Best Gameplay & Music Combos

One quick Google search will yield you dozens articles about the best soundtracks in video games, and if you go through them, you'll see a few of the same opinions - the very highest pantheon - shared by writers alongside a massive amount of deviation between them as writers pick out their pet favorites. It turns out that people's tastes in video game music, when you look back over the last four decades, is nearly as diverse as music itself.

I don't intend to do much different, nor any better - the idea here is to pick out particular bits of gameplay and great songs from games that add to that experience. So while a game may have a great soundtrack and I may winding up picking it here, I'm looking specifically for one song that really ties together with what it seems the developers were intending. And much like many favorite music lists, I suspect that those reading this will agree with at least some choices, disagree with quite a few, and want to include a dozen or more of their own - that's how a reaction to a single person's opinion often works.

So here we go in no particular order. Remember, the goal here is gaming experiences where gameplay combined with songs simultaneously for best effect. Much of the music I chose is not dedicated for a particular part of a game, as some games just play through a large chunk of their soundtracks or have songs that mix with multiple sections, but I'll try not to pair a song with gameplay that the designers never paired together when playing.

Games that are available on multiple platforms won't have them listed. Those that got a release on one platform and never got ported - only emulated in the case of older stuff - will have a platform listed.

Hotline Miami 2 / "Roller Mobster" by Carpenter Brut - the stage of  the top-down, ultra-violent Hotline Miami 2 that included this song seems to have been chosen for this music, as this stage is a near-perfect summation of the game's insane set of multiple playable characters, wild lighting, and bumping tunes. Carpenter Brut makes great synthwave tracks, but this song stands above most, if not all, of his own library of music, and I can't think of a better place for this wonderful and intense song to be featured. Well, maybe Far Cry: Blood Dragon.

Mass Effect 2 / "Suicide Mission" by Jack Wall & Sam Hulick - when Commander Shepard nears the end of her assault on the Collector base, we get one last battle with a mix of enemies we've been facing throughout the game, but the finality about this one - and the escalating threats from the game's main villain Harbinger and the desperate situation that the Normandy crew are in - make it especially sweet when this song kicks in and puts it all together. We hear droning and pulsing synths, strings, and a chorus all come together in near-perfection as what may be the best song in the entire series of Mass Effect games helps us bring ruin on our alien enemies.

Mass Effect 3 / "Leaving Earth" by Clint Mansell - while I do wish that the addition of Hollywood composer Clint Mansell to my favorite game franchise didn't push out the brilliant work of Jack Wall on the previous games, I can't help but be amazed at the shock and awe that this song brings to the Reaper invasion of Earth in the opening moments of this third installment. The Reaper drones become one of the most imposing and hard-hitting single notes on this entire list, and the minimalist piano under it show the sadness that the Normandy crew expresses in having to leave the planet behind to implore the rest of the galaxy for help.

Rez / "Fear is the Mindkiller" by Adam Freeland - Up until the final level in the original release of Rez, we've already been hit with some wonderful music, but it's Area 5's "Fear is the Mindkiller" (the name being a Dune reference) that just goes over the top. The song slowly builds as the player goes through the multiple stages, with deep bass hits and driving percussion. But it's when the Motown samples start that you know you're in for something a little more special. Then the synths kick in towards the end to bring it back to the fully electronic music experience you've been enjoying all game.

Super Metroid (SNES) / "Brinstar (Underground Depths)" by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano - This game is full of great music, and I fully admit that Brinstar Depths isn't necessarily the best part of the game, but creeping around down way underground while this extremely atmospheric song plays just combines really well - and that's what this article is all about.

BioShock Infinite / "God Only Knows" by A Mighty Wind (originally The Beach Boys) - This song, a cover of the Beach Boys of all things, serves a few purposes and it does it during the game's extended playable introduction before all the violence begins. Not only does it set a higher-minded tone and challenge you to expect more and ask more questions of what the point of this game is (something that by the end, I found the creators were at least partially successful with), but they also reinforce the time discrepancies that until this point, the game was only hinting at it. I suppose that anyone not familiar with this pop song from 1966 might still be in the dark at this point, but I did note that many players going through this game for the first time on Twitch stopped to listen to the whole song.

