Video games are an often-overlooked source of really great music. There’s a bit of a stigma against video game music composers, which perhaps comes from the idea that video games are childish, geared for children, and thus the music written for them can’t be great works of art to be taken seriously. When the first video gaming systems were introduced, composers didn’t have much to work with, which is why music from games from the late 1980s and early 1990s sounds so very different than the music featured in games today. Games for the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) featured primarily MIDI keyboards -- modern-day games have massive budgets larger than many blockbuster films and can afford to use full orchestra recordings.
This list contains a healthy sampling of both “throwback” games and new ones, and every single song is much more than just a song from a childish game. Some of these might even bring back some wonderful memories!
15.) King’s Quest VII - The Powder Room
The King’s Quest series originated in 1983 and had eight total games designed by Roberta Williams of Sierra Entertainment. The original games dating from the early 80s had music typical of the time period, but with the release of King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride in 1994, the music as well as the animation had improved by a lot - The Princeless Bride contains more than five times the amount of animation featured in any of its predecessors.
The song “The Powder Room” is from a relatively minor scene in the game, but it expands on the theme of another song in the game, “Bountiful Woods”, which features more strings instead of piano. The comparison is more obvious with “Bountiful Woods”, but both songs are reminiscent of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”.
14.) Tetris Theme A
Tetris is just about as “classic” as it gets when it comes to video games. The game originally was released in 1984 and gained popularity when it was released for the handheld Game Boy system in 1989. This song is actually an old Russian folk song called “Korobeiniki”, and has been widely covered by many different musicians - from choirs to the band Ozma - since its origination in the nineteenth century. The original folk song is about the courtship between a peddler and a girl. The word “Korobeiniki” means a peddler who sells fabric, books, and other small items – but outside Russia, the song is mostly just known as the Tetris theme song.
13.) Undertale Theme
Undertale is an indie game that found critical acclaim at its release in July 2015, and the entirety of its musical score is beautiful even if you haven’t played the game. The soundtrack was composed by the game’s creator and developer, Toby Fox. This song happens during an emotional part in the game, and that comes through in the music. It would be a fun song to learn how to play on piano, but it’s such a beautiful piece of music that it’s nice just to listen to, as well.
12.) Earthbound - Smiles and Tears
Earthbound - known as Mother 2 in Japan - was released in 1994. The music from this game was actually listed as an inspiration for Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale. “Smiles and Tears” is the music from the end credits of the game, and as its title reveals, contains a certain amount of sadness and nostalgia. Both the original game version and the song played on piano are beautiful, stand-alone pieces of music.
11.) Pokemon Blue/Red - Lavender Town
This one is connected with a bit of a dark conspiracy theory (which has been revealed not to be true). The story is that, supposedly, the high frequencies used in the song when it was originally released in Japan in 1996 caused 10-15 kids to commit suicide when they reached this level in the game. There’s no recorded evidence of this, but it’s an interesting urban myth that fits well with a song that’s a little spooky. Nintendo supposedly edited the song in the US release of the game to remove the “harmful frequencies”, but the only discernible difference is that the US version is a little less shrill.
10.) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Song of Storms
The Legend of Zelda games were originally released in 1986, but Ocarina of Time was released for the Nintendo 64 gaming system in 1998. This song and Saria’s Song are two classics from the game that are sure to bring back some memories for 90s kids!
9.) Sonic the Hedgehog 3: Minor Bosses Theme
Though Michael Jackson was not credited on the game for his work composing a large amount of the music for it, listening to this song especially makes it undeniable that he was involved. There are two major theories for his lack of credit on the game itself – either Michael was displeased with the sound quality of the end result, or Sega chose not to credit him due to the fact that his infamous legal issues were happening around the time the game was released.
This is another one that sounds very typical of the era it came out, but is an interesting song that clearly influenced modern-day bands like Anamanaguchi, who actually use a hacked Game Boy to create their beats. It’s totally different played on piano instead of in 8-bit style, and sounds great both ways!
The Final Fantasy series has been widely praised for its excellent music. The theme from the sixth game in the series, released in 1994, sounds much more advanced and orchestral than other video game music from the time period. The piano is kind of an accessory here, with the primary focus on the strings, but it still plays a key factor in this song. Many orchestras around the world, like the Twilite Orchestra, have performed music from the games.
Bioshock Infinite and its predecessor are some of the most critically-acclaimed games of the past few years, and for good reason. The graphics are beautiful and the games are absolutely terrifying to play. The soundtracks for both games are exceptional, but “Solace”, which is the song that plays while the game is loading, is especially great.
This song is dynamic and moving even despite its original, shrill, 8-bit sound quality. Reimagined by an orchestra, it becomes an epic, moving piece. This composition is so gorgeous that it lends itself perfectly to any way one might want to play it - it’s just as great played solo on piano.
Super Mario 64 came out in 1996 as one of the first games for the Nintendo 64 gaming system. The game was full of interesting music, but this one stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of music from a video game of all time, perfectly encapsulating the underwater world Mario explores while this song is playing. It sounds amazing played on piano, too.