I didn’t initially think there were enough games in the genre to do a “Best Original Soundtracks” for platforming-type games. Some will sneer and controller/keyboard fling at such an assertion, but in all transparency, I am wildly unacquainted. In fact, there is only one game on this entire list that I’ve actually played.
However, after submerging myself in the sounds of the platformers below, there are now nine games on this list that I am passionately driven to delve into. This is the magnetic power of a truly great video game soundtrack. I see the cover art, and suddenly my imagination fashions a gripping narrative and visceral universe intertwined within the music.
The premise of the platformer is generally uncomplicated: hop, dash, sometimes fight. What elevates games in this genre is the heart that the developer and composer pours into their artform. A dedication to enthralling environments, immersive story, and music that ties these things and the gamer together.
If you haven’t experienced any of the below soundtracks, I highly recommend diving in with eyes closed and ears prepared for the divine.
Dirty buzz guitar, the kind that makes you scowl like a cowboy, might be one of my favorite instrumental tones of all time. The Psychonauts soundtrack screams this to grand effect, achieving memorable musical highs with a handicap of quite a few duds.
However, when this soundtrack hits, ohhhh boy does it deliver. Plodding slide guitar, throaty bass and sassy harmonica transport the listener immediately to the youthful ease of Whispering Rock Summer Camp in tracks like “Bunk Time,” “Whispering Rock,” and “Stay Out of the Moonlight.” Dangerous acrobatic hijinks involving flaming juggling pins and strategic knife throwing are perfectly scored by “The Meat Circus.” Finally, the gem of the entire soundtrack are all of the Spanish influenced tracks in Black Velvetopia, featuring guitars that either smash like Luchadors or croon like Julio Iglesias.
It’s unfortunate that so many of the other tracks fall short of these masterpieces. Still, the moments of strength carry this soundtrack to the list.
9. A Hat in Time
Collecting funky hats and glowing hourglasses forms the wacky premise of the cuteness overload platformer A Hat in Time. Composer Pascal Michael Stiefel goes so hard for this throwback-style 3D Indie game.
The styles in each area are somehow both sonically luscious and also charmingly cartoonish. The variety in this soundtrack is mindboggling: Bossa nova grooves in the “You Are Now Legally A Bird,” epic Final Fantasy-esque boss music in “Toilet of Doom, bubbly metal in “Your Contract Has Expired,” juicy drum and bass pumps in “Get Lost.” 5 hours of a high production value thrill ride that kicks so much candy-colored ass.
8. Super Castlevania IV
Fighting the hellspawn minions of legendary vampire king Dracula could have easily featured nothing but haunting church organs, but Super Castlevania IV instead delivers a thrilling soundtrack conducted by the heavy metal whip of the Van Helsing-type hero Simon Belmont.
Hair-raising boss fights turn up the anxiety with vicious synth waves interrupted by booming bass drum hits. The slicing pianos of “The Waterfalls,” pierce with a feeling of impending doom, while the riding snare hits and high voltage strings on “Bloody Tears” hit the bloodstream like 120 cc’s of bootleg holy water. Each environment, be that decrepit forest or spooky castle, were assisted mightily by the music of composers Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo.
My only complaint is that I was a bit let down by the theme music for the similarly underwhelming final showdown between Simon and ol’ king Drac. Previous boss battle tracks or even “Room of Close Associates” more effectively fueled intensity and established life or death stakes. Still, this is a minor critique when compared to the rest of the soundtrack, which flies fast and hellaciously with the swiftness of flaming bat wings.
7. Donkey Kong Country 2
One of the best things the Donkey Kong series offered was locking up Donkey Kong and shafting him as a playable character, replacing him with the acrobatic duo Diddy and Dixie Kong. Throughout their conquest of Crocodile Isle, Diddy and Dixie hair whip, cartwheel, and rhino-dash through a diverse soundtrack of catchy tunes.
The motifs of the stages swing from Jolly Roger sea-shanties, heavy artillery marches and jungle grooves. My favorite of that last category being the jive remix of the Donkey Kong theme in “Token Tango.” One of the only hip hop-inspired jams on this list, “Funky the Main Monkey,” is reminiscent of 90’s sitcom openings which really wins me over in a special way.
For me, Donkey Kong Country 2 is a game that provides a consistently attractive soundtrack throughout. While there aren’t any standouts that I would put on repeat, David Wise was able to accomplish a rare feat among video game composers, which is create a complete soundtrack that holds the player’s attention from start to finish.
