From the early 8-bit days to the modern era’s full orchestra scores, video game music has helped to shape the experiences of video game players since the beginning of the medium. These soundtracks craft unique, emotional experiences that tap into the minds of gamers and fill out the individual emotions of each game. The greatest themes leave an indelible impression on the minds of those who have experienced them and work as pieces of art separate from the video games they were created for.
The following 15 main video game themes are the best of the best, capturing everything that makes video games scores so wonderful. If you don’t see one of your favorites on the list, let me know your choice in the comment section. In addition, this list only contains main themes, not secondary themes or individual pieces, and no songs with lyrics. For a lyrical song-focused list, read The 15 Best Video Game Songs (With Lyrics).
15. Sonic the Hedgehog – “Green Hill Zone Theme”
Upbeat, fast, and happy, that’s the original Sonic to a T. While this may only be the theme for the Green Hill Zone in the original Sonic, it’s instantly identifiable for generations of fans who have come to love this speed demon hero. The tones here blend perfectly with the noises that come from checkpoints, coins, and more for an intuitive and highly memorable theme for one of gaming’s first icons.
14. Star Fox – “Star Fox’s Theme”
Whether it is the original Star Fox or its latest incarnation, this bold march feels just right for these spacefaring adventures. While it stays fairly simple and never reaches far beyond its straightforward pace, it has just enough of an epic feel to get gamers excited for the latest intergalactic quest starring this merry band of anthropomorphic pilots. It sounds better than ever in Star Fox Zero.
13. Red Dead Redemption – “Main Theme”
A great game needs to be immersive for its players and Red Dead Redemption is most certainly immersive. That in part is due to its wonderful western soundtrack by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, which envelopes the player into the time and setting of the game. Here in the main theme, jangling electric guitars, horns, and thumping drums evoke Ennio Morricone’s iconic spaghetti western scores for a haunting and dark theme that fits right in with this blood-splattered Western epic.
12. Mass Effect 3 – “Leaving Earth”
Equal parts majestic and haunting, the theme to Mass Effect 3 finds itself shifting between lyrical piano refrains and blasts of foreboding horns as it rises to a crescendo. That duality gives the theme a unique range of emotions that work wonderfully within this cap to the intergalactic trilogy. Clint Mansell does amazing work with crafting a theme that encapsulates the saga without treading overly familiar or cliché notes.
11. The Last of Us – “Main Theme”
Using a stripped down sound, composer Gustavo Santaolalla gives the main theme of The Last of Us a haunted and almost broken down aesthetic that matches the tattered world of the game. Spare strings, acoustic guitar, and only minor orchestral flourishes provide a sense of foreboding that also excites and the minimalist approach is refreshing compared to the often bombastic nature of most video game scores. That dread-filled minimalism leaves a mark by the end of the main theme.
10. Battlefield 3 – “Main Theme”
Electrically pulsating and glitching, Skugge and Rintamaki’s theme to Battlefield 3 has more than enough bravado for a first person shooter video game, but also has the boldness to try something unique amongst the world of war games. The fuzzed out beats and subterranean bass balance out the most classically inclined strings and horns for a great, modern approach to epic video game theme music.
9. Final Fantasy X – “To Zanarkand”
A delicate and emotional theme to underscore the more human elements of Final Fantasy X, series regular composer Nobuo Uematsu’s “To Zanarkand” is one of the most stripped down Final Fantasy themes. But like the rest found in the series, it focuses on the emotional core of the story, rather than the bombast of battle in order to create greater grounding for the narrative at hand. In short, it works wonders.
8. Super Mario – “Super Mario Theme”
What is there that can really be said about a piece of video game music as indelible as the “Super Mario Theme?” From its creation in 1985 by Koji Kondo through its many iterations in the time since, the theme has been linked to video game iconography decade after decade. Whether you prefer the old school 8-bit take, the ‘90s steel drum version, or any other of the myriad versions, gaming music doesn’t come more iconic than this.