System Shock 2 (PC) / Med/Sci 1 by Eric Brosius - Dark and grimy techno perfectly suits a dystopian sci-fi horror series like System Shock, and that's exactly what we get here with the Med/Sci 1 track. This track plays after the tutorial and intro levels are done, as the game first shows you the open-ended exploration and combat, and its speed adds a frantic quality to the action when turn around in an area you thought you had cleared of enemies and suddenly get brained with a huge wrench and have to fight back - yeah, this music is right at home in that kind of atmosphere.

Borderlands 2 / Wildlife Exploitation Preserve (Combat) by Jesper Kyd - There are plenty of great tracks in Borderlands 2 and I appreciate that they put together a dynamic quality to the music, where every song has an 'exploration' and 'combat' version that smoothly transition as you start and end fights, but I found that the more bass-heavy and synth-filled music that plays in the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve best matches the game's humor (of which there are several dubstep jokes, and this song gets the closest to that) as well as the impact of the hard-hitting weapons and overall feel of action.

Quake (PC) / Soundtrack Track 1 by Trent Reznor - While most of Reznor's Quake soundtrack is made of pure ambience, and even the first track does slide down into it, that initial track just comes out and punches you right in the face with its distortion and loudness. I played the full version of the game for weeks before I got the CD that included the soundtrack, but when that song kicked in, that just added to everything immediately. Amusingly, it's not the song that plays during the game, so I'm violating my own rule here, but it does play during the attract-mode demo and let's just say that for an attract mode-style demo I'd seen a dozen times and usually skip, that day I watched it all the way through while this song thumped my eardrums.

Ducktales (NES) / "Moon" by Hiroshige Tonomura - You won't find many NES game tracks on this list, but this song has a light-hearted, yet epic quality to it that went so perfect with the most ambitious level in the most outlandish location the game offers. Much has been said about the Moon track, but it's getting mention here because it combined with the level being played very well.

Halo 2 (Xbox 360) / "Follow" by Incubus - The first Halo dealt basically exclusively in symphony and ambience, so the sequel melting your face off with wailing guitars may come as a surprise. If you just hopped into Halo 2 with no knowledge of who or what is on the soundtrack, you might be surprised to hear music by rock band Incubus sprinkled throughout. But it's during the moment when the Arbiter chases down the leader of the Covenant heretics in the game's first fully air-based battle scene that they are at their loudest and best. In this sequence, as your Banshee twists and flips, firing cannons at enemy aircraft and mortars down on troops placed atop towers, Incubus' Brandon Boyd screams out "Follow!" repeatedly as the only lyric, as if to remind you that you may be having fun, but you need to chase down your enemy.

Batman Caped Crusader (C64) / Gameplay Theme by Fred Gray - As with many C64 games, there's one really good theme here for most of the game, but it's a doozy. This song plays throughout and luckily it's a great one as Batman collects gear, heads out from the Batcave, and starts to take on the thugs of Gotham. It's actually kind of hard to love this game as its non-linearity and lack of explanation of what your actual goal is at any one time was a surprise to many C64 gamers accustomed to more straightforward games, but no one can deny that the game's solid comic book-style presentation and this excellent soundtrack propelled you on far longer than you would have done otherwise.

Double Dragon 2 (NES) / Stage 2 (Easy Lover) by Kazuhiro Hara - Of all the Double Dragon games, this one is my favorite, despite its inferior graphics and simple set of moves. It's largely because of its darker tone, easy 2-player coop play on the NES, and of course its fantastic soundtrack. It all comes together in the game's second stage as you hit the rooftops and a great song that turns out to actually be a cover of Phil Collins' "Easy Lover" enters your ear canals. Seems like a weird song for a Japanese composer to riff off of, but somehow it works, and while many chiptune artists have done some wonderful covers of "real" music over the years, we weren't hearing many of them during the NES' actual heyday. This is one of those rare occurrences.

Castlevania 2 (NES) / "Bloody Tears" by Kenichi Matsubara - Sticking with the NES for a minute, this song is a mainstay is such a classic that basically every Castlevania game since has had a rendition of the song "Bloody Tears". Here's the original, though, and the oppressive nature of this game's bleak tone, almost helpless feeling of its open world shutting you out so much at the beginning, and the dread of the game's night/day cycle flipping into the dark and the tougher monsters coming out makes this game imposing to play - but that music keeps you coming back, and this track sits right at the top.

