Introduction by Mike Salbato
We're big music buffs at RPGFan. One look at the thousands of reviews and features that make up RPGFan Music is proof enough. There are other music review sites out there, but none quite as extensive when it comes to RPGs. So, when it came time to plan our 20th Anniversary features, we knew at least one of them had to be about music. And what could be easier than to simply choose one defining soundtrack from each of the last 20 years?
If you're laughing at the notion of that being simple, you're not alone. We expected some years would be easy choices, but choosing favorites wasn't as easy as we first thought. After putting together an extensive voting form — collecting upwards of 500 noteworthy albums across 20 years —
a vicious bloodbath our voting process ensued. And then our tiebreaking round of votes. Once we finally had winners, we knew two things: First, we had to actually write about them now (!), and second, we'd have to include some runner-ups because there's too much good RPG music out there to not list more than just our twenty winners.
Our staff put copious efforts into this list, so we're proud to present our 20 Years of Essential RPG Soundtracks, starting with those of 1998-2007 below, and 2008-2017 on Page 2.
Note: Each album was placed into consideration for the album's release date, which may or may not always match that of its associated game.
Xenogears was my first introduction to Yasunori Mitsuda's music and I've been a fan of his ever since. The Celtic influence throughout the soundtrack made me smile and hum along, heartbreaking pieces like "Lost...Broken Shards" and "The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen" made me tear up, and epic themes like "Flight" and "Awakening" made me tingle with excitement. There are character themes that still remain some of my favorites even today, like "Bonds of Sea and Fire" and "June Mermaid," and "Small Two of Pieces" will probably always be my gold standard for a video game vocal theme. It's truly the mark of a great soundtrack when one piece — one melody even — can stir your emotions just as well as playing the game itself, and the music of Xenogears manages to do that time and time again.
by Alana Hagues
I remember the first time I heard Chrono Cross' music — I was studying, and suddenly Yasunori Mitsuda's haunting rendition of "Star-Stealing Girl" started playing. I knew I'd missed something special. Over the years I fell in love with the music, and eventually the game; I'm only sad I didn't get to experience this sooner. El Nido is a stunning location that needs an ethereal, tropical and melancholic soundtrack to bring the world to life. Those three words shouldn't go together, but Mistuda makes them work to craft an album of pure joy. To indulge in the more whimsical, sea-faring locations, "Home Village of Aruni," "Another Mabure" and "Zelbess" will brighten up your day. For something a little more sombre, "People Seized With Life" and "Dream of the Shore Bordering Another World" will reduce you to tears. But no celebration of Chrono Cross' music is complete without mentioning "Time's Scar," which is the best opening track in any video game ever. I could easily gush about all 67 tracks, but for the sake of brevity, I urge you to listen to this score — you won't forget it.
by Alana Hagues
If you listen to any piece of music from Skies of Arcadia, you're guaranteed to feel more like an air pirate. Joking aside (I'm not), Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda's work on this Dreamcast gem is nothing short of epic. The music ranges from soft pieces like "Main Theme," which eases you into your journey; unique town themes such as "Kingdom of Ixa'taka," which represent each of the six continents by using different instruments depending on their culture; and epic themes such as "Armada Battle" to convey the struggle you're up against. So much of Skies of Arcadia's score is uplifting, capturing the essence of Vyse and the Blue Rogues, like "The Little Jack (Nasrad, Ixa'taka, Valua)," a dynamic world map theme where the instruments change depending on what continent you're flying through, but there are also delicate moments like "Fina's Theme," which represents the character's loneliness and struggle to fulfill her mission. I have so many particular memories attached to this soundtrack and I want to share them with you. Put on one of these songs in your car the next time you're driving, and I bet you'll feel like you're going on an adventure.
by Patrick Gann
Final Fantasy X's soundtrack was groundbreaking in many ways. First and foremost, it was the first time Uematsu shared the spotlight. Yes, Nobuo Uematsu composed FFI-FFIX on his own, but with FFX, he split the work between himself, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano. Each of these three composers came together and, like a Dragon Ball Z fusion, made something even stronger than the sum of its parts. From Uematsu's mesmerizing "Via Purifico," to Hamauzu's thrilling "Assault," and Nakano's unforgettable "This Is Your Story," the soundscape of the franchise was forever changed with FFX. This was also the franchise's first foray onto the PlayStation 2 and was one of the earliest RPGs released for the console. Square showed other developers just how sophisticated sequenced music could go with this console hardware. This soundtrack is a lasting delight and a proven classic.
