A few decades ago, the idea of using video game music to test out a pair of headphones, your desktop audio system or to see whether or not your new hi-fi system was worth the gaping hole left in your pocket would have seemed laughable.
After all, at a time when composers such as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone were working on some of the most recognisable themes for the biggest films of the time, video games were still using primitive chiptune technology to squeeze out a few primitive bleeps and bloops to accompany an arcade-bound session of Space Invaders or Pac-Man.
Times have, however, changed beyond all recognition. While the barrier between the world of gaming and film composition remains only semi-permeable, there are few right-minded people who would consider one field to be inferior to the other in terms of creativity, innovation or depth of expression.
If anything, the range of styles, genres and influences floating around the crazy world of the game-sphere outstrips anything offered by the world of current cinema. It’s not a clear-cut win for the movies, that’s for certain.
What this means is that even if you’re not an avid patron of the pixelated arts, there’s so much to be gained from letting your system loose on some of the most complex, intricate or downright best gaming soundtracks this fantastic niche has to offer. During the week in which we normally would have been treated to the joys of the now-cancelled E3 games expo, it seems appropriate to have a rundown of our favourite video game soundtracks to fill the gap.
Final Fantasy VII – Nobuo Uematsu
Any number of Final Fantasy games could have made this list, such is the wealth and depth of musical artistry on display from what is perhaps the most famous series of Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) ever made. The music of Final Fantasy is genuinely iconic within these circles, and that acclaim has spilled over into the mainstream in recent years, with multiple works from the long-running series featuring on more established classical radio stations and outlets.
Final Fantasy VII is a good place to start when seeing what your kit can handle, not only because of its technical sophistication but also thanks to the raft of genres all fighting for the spotlight. Picking out a standout is unfair, though we would push you in the direction of One-Winged Angel for giving you practically everything one could want in a test track: thumping drums, skittering strings, fluttering woodwind and majestic brass, all in one over-theatrical package.
Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild – Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, Hajime Wakai
For many devotees of the pixelated arts, choosing a preferred Legend Of Zelda game is like trying to assess which of your four limbs is your favourite. It’s a similar story with the series’ iconic soundtracks – many of these vast, ambitious scores have shaped gamers’ fondest memories of Hyrule as much as the glistening seas or the rolling hills of one of gaming’s most iconic kingdoms.
If we’re picking the best music to test your system, we can somewhat streamline our approach by considering the tracks which, rather than purely having an association with squatting in our bedrooms with an N64 controller in hand, have sufficient complexity and range to properly challenge a decent set of speakers. Massive, varied and often very peculiar, with strange atonal harmonies and rarely-used instrumentation, the Breath Of The Wild soundtrack offers a test as mighty as Link’s own quest to prevent Hyrule’s destruction.
Keep an eye out for how your system handles the unique tones and timbres on offer while also keeping an ear out for a sense of how the dynamics are displayed across such a relentlessly changeable soundtrack.
Ori And The Will Of The Wisps – Gareth Coker
Dip into almost any track or section of the substantial OST to the superb platform-adventure title Ori And The Will Of The Wisps and you’ll start to understand why composer Gareth Coker’s received an Ivor Novello award for Best Original Game Score in 2021.
Ori’s orchestral accompaniment is an endlessly fluid and varied work that builds itself from a foundation of light and dark, of serene choral melodies and delicate percussive interludes tethered by heavier, moodier tones. The tracklist is extensive and ever-evolving to adapt to the on-screen action, and here you’ll find anything from gamelan-infused chimes to glistening piano passages, curious oboe phrases and the occasional hammering of an ominous, weighty drum.
A good music system will convey those tones with confidence. A great one will transport you to another realm entirely.
Age Of Empires II: Definitive Edition – Stephen Rippy (original), Todd Masten (remaster)
The original music for Age Of Empires II (released in 1999) is a long way from what you’d normally associate with a traditional score, game or otherwise. Without proper orchestration and with limited means of musical storage and delivery, the quirky melodies that accompany your many hours of slaving away building a mighty medieval dynasty comprise an odd, homemade blend of genres incorporating earthy, pseudo-medieval instrumentation with an eclectic mix of styles, influences and patterns which utterly subvert your expectations of a classic historical RPG soundtrack.
Bizarre, quirky and distinct from almost anything else you’ll hear, tracks include the dub-inflected earworm Shamburger, a host of choral voices laid over a prog-rock organ during I Will Beat On Your Behind, and the funky yet intricate pulse of T-Station. Stephen Rippy’s original score is a wondrously strange grab-bag of styles all crammed through a Middle-ages filter, only enhanced by fuller, meatier orchestration thanks to Todd Masten’s work on the 2019 remaster.
Picking apart the idiosyncratic quirks and details of such individual tunes is a real pleasure if your system can manage it, and it’s one of the main reasons I often come back to AoE II when putting a new pair of headphones or recently-released speaker through their paces. My happy place.
