Home Culture Culture Lists

The 25 Best Video Game Soundtracks of All Time

From in-game radio to climactic boss battles themes, these are the tracks that defined popular music in gaming

Best video game soundtracks of all time


Since the earliest days of gaming, music has helped create a sense of immersion and worldbuilding. From composer Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. theme, to the infectious earworm of Tetris “Korobeiniki,” the sound of video games has often been as memorable, if not more so, than the actual look.

And while video game scores have come a long way in the last half century to become more cinematic, there’s another form of video game music that has had a profound impact on the user experience and has been going strong since the Nineties: the licensed soundtrack.

The idea dates to 1982, when Journey delivered a chiptune rendition of their track, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” for their Atari 2600 game Journey Escape. But just a decade later, with the advent of home consoles like the Sega CD and Sony PlayStation, the ability to incorporate popular music in video games would leap beyond tonally spotty MIDI recreations into the realm of high-quality audio tracks.

Some games are synonymous with a single song, like 2001’s Twisted Metal: Black, whose use of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” in the opening credits instantly reinvented the tone for the entire series. Others follow up incredible scores with a tastefully placed needle drop that drives home an essential narrative moment, like the unexpected somberness of D’Angelo’s “Unshaken” during the climax of Read Dead Redemption 2.

But a truly great licensed soundtrack manages to weave itself throughout the entire experience in ways that make it essential to the gameplay. Spending hours immersed in a game’s world often deeply connects players to specific tracks and can introduce new generations of gamers to songs they may have never otherwise known.

To rank the best licensed soundtracks of all time, there must be some caveats. Compiling the list, we generally looked at games that had more than a single famous track, and we also omitted annual sports franchises that include slews of popular tracks from their respective years. (There’s simply too many FIFA or NBA 2K installments to rank.) Nor did we include rhythm-based or dancing games whose entire premise is playing along to popular songs (put down the pitchforks, Guitar Hero stans).

With that, here are Rolling Stone’s picks for the 25 best licensed gaming soundtracks.

From Rolling Stone US


‘Brütal Legend’

Many games have fantastic soundtracks, but few go to the lengths of crafting a genre love letter that Double Fine Productions’ Brütal Legend did. Starring Jack Black as “the world’s best roadie” transported into a medieval fantasy world for a metal-themed adventure, it’s the closest thing to legitimate Tenacious D video game there is (kudos to the Kyle Glass cameo). The game even goes as far as to cast music legends like Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath), Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead), and Lita Ford (The Runaways) in major roles.Part of the game’s charm was its commitment to its own original soundtrack, arranged to fit in tandem with its 107 licensed tracks, making for a metalhead’s dream. Tim Schafer, the game’s creator director, described it as a, “Trojan Horse” for non-metal fans to fall in love with the genre, Brütal Legend’s soundtrack is so expansive that the end result exponentially dwarfed the original scope of songs the team wanted to include.“We got a little carried away because we were just having so much fun,” Schafer told Xbox Achievements in 2009. “First, just listing out all my favorite songs and which ones I wanted to have in the game. Getting those, I was like, “Oh well I guess we’re done,’ and then our music director was like, ‘No, that covers about 10 percent of the game.’”With unlockable songs from Judas Priest, Children of Bodom, Mastodon, Manowar, and In Flames, the game’s soundtrack includes a litany of metal bands from all eras.Song to stream: “Goliaths Disarm Their Davids,” In Flames


‘Grand Theft Auto V’

In all of gaming history, there may not be a soundtrack as ambitious as that of Grand Theft Auto V. Everything about the game is massive, from its multi-region open world to its three parallel narratives woven together, but strictly on the music front, the scale is unparalleled. The first game in the series to utilize its own original score, composed by the Alchemist, Oh No, and Tangerine Dream in collaboration with Woody Jackson, GTA V broke new ground for the series with a litany of tracks produced exclusively for the game.But beyond that, everyone knows the GTA series for its radio stations which, in this case, features over 441 licensed tracks stemming from practically every genre imaginable. Its track list is so stuffed, it had to be released over five official soundtracks for retail. The only criticism one could possibly make against the game is that it almost has too much music, with a kitchen sink approach that aims to recreate the concept of Los Angeles radio from every conceivable angle, unlike its predecessors, which were more tightly curated to be of their periods settings.“For this game, which is set in our version of modern day Los Angeles, what was important for us was to capture that feeling of L.A. and California,” Rockstar’s soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich told Rolling Stone. “We approached the radio stations as the musical soundscape as you fly into L.A. One of the things we’ve never done in a GTA game before is a pop station; exploring that made so much sense in the context of L.A.”Song to stream: “A.D.H.D,” Kendrick Lamar