FTL (PC) - "Last Stand" by Ben Prunty - There are plenty of excellent songs in this game, possibly better than the one I picked, but the epic tone and driving percussion of the song that plays during the last sector when you take on the Rebel Flagship through a multi-stage battle, this song raging on all the way, serves as a wonderful culmination of runs in this roguelike game where making it to the last stage is far from a guarantee.

Fallout 4 / "The Wanderer" by Dion DiMucci - This entire list could conceivably consist just of songs pulled from Fallout games, but that would be a bit silly, wouldn't it? Still, from the use of this song in the game's promotional campaign to when it comes through over Diamond City Radio, this song so clearly matches the game's thread of upbeat tone about exploration. Sure, there's death and destruction all around and the licensed soundtrack seems to have gathered basically every song from the era that mentions nuclear anything (almost to the point of cheesiness), but this one stands out. Sure, the song hit radio waves in 1961, placing it firmly out of the big-band era of most songs Fallout made use of, but we'll allow this one.

Fallout New Vegas - "Big Iron" / "Johnny Guitar" - I couldn't decide, so I just picked both of the most iconic and, for some reason, seemingly most commonly played songs on the Radio New Vegas station in-game. Both songs perfectly capture the kind of gruff and resolute nature of the Nevada wasteland's inhabitants, while "Johnny Guitar" also adds to that bittersweet feeling that some of the game's choices force you to make.

Street Fighter II / Ryu's Theme - Yeah, I didn't pick Guile's stage. That song became a meme and a great one, but for me, the atmosphere of Ryu's stage along with his theme seemed to go together best. Combine that with a fantastic rendition of it on the SNES where I spent most of my time playing this game and we have a real winner here.

Journey / "Apotheosis" by Austin Wintory - The dynamic nature of Wintory's truly brilliant soundtrack to Journey makes even simpler moments early in the game feel incredibly epic, considering how the game seems to know exactly when to crescendo right as you do something big and impactful (turns out it uses a lot of intelligent looping alongside in-game cues to time things), so this is one that you have to play to really get the most out of. Rarely will a game sit there and basically "hold onto" the big hit in order to catch the moment just right, but that's what you get here, and it's this song during the final run up to the mountain's peak that encompasses the emotion and finality of the adventure best.

Mega Man II (NES) / Dr. Wily's Castle Stage 1 by Takashi Tateishi - In a game full of great songs that stands out from the rest of the NES library for the quality of its music, it's this stage that adds weight to the progress made in defeating the other robots and finally making it to this seminal action-platformer's endgame. As you approach Dr. Wily's castle, this wonderful tune plays, and the player is blissfully unaware of the several bosses they still face, including a boss rush of the rest of the game's boss robots, before even facing Dr. Wily himself. This is less about the gameplay at the time, and more a show that even this far in, this game is still firing on all cylinders.

Wizards & Warriors (NES) / Title & "Forest of Elrond" by David Wise - The simplest yet most effective of title screen songs leads into an overworld song that perfectly complements the game's trickery and seemingly easygoing nature. Of course, that's all a front - this game is quite difficult and admittedly, it's probably not one of the most well-regarded NES games of all time, but early on it's magical with this song and its fantastic first stage that feels like a little sandbox to play in.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City / "La Vida Es Una Lenteja" by Unaesta/Craig Conner - Vice City was Rockstar North's first attempt at picking out a particular time period, and so they went completely over the top with the 1980s Miami theme - the mob involvement, the drug trade, the neon lights, and yes, the music. While there are plenty of songs that resurged in fame - the pop and metal soundtracks stand out especially - it was the song "La Vida Es Una Lentaja" that worked the best for me, and best captures the glory of this game back in the PS2 (and later, PC) days of cruising Vice City's streets at night, neon reflecting off of the street. Amusingly, this song is actually written by GTA producer Craig Conner, and Unaesta is an entirely fictional band.

Far Cry 3 / "Make it Bun Dem" by Skrillex & Damian Marley - For a game that was light on licensed music until this point, having this song kick in at full volume while your character burned down a marijuana crop with a flamethrower was a huge surprise. It's a mission that it seems the developers purposely made fairly easy specifically so that the player didn't have to interrupt the music as they lit up the field as well as the few guards near by. It works, too, as many fans have pointed this scene out as their favorite.

