from Chrono Trigger
Composers: Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu, Noriko Matsueda
This map theme is really gives the feel of a big epic world, which of course Chrono Trigger has in spades. The scope and breadth of this game is simply astounding, especially for a 16-bit era title. It is nearly twenty years old and yet remains longer than most games released to this day. There is just so much here, and this song has all of the strength of an aged, historical period piece tossed with a grand adventure. It is an incredibly strong tune, and one of the best RPG themes of all time, in my opinion.
Composers: Yumiko Kanki, Naoto Ishida
This fan-favorite is one of the first video game themes to feel like a fully-realized rock song, complete with a guitar solo. The use of pitch bending gives the illusion of a string bend on a guitar or a slide up or down the fretboard and the fast licks are reminiscent of a classic lead guitar improvisation. Obviously mixing ideas from classic and 80’s rock, this tune has become one of the most covered video game themes, with fans taking various approaches to it on guitar from a classic rock style to overdrive heavy metal.
from Final Fantasy VI
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Final Fantasy VI is arguably the best in the series. The characters, the villain, the world as a whole, everything is carefully pieced together like a luxurious article of jewelry. Fine details, facets and a polish not seen in any title before it. Its soundtrack has also become somewhat legendary, as it features a few of the most iconic themes in the already renowned series’ repertoire. Nobuo Uematsu did some of his best work on this entry and one of my personal favorites is Tera’s Theme. Like Crono’s Theme from Chrono Trigger, Tera’s theme is used as the overworld theme song, and becomes the unofficial theme song for the entire game. It is masterfully-composed for an early-90’s piece and has a mood and atmosphere that reflects the growing sophistication of video game sound design of the time.
from Mega Man X
Composer: Setsuo Yamamoto
Speaking of sophisticated, let us discuss what I would argue is the best game soundtrack of the 16-bit era: Mega Man X. Already appearing on my list in previous entries, Mega Man X is a stunning turning point in game music. For me, it was the definite shift in direction for game themes. While music in games had already begun maturing by this point, it was Mega Man X that proved that layering and complex composition was not only possible, but a necessity. The soundtrack is revered for its intensity, its hard rock styling and its memorability. Favored above all by many is most definitely Storm Eagle’s theme. As the player navigates the most customer-unfriendly airport in history, this rock tune drives the stage with energy and character that few other game themes have been able to recreate or stand against.
Clash on the Big Bridge
from Final Fantasy V
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
I did not get a chance to play through Final Fantasy V until years after its release, and by then the famous Gilgamesh had already become one of the series’ most talked-about characters. A large part of that is his intense, memorable battle theme. From the opening to the end, this is an incredibly fast, non-stop adrenaline-rush of a song. It never lets up, it just stays on its high from the time the guitars kick in. I recommend the Black Mages version of this theme, it is incredible.
from Super Metroid
Composer: Kenji Yamamoto, Minako Hamano
Super Metroid, my all-time favorite video game, is a flawlessly-designed masterwork of the medium. There is not one element of the game that I would consider to be truly-flawed. The soundtrack is a memorable collection of eerie and unsettling tunes and my favorite track in the game is heard early on as the player first enters the overgrown Brinstar. Upper Brinstar is has this hollow, abandoned feel to it for me, even more so than many other parts of the game (the Wrecked Ship notwithstanding) and the theme is this chanting, rhythmic composition that is structurally-complex and fitting for its level. It is a favorite of mine because, as a kid, upon entering this place for the first time, I found the fading in of the drums and the chilling choir to be so striking, that, even after beating the game and hearing all of the other classic themes this game has to offer, this was the one that was still playing in my head.
The Dark World Theme
from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Composer: Koji Kondo
I am pretty sure A Link to the Past was the first Super Nintendo game I ever achieved 100% completion on. Around that same time I cleared Super Mario World, but A Link to the Past (my personal-favorite Zelda title), was the SNES game I pushed myself to finish almost the same weekend I started playing, and with the help of Nintendo Power, me and my friend did everything there was to do in the game shortly thereafter. One of my favorite elements of A Link to the Past was the changing world after Ganon takes over. The idea was a reimagining of the Second Quest from The Legend of Zelda and has since been implemented many times in the series. The Dark World theme is a great adventure theme, highlighting some excellent design and contrasting the strangeness of the changed world around you.
One Winged Angel
from Final Fantasy VII
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Sephiroth is one of the most revered and exalted villains in the long history of fictional bad guys. I do not believe this reverence is restricted to gaming, either. I think Sephiroth is one of the most recognized and cheered villains in the annals of popular culture. His power and unforgivable actions throughout the story of Final Fantasy VII has made him a target of gamers’ anger for years, which is the sign of a truly great antagonist. His theme, One Winged Angel, is a bombastic and menacing piece and certainly reflects the feeling of facing a being far more powerful than one’s self.
Dire Dire Docks
from Super Mario 64
Composer: Koji Kondo
Super Mario 64 has a number of excellent tracks and a few of them are high on my list for my all time favorite game themes. Super Mario 64 is one of my favorite games of all time for a number of reasons. It was groundbreaking for its time, implementing 3D better than just about any game before it. It has a number of stages that are just brilliant from a design standpoint and, unlike most early 3D platformers, still holds up to this day when compared to titles like Jak and Daxter and the first Sly Cooper. Dire Dire Docks is an excellent tune, featuring a soft, soothing sound that never goes into the high-pace, fast-tempo energy of typical game music. This theme instead has a sound that greatly reflects its level. This theme is played in Jolly Roger Bay and Dire Dire Docks, two water stages that have a flow that is paced significantly slower than other levels in the game, so the lower tempo suits the levels well. The gentle melody is relaxing and memorable and has been a personal favorite of mine for years.
from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
At number 11, we bid adieu to Anamanaguchi. Another Winter is their stunning stage 1 theme from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the Game. I do not really know how much I can say about this soundtrack that I have not already gushed except: Listen to it. All of it. Another Winter is some of their best work but what makes it stand out for me to rank so high on my list is how it is presented in the game. When I first played this excellent beat-em-up I was not entirely sure what to expect, and the first stage of the game tells a story as you move through it that is complemented by this stunning track. It is cheerful, it is catchy and it fits the pace of the level well. Many beat-em-ups tend to have their soundtracks feel repetitive because, as they are paced much slower than most other game types, they tend to have levels that are shorter in size, but longer in duration, so a shorter loop could reasonably become annoying. Anamanaguchi made songs with nice, long loops to compliment the levels’ length, and the result is one of the best game soundtracks of all time.