The Last Of Us / The Last Of Us Part II – Gustavo Santaolalla
It didn’t feel fair to drop one of Gustavo Santaolalla’s superb scores for either of the titles in The Last Of Us series, so it’s only right that both are included here. These are definitive gaming scores worthy of your attention, and despite their subtly differing audio landscapes – the first more gently melancholic, the second darker and more infused with a sense of dread – both are equally worthy of your attention.
Contrasting with the booming grandeur of Bear McCreary’s work on God Of War: Ragnarök or Greg Edmondson’s rip-roaring cinematic effort for the first three Uncharted titles, these are sparse, emotionally resonant works coloured as much by what they omit as by what they choose to include. Vibrant, heart-rending motifs abound, so you’ll be listening out for how much vibrancy, resonance and feeling is evoked from every pluck of a guitar string or every pull of a bow over the violin.
Just make sure your equipment is water-proofed, because those salty tears can do some serious damage when they’re pouring out of your face and onto a brand-new set of speakers.
Journey – Austin Wintory
It’s no exaggeration to say that Journey is one of the most acclaimed video games of the last decade, perhaps of all time. It's a masterpiece that many have, tentatively at least, dubbed less a traditional game and more a bona fide piece of art. There are some who have dubbed their experience of the 2012 release as being genuinely life-changing.
It’s also no exaggeration to say that the Sony-published tale of a robed figure being guided through an almost infinite desert towards a distant mountain is profoundly shaped by Austin Wintory’s acclaimed score which reacts and changes as the player progresses through the wordless story. While it’s best experienced as part of the game itself, hooking up the Journey soundtrack to a really decent desktop or hi-fi system should, if expressed correctly, take you on your own voyage into the vastness of the desert’s sands. Emotive, yearning and often rather sparse, listen to see whether Wintory's soundtrack conveys the sense of wonder and trepidation inherent in embarking on a truly spiritual voyage.
God Of War: Ragnarök – Bear McCreary
There are far better soundtracks for testing how your system deals with detail and nuance, but few will give you a better understanding of how your new gear handles dynamics and force of delivery quite like Bear McCreary’s pulsating score for the seminal, Norse-inspired epic that is God Of War: Ragnarök.
A weighty, thunderous score packed with heavy, earthy drums, deep, resonant vocal choirs and epic, piercing horns, you’ll want to check not only if your equipment is capable of summoning the sense of the Norse end-times, but whether it can actually hold these dense, weighty elements together when the volume starts cranking upwards. Holding On serves up a quieter change of pace, and there's a lot to be said for the urgent drive of A Son's Path, but the OST’s awesome, booming main theme should serve as your go-to tester. Rök on.
L.A. Noire – Andrew Hale and Simon Hale
It’s rather fitting that a game unlike almost anything else at the time should have a suitably bespoke soundtrack to accompany it. For those not in the know, 2011’s LA Noire functions as an interactive noir-thriller in which you, as protagonist Cole Phelps, are tasked with investigating a drug distribution ring involving several of Cole's former World War II companions. Dark, brooding and full of intrigue, Rockstar’s boldly thrilling take on the noir genre needed a suitably moody soundtrack to complement its innovative gameplay.
The resulting score from Andrew and Simon Hale is pitched to perfection: a dramatic, bluesy accompaniment whose style will be familiar to anyone who has wallowed in the tropes and tracks of the films that inspired Rockstar’s own take on the noir genre such as The Big Heat, Chinatown and The Big Sleep. The score itself is a startlingly confident evocation of ’40s and ’50s jazz and blues, inspired by the likes of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, with subtle, brushing snare sounds flitting beneath muted, mournful yet intriguing brass tones and loose piano chords supporting heady, breathy sax licks.
If you're usually drawn to jazz and blues for testing out new speakers or headphones, the music from L.A. Noire could be right up your alley.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End – Henry Jackman
If you’re simply looking for a hi-fi system that can blast out pulsating orchestral numbers to get the heartbeat racing and the blood pumping, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End should be seriously high on your list of potential trial tracks. Composed by Henry Jackman (taking the reins from the excellent work done by Greg Edmonson for the first three games), the Uncharted 4 score is as much of a relentless thrill ride as the game it accompanies.
This isn’t hyperbole, either – the Uncharted 4 score really does rival some of the finest film scores around in terms of its energy, dynamism and knack for signature orchestral tunes, and we'd heartily recommend New Devon and Cut To The Chase to see whether your set-up can have the desired effect of an elevated heartbeat and goosebumps the size of golfballs.
The games were always intended to be cinematic homages to movies such as Indiana Jones and The Mummy, so the game’s signature theme is designed to have you in the mood for adventure right from the start. If all you want from your set-up is big, brassy tunes played with dynamism and verve, this is the perfect music to see how your kit shapes up.
