I joined RPGFan when it was still a fledgling site, when the term “Web 1.0” wouldn’t have made sense because that’s the only web there was. In the 25 years since, many other English-language publications have seen fit to give attention to game music, from our friends at VGM Online to the likes of NPR (with a special nod to Kate Remington’s Music Respawn podcast through WSHU). Alongside being an area of media I love to put in the spotlight with my writing, game music coverage has remained a hallmark of RPGFan’s overall coverage. I’m proud to be part of that legacy.
To that end, this list represents my personal top 25 RPG soundtracks. Before we get started, here are a few notes about how the list came to be:
First, this is exclusively an Original Soundtrack (“OST”) list. If I included arrange albums, it would be a very unbalanced list. I was almost inclined to do a separate list for them, but that is a tall order for me (how to balance rock, orchestral, piano, vocal, etc?). So I stuck to original music as it appears in each game.
Second, I decided that series/franchise over-representation was a no-no. I gave myself some leeway with heavy hitters like the Chrono and Final Fantasy series, but otherwise I limited myself to one entry per series. This was tough but also important; otherwise, the list would be dominated by three or four franchises. Picking only one Ys and one Xeno was painful.
Third, I recognize my own limitations primarily in the form of time. Through word of mouth, I am sure there is more fantastic music that may deserve to be on this list, but is omitted solely because I’ve yet to hear said music. Let that be an opportunity for interaction! Please feel free to contact me to tell me of any beloved soundtracks you think should be here — maybe it’ll lead to my next big review or personal revelation in game music appreciation!
Fourth, note that this list is unranked and presented in alphabetical order.
Finally, this list reveals something important about me, though it is also about all of us: our life-long favorite media (movies, music, games, etc.) tend to coincide with having been exposed to them at a crucial formative period in our lives, typically late adolescence into early adulthood. I was a teenager through the 32-bit era, and guess what? Almost half of the 25 soundtracks (11, to be precise) are for PlayStation games! I won’t apologize, but I will certainly recognize the pattern for what it is.
Alright, without further ado… let’s rock.
Soundtrack review: Alundra Original Game Soundtrack
The first soundtrack on my list is undoubtedly the most rare and expensive as well. Though I was able to purchase the Alundra soundtrack for a standard retail price in my teens, the elusive copies of it available through online auctions put the price range these days between $300 and $500 USD. And I will tell you, dear reader, I have been tempted to shell out such an amount to re-add this one to my collection (selling was, in this instance, a terrible decision). I speak not only for its monetary value but also for the quality of the music.
Composer Kouhei Tanaka, better known for his work in the Sakura Wars series, made something exceptional here. The first three tracks alone (the title, village, and overworld themes) are ridiculously catchy and memorable. Then, there is the final dungeon music, “The Holy Demon Shrine, Arisen.” What I wouldn’t give to hear a live orchestral rendition of this one. Just… so, so good.
Soundtrack review: Atelier Iris ~Eternal Mana~ Original Soundtrack
2. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
Hoo boy, did I have a tough time narrowing down to just one soundtrack in the prolific Atelier franchise. Between this, Atelier Ayesha, and the entire Atelier Ryza trilogy, I really had a tough call to make. I ultimately chose the sixth entry, Atelier Iris, because of the composer lineup. Daisuke Achiwa and Ken Nakagawa had only just started writing for the series, and the two would go on to work together, and solo, on different entries of the long-running series. However, Iris also has Akira Tsuchiya, a composer who started with Gust on the game’s second entry (Atelier Elie) and would, after the first Iris, pivot to being a composer and creative lead for the Ar tonelico series. His influence and style can still be felt on Atelier Iris, as he composed the catchy opening and ending vocal tracks and the super-chill character/title theme “Iris.”
Despite being long out of print, Atelier Iris’ two-disc soundtrack is relatively easy to find on secondhand markets at prices close to its original retail value. The soundtrack, alongside many others published by Gust, can be found for streaming or purchase via Amazon, Apple, and others.
Soundtrack review: Akumajou Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight Original Game Soundtrack
3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Though one could make an argument for other Castlevania soundtracks making it to this list, I think it’s common knowledge that Michiru Yamane’s score for this PS1 classic is simply too iconic not to get this kind of recognition. Track for track, from one area to the next in one of the two games that made “Metroidvania” its own subgenre, listening to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack is a way to relive the experience of exploring Dracula’s castle from top to bottom (or is it bottom to top?). There are so many fantastic tracks from this one, with my personal favorites being “Wood Carving Partita” and “Lost Painting.” I also adore the short vocal “Nocturne,” which served as the game over music in the Japanese game. Speaking of vocals, how can we possibly forget the jazz ballad ending “I Am The Wind,” which, while a fine song in its own right, also served as a jarring shift in musical expression for the end credits?
This OST is an easy find for both physical album collectors and fans of digital streaming. Finally, I must note that Michiru Yamane actively posts piano solo performance videos on her YouTube channel. These include music from Symphony of the Night and other Castlevania games she composed for and spiritual successor Bloodstained. Here’s her performance for “Lost Painting” as an example. Definitely worth checking out!