Deus Ex (PC) / NYC Streets - The UNATCO theme almost won out here, but I gave the edge to this song because it works well with the nighttime aesthetic of Deus Ex's sort of "ruined cyberpunk" look and feel, which comes across first and best right as the game opens up and gives you free reign to explore its areas of New York City.

Brütal Legend / "Rock of Ages" by Def Leppard - It was kind of a surprise to most gamers to find out that heavy metal-themed Jack Black vehicle Brütal Legend by Double Fine Productions is actually a real-time strategy game, and for some, that came with some disappointment as the player had to learn to rally troops and direct them around in addition to smashing and slashing like they had during the game's first several sequences. One scene that eases this disappointment is when protagonist Eddie rescues the headbangers out of the mines, and "Rock of Ages" kicks in while you make sense out of the most chaotic action scene this game has offered until that point. It kept me going as I tackled figuring out what kind of game I was actually playing.

Metroid Prime (GameCube) / Phendrana Drifts - Sure, it's easy to pick the so aptly-named "Data Selection Screen" music, which may be the best song on the entire soundtrack, but a song that plays while you choose what savegame to play is not really a good match for this article, is it? Instead, we'll go with Phendrana Drifts, the music that plays in this classic FPS adventure's first snowy areas. The playfulness of this song works nicely with the impressive-looking winter wonderland that unfolds on the screen as you explore this new area of the game.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion / "Glory of Cyrodiil" by Jeremy Soule - There are a lot of wonderful songs I can talk about not just by Jeremy Soule, but even just ones on just the Oblivion soundtrack, but I think this one best captures the absolute majesty of the open world exploration of Cyrodiil in the early hours of playing this wonderful game on launch. It helped me forget the characters' potato-head faces and the slimming down of traditional RPG mechanics in the move from the previous game, Morrowind, to this one, as this song helps make it clear that exploration became a bigger part of the series with this game - the open world was bigger and more filled with secrets that no one pointed you to, and while this song is playing it all comes together. Well, that is until a level 1 skeever attacks you and this song gets interrupted by very ominous battle music, but hey, that's my problem with a lot of the otherwise-fantastic Bethesda game soundtracks out there.

Diablo (PC) / "Tristram" by Matt Uelmen - What more is there to say about this song? It's already hailed as one of the greatest single-song achievements in video game music, its acoustic guitar, oboe, and flute coming together with singing reminiscent of the Crow score (not the soundtrack, although that's amazing as well) to deliver something that sounds almost otherworldly. Its best placement is right there in Tristram, in town, where there is no action and you can just stop and become transported into the little universe Blizzard built for this game series.

Ultima Underworld (PC) / "Maps and Legends" by George Sanger and Dave Covett - One of the granddaddies of the modern first-person FPS/RPG included a delightfully mysterious and brooding soundtrack, and this particular song stands out as the player stumbles around in the labyrinthine Abyss, trying to find a footing and make sense of the weird sects and pockets of humanity dumped into what is essentially a huge underground prison. It's a perfect song for wandering in the dark, solving puzzles, and getting into mischief in one of the most underrated action-RPGs of all time.

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (PC) / "Vesuvius" by Rik Schaffer - Let's face it, video games are rarely sexy and when they try to be, they usually just go way over the top and fall on their face. One could argue that the moment in the bar Vesuvius when you meet lingerie-clad and voluptuous Velvet Velour is a perfect example of this, but honestly, this seductive song with its wailing guitar somehow redeems the whole thing. I don't know how, but it does it for me. (Honorable mention to metal band Lacuna Coil's "Swamped" for doing something similar in a previous scene.)

Shadow of the Colossus / "The Opened Way" by Kou Otani - There's no better or more epic way to fight a building-sized boss than when you're backed by this track, one of the most emotional songs on a soundtrack already overflowing with emotion. Those strings and horns will keep you going even as you struggle to hold on to the game's titans and find a way to bring them down. When I found despair in this game's admittedly mildly repetitive nature and frustration with a particular boss, this song brought me back from the brink.

Rambo First Blood Part II (C64) / Gameplay Theme by Martin Galway - This song starts out simple as Rambo finds the enemy prison camp at the start of the game, but it escalates in intensity almost perfectly in time with the action as Rambo finds out that assaulting the camp isn't going to be so easy. As with many C64 games, the soundtrack for this doesn't exactly consist of a lot of songs, but this is one of the finest to come out of our 1985-model Panasonic CRT TVs from back in the day.