Video games are awesome. Beyond their gripping stories, engaging gameplay, and social aspects, though, lies an oft-overlooked aspect: the music. A good video game original soundtrack (OST) is tough to get right; it needs to highlight whatever emotion the player should be experiencing at a point in time, as well as being submissive so as not to be distracting to the player.
In the past, we’ve written about using music to boost your productivity, as well as some awesome full soundtracks you can listen to on Spotify. Today, we’re going to celebrate the best video game soundtracks for those times when you’re studying or trying to focus.
Why Listen To These?
You may be wondering what the big deal about listening to game soundtracks is, especially if you don’t play video games. As mentioned above, the soundtracks need to be engineered so that players can enjoy them while still being able to focus on what they’re doing. In addition, it’s difficult to really enjoy a good soundtrack unless you’ve listened to it outside of the game, since all sorts of sound effects are getting in your way during the game.
The soundtracks given here aren’t necessarily the best of all time, but they’re all excellent collections while still providing a good background for focus. A sample of the best tracks will be provided for each OST, and you might be tempted to listen to the 30-minute extended versions of your favorite tracks. I’d recommend against this, however, as they tend to get repetitive after a few iterations and the constant changing of a full soundtrack keeps your environment fresh.
Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES; 1995)
Kicking off the list is one of the most-beloved soundtracks of all time. The first DK Country was an awesome title, but its sequel improved on it in every way imaginable, with better graphics, more varied locations, amazingly intuitive secrets, and one of the greatest game soundtracks ever.
It’s amazing to think that this much emotion could be packed into a game soundtrack, but composer David Wise made it happen. It is mostly upbeat and good for those times when you need a medium pace for your work.
The obvious choice for a highlight in this game is Stickerbrush Symphony, but let’s go with a different one to expose you to something new. Mining Melancholy is an awesome track that makes you feel like you’re touring the mines; listen for the striking of the worker’s pickaxes in the intro!
Bastion is an action game with role-playing elements that follows the Kid as he strives to restore a fallen world. The soundtrack is excellent; it gives the feeling of the Wild West while also being upbeat and taking you to a fantasy world. The game’s Narrator is certainly one of the highlights; you can hear a sample of his voice in the opening track of the OST.
This game’s highlight is the track Bynn The Breaker, which plays often during intense combat scenes. It starts off fairly tame, but builds into an intense midsection that will keep you on edge. Bastion’s soundtrack is great for an even-headed day when you need some music to keep you fantasizing about saving the world.
Matt mentioned Bastion in his top alternatives to Diablo III, so if you’re a fan of either game you may find more to like there.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, Wii U; 2003)
Nearly any of the Zelda soundtracks could have made this list, but Wind Waker’s goes great with any kind of work, and it’s lengthy so you won’t have to worry about changing tracks often. Wind Waker’s soundtrack has an Irish feel to it, with pipe-based instruments bringing a sense of being in the beautiful outdoors.
One of the first tracks you’ll hear is a perfect example of how gorgeous this soundtrack is, and thus it’s the highlight. The Title Theme will rile any gamer up into an adventurous spirit. Its happy beat will get you going even on those tough mornings.
VVVVVV (Steam, 3DS, Mobile; 2010)
Adding some variety into the mix is the soundtrack for VVVVVV (pronounced V-6), a retro-infused platformer game where you reverse gravity instead of jumping. Its 30-minute soundtrack is full of boppy tunes that would have been at home on the early consoles of the 80’s.
Passion For Exploring, the track that plays on the overworld map, is one of the best. It gives the funky feeling of being lost in space that the game tries to convey. Chiptune music doesn’t get much better than this!
Assassin’s Creed II (PS3, X360, Windows, OS X; 2009)
The Assassin’s Creed series has been getting yearly installments for quite some time now, but thankfully they continue to (mostly) be of high quality. Since Assassin’s Creed II borrows from historical locations and events, you can expect it to have an equally historic and beautiful soundtrack. It doesn’t disappoint, and at nearly two hours long you’ll have plenty to listen to.
The Ezio In Florence track is brilliant. Picture sitting on a rooftop in Italy during the sunset, watching people go about their business; this track brings those images to mind. Its smooth flow yet epic undertones make it one of the highlights on an already great soundtrack.
