Video game music is something I always love to talk about. No matter what mood I want to be in, I can find a powerful piece to fit the moment. But not all video games have to have a completely original soundtrack to capture the right mood or tone the game is going for. So today, I’m listing off my top picks for video games with licensed soundtracks.
First, a quick ground rule: this list is meant to show off games that happen to feature music from licensed artists, but doesn’t revolve completely around licensed songs as the core aspect of the game. As such, don’t expect me to list off Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution and Just Dance then top it off with DJ Hero and call it a day. The games I list feature either completely licensed music as part of the soundtrack or feature a combination of licensed music and original scores, whatever sets the right mood for the game’s storytelling. So, here we go:
5. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Sega Genesis, 1990)
Do you like Michael Jackson’s music? Of course you do. But have you ever listened to Michael Jackson’s sweet, sweet tunes in 16-freaking-bit? The first level alone gets you moonwalking across your living room with a sexy Genesis rendition of “Smooth Criminal,” a song I always go to when I’m looking for a good extended music loop on YouTube. The rest of the soundtrack is amazing too, featuring 16-bit mixes of “Another Part of Me,” “Bad,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.” It’s a perfect soundtrack for a retro game starring the King of Pop.
4. Crazy Taxi (Arcade/Sega Dreamcast, 1999)
Ahhh, 90’s rock, how I love thee. Especially when it’s blaring out my speakers as I smash through cars, risking the lives of countless pedestrians as I try to rush a customer across San Francisco in my bright yellow buggy of awesome. The fast-paced beat of the music, provided by both Bad Religion and The Offspring, completes the adrenaline rush I feel as I play this legendary late 90’s arcade classic.
3. Hotline Miami (Windows, OS X, PS3, PS Vita, 2012)
You know a soundtrack is going to be epic when the first thing you see booting up a game is a screen that says, “Loading music…” Without Hotline Miami’s soundtrack, I wouldn’t think for a second while playing that I was in the psychedelic, bass-pumping world of 1980s Miami. This licensed soundtrack is a bit unique, as it doesn’t feature any big-name artists. Rather, it’s a compilation of songs by various independent musicians. From Sun Araw’s “Deep Cover,” to “Hydrogen” and “Paris” by M.O.O.N, to the addictive-as-an-80’s-drug-lord’s-cocaine “Miami Disco” by Perturbator, the sounds of Hotline Miami can get you pumped for just about anything, from picking up hookers to bashing in the skulls of the Russian Mafia with a baseball bat while wearing a letterman’s jacket and a rubber unicorn mask.
2. BioShock series (Xbox 360, PS3, Mac/PC, 2007-2012)
As you can see from my praise of Hotline Miami, I love it when a game features a soundtrack that reflects the sounds of a game’s time period, and the games in Irrational and 2K’s BioShock series do this flawlessly. The first games take you to the City of Rapture, Ayn Rand’s wet dream at the bottom of the sea. As it was built in the 1940s, Rapture’s tunes reflect that, featuring many upbeat, jazzy hits from the 40’s and 50’s, which constantly serve as a reminder of the Art Deco dystopia’s former lavishness.
The most recent release in the series, BioShock Infinite, further expands on the original BioShock’s use of period sounds. Sure, the game takes place in 1912 in the heyday of American exceptionalism, and of course you hear plenty of well-known tunes from the period, but this game takes things a step further. Through the many dimensional tears strewn about the City of Columbia, people heard music from the future. What does this mean? Throughout BioShock Infinite, you get to hear 1912 renditions of songs from the late twentieth century. From a barbershop quartet singing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, to a poor girl in a slum belting out a soulful rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” these songs will make your jaw drop because of how amazing they sound as old-timey ditties.
1. Fallout: New Vegas (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, 2010)
The licensed songs are absolutely perfect for a game that takes place in post-nuclear apocalypse Las Vegas. Originally coming from the early Cold War and all in some way implying impending doom by atomic bomb in their lyrics, there is something delightfully ironic about listening to the music in the New Vegas soundtrack. These songs add a whole new level of depth to the atmosphere of the irradiated wastelands of Las Vegas. And I’m sure that’s just what the designers were going for as they meticulously chose which songs should be in the soundtrack.
The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.