Soundtracks of the Generation

No, this is not another contest. Games are already too much a matter of taste already without adding something as patently subjective as music on top of it. Rather, I'm just curious what everyone's favorite soundtracks of the past seven-ish years have been? I've thrown together a list here (but not a list list, since they still won't let you hyperlink) of twenty of my favorite overall soundtracks from 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP and PC (post-2005) games and a subsequent runner-up smattering of single tracks from otherwise exemplary OSTs.

(Because YouTube videos to copyrighted music tend to disappear faster than the morning dew, I've left the entire titles of the tracks featured for people to copy/paste into Google/YouTube in case the videos they link to are already down.)

(Though I don't intend this to become a popularity contest, absolutely feel free to post your own favorites in the comments. Try to limit the number of embedded videos if you can, as having a lot can start to pile on the bandwidth.)

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Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles is a remarkable game by many metrics with which one might judge a video game already. It looks incredible, it has a truly unique setting, it effortlessly merges JRPG creativity with Western RPG design, it has a overpowered furball that can bring down monsters twenty times its size. Its best feature far and away though is its soundtrack. An outstanding 92 tracks, many of which are day/night remixes, from the cream of the Japanese game composer crop.

The quality consistency of so many tracks from so many composers just completely baffles me. I have no idea how Monolith Soft pulled this off.

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Nier's a difficult game to recommend, because it feels almost deliberately old-fashioned in a lot of ways and aggressively bizarre in others. Its affecting soundtrack, though, is universally adored by anyone who played through the game, whether they enjoyed the overall experience or not.

Apparently, a lot of the singing was done in a language based on Gaelic but otherwise entirely fictional. If there's meaning to be found in those lyrics, it's not for us to know. As enigmatic as anything else in Nier, then. (The same team is working on Drakengard 3's soundtrack, from what I hear. I might have to step into that nightmarish world of inter-dimensional infant abominations and implied incestual overtones once again.)

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Created by Indie musician Module, Shatter's soundtrack is - again - the clear highlight in an otherwise fun, HouseMarque-esque cybernetic re-imagining of the old Atari game BreakOut from Sidhe. Shatter usually hovers around a dollar in price whenever the Steam sales come around, and it's worth it for the music alone. I elected for an eclectic electro soundtrack as a nice change from all the orchestral JRPG music I'll be putting up here, but it really is a remarkable piece when heard from start to finish. It's the Discovery of video game OSTs, if one could make a hyperbolic statement like that without a few unfortunate "Citizen Kane of video games" overtones (though in all honesty, it does sound like what the musician was going for, even to my musically untrained ears).

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Super Meat Boy

Danny Baranowsky is rightfully getting his dues as an iconic Indie game maestro due to his musical contributions to Edmund McMillen's output. His frenetic Super Meat Boy soundtrack is not only his best recognized but possibly his best full stop. A similar case could be made for The Binding of Isaac's great, moody music as well.

Perhaps one of the best design decisions made for Super Meat Boy was to not interrupt the music whenever Meat Boy met a grisly end, but then the alternative would've probably sounded like a record caught on a five second loop with the way I play.

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The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant can be a bit of an unholy mess of byzantine character development systems and texture pop-in insanity, but its soundtrack and sense of scale are above reproach. Being able to direct entire armies in regular turn-based RPG battles didn't get old for me, even with the odd limitations the game made regarding what I could use and when.

Though I've leaned heavily on its metal-as-fuck battle music with my selection above, it also has a lot of great ambient dungeon and town tracks. Like Xenoblade, its soundtrack is enormous enough to be spread across three discs, but almost all of it is golden.

(Nisus and Schismogenesis comprise the two-part final boss theme, hence the double-placing. Without giving too much away about the final battle itself, Schismogenesis's appearance is a very bad harbinger.)

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Super Mario Galaxy

Probably a foregone conclusion that the music in a Super Mario game would be superlative, but it's easy to forget with the amount of recycling the New Mario games have done that the folk at Nintendo - Mahito Yakota and Koji Kondo specifically - can hammer out an incredible soundtrack from time to time. Nostalgia aside, Galaxy's full orchestral soundtrack is the biggest musical accomplishment in the Mario series and one of the most legitimately impressive albums on this list. But then I'm a sucker for jumping on Goombas, so maybe there's a bias. (Nope.) (It's amazing.) (Also, I guess technically speaking Super Mario Galaxy 2 has an equally good soundtrack, but it's really more of the same. In every respect.)

