Video game theme songs with lyrics are a rarer breed when compared to their strictly orchestral kin. Even with the capacity for vocal performance within video game music being possible fairly early on within the overall history of video games, they remain a far less frequent aspect of music within the medium. However, decades worth of games have produced some incredible songs that can compete with anything composed outside of the video game world.
The following 15 songs cover everything from the sublimely emotional to the supremely cheesy. In any case, these songs not only encapsulate the greatest in video game music, but stand as worthy pieces of music on their own. For the greatest in orchestral video game scores, check out The 15 Best Video Game Instrumental Themes.
15. Double Dragon Neon – “Neon Jungle”
Double Dragon Neon is all about the throwback and its main theme is most certainly a callback to the ’80s hits that tie into the game’s style. It’s the kind of song that would fit right in with an exercise class during that decade, playing back to back with Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” while spandex-clad athletes do all manner of silly routines. So clearly, it’s awesome.
14. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – “Sins of the Father”
The newest entry on this list doesn’t quite stack up to some of the Metal Gear themes of the past, but still knocks it out of the park. Sure, it may be a little heavy handed when it comes to metaphors and turning plot points directly into lyrics, but the sweeping scope and soaring vocals make it a moot point. Donna Burke crushes it on vocals, as the songs transposition from minor piano refrain to massive orchestral bombast works so well because of her vocals.
13. Final Fantasy VIII – “Eyes on Me”
Let’s face it, nobody’s favorite Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy VIII, but if you were to ask any FF fan for their favorite pieces of music from the series, “Eyes on Me” would be on almost every list. Capping off a strange and dark saga, Faye Wong’s love ballad refocuses the thoughts of gamers on the romance at the center of the story as the game ends. Simple and sweet, “Eyes on Me” conveys the emotion and tenderness that can be lost in the midst of gaming bombast, making for a cathartic and even slightly sad anthem of love that stands out in the entirety of the series.
12. Red Dead Redemption – “Compass”
Just one of several songs featured during the course of Rockstar’s Western epic, “Compass” by Jamie Lidell taps into the doomed longing and desperate wanderings of Red Dead Redemption. Played as Marston begins his final ride back home, the many simmering emotions building throughout the game are allowed to finally burst to the surface. “Compass” gives that emotion real and resonant life, showcasing the power of a great song given beautiful context with a game’s narrative.
11. Mortal Kombat – “Mortal Kombat Theme”
Classic. Corny. Unforgettable. The Mortal Kombat Theme is impressed on the minds of generation after generation of video game players. Not only that, but it’s worked its way into the mainstream consciousness, too. Not bad for a song that is just a guy saying the voices of every character over a backing techno sound that sounds at home in a neon-soaked, early ’90s club where people dance in parachute pants. But its classic nature means it never goes out of style.
10. Portal 2 – “Want You Gone”
Following in the footsteps of the first entry into the series, Portal 2 closes out with another song sung by and told from the point of view of its homicidal robotic antagonist, GLaDOS. Like its predecessor (more on that in a moment), “Want You Gone” blends dark and bitter lyrics with an indifferent mechanical voice and a disarmingly upbeat rhythm. It all results in another sublime piece of musical subversion that wickedly augments the quirky game it follows.
9. Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim – “Dovahkiin Theme”
Ok, so this one doesn’t have the same type of lyrical focus as the rest of the entries on this list, but it does have enough to qualify here! The “Dovahkiin Theme” for Skyrim is full of Viking testosterone and the glory of ancient battle hymns, matching the glorious fantasy epic it accompanies. Best of all, you don’t even need to understand the lyrics to love this theme, but you can see the complete translation in the video above to appreciate just how much work went into making this gloriously grandiose theme song!
8. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops – “Calling to the Night”
The Metal Gear series is chocked full of incredible theme songs and scores, so it should come as no surprise to see more than one featured on this list. “Calling to the Night” may be less well known due to being featured outside of the console series, but it stands toe-to-toe with any song created for the main series. Like most songs associated with the series, “Calling to the Night” is a thoroughly melancholic melody, yet still has enough epic sweep to feel inspiring when matched with Snake’s tragic mission. Paired with a marching orchestra backing her, Natasha Farrow brings the power vocals for another incredible MGS theme song.
