Since the day video games could have soundtracks we could enjoy listening to as we play, many developers found unique ways to utilize the technology of the times to compose them. While present day game soundtracks can now implement actual orchestrated music, techno, heavy guitar riffs, hip hop beats, and the erratic sounds of dubstep, that wasn’t always the case in the era between 8 and 16-bit.
These days, the Batman Arkham game series can now utilize orchestrated music akin to the Dark Knight trilogy, or you can get a heavy rock soundtrack in Metal Gear Solid Rising. Then with the cult hit Shenmue, you got a theme song that uses traditional Eastern string instruments that appropriately reflect its setting. With Rez, you feel like you’re lost in the greatest rave of your life. Last, when you play Nintendo games, you get the 8-bit sounds, which were limited to 4 voices on the NES sound chip. So by taking into account all eras, what are some of the best instrumental oriented themes in gaming? Read our list to find out.
10. Pokemon Red/Green (Pokemon Red/Blue)
- Platform: Game Boy
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak
- Release Dates: October 15, 1996 (Japan), September 30, 1998 (US)
Though the Game Boy is now 30 years old, the original Pokemon games helped keep the OG handheld alive 10 years after it debuted! While a good percentage of millennial gamers may be turned off by the primitiveness of older technologies, there is something about Pokemon that helps the Game Boy still hold up to this day. Like the NES, the sound chip to the Game Boy was very limited with how many sounds it could produce, but with the right people in charge, you can still make a great soundtrack.
Putting aside the standard Pokemon theme of wanting to be the very best (like no one ever was), the opening theme to the original game (which you can also hear in the anime series from time to time), maximizes its technology to still offer something presentable. As you watch the intro of two Pokemon about to fight, it has a very intense melody and tempo that sets the mood of battle and when it transitions to the title screen, the song lightens up and gives you the impression you’re out on an adventure. By obvious definition, the function of a theme song is to give you an idea of what the product is about and despite modern gaming having fully composed songs with lyrics, the original Pokemon shows you can still use something as limiting as 4 sounds to give players a preview through a theme song on what the game is about.
9. Tekken 7
- Platform: Multiplatform
- Publisher: Bandai Namco
- Developer: Bandai Namco
- Release Dates: February 18, 2015
Tekken 7 is an amazing example of how you can use actual studio produced music in a video game. Solitude, the theme for the menu screen, uses an emotional sounding piano hook with higher octave keys to present the dramatic nature of this long-running franchise. In addition to its hook, it adds in some dubstep beats to get your heart pumping and to make it more presentably dramatic and intense. Considering that fighting games and actual sports are one-on-one, a title such as Solitude is an appropriate reflection of that world. It also symbolizes the brutal nature of the Mishima family and how the members have always been broken apart. So if you want a theme that captures a game’s qualities that are both internal and external, Solitude of Tekken 7 is your tune.
8. Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
- Platform: Arcade, Super NES/Super Famicom
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: March 1991
Street Fighter has largely been known in recent years for one particular theme in general - and that would be Guile’s theme (which seems to go with everything). It’s a very spirited track and genuinely screams “‘Murica!” In addition to Guile’s theme, the rest of the soundtrack excellently captures each character and their stages. For Balrog, it sucks you into its Vegas atmosphere of go big or go home; and with Ryu, players can also feel the atmosphere of his stage and how the character is serious in context to the martial arts. For Chun-Li, its fast tempo and melody may feel like a stereotype of Chinese music, but it has a unique feminine touch to it.
Putting the character/stage themes aside, let’s go back to the intro. While it’s brief by featuring two non-existent characters fighting in front of a cheering crowd, the song really does nothing to darken the mood. In fact, it lightens up by using progressing major chords and its instrumentals feel like something out of a superhero movie. It makes a game called Street Fighter fun and appealing as opposed to scaring potential players who could be passing by an old arcade. Putting aside its hilarious flaws, the 1996 USA Network cartoon adaptation perfectly makes use of the actual theme in its intro. So if you want to make a fighting game friendly to all players, the up tempo and chord progressions to this song masterfully gets that job done.
7. Zelda no Densetsu: Majora no Kamen (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)
- Platform: Nintendo 64
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: February 27, 2000 (Japan), October 25, 2000 US)
The Legend of Zelda franchise has always offered a soundtrack that reflects its fantasy settings. For Majora’s Mask, the Ocarina of Time spin off, its opening theme uses a lot of percussions and acoustics to not only capture those qualities, but to also reflect how the game is played through the role of a child. It sounds very friendly and welcoming, but also takes you to a world of mystery and adventure where you may encounter monsters, but new allies. Its rhythm feels cantabile-like, however, it captures everything you need to know in a world of a child trapped in a mystery.
- Platform: PC
- Publisher: id Software
- Developer: id Software
- Release Dates: December 10, 1993
All Gen-X and a good number of Xennial gamers probably consider Doom to be their first FPS game. When you take a look at a picture of John Romero, one of the main programmers of the game back when the game debuted, you could swear that he looks like a total metal head with his long hair. It’s really safe to conclude that Doom’s instrumentals in its theme make use of that intense genre. Considering that heavy metal and Satanism have gone hand-in-hand with its portrayal in media, the main theme of Doom’s heavy guitar riffs and fat bass gets your blood pumping as you try to get your hands on that BFG and take on Satan’s army. Or, you could do the sign of the devil and bob your head to the song just like Beavis and Butt-Head as you have your other hand on the keyboard blasting that BFG. So if you enjoy 80s metal akin to Metallica while kicking demon ass, then the theme of Doom can give you that feel.