Now if only I could get Club Nintendo EU to acknowledge that I've bought a Wii U so I can finally earn enough Happy Disney Currency Equivalent to buy that Super Mario Galaxy OST off them.

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VVVVVV's soundtrack, composed by SoulEye, is some impressively catchy chiptune music that earwormed its way into my head during the handful of hours it took me to explore and collect everything in the unstable and hazardous universe Captain Viridian and his crew find themselves trapped in. Both the visuals and the music are a love letter to the Commodore 64, and to its many talented composers like Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard and Tim Follin.

I don't know why it's worth noting, but just as every character in the game has a name that begins with V, every track in the OST has a name that begins with P. I'm not quite sure what the significance is, but then there's a lot in this game I'm not sure about. How gravity works, for one thing.

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Radiant Historia

I have to fight the temptation to just add every soundtrack that Yoko Shimomura worked on in the last generation of consoles. She's just about supplanted Nobuo Uematsu as the one composer I'm always happy to see listed in a game's credits before I start playing it.

Radiant Historia's soundtrack emphasizes a purer form of the standard JRPG orchestral soundtrack, divorced from the usual synthesizer additions. Shimomura's particularly fond of violins, and it's hard to escape them in RH's reserved music. But then why would you want to?

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Greg Kasavin and Supergiant Games really went all out with the production values on Bastion, creating a beautiful watercolor-influenced world with one of the best Indie soundtracks in memory. The gameplay itself was a bit more of an acquired taste, but that's probably a matter for debate. The soundtrack has a great, unique folksy flavor to it that manages to enrapture or excite whenever the situation at hand calls for it, and I'm impressed by its hard mood swings after listening to it in its entirety when packed together in a playlist.

It's probably a bit of a forum meme at this point to include Bastion on every "best of" list going, but hey, I liked it a lot. Well, the music anyway. I think I soured on the game itself after the twentieth attempt on that blunderbuss bonus trial stage, or hearing the Kid's origin story over and over on the many arena runs. Bah. (Still a big fan, Greg! Can't wait for Transistor!)

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Neotokyo is a Source Engine mod I'd never heard of prior to discovering its soundtrack by Ed Harrison. Eschewing my usual beating around the bush, this OST is just phenomenal from beginning to end. I almost can't believe something this good was attached to a free Indie Source mod. It's largely electro and drum n' base, from what little I know about musical nomenclature, but there's a strong emphasis on emotional beats that actually makes listening to the whole playlist kind of draining after a little while. One of my favorite soundtracks from this generation from a game I've never played, nor am likely to. I'm such a poseur.

As well as the selection of tracks above, you can download the entire soundtrack on the artist's page in MP3 or FLAC form for free. Suspicious, right? Why give this away?

(So now we're at the halfway point, I'm going to drop the number of song links to three for the next ten items. I mean, we'll be here all week otherwise.)

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Ys Seven

Ys Seven is, believe it or not, the seventh Ys game. I guess they ran out of fancy subtitles. I believe it's only truly new Ys game this generation (besides Origin, which is more of a spin-off anyway), as number six was that PS2 game Ark of Napishtim from a few years back. Seven is still some Ys-ass Ys business, which means a lot of great boss fights and a lot of great music to go with same. Falcom always assembles a lot of very busy tunes for their RPGs and listening to its music again reminds me that I've been meaning to check out Trails in the Sky for the longest time. By the time I get around to this PSP Special Edition I bought at moderate expense the Steam version will have been out and on sale at least once for 75% off, causing no end of irritation.

Oh right, Ys Seven. It's got a fine soundtrack overall but its battle music is really the money melon, so to speak. It just so happens I might've accidentally selected three boss themes. Oops. Funny, that.