Return To Monkey Island – Michael Land, Peter McConnell, Clint Bajakian
Sometimes the toughest thing to deal with isn’t complexity but, rather, simplicity. The Return To Monkey Island soundtrack is a perfect evocation of what the long-running and much-adored point-and-click adventure franchise is all about – a charming, laid-back score filled with memorable hooks and cheeky, playful themes. This is the land of gentle woodwind played over marimbas and steel drums, reflecting the series’ iconic Caribbean setting.
That’s why Return To Monkey Island made its way onto this list, not simply by virtue of how enjoyable it is to listen to but because of how much personality is crammed into each one of its playful, oddball compositions. The music of Monkey Island is meant not only to be enjoyed, but to elicit a set reaction based on the scene it accompanies, be it the thrill of a dirty pirate bar or the comedically sinister encounter with a villainous ghost pirate who wants to steal your betrothed.
There’s also a lot to be said for exposing your system to instruments it doesn’t normally have to deal with – we all know how a piano should sound, but it’s a nice change of pace to see how well a set of speakers handles the glossy wooden tones of a marimba or the metallic texture of a steel drum.
Elden Ring – Various
Considering just how massive 2022’s Game Of The Year actually is, it would’ve been forgivable for the acclaimed title’s accompanying soundtrack to have ended up a little thin by comparison as its composers struggled to accommodate the scale, variety and depth of FromSoftware’s mammoth fantasy epic.
Perish the thought. Elden Ring’s dense score is as rich and varied as the lands and lore it seeks to reflect, crammed to the brim with darkly invigorating orchestral works that teem with life, texture and the thrill of Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin’s terrifying fantasy realm. There’s everything for a good system to sink its metaphorical teeth into, from terrifying boss themes to mournful laments and brisk adventure marches, all orchestrated, arranged and recorded to the highest standards.
It's the usual drill, then; does your system convey the weight, emotion and resonance of each track while also retaining the smaller details amid the drama? There's only one way to find out.
Ghost Of Tsushima – Ilan Eshkeri
Understandably, a lot of the soundtracks we’re exposed to, be they accompanying a movie, television or game, make use of traditional Western instruments, forms and motifs. It’s nice, then, to add some variety from most explicitly Eastern-focused soundtracks from time to time, and there can be few finer examples than Ilan Eshkeri’s sublime accompaniment to the steel-and-samurai epic Ghost Of Tsushima.
A piercing, almost mythical blend of dark, sweeping violin tones, foreboding drums and muted horns all intertwined with more traditional Japanese instruments and melodies, Ghost Of Tsushima’s sombre yet epic music perfectly reflects the inner conflict of its captivating hero Jin Sakai as he decides between traditional samurai values and the clandestine, but effective, dark arts of stealth warfare.
It’s that blend of the delicate and the powerful that reflects not only the contrasting elements of late-Fuedal Japan and Jin's own identity but which also provides the perfect opportunity for your speakers to showcase their versatility in handling variations in tone, dynamics and timbre. In short, how does your kit deal with light and shade?
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time – Walter Mair
An odd choice? Maybe, but far from a ridiculous one.
Crash Bandicoot 4 is a colourful tour de force, a return to form for anyone who takes pleasure in repeatedly sending an anthropomorphic marsupial plummeting to his death over and over again until their brain melts and their fingernails begin to crack. It is, like almost all Crash games, a relentlessly taxing challenge.
Not that you’d know it from the game’s eye-popping visuals and bouncy, effervescent soundtrack which, far from reflecting Crash's brutally challenging nature, instead offers a myriad of quirky, accessible but surprisingly sophisticated compositions to accompany each of its delightfully devilish stages.
To reflect this diverse array of levels, the music is equally eclectic to match; pick out the glistening, complex percussion of the icy Stay Frosty, rock out to Stage Dive before you find yourself tapping your toes to the carnival madness of Off Beat. This is a soundtrack that provides as much of a challenge for your speakers as the game is for its players.
Halo Infinite – Gareth Coker, Curtis Schweitzer, Joel Corelitz
Anyone who’s ever owned an Xbox will likely have already heard the iconic Halo theme in their head before even reading a single line of this entry, such is the strength of the association between music and gameplay within the award-winning sci-fi series.
Halo’s soundtrack is an odd duck when compared to most of its sci-fi companions, mainly because it defies expectations by opting for sparse, almost medieval-feeling harmonies and themes rather than the futuristic clanks and whizzy effects you’d normally associate with the genre. Halo’s Gregorian chant-inspired soundtrack is laden with long, ethereal passages consisting of nothing but rich harmonies supported by nothing but silence, the mythical voices seemingly floating in the vast emptiness of space’s great beyond. That’s the impression your speakers should give you, anyway.
We've picked out Infinite's OST because it's possibly the most musically sophisticated and polished that the Halo soundtrack has ever been, retaining the core roots of the series' score while adding richer textures and novel melodies into the mix. Check out The Road for a taste of what we mean.
Best PS5 games: ultimate picture and sound