‘Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy’

Taking a page from James Gunn’s Marvel Cinematic Universe trilogy, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy paints a picture of sprawling space opera that belies a squishy emotional center, to the tune of a classic rock mixtape. Arguably even more effective in its storytelling thanks to its extended immersive run time and interactivity, the game was a surprise hit when it dropped in 2021, standing tall alongside the films as one of the definitive takes on Marvel’s motley crew.“The music [is] definitely infused in the DNA of this game,” Steve Szczepkowski, senior audio director, told Screen Rant in 2021. “The Guardians are pretty much a rock ‘n roll band; They’re a band of misfits that found each other and have a common goal.”Credit is due to the game’s innovative battle system, which plays mostly as a real-time action game until players trigger a “Huddle” action, slowing down time for players to engage in a motivational speech sequence from Star-Lord himself, which hits the needle drop for extended combat sequences to likes of tracks like Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.” Like the movies, Star-Lord’s Walkman gives an in-universe reason for licensed tracks to play diegetically and inform the action on-screen.What could feel cringeworthy or reductive becomes one of the most exhilarating fist-pumping experiences in modern gaming. The game also scores bonus points for having one of the best uses of “The Final Countdown” in popular media.Song to stream: “The Final Countdown,” EUROPE


‘Hotline Miami’

Few games on this list do as much with as little as the indie-cult hit Hotline Miami. A pixelated top-down shooter set in the Eighties, it eschews the obvious path of leaning into pop hits of the era, instead synching its gruesomely violent gameplay in lockstep with dark, droning synthwave sounds that put players in a trance-like state. Combined with its VHS-styled aesthetic and minimalist storytelling, it’s a point-and-click reflex shooter with a greasy veneer that puts you in the mindset of a B-movie murderer.“We didn’t want the music to be stressful. We wanted it to be more hypnotic, not the highest tempo,” said co-designer Jonatan Söderström when speaking to NoClip. Along with Dennaton Games partner Dennis Wedin, Söderström found most of the artists featured on the soundtrack on Soundcloud. Inspired by Cliff Martinez’s score for the movie Drive, the duo wanted not only to recreate its neon-soaked visuals, but lean into its indie sound. The result is a dreamlike take on Drive that leans closer to a nightmare as the game progresses.With an emphasis on hypnotic drum and bass tracks like “Hydrogen” and “Paris” by M|O|O|N, with occasional tonal shifts to more up-tempo beats like Perturbator’s “Miami Disco,” Hotline Miami is the type of game where you’ll likely go in not knowing a single artist on its soundtrack but will walk away with a playlist. A titan of indie gaming, its impact has reached far and wide, with countless imitators over the last decade seeking to recreate its unhinged charm.Song to stream: “Vengeance (The Return of the Night Driving Avenger),” Perturbator


‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’

Many fans view Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as the pinnacle of the series, which is high praise for a franchise where any number of its entries could be listed among the GOATs. By focusing on a Boyz n the Hood style story in a fictional take of Southern California, San Andreas has become one of the definitive titles in the entire medium with an innovative take on a very specific microcosm of West Coast culture from the early Nineties.“California has got the best radio of anywhere in America,” Rockstar Games cofounder Dan Houser told Eurogamer in 2004. “It needs to feel Californian, but still presented in that GTA way.”While not as expansive as its eventual successor, San Andreas explored aspects of pop culture rarely touched upon in gaming, often controversially, and brought Black artistry to the forefront of its soundtrack with a downright massive track list, including iconic hip-hop acts like Public Enemy, Gang Starr, and Biz Markie, on top of classic musicians like the Isley Brothers, Rick James, and Frankie Knuckles while still making room for Merle Haggard. With a clear vision and ample legwork, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will go down as having one of the most influential gaming soundtracks ever.Song to stream: “B.Y.S.,” Gang Starr


