People can rant and rave about intuitive controls, stellar graphics, online play and motion sensors as much as they damn well please, but one of the most important aspects of video games to me has always been the musical score. In recent years, as games have migrated towards more cinematic pastures, the musical scores of old have turned away from the simple, repetitive tunes of yesteryear, and transformed into something more ambient. That’s all well and good, but there’s nothing like coming away from a game humming a catchy tune, which is why most of the games you’ll find on this list are from the 16-bit era and before.
It’s good to know your history kids, and even in prehistoric times, man beheld music.
10. Blades of Steel (NES) – Start Screen Theme
Not only did Blades of Steel feature its own fighting system, but it also did a hell of a job of pumping you up with this sweet theme music as your overtly generic players and teams skated onto the rink. Yes, it’s kind of a pansy tune, but it also makes you fist-pump annoyingly in your opponent’s face while bobbing your head before you take his Minnesota white and purple team out with your Edmonton green and yellow. A word to the wise, always pick the Canadians in a hockey game. Always.
They also tried to make a new Blades of Steel in 1999, cleverly titled Blades of Steel ’99. It sucked, know why? First, it had the NHL license. Second, this song wasn’t in it.
9. Super Castlevania IV (SNES) – Simon’s Theme
My initial inclination for Super Castlevania IV was to go with the Forest of Monsters theme, but come on. When you think of Castlevania music, which song pops more immediately into your head? Not only is this theme supremely fitting for one of the manliest men in video games (see our Top 10 Manliest Men in Video Games list), but it’s pretty creepy, and any metal cover version I’ve ever heard makes my face melt. It’s also got that epic quality that one would expect from the Castlevania soundtrack. Still, I suppose the same could be said about any theme from this game.
That’s two for Konami, I wonder if they’ll show up again?
8. X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse (SNES) – Beast’s Level
So, it’s not exactly the kind of song I’d ever really associate with Hank McCoy (he seems like more of a Chopin fan…"The Cat Waltz"…anyone? Forget it.), but the tune has a funky ass groove and often makes me forget the ridiculously hard game that I’m currently playing. For real though, this is less X-Men and more, I don’t know, Sonic the Hedgehog. Now that I think about it, I guess they are both big blue fur balls that could pretty much be cousins, so I suppose it does make sense after all. Well played, Capcom. Well played.
7. Bubble Bobble (Arcade/NES) – Main Theme
Holy. Crap. First of all, this game has slight variations in the music depending on if it’s the arcade or the NES version, but damn. For a game that’s almost 25 years old and that has the same music play for all of its 100+ levels, it must have done something right. Some might consider it annoyingly catchy, but I find it to be quite bubbly (see what I did there?) and relaxing. If I shut my eyes and listen to the music, it brings me to a land where dragons are cute and love to eat fruit instead of people and breath bubbles instead of fire. Then I open my eyes and realize that I am, in fact, on a plane to Tokyo.
6. Metal Gear Solid (PSX-PS3) – Main Theme
Konami is at it again, and with this entry, give us the only theme on this list that originated in the post 16-bit era. I mean come on, how could I ignore this? As much of a "good ol’ days" junkie I am, everything about this music screams "play me, I’m f*cking epic". Giving the series a thematic musical through-line for the Solid Snake character, this theme is one of the most cinematic scores in the history of gaming, which obviously matches the game to which its attached, featuring hours upon hours of cutscenes. Coincidentally, not only is this yet another Konami game featuring an awesome musical theme, but another manly man (Top 10 Manliest Men in Video Games).
5. Super Mario Bros. (NES) – Main Theme
There is no one on the planet Earth that can’t hum this song on the spot. That includes your grandmother, your infant, and that creepy guy that follows you home from school. This theme has inspired hundreds of people to tape themselves with awebcam playing the song on their guitars, xylophones, oboes and a variety of other instruments, and plaster the results all over the Internet. Put quite simply, it’s a classic in every way, and should result in only smiles. Unless you’reBowser. Then you hate it, but still don’t mind playing board games with your arch enemy on occasion.
4. Mega Man 2 (NES) – Dr. Wily Stage
This is a song that is meant to drive you to defeat all of the evil in the world, starting with Dr. Wily. Probably the most recognized Mega Man theme song, the Dr. Wily theme is a stellar example for the magic that was made back in the 8-bit glory days; orchestras and film composers weren’t a necessary expenditure, instead you used the much superior (and cheaper) freelance game composer and a MIDI keyboard. As hardcore Mega Man fanatics are wont to do, they took their love for the game to the extreme and began adding lyrics to the songs and making them into break-beats. Not that I’m complaining.
3. Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, Genesis) – …All of it
Every stage in this game has great music. Every. Single. One. The musical score is like a DJ mashup of Blue Oyster Cult and a hellfire picnic in Satan’s garden. The theme I’ve picked out here, from Dr. Tongue’s Castle of Terror, is spotlighted because of its eerie resemblance to the amazingly horrifying score from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, while changing tempos into funky, frenetic, and evil circus music. Do yourselves a favor and stay in this Halloween. Don’t go see another crap Saw movie. Instead, blow on your Zombies cartridge and get some real thrills.
2. Super Mario Bros. (NES) – Underworld Theme
While the decision to place this theme above its World 1-1 brethren may open up some dispute, the Underworld Theme holds a place in my heart above any other Mario music. The reason I like it so much is its impeccable timing. Just when you have breezed through the first level to a bunch of happy-pap tunes you come to discover this vast, scary (for 8-bit times) underground world with echoes and gray-palette goombas. Alright, so it’s not really that scary, but still. This music is a mere few notes and yet, the impression it stamped upon my youth and pop culture runs deep.
1. The Legend of Zelda (NES-Wii) – Overworld Theme
This is it, the pinnacle of video game music. The Overworld Theme from The Legend of Zelda series is the most iconic piece of music that has ever appeared in gaming. It’s epic, it brings forth adventurous notions, and most importantly, it has sounded good for the last 20 years, whether it’s 8-bit or an entire effing orchestra. To be fair, nearly every piece of the soundtrack from each Zelda is instantly memorable, but it’s this central tune that ties the games and their themes together. GD it, I love you Zelda.