Soundtrack review: Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack
4. Chrono Cross
Chrono Cross, the strange sequel to Chrono Trigger, is generally considered inferior to its predecessor as a game. But the music? Now that’s a tough call. Most can agree that composer Yasunori Mitsuda had a difficult task ahead of him when he was asked to do the soundtrack to the CT sequel, this time as a solo task, and only a few years after completing his excellent score for Xenogears. What can also be agreed upon is that Mitsuda surpassed expectations and created a score that lives up to the Chrono legacy decades later.
I could sell the whole case for including this on my list with the exhilarating opening theme “Time’s Scar” and the bittersweet ending theme “Radical Dreamers -Le Tresor Interdit-.” Or I could tell you about the genuine tears I shed upon first hearing “The Girl Who Stole the Stars.” But perhaps the best case I could make is to note that these stand-out tracks are only slightly more impressive than the rest of the game’s fantastic tracklist.
Soundtrack review: Chrono Trigger Original Sound Version
5. Chrono Trigger
You knew I couldn’t include Chrono Cross but exclude Chrono Trigger, right? While I slightly prefer one over the other, it is difficult for me to separate these two amazing soundtracks. They’re just that good.
This soundtrack marks Mitsuda’s first game music composition. The young composer had done some sound design and effects work for other Square games before this, but it was Chrono Trigger that allowed him to flex his skills as a music creator. And goodness, did he come hot out of the gate. Not only did he write some of the most memorable melodies, but he also developed strong non-functional harmony throughout (see 8-bit Music Theory’s solid explanation). He even managed to introduce pitch-bending tabla drums to bring the music of 12,000 BC’s floating islands to life (“Schala’s Theme,” “Corridors of Time”). Truly amazing.
Additionally, a handful of tracks on Chrono Trigger were composed by Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu, and you can detect his style on tracks like “Sealed Door” and “Those Without the Will to Live.” These few tracks, as well as Noriko Matsueda’s “Boss Battle,” are icing on the cake.
6. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Koichi Sugiyama, who passed away in 2021, stands as something of a divisive figure. From a musical standpoint, some people do not enjoy the simplicity of the Classical/Romantic compositions he wrote for the Dragon Quest series, particularly in how so many tunes would become variations on a theme established in the first few entries. Nonetheless, for millions of fans, the melodies of the Dragon Quest series have left a lasting impression.
I think fans could make compelling arguments for almost any main numbered series entry as being Sugiyama’s best work. I was torn between IV, VIII, and XI. I ultimately chose Dragon Quest VIII because I am ranking the original soundtracks, the in-game synth, not the accompanying Symphonic Suite albums that Sugiyama would produce with each game. Dragon Quest VIII marked a shift in the quality and quantity of synthesized original compositions, making excellent use of what the PlayStation 2 had to offer. Plus, among some of the key musical themes found in each DQ (town, castle, overworld, dungeon), DQVIII has consistently strong melodies that hearken back to the best concepts found in prior entries. It’s solid, and I can’t deny its impact on game music as a whole.
Soundtrack review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Original Game Soundtrack
7. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Here we run into a second case of having to appreciate the art while noting concerns with the artist. There is no question in my mind that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has one of the richest, most memorable, and most atmospheric scores not only in the series but also in the whole line of RPGs in this particular genre. The “Dragonborn” theme has become so meme-worthy that even my mother knows it when she hears it, even though she has no idea what Skyrim is. And “The Streets of Whiterun,” to this day, can cause me to melt into a puddle of pure bliss. These songs are simply sublime. Though I am also fond of Morrowind and Oblivion, it’s the Skyrim score that will forever hold a place in my heart.
Unfortunately, so much of what I find lovable about this soundtrack is tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct against composer Jeremy Soule. As with so many other areas of media and entertainment — film, television, stand-up comedy — game music is not immune to scandal, and as fans and consumers, I doubt hiding our heads in the sand will make anything better.
Soundtrack review: Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack
8. Final Fantasy VIII
As I stated in the introduction, this list ran the risk of being a heavy Final Fantasy love-fest. Hence, my choice to limit my picks here. I suspect many people will find Final Fantasy VIII a controversial choice for the best of Nobuo Uematsu’s work in the series. But this is an opinion I hold firmly; it wasn’t a hard choice for me at all, even though there are many things I love about each and every one of Uematsu’s FF scores.
When it comes to key melodies used in high repetition throughout a game, I cannot think of one better than VIII. For the world map, you have “Blue Fields,” an instant classic. Most early dungeons feature “Find Your Way,” one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces Uematsu has ever written. For a special battle theme, we have the ridiculously catchy “Man with the Machine Gun.” And then there is the multi-part baroque masterpiece for the final dungeon, “The Castle.” Let’s not forget the iconic opening choral piece that runs alongside the intro FMV, “Liberi Fatali.”
And those are just a few highlights for a soundtrack full of beautiful, fun, memorable themes. Ridiculous.
On a special note, when I had the opportunity to meet Nobuo Uematsu and his band, The Earthbound Papas, I humbly requested Uematsu sign my copy of the Limited Edition Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack (tall, sandy background). In response, Uematsu noted that nearly every band member had a role in that game’s creation. Thus, I had the whole band sign the soundtrack. It is a prized possession in my collection.