‘Life Is Strange’

Decidedly lower key than pretty much any other game on this list, Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange series offers a more somber, meditative alternative to most AAA game’s hard-hitting soundtracks. Released episodically throughout 2015, the first Life Is Strange game is third-person exploration and puzzle game that plays out akin to an interactive graphic novel. Its story centers on a teenage girl named Max, who returns home to where her childhood friend was killed. Gifted with the ability to manipulate time, she uses her power to attempt to change her past, creating an unintended butterfly effect as a result.Aligning with the general melancholy and emotional slant of its narrative, the soundtrack of Life Is Strange has a unique indie music bend that’s rarely seen in popular games. With tracks like Sparklehorse’s “Piano Fire,” Mogwai’s “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” and Bright Eyes’ “Lua” punctuating poignant moments in the plot, the game has become famous for its more emotional undertones and nostalgic vibes that have most certainly inspired the recent cozy game trend. The inherent power of Life Is Strange as a piece of art is proving how effective gaming can be as a means to explore trauma, and how music can be the key.“Since the early prototypes of the game, the teams were using music tracks which helped define the mood of the scenes and the whole game,” Luc Baghadoust, the game’s producer, told Red Bull shortly after the final episode’s release. “Using licensed tracks is something not that common in games, and using them was a good tool to create a consistent and realistic world, to develop characters according to their musical tastes and to tell stories through each track. “Song to stream: “Mt. Washington,” Local Natives


‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’

For gamers of a certain age, Neversoft’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was the gateway into music. The original duology of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000) were released at the height of the PlayStation’s popularity when many now thirty-somethings (or forty-somethings) were at their rebellious peaks, and nothing quite hit the spot like kicking back with a controller to kickflip their way around an empty pool to the sounds of Primus.“The soundtracks are very much in line with my music tastes and my history of growing up skating,” Tony Hawk said in a 2022 oral history with Kerrang!. “Punk music was really closely associated with skating at the time and a lot of the songs on the soundtracks were songs that I heard growing up at skate parks.”Of the two, it’s brutal to choose a favorite, with fans feverishly debating online over which was the superior game soundtrack over the last 25 years. Forced to pick, the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater takes the win as the inaugural entry in the series that would inspire a generation of music lovers with tracks like Dead Kenney’s “Police Truck” and Even Rude’s “Vilified.” Most crucially, it has “Superman.” Enough said.Song to stream: “Superman,” Goldfinger


‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’

This is it: peak video game music. From the first trailer, set to the Fat Larry’s Band track “Act Like You Know,” Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was distinctively a vibe, long before anyone would have thought to call it that. While many games set in a defined era incorporate period-specific tracks, Vice City fully recreated the coked-out bravado of the Eighties in all its glory. “GTA: Vice City famously transported players back to the neon-drenched excess of 1986, and it was fabulously successful at it,” IGN’s Luke Reilly said in a 2023 retrospective. “It wasn’t the pastel pants, the palm-lined streets, or the pulsating period soundtrack. It was all of those things working together to form an irresistibly immersive time capsule.”The game itself might feel dated by today’s standards, but in the halcyon days of 2002, it felt like a revelation, especially following the muted tone and palette of Grand Theft Auto III. And although the maestros as Rockstar Games did impressive work to visually recreate the Miami Vice aesthetic of the Eighties using PlayStation 2 technology, it’s the game’s soundtrack that served as a shorthand to instantly entrench players in the game’s tone.“[Vice City], perhaps more than any other GTA game, was as much about the era as the setting,” producer Leslie Benzies told Digital Trends around the game’s 10th anniversary. To bring the neon epoch to life, Benzies’ team included tracks from across the musical spectrum like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away).”For a game built to be an Eighties crime simulator, the soundtrack for Vice City absolutely hits the mark and then some as the most effective use of licensed music ever in a video game.Song to stream: “Working for the Weekend,” Loverboy