Odes to Joystick: The Best Video Game Music

Although they’re often disregarded as a legitimate art form, video games have reached an astounding level of sophistication over the past few decades. We’ve come a long way since the days of simple arcade shooting simulators and digital table tennis. Video games have become one of the defining mediums of our time, offering deep interactive experiences and aesthetic invention not found in other formats.

Music has always played a central role in video games, serving as both the sonic architecture upon which worlds are built and the emotional anchor players can connect to, as they explore new environments full of pixelated, inhuman shapes. Video game music is a unique art, beholden to the practical requirement of creating an endlessly looping soundtrack, while also tasked with building themes that slip into the mind subconsciously, returning and restating themselves with all the cohesiveness of a Sondheim musical. It’s background music created for a world completely unlike our own, and that’s why much of it sounds so out of place when heard outside of the game.

Some truly remarkable music has emerged from the pantheon of video game producers, peculiar and moving pieces from the likes of Nobuo Uematsu, David Wise, Koji Kondo, Yasunori Mitsuda, Grant Kirkhope, Gustavo Santaolalla, and Disasterpeace to name but a few. This playlist highlights some of the finest moments in the genre, where the composer reaches past the lens of nostalgia and into territory that connects emotionally—even if you’ve never picked up a controller.