7. Assassin’s Creed II – “Ezio’s Family”
Insanely haunting and incredibly cool, Jesper Kyd’s theme for the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and Assassin’s Creed II is one of the greatest modern video game themes and is most certainly the high point of the series’ music as a whole. The isolated choir vocals, ruminating acoustic guitar, and plaintiff strings make for a dark and melancholic theme that grips you from the beginning. The result is powerful, emotional, and deeply memorable.
6. The Legend of Zelda – “Main Theme”
If this were a list devoted to video game music in general and not just main themes, the lengthy list of Zelda tracks could compose the entire countdown. However, it is not, so we’re sticking to Koji Kondo’s main theme, which is most certainly one of the series’ greatest pieces. Even in its 8-bit infancy, the main theme to The Legend of Zelda was an epic piece of video game score, highlighting the series’ bold fantasy quests and heroic heart. Decades later and it still slays in every version that has been given life in the many series entries in the time since the debut.
5. Batman: Arkham City – “Main Theme”
When a Batman video game’s main theme rivals even the greatest film themes for The Dark Knight, you know you have something special. Nick Arundel and Ron Fish’s main theme for Arkham City feels like a swift plummet into the pitch black, crime-filled streets of Gotham City. Rising and falling strings, a pounding drum section, and a tortured choir that feels like something out of Hades encapsulates all the darkness needed for a Batman theme will conjuring something gothically heroic at the same time. Few modern themes can compete.
4. Halo – “Main Theme”
Martin O’Donnell’s theme for Halo isn’t just a massive staple of the first person shooter franchise, it’s a banner piece of music for gaming as a whole. There’s an uncommon blend of string orchestra, sparse percussion, Gregorian chanting, and Qawwali singing that turns the theme for Halo into a piece that feels mythic and somber while pulse-pounding all at the same time. While the theme has been altered in the games since, the original is still the best by far and is destined to be remembered as one of gaming’s greatest themes.
3. Chrono Trigger – “Main Theme”
Using the limited musical range of the Super Nintendo, composer Yasunori Mitsuda (with contributions by Nouo Uematsu) turned the score for Chrono Trigger into a soundtrack that defies expectations. The main theme is emblematic of that approach, utilizing a jazzy horn line, trilling drums, and dreamy keyboards, resulting in a pieces of music that doesn’t quite fit into any genre category. It feels like fantasy, sci fi, and jazz all rolled into one, resulting in a theme that resonates with gamers decades later.
2. Metal Gear Solid 2 – “Main Theme”
There have been many versions of the Metal Gear Solid theme over the years, but Harry Gregson-Williams main theme for MGS 2 is greatest of them all. Using the theme originally created by composer TAPPY for the first entry into the series, Gregson-Williams blends an electronic beat with orchestral strings to create a fast-paced and mysterious main theme that suits the high tech espionage at play in the story. It’s also a theme that is bold enough to change things up several times during its relatively brief runtime, twisting and turning as an electronic action score before ending as a stately march. But it all works perfectly, resulting in MGS’s greatest piece.
1. Kingdom Hearts – “Simple and Clean (Orchestral)”
Composer Yoko Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts scores are brilliant pieces of musical majesty, encapsulating the many Disney worlds that make up the video game series while also crafting an individual musical identity for the video game series. All of that is found in the main theme for the original Kingdom Hearts, which has the pageantry of a classic Disney score, the propulsive nature of a royal march, and the emotional complexity of a love ballad. Everything you need to know about the power of this series is right here for you, resulting in a massive yet immediate piece of scoring that beats all others. The lyrical version with Utada Hikaru is just as amazing.
Honorable Mentions: Street Fighter 2 Guile’s Theme, Uncharted – Nate’s Theme, Hotline Miami – Hydrogen, COD Zombies, Silent Hill, Katamari Damaci