5. Space Channel 5
- Platform: Dreamcast
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: UGA
- Release Dates: December 16, 1999 (Japan), June 4, 2000 (US)
After Busta Groove and Parappa became cult hits and with Dance Dance Revolution briefly revitalizing the arcade scene, Sega entered the music genre with its own rhythm-and-dance game, Space Channel 5. If you have played Busta Groove or Parappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5 plays like them but uses verbal commands as opposed to including visual prompts to get into the rhythm. Due to the novelty of this game, it is only natural that it has a fitting theme to want to let you get up and dance.
Despite taking place in outer space in the distant future, the theme contains heavy influences of 1960s upbeat dance tracks with its neo jazz feel, and it knows when to up the tempo as the game advances. In between out dancing aliens, it perfectly knows when to slide in a victory fanfare, which pretty much uses trumpets to Ken Woodman’s Mexican Flyer to let you know how groovy this game is. The design to the fashion has a retro feel to it so by using a soundtrack that takes influences from the 60s, it appropriately reflects that quality.
4. Rockman II: Dr. Wily no Nazo (Mega Man II)
- Platform: NES
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: December 24, 1988 (Japan), June 1989 (US)
In addition to Super Mario Bros (SPOILER: IT MADE THE LIST!), Mega Man is one of those games that perfectly makes use of 8-bit sounds. With its second game, the opening theme is probably one of the best intros of not only of its era, but in all of gaming. As the game opens, it narrates how Dr. Wily is back with new robots to defeat our hero. It has a calm melody to reflect that though the world is at peace, it gives off some bad vibes foreshadowing the things to come. Then as it pans upward with a side view of a skyscraper, the melody speeds up and has heavier sound effects to dramatically show a helmet-less Mega Man looking over the city like Batman.
Then when it gets to Mega Man, it has a high sound effect keying in a transition into an intense and heroic melody. Everything from here on out is balls to the walls with this opening song and includes random sound effects that sound like laser blasts. The 8-bit is appropriately used in a manner that invokes a future perspective back in the 80s. Its technological and accurately fits with the motif of Mega Man in a world that is electronic and nothing can be more electronic than 8-bit sound effects.
3. Sonic Mania
- Platform: Multi Platform
- Publisher: Segav
- Developer: PagodaWest Game
- Release Dates: August 15, 2017
Though Sonic’s reputation went down the toilet throughout most of the 2000s, it has recently made a strong come back by going back to its Genesis/Mega Drive roots through its latest release, Sonic Mania. Not only is it back in terms of graphics and game play of that era, but also with its soundtrack. Sonic Mania’s theme song, Friends, takes you back to the old days with its 16-bit era sound effects with its hook, but has modern instrumentals and beats that keep things up beat. Its tone will strongly make you think of the When I Can See You Again, the ending theme to Wreck It Ralph. Just like that track, the theme promises you to not only take you on a new journey that seems familiar, but when you got your friends with you, there is no obstacle that can stop you.
2. Bare Knuckle II (Streets of Rage II)
- Platform: Genesis/Mega Drive
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Sega
- Release Dates: Release Date: 1992
With this classic Sega beat ‘em up, another iconic feature in the game is its soundtrack, which takes influences from the club music and hip-hop of the early 1990s of Detroit. The soundtrack is a great demonstration of the Genesis hardware with its catchy beats and synthesizing instrumentals that the console is legendary for, and in turn, the tunes would influence some present day DJs who grew up on Streets of Rage II.
When you listen to its opening theme at the title screen, its cybernetic rhythm and heavy beats truly feels like it’s something out of Blade Runner or Robocop. It captures the dystopian nature of a world overrun by the mafia and also feels like a classic detective noir film. It lets you know right away that the world you are about to enter may have its fun with the entertainment districts, but the dangers far outweighs that and it’s up to you to stop Mr. X once and for all!
1. Super Mario Bros.
- Platform: NES/Famicom
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: September 13, 1985 (Japan), October 18, 1985 (US)
If any game could coin 8-bit as a music genre and pave the way for video game soundtracks as they are today, it would certainly have to be the original Super Mario Bros. While present Mario games now have orchestrated music and band scores, the original theme song will be remembered. Though Captain Lou Albano performed the song as the ending theme to the old 1980s animated series, just listening to it as you play the original Nintendo release brings you back to a time of when you didn’t need an orchestra or band to do recordings. Since the NES chip was capable of producing a limited number of sounds, the theme songs to 8-bit had to be expressed in a very creative manner.
With Super Mario Bros, while the sounds do come across as silly, its theme song with its heavy melody does a great job of conveying itself as family friendly and fun. It sounds very encouraging and even when you fail on your first try, the moment you start again, that theme song just lifts your spirits up so you don’t get discouraged like the Angry Video Game Nerd whenever he has trouble playing a game.
Lastly, we would like to make some honorable mentions to Tetris, Chrono Trigger, Deus Ex, Skyrim, and Uncharted IV. In today’s world of gaming, depending on the nature of the game, there is always a genre of music that can fit the atmosphere of it. You can use Middle Ages percussions for fantasy like in most RPGs, or you can use heavy rock for action games or racing games. With fighting games, depending on the character and stage, they sky is the limit. Just like how music is used to set the mood for movies and TV shows, video games need that as well no matter what generation you started with. So what are some of your all time instrumental oriented themes in video games? Leave your thoughts in the comments!