carries the torch forward confidently. It’s fun, quality stuff that I enjoyed listening to from start to finish.
No featured track, as it uses a “reactive music system” (by Matt Boch)
I don’t even know if you can call this a soundtrack? At least not in the traditional sense. But Ape Out’s music is critical to its appeal, and is more directly integrated into its action than most. Dubbed a “reactive music system,” its procedural jazz, driven primarily by a simulated drummer, rises and falls in speed, volume, and intensity along with the action. It’s super fascinating and incredibly effective. I love musical experiments like this, and Ape Out’s music is perhaps the biggest reason the game works as an art piece.
Featured Track: Sneaky Driver (by Bill Kiley)
I love the little touch where, at the beginning of every level, you see your character stop to put in their earbuds and press play on their portable music device. It suggests that he’s listening to the same music you are while ruthlessly murdering countless thugs, which goes an extra step towards bringing you into the game. It’s also just infectious music that fits the game’s trippy and violent vibe splendidly.
Featured Track: Action Over Words (by Erik Gudmundson)
This soundtrack snuck up on me. What began sounding like good-but-traditional fantasy RPG fare grew on me over time, as it became more ambitious and creative along with the game itself. By the end I was rocking out to some surprisingly epic boss themes during some equally epic boss battles, and found myself humming along to the quieter themes too.
Featured Track: Timber Hearth (by Andrew Prahlow)
Outer Wilds may not have a lot in the way of traditional songs, but it’s nevertheless my emotional gut punch soundtrack of the year. The moments that do have melodies are incredibly poignant ones, and songs often swell during the game’s major thematic touchstones. The intimate instrumentation and somber yet hopeful tone further help the music lend the whole adventure an emotional resonance it wouldn’t have otherwise. Bonus points for the game’s navigation system, where you follow the sounds of other travelers’ instruments across the galaxy. What a cool touch.
Featured Track: Gerudo Valley (Combat) (by Danny Baranowsky)
So what if you let a talented indie composer remix the music from one of Nintendo’s longest-running and iconic franchises for an official game? That idea may sound far fetched, yet it somehow came to life in Cadence of Hyrule even more brilliantly than I could have predicted. Indie games have carried the torch for personable, memorable soundtracks this generation, and here that sensibility is expertly combined with some of gaming’s most iconic music of generations past. And being a rhythm game, its music is front and center of the experience. It’s a match made in heaven, and I struggle to fully express just how freaking rad this soundtrack is.
Featured Track: Voyage of Promise (by Michiru Yamane)
Last year, Curse of the Moon’s soundtrack perfectly replicated the vibe of the NES era Castlevania games; this year Ritual of the Night successfully takes on Symphony of the Night. It not only nails the vibe it’s going for, but it’s also just genuinely good, catchy video game music. Its music is almost certainly my favorite part of the entire game, and proves (once again) that a throwback score can still be great today.
Featured Track: Fodlan Winds (by Takeru Kanazaki)
I’ve always enjoyed Fire Emblem music, but Three Houses raises the bar substantially; this is the soundtrack I could not stop listening to all year. It’s main theme, The Edge of Dawn, perfectly captures the game’s emotional core. Even better are the many epic and memorable battle themes, which combine and remix multiple recurring central motifs in dramatic and affecting ways. It all matches the story’s equally dramatic moments, providing big, bold exclamation marks every step of the way. It’s a well-made and special soundtrack that captures a lot of what I love about both Fire Emblem and video game music at large.
Featured Track: Cosmic Decay (by Curt Victor Bryant)
With Doom Eternal getting delayed until 2020, someone had to carry the heavy metal torch. Valfaris happily stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park with this guitar-shredding, face-melting score. Good job, Valfaris! *throws up the horns*
Featured Track: God of the Dead (by Darren Korb)
I don’t know what their secret is, but Supergiant Games and Darren Korb seem incapable of producing a game soundtrack that’s anything less than amazing. While Hades technically entered early access at the end of 2018, they’ve continued adding new content and new music all throughout 2019, and I’ve continued listening to its music all year too. It’s one of those quality soundtracks that just feels right, and defines the experience of battling your way out of the Greek underworld way better than I could have ever imagined. I suspect I’ll be rocking out to this one for a long, long time; here's hoping there's lots more music to come.