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Dark Souls

Maybe I'm just bitter that it lost the GotG poll (but not so bitter I won't be giving ME 2 its due later, don't worry) and want to keep carrying a bonfire-lighting torch for it in some way, but Dark Souls' soundtrack is both amazing in how it sounds and in how it's used: There is very little music in Dark Souls. Lordran is not a particularly musical place. So when a song starts playing, it has some meaning behind it. Firelink Shrine has a somber theme, to suggest a sanctuary of a sort, but almost all the music in the main game comes from the boss battles. These boss themes, all unique, are more like leitmotifs for their respective opponents: Seath's signifies his madness, Gwyn's his utterly broken spirit, Sif's sad resolution with what you have forced her to do - these emotions are all carried by their songs, which are as important to the game's very unintrusive and subtext-driven lore as the odd snippets you gain from reading item descriptions and listening to NPC hints.

Now, can we quit talking about Dark Souls? We all know it's the greatest game of the generation. Let's not beat a dead V-Bomb, here.

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Since there won't be another Fez for, uh, one reason or another, we can now appreciate this game for its uniqueness on top of everything else. A wolf in sheep's clothing, Fez lures you in with its cutesy pixel graphics, clever little world spinning gimmick and an ambient soundtrack that doesn't so much get you geared up for adventure than really make its world feel lived in and a little lonely. Of course, it then goes off the rails a little when the focus switches to hunting for the elusive anti-cubes that make up the considerably more involved second half of the game.

Though even while jumping through inter-dimensional portals for matter-negating tchotchkes and dodging the resulting fissures in the fragile veil of reality, the music lends a certain down-to-earth nature to everything. Well, except for where the tracks sound like they're glitching out a little. Maybe Fez is going for an "old, forgotten NES game that had gotten a bit moldy in the attic in the interim" sort of approach with its soundtrack, but given all the insanity of its meta-language and lateral thinking puzzles it's probably going for something a little more... impalpable. Whatever the hell that means. Jeez, why do I always sound like this whenever I try to talk about this game?

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Final Fantasy XIII

That's more like it - overdramatic JRPG music is a little more in my comfort zone. Who'd have thought that a game in a series that had an entirely separate game built around its good music would have good music? So crazy. Final Fantasy XIII is probably only the favorite FF game to a small fraction of the series's fanbase (and don't tell me if you are one of those people, because you scare me) but its music is still a stand out. Square-Enix never skimps on the presentation of its flagship franchise, after all, even if some of the more important elements (story, characters) can often fall by the wayside.

Hey, whatever, we've established a few times since it came out that the game gets good at around the twenty hour mark. Its detractors are just being unreasonable. Cough.

Right, more about the soundtrack. There's quite a plethora of tracks with vocals, which wasn't something Final Fantasy really did beyond the occasional signature tune like FFVIII's Eyes on Me. I think we have Final Fantasy X-2 to blame for their marked increase. As well as for a lot of other things. Come at me, @arbitrarywater.

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Double Dragon Neon

Double Dragon Neon wasn't so much a reboot in the sense of WayForward's later DuckTales re-imagining, but more of a love letter to a very silly period when brawlers were King. I almost found it amusing that Jeff took an immediate disliking to the game due to its undermining of Double Dragon's serious mythology (he was right on the money about its mediocre gameplay though). I mean, Double Dragon is a game where your girlfriend gets sucker punched in the gut and you have to run after her to a mystical temple in the middle of nowhere while avoiding giant musclemen in their briefs who may or may not have painted themselves green before challenging you.

What I'm saying is that Double Dragon was dumb and Double Dragon Neon deliberately so, but while a lot of its comedy is kind of broad and terrible, the era-appropriate soundtrack is superb. If it's not remixing the original themes in an aurally pleasing manner, Its either capturing the 80s feel with tracks like Neon Jungle and Glad I Am or being a big ol' goof with the Tapesmith's ridiculously OTT rock music (not to mention the snippets of 80s music parodies from the cassettes themselves) or the plaintive boss soliloquy Dared to Dream, which sees out the game.

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The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You (or TWEWY as many fans call it, despite it sounding like the name of SWERY's hip-hop obsessed younger brother) is an achingly hip DS RPG from a few years back in which streetwise teenagers and reapers tangle in the streets of the brightly colored Shibuya shopping district. Something of a departure from the usual JRPG haunts of quasi-medieval Europe and whatever anachronism-filled settings Final Fantasy tends to come up with.