7. Ico – “You Were There”
Sparse but hauntingly beautiful, “You Were There” is a pitch perfect compliment to the game it accompanies. There’s a sense of adventure, joy, and love to be found in the quietly profound intricacies of the closing song to Ico. The pairing of young Liberan choir singer Steven Geraghty’s boy soprano vocals with minimalist acoustic guitar and percussion results in a melody that enchants and transports the listener to a distant time. Truly beautiful music for a beautiful game.
6. Alan Wake – “The Poet and the Muse”
Filled with images of inspiration, art, and death, Old Gods of Asgard’s “The Poet and the Muse” is a loving companion for Alan Wake, a game centering on a thriller novelist trying to solve the mystery of his wife’s disappearance. Rich vocals and quiet instrumentation swirl around in the darkness of the song’s imagery, ruminating on themes tragedy and love that match the story at hand before the song explodes into an electric wail before the end.
5. Kingdom Hearts II – “Sanctuary”
The sequel to Kingdom Hearts would not be complete without a theme song by Utada Hikaru, and like the first, “Sanctuary” is transportative, magical, and magnificently lovely from start to finish. Here, the driving and plaintive lyrics are reinforced with electric guitar wails and cascading piano notes. Multiple lines throughout the song are played in reverse, resulting in a melodic yet slightly alien refrain throughout the stanzas. The reversed lyrics embody the idea of the past haunting the present, even as the protagonists strive forward into the future.
4. Portal – “Still Alive”
The closing song to Portal is one of the great WTF moments in modern games. After defeating the vicious robot GLaDOS, the seemingly dead A.I. reveals that she is, in fact, “Still Alive” through a passive aggressive auto-tuned ballad aimed toward her enemy, you. The melody and almost nursery rhyme quality of the lyrical delivery are akin the “It’s a Small World,” but the words themselves are full of menace and hate. It’s catchy, it’s funny, it’s brave, and it’s one of the best songs in video games.
3. Red Dead Redemption – “Far Away”
Playing as John Marston enters Mexico for the first time while riding on horseback, Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” seeps into the game, making a turning point in the game into a moment of massive emotion. Echoing the loneliness and desperation of Marston, who has many literal and figurative miles to go before he can be reunited with his family, Gonzalez’s jangling guitars and reedy voice feel desperate and otherworldy while still being connected to the Western setting of Red Dead Redemption. This haunting acoustic melody is one of the game’s most indelible memories and is a hallmark modern video game moment beloved by gamers worldwide.
2. Kingdom Hearts – “Simple and Clean”
Soaked in emotion and working wonderfully as both the introduction and conclusion to the original Kingdom Hearts, Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean” does everything just right. It’s a song that improves the story that it is part of, works perfectly outside of the context of the game, and can be listened to over and over again. Hikaru’s fluttering vocals give “Simple and Clean” an ethereal quality that matches the game’s world-traveling fantasy story while heightening the song’s emotion. The faster tempo remix that features at the beginning of the game is just as great.
1. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – “Snake Eater”
The serious-minded yet slightly tongue-in-cheek theme for MGS3 should remind you of a classic James Bond theme song, that’s what Kojima and his team were aiming for with “Snake Eater.” Cynthia Harrell’s powerhouse vocals provide a classy and emotional sensibility to a song filled with references to eating wild animals and self sacrifice. Backed by plaintiff strings and punctuating horns, it’s a theme song that sounds perfectly at home in the ’60s setting of the game and the cinematic quality of the production. This is most certainly the greatest MGS song to date, becoming an instant classic in its debut back in 2004. It’s yet to be topped by any other video game song.
Honorable Mentions: “City Escape” – Sonic Adventure 2, “Take You For a Ride” – Marvel vs Capcom 2, “DK Rap” – Donkey Kong 64
Next, read The 15 Best Video Game Instrumental Themes.