If you like Assassin’s Creed but weren’t sure about checking out the latest installment, check out why AC IV: Black Flag is one of the best entries yet.
Super Meat Boy (X360, Steam; 2010)
Some may say that if you play this game, you have a death wish, as it is teeth-grindingly difficult. You will die hundreds of times on your quest, but SMB goes to great lengths to ensure you have everything you need to succeed. The soundtrack is just as well-crafted, and brings some tension while still being smooth enough to allow you to focus.
In Super Meat Boy, each level has a Light and Dark World variant. Most players will be able to clear the Light World levels, but the Dark World path contains some of the most difficult stages in modern gaming.
What’s neat is that the music for each world reflects this; a more pleasant, traditional tune is used for Light and a twisted remix of it for Dark. Rocket Rider, World 3’s Dark World background music, is one of the best remixes in the game. Also, it’s not the hardest world, so listening to it won’t bring back feelings of rage.
Super Meat Boy has some achievements that are close to impossible; if you can earn them, hats off to you.
Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! (PlayStation; 1999)
Spyro is one of the classic PlayStation franchises. Unfortunately, the series has degraded severely over time, but the original three stand as excellent 3D platformers. The soundtrack is whimsical and has a fantasy element to match the locales you visit; ensuring the high-energy gameplay of Spyro has some great background noise to go along with it.
The Skelos Badlands theme is one of the best. It’s funky and makes you feel like you’re out in the wild where the level is located. There’s not much else to say about it, it’s just a classic soundtrack.
Spyro 2 took a well-deserved spot as one of Philip’s four nostalgic PS1 games that never get old.
FEZ (X360, Steam, PS3, PS4, Vita; 2012)
Ah, FEZ. Creator Phil Fish had a rocky path in the gaming industry, and life hasn’t gotten any better for him. Recently he was the target of a massive information breach, after which he announced his departure from video games and sold his company. The one game he gave us, though, is brilliant.
Home, the track that plays when you start out in the village, is simple and short, yet soothing and peaceful. It would make a great alarm for waking up in the morning; it reeks of watching the sun rise over a mountain.
Journey (PS3, PS4; 2012)
Journey’s name describes it perfectly. It’s a game that is all about wandering around and exploring, and cuts out the noise that modern games introduced. The music, of course, gives you an awesome backdrop for this exploration. Even some movies don’t have soundtracks like this!
This is another game where a top track is hard to pick, but Atonement is definitely worth mentioning. Try sitting back and devoting your attention to listening to it; it really is a beautiful piece of music.
Video games are often intense and epic, but Journey makes the short list of calm games to soothe your soul.
Braid (X360, Steam, PS3; 2008)
Braid is one of the most popular indie games of all time, arguably introducing many people into that world. In the game, you control time by rewinding it at will, which also affects the music. Because of this, even if you’ve played it, you can’t appreciate the beauty of the soundtrack unless you’ve heard it without these interruptions.
You could pick any beautifully crafted track off Braid’s short OST, but Lullaby Set takes first place. The instrumental bliss has to be heard out of the game, and the nostalgic emotion laced into it will give you something to think about. Even if you hate video games, this is one soundtrack you have to give a listen.
Braid isn’t just an awesome game, it has an awesome price. Check it and nine others out on the list of best PC platformers for under ten dollars.
Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (PlayStation; 1997)
Crash is another Playstation gem, and it too had its golden days with its first three iterations. The second game’s soundtrack is like Spyro’s: whimsical and excellent at matching the various locales you visit in Crash’s adventure.
The levels in Crash 2 are themed, so one track might cover two or three stages. One of the coolest tracks is the theme to The Eel Deal/Sewer Or Later/Hangin’ Out levels. It’s electrifying and makes you feel like you’re down in the pipes with its banging beat throughout.
Crash has been neglected in recent years, so it would be awesome to see him back for more shenanigans and revived on the PS4.
You now have several hours of game music to listen to while you work or study. There’s a good variety here! There could have been 50 more OSTs on this list, but you’ve got to stop somewhere, right?
What are your favorite game soundtracks for studying or working? Do you have any other favorite tracks from the games I highlighted? Share your tastes in the comments!