The music follows suit, creating many memorable tracks with a J-Pop flavor that wouldn't seem out of place in a Jet Set Radio game. I was actually a little concerned that it was all licensed music and I wouldn't be allowed to include it (which is why Hotline Miami isn't on here, for those wondering), but it was all actually created for the game. It's quite an achievement for the DS, considering how limited the sound output are on those things without headphones plugged in.

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Austin Wintory's music for the sublime Journey is apparently built in such a way to respond to player stimulus, building up whenever the player approaches a site of importance and tying itself in with the sounds of collectibles and the like. As is the case with the rest of Journey's presentation, it feels very organic and player-focused, as if to cater itself to that specific player's quest.

It actually took a second listening divorced from the game itself to fully appreciate the music, because it's built in such a way to blend into the background in the most positive sense of the idea. Oh hey, guys, if you haven't played Journey yet you probably should. It's not going to change the way you think about life and the universe and stuff (that's what drugs are for) but it's really something that ought to be played for yourselves. And, unlike Flower or Flow, it's actually a game, so that's a big plus (cue angry responses).

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Eternal Sonata

I'll be discussing Eternal Sonata in more detail with the next Comic Commish I'm working on, but the crayola anime adventures of one Frédéric François Chopin as he lies in a TB-induced fever dream aren't as bizarre or as cloying as one might initially expect from first impressions. I mean, sure, everyone spouts poetry before unleashing their special attacks and they all kind of look like adorable creepy mannequins of the sort you'd spot out of the corner of your eye on a dark night in an abandoned insane asylum only to be replaced with visions of blood and knives and the distant screaming of-

Wait, Eternal Sonata's soundtrack. Well, it splits its focus between actual Chopin pieces, performed by concert pianist Stanislav Bunin, and some quite excellent JRPG orchestral pieces by Motoi Sakuraba, who has probably been credited on more RPGs than any composer ever. Guy gets around, musically speaking. The final boss theme, Scrap and Build Ourselves, was apparently a little of column A and a little of column B, which is probably why it's so good.

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No More Heroes

As was the case with The World Ends With You, Suda51's best game (I mean, we're all agreed on that, right? Say what you will about Killer7's bonkers presentation, but I don't think it played very well) has something of an eclectic pop music sensibility to it, with wildly varying styles between boss fights that made fighting those weirdos all the more memorable. I can't speak for its sequel's music, since I never did get around to playing it (it's on the backlog, I swear) but I'm always stoked to hear more crazy Engrish Japanese rap and rock music on a soundtrack. It's why the Ouendans always appealed more to me than Elite Beat Agents, with its Good Charlotte and Ashlee Simpson tunes. Blegh.

I do wonder if I haven't rated Pleather for Breakfast and We Are Finally Cowboys higher because I enjoyed the fights they belonged to so much. Those insta-death attacks were incredibly cheap but still looked cool as hell.

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Uh oh, have I lost my mind after writing up so many of these? Who the hell still remembers Opoona? Opoona's soundtrack is actually pretty damn good, with music that ranges from the sort of ambient theremin-heavy sci-fi muzak you'd hear in the background of any given Phantasy Star Online and some fun little melodies like Partizans, which almost sounds like it should be accompanying a magical anime girl transformation sequence. Don't look at me like that; I just found the music in Opoona to be extremely pleasant to listen to. Considering so much of the game is running around performing odd jobs for people, it's nice to have something soothing piping through the speakers while you get lost in what felt like a dozen consecutive futuristic shopping malls.

Oh, Opoona's not that bad, really. It's clearly meant for the tiniest of babies, but when that just means that a game has chosen to emphasize fun over spending several million dollars on 1080p explosion physics and hyper-realistic dog animations, I'm way the fuck on board. I think that sentiment extends to the Wii in general, for that matter.

All right, what follows are a list of single tracks from games with great music that didn't quite fit into my top twenty for one reason or another. It's still some of my favorite VGM ever, let alone from this last generation:

And, of course, Blue Dragon - Eternity. Can't forget that. Can't ever forget that...

So yeah, I think that's probably more video game music and words about video game music that I perhaps needed to include. I've missed a lot, though, so post away in the comments if you feel there's something that's been criminally overlooked. Thanks for reading, and here's hoping that the next generation can do even better.