by Gino DiGioia
I can't think of a franchise that has impacted me more as a gamer than Kingdom Hearts. Whether it was journeying through disney worlds or fighting disney villains with a giant key, playing through this game left an unmatched impression on me, with the music of the game playing a significant part. Composer Yoko Shimomura considered her work on this game the most "special" she ever worked on. The combination of orchestra and piano reviatilizes every disney song that was rearranged for this soundtrack and elevates the original pieces into masterpieces. "Dearly Beloved" and its relaxing melody. "Night of Fate" and its sense of impending destiny. And "Forze de Male's" insane tension and magnitude. These songs are now considered classics in the RPG community. My personal favorite, though, is "Hikari/Simple and Clean," which was sung by Hikaru Utada with an orchestral arrangement done by anime composer Kaoru Wada and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. The vocal version evokes a sense of innocence that is portrayed by the game's young protagonist, while the orchestral theme brings a sense of adventure and grandeur. And since it's Yoko Shimomura, we can't forget about the piano in songs like "Destati" and "Destiny's Force," which made those songs what they were. With Kingdom Hearts 3 on the horizon, we must look back at the game that started the worldwide phenomenon with the music that solidifies itself as our 2002 pick.
by Patrick Gann
Among VGM aficionados, we like to celebrate a special subset of soundtracks called "bad game, awesome soundtrack." I'll not belabor the point about the quality of the game... I think there is a general consensus about it across the Internet. The soundtrack, on the other hand, remains one of the most memorable works from now-veteran composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hamauzu made his name with Square with SaGa Frontier II and Final Fantasy X, and this time he was back with great ideas and, apparently, an even greater budget. There is an incredible mix of electronic/sequenced music and live/recorded music on this two-disc OST. If you can celebrate a soundtrack without having fond memories of a game, then perhaps you'll join me in celebrating UNLIMITED:SaGa as one of the best soundtracks of 2003.
by Patrick Gann
I count myself blessed to have discovered the Atelier franchise when I did: at the time of its first localization. While NIS America localized Atelier Iris Eternal Mana in 2005, its Japanese release (and corresponding OST release) was in 2004. I had received a hot tip at the time from then-fellow 'Fan editor Ryan Mattich that Atelier Iris had one of the best soundtracks he'd ever heard. When NISA announced the localization, I rushed to play it, and I fell in love. Not only was the game itself great, the music was completely refreshing. The Gust Sound Team, like the old Konami Kukeiha Club, was a rotating door — but at that time, it was Gust veteran Akira Tsuchiya alongside newcomers Ken Nakagawa and Daisuke Achiwa. These three would go on to define the Atelier (and Ar tonelico) soundscape for an entire console generation. And, while it felt like they had the Midas touch throughout their tenure, their work on Atelier Iris stands out as my favorite to date.
by Patrick Gann
Falcom has always been known for making great game music, particularly so with the Ys franchise. When they decided to do a complete overhaul of the old side-scrolling Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, many fans were cautiously optimistic about this game and its soundtrack. The game itself, using the Ys VI: Ark of Napishtim engine, came out just fine. The soundtrack, featuring new arrangements from Yukihiro Jindo and Masashi "Jill" Okagaki, came out far better than anyone could have anticipated. Though it would take many more years for this remake to be localized, VGM fans clamored to grab this soundtrack well in advance. And they were right to do so.
by Gino DiGioia
2006 is a year that is hard to define for me. It was the year I started taking my interest in RPGs to its next level with games like Final Fantasy XII. However, even back then I couldn't say that game soundtracks were anything special to me. But of course, I was 11 and couldn't play Persona 3, so that's not really my fault! Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3's soundtrack can be described as epic pop music. Composer Shoji Meguro included some manner of pop/rap beat into each track to give the soundtrack a unique feel. Look at "Mass Destruction," a main battle theme rap song with vocalist Yumi Kawamura doing the pop and rapper Lotus Juice doing the rap. Though all songs aren't like that, the game's main theme, "Burn my Dread," is pure pop but with a somber feel to it. Meguro's arrangement of "Aria of the Soul" kept the original's feel but updated it to show the importance of sitting in the Velvet Room. And I cannot forget the game's final boss theme, "Battle Hymn of the Soul," which combines vocals, guitar, and piano to display an epic final battle against an impossible foe. Now, while I go rap to "Mass Destruction," you should go listen to our choice for 2006's OST, Persona 3.
by Patrick Gann
Who would have guessed? Of all the great music released in 2007, we're back to Ys! Ys Origin is a prequel that stretches the timeline back hundreds of years before the birth of the red-haired hero, Adol Christin. However, due to the game's setting and events, many familiar tunes from Ys and Ys II find their way into the Ys Origin soundtrack. Even better, though, were some of the new tracks composed by the then-current Sound Team jdk, including the epic battle track, "Scars of the Divine Wing," and moody atmospheric pieces such as "Water Prison." I personally loved this soundtrack so much that I was willing to search for a secondhand copy, because Falcom under-printed the OST ages ago and never did a reprint, making it one of the most expensive and sought-after Falcom soundtracks post-2000. However, if you're satisfied with a digital release, it is available via iTunes (US Store link)!