Great Video Game Soundtracks: Kingdom Hearts, Mass Effect, and Legend of Zelda
By Ethan McIntyre
One aspect of video games that is often overlooked is the soundtrack. People will often talk about a game’s combat, puzzles, or plot, but the music is rarely discussed.
However, music is just as important in a game as it is in a movie or television show. Music can set a scene, communicate a character’s feelings, or get a player’s blood pumping during a climactic battle.
There are a lot of great composers in the gaming industry, and luckily, they are starting to get a bit more mainstream recognition. For instance, the soundtrack to the hit PlayStation 3 title Journey - composed by Austin Wintory - was nominated for a Grammy in 2013, marking the first time a video game soundtrack received a nomination.
I’d like to take some time to recognize some truly great video game soundtracks and the composers responsible for them.
Kingdom Hearts II/Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
The Kingdom Hearts II soundtrack has a lot of ground to cover. On the one hand, the series has a large cast of Disney characters, necessitating some fun, light-hearted tracks; on the other hand, the story itself (and its Final Fantasy influences) tends to be a bit darker, requiring a few moody, atmospheric songs. On top of all that, the core gameplay is action-oriented, so there needs to be at least a couple of songs suited for combat scenes.
Shimomura does an excellent job of including this broad range of musical stylings into the game. The Disney worlds have themes that hearken back to their original films, but there’s no shortage of intense combat music either. On top of that, the music associated with the game’s central villains has just the right foreboding tone to indicate that these guys are bad news.
Best Track: The Other Promise
While there are a lot of great songs to choose from, my personal favorite is “The Other Promise.” A slow, somber remix of the song “Roxas” - the main theme of the character of the same name - “The Other Promise” is a beautiful reminder of the tragedy of Roxas’s life. The fact that it plays during an extremely dramatic boss encounter only serves to make the song more memorable.
Mass Effect 3
Composers: Sam Hulick, Clint Mansell, Christopher Lennertz, Sascha Dikiciyan, and Cris Velasco
Mass Effect 3 marked the end of gaming’s greatest space opera, and the soundtrack needed to match the climactic, exciting, and often bittersweet nature of the trilogy’s final chapter. A team of talented composers worked on the score, and a lot of great tracks resulted. While there are very few upbeat songs on the soundtrack, the songs that are there have an incredible depth of emotion. There are some solid fight songs as well, but where this soundtrack shines is its ability to express powerful emotion through its music.
Best Track: An End, Once and For All (Clint Mansell and Sam Hulick)
When it comes to sheer emotional weight, no track beats “An End, Once and For All.” As the name implies, the track plays near the end of the game, just as Shepard’s story is wrapping up for good. The slow, somewhat sad music reflects the pain and weariness Shepard must struggle through to finish their long fight, serving as the perfect backdrop for the closing scenes. However, as the song nears its end, the chords begin to rise, the tempo increases, and the music ultimately crescendos into a powerful, inspiring anthem. The message of the song is clear: Shepard’s journey is over, and while it was not without heartache and suffering, the final result is victory and, more importantly, hope.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Composer: Koji Kondo
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite games of all time, and one of its most iconic features (in my mind, at least) is its excellent soundtrack. Even with the limited sound capabilities of the Nintendo 64, Kondo managed to create songs that have stuck with me for decades. The beautiful “Serenade of Water,” the boisterous “Bolero of Fire,” even the title theme - all of them are fantastic listening material. I even used a piano cover of this game’s version of “Zelda’s Lullaby” in my wedding.
Best Track: Gerudo Valley
The Legend of Zelda series is, at its core, all about adventure. No music captures that spirit of adventure quite so well as “Gerudo Valley,” the theme of the location of the same name. A rousing, fast-paced jam, “Gerudo Valley” is sure to get listeners in the mood for excitement. Of particular note is the orchestral version found on the Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony CD - it’s one of my all-time favorite arrangements.
Honorable Mention: Nobuo Uematsu
Nobuo Uematsu has so many great soundtracks under his belt, I couldn’t pick just one. He composed soundtracks for Square for nearly 20 years (1985-2004), and in that time, he was responsible for tons of memorable tracks. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
A sweet, mellow theme that perfectly fits the character it belongs to, “Aerith’s Theme” is among my favorite tracks from Final Fantasy VII. It captures not only Aerith’s kind, gentle nature, but also has hints of melancholy that reflect her tragic death midway through the game.
Clash on the Big Bridge
This is one of the absolute best combat tracks you’ll ever hear in a video game. Final Fantasy V is a sorely underrated gem, and it’s host to a climactic boss fight on, well, a big bridge. The scene is intense enough on its own, but adding in this awesome song only makes the fight cooler. Given that the original had to work with the Super Nintendo’s limited musical capabilities, you’ll probably want to check out the rock version performed by The Black Mages - a Nobuo Uematsu cover band in which the man himself plays.
Perhaps the best game in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy X also contains one of the best tracks in the franchise. “To Zanarkand” is a poignant melody that captures the romance, excitement, and tragedy of FFX’s protagonist, Tidus. The piano arrangement is my personal favorite version of the song, but any version is worth listening to.