I’ve had a keen interest in game music since childhood. It might be because I had the privilege of watching game music evolve from a non-presence to a pop culture phenomenon in a single console generation. Game music was almost a non-presence in the Atari 2600’s library, so hearing Super Mario Bros.’ iconic soundtrack for the first time blew my prepubescent little mind.
Decades later, up until this very moment, I still pay close attention to game music. A game doesn’t necessarily live or die by its soundtrack, but some sweet tunes can propel a game’s fun factor upwards. 2019 was a great time for electronic beeps and boops, though I think we can safely say we’ve gone far beyond that. This was the year for touching lyrics, for epic leitmotifs, and for literally monkeying around with everything we thought we knew about game music.
Slip on a good pair of headphones, because we’re about to review 2019’s best video game music.
“Overworld Theme,” Danny Baranowsky (Cadence of Hyrule)
We got a very nice surprise this year in the form of Cadence of Hyrule, a Zelda-themed sequel to the popular rhythm-action game Crypt of the Necrodancer. As with its predecessor, music plays a vital role in Cadence of Hyrule: if Link, Zelda, or Cadence fail to move and attack according to the beat, they’ll wind up on the business end of a Moblin’s spear before they can successfully save the world.
Luckily, the accompanying music makes it easy to dance-fight your way to Hyrule’s freedom. The entire soundtrack for Cadence of Hyrule deserves accolades, but let’s put our hands together for the Overworld theme in particular. Not only does it mash up the overworld themes for A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, but it leads off with Tal Tal Heights, a favorite with Zelda fans. I can’t help but bop along to it. That’s music to gallop to, son.
“Devil Trigger,” Casey Edwards feat. Ali Edwards (Devil May Cry 5)
It’s hard to believe only a few years ago Capcom was seemingly uninterested in having fun with its properties. “Devil Trigger,” the theme song for Nero, is a loud, electrical song accompanied by a cheesy live-action music video that looks like it belongs in the opening FMV for a Sega CD game. “Devil Trigger” isn’t interested in pretending to be cool, yet it’s cool because it goes its own way and celebrates the Devil May Cry series’ commitment to fun demon-hunting tropes. Does that make sense? Eh, it doesn’t have to. Just pull Nero’s Devil Trigger before he gets impatient.
The dynamic soundtrack of Ape Out, Matt Boch
Most of the games on this list are entitled to one (1) song selection, but Devolver Digital’s Ape Out is an exception. The entire game is inseparable from its soundtrack, which literally forms on the fly depending on how you play. You are a genetically engineered gorilla who escapes confinement and goes bananas (heh heh), smashing everything—and everyone—that gets in between you and freedom. Every object you hit and every person you turn into a warm smear on the lab’s floor is immortalized as another pluck of a bass string, another roll of a snare drum, or another clash of cymbals. It’s different, and it’s brilliant. Who says apes can’t understand music composition?
“Title Theme,” Chad York and Darren Radtke (Luigi’s Mansion 3)
Luigi’s Mansion 3 isn’t spooky. Except it kind of is. The title screen music for Luigi’s Mansion 3 isn’t creepy. Except it kind of is. Seriously, Next Level games did a great job with the slow waltz that guides you into Luigi’s latest solo adventure. I appreciate that eerie whistle, that bass clarinet, and that bandolin. It’s perfect for a G-rated “horror” game that makes you laugh, but also treats you to moments when Luigi approaches a crack in a wall and dozens of spiders pour out in a seemingly endless torrent.
“Gym Battle Theme,” Minako Adachi and Go Ichinose (Pokemon Sword and Shield)
Pokemon Sword and Shield is good. So is the hopping techno music that serves as its Gym Battle music. Gym Battles are a very important part of Galar Region, which regards the “sport” much like the U.K. regards football—i.e. it’s life itself. Galar’s Gym theme matches the energy the stadium audience pours into every battle that it witnesses on the pitch. The onlookers become more pumped as the fight endures, and they start chanting along. Pokemon music’s never been this interactive, this loud, or this exciting. There’s a reason why Twitter jokes about how any Galar resident living next to a stadium probably never gets to sleep.
“Mortal Kombat Classic Remix” (Mortal Kombat 11)
Is it cheating to praise the music for a trailer? Hopefully not, because Mortal Kombat 11’s remix of the classic “MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!” theme hooked into my heart and pulled me back into the ’90s as soon as I heard it. I was never a Mortal Kombat fan, but I remember the initial hype (and controversy) that rose with the series. The original Mortal Kombat theme was a big part of that, and I was happy to see it get a nod for the latest game. And hey, if you’re not as old, crusty, and out-of-touch as I am, you were probably happy to learn rapper 21 Savage made his own contribution to Mortal Kombat 11’s soundtrack.
“Seafort,” British Sea Power (Disco Elysium)
If the 2019 Game Awards are any indication, ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium is this year’s biggest indie hit. This unorthodox detective RPG received recognition for its narrative and its fresh ideas, and its brooding soundtrack is no slouch, either. “Seafort” is one of those songs you should keep on hand for those days when you’re in a funk and not interested in cheering up. It’s a damp, chilly song that lilts up and down like a whale’s mournful song. Perfect listening as the rest of the winter season drags on. And on.
“Take Control,” Poets of the Fall (Control)
You hear “TAKE! CONTROL!” as you make your way through Control’s memorable—and somewhat baffling—Ashtray Maze. This bellowing musical accompaniment has led more than one Control fan to admit the Ashtray Maze is their favorite part of Remedy’s wonderfully imperfect game. No surprise “Take Control” is loved; it comes courtesy of Poets of the Fall/Old Gods of Asgard, the same band that made us rock out to previous Remedy games with “The Poet and the Muse” and “Balance Slays the Demon”.
“Inside,” Daniel Olsén (Sayonara Wild Hearts)
Sayonara Wild Hearts isn’t just one of my favorite games of 2019: It’s also one of my favorite soundtracks for the year. The game’s playlist is a garden of inspirations that run from pop music to techno to dubstep, and all of it is great. It’s time to ‘fess up to a favorite, though, and I’m giving it to “Inside,” the song that plays as you do battle-ballet with Little Death, Sayonara Wild Heart’s antagonist.
I have two reasons for this choice. First, it’s an intense song that sends you whipping through tunnels and across rickety bridges at unfathomable speeds. Second, Little Death is literally a tiny Death cosplayer who harasses a woman with a broken heart, and I could never resist a good double meaning.
Bonus third reason: You get to motorcycle on a torrent of Little Death’s beautiful ocean-blue vomit, and then Queen Latifah exclaims “WHOA!” when you finally punch Little Death into little pieces. Sayonara Punky Brewster look-alike.
“Blue Skies and a Battle,” Takeru Kanazaki, Hiroki Morishita, and Rei Kondoh (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
“Blue Skies and a Battle” is the song that plays when the game’s titular three houses engage in a traditional mock battle. That’s the only time you hear it. Yup, just that once. After the fight, everyone stands up, brushes themselves off, and heads to the cafeteria to toast their budding friendship. What a nice game.