The Blasphemous soundtrack maintains all the gloomy intensity you would expect from a game featuring blindfolded baby battles and a protagonist who fills up his helmet full of enemy blood, only to dunk their head in it like Gatorade on a victorious football coach. Soaked.
The 8 bit hacker slasher is accompanied by a gothically dynamite score composed by Carlos Viola. The environments in the game are often haunted or desecrated, traits only steeped deeper in horror by ghoulish choirs, apocalyptic drum-thumps and dire electric guitar licks. The soundtrack consistently reaches the intensity of Dark Souls encounters while evolving into an even more emotionally poleaxing rhythm.
Chiptunes were a hallmark of early 90’s/late 80’s video games, but the genre saw a masterful revamp in the 2012 platformer Fez. Disasterpeace successfully took the 8-bit synth sound and breathed orchestral life into it, engrossing players into a universe of beeps that soothe or smash depending on the environment. Never have I heard the form implemented so cleanly, even the crunchy static laden sounds of “Glitch” and “Nocturne” go down like honeybutter.
Still, this soundtrack excels most in its moments of weightless tranquility. Airy meditations provided by “Beacon,” “Nature,” and “Spirit” uplift my soul like a church hymnal. This is all the more necessary because some of the puzzles in this game really require some brainpower and patience, two things kept afloat by the shimmering soundtrack.
Gomez may be a blockhead, but his musical taste is on point.
With the beginning rings of solitary bells, you can feel a heaviness looming, an impenetrable gloom of hopelessness that fogs the eyes and sinks the soul. Inmost features a painfully beautiful soundtrack that seldom diverges from depleting sorrow or dungeon-latched anticipation, but how sweet is the descent!
Composer Alexey Nechaev is the mastermind behind this transfixing string of tracks, dominated by stirring piano compositions, tarnished-gold string arrangements, and opera-power brass with giant drum booms. The tale of a young girl, vigilant knight, and a haunted man marching through an intertwined destiny offers little light and even less hope. Still, this is a smashing soundtrack that I’ve put on repeat, tearing opening my heart wider than cardiac surgery.
Personally, the draw of mountain climbing has always been losing oneself completely in the ascent. Celeste demands hawkish focus, a laser beam of intention flicking the controller to wall cling, scrabble up, jump off and air dash to a pinhead area of safety. No room for area, complete absorption by the task at hand.
I am blindsided that composer Lena Raine was so deftly able to weave such an evocative soundtrack within this wrought iron focus. There’s fierce triumph in “Confronting Myself,” harrowing despondency in “Quiet and Falling,” the reminiscent sweetness of nostalgia in “My Dear Friends.” Piano peace is intermingled with electro-pop to great effect, a musical shout out to the 8 bit game set on a mountain that largely demands solitude and self-reflection.
The result is an album that can be listened to endlessly on repeat, for a home study session or even along your next mountaineering adventure.
2. Super Mario Galaxy
Gah, my bleeding, nostalgic heart. It hurts to elevate a game that I’ve never even played above two titles that I absolutely adored: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. Still, as a comprehensive work, I couldn’t abide passing Galaxy.
64 was packed with hits, including the nostalgia overloading “Title Theme,” the jazzy trumpeteering on “Super Mario 64 Main Theme,” and the heavenly, smooth-accelerating aqua-groove “Dire Dire Docks.” Sunshine paints an overarching tropical motift hroughout, but still maintains distinction within the theme of each location. Buzzing seaside ports in “Ricco Harbor” are easily distinguishable from shimmering secret coves in “Noki Bay” and the fire-dance luau that is “Pianta Village.” Of course, how could I not mention the classic “Delfino Plaza” theme.
However, Galaxy is the title that finally matches the heroic status of the red-hat Italian plumber by complimenting his odyssey with a full orchestra. Going through the Galaxy soundtrack, I felt, that Mario’s accompanying music was no longer a hodgepodge of nostalgic environmental themes, but rather a sweeping symphonic journey. Different Galaxy levels have memorable themes, (highlights including Gusty Garden and Buoy Base), but this is the first Mario platformer where each boss has their own memorable battle theme. Plus, Galaxy also features the most epic Bowser Battle score yet, one that almost matches the intensity of God of War boss battles.
1. Ori: Will of the Wisps
I initially strode into this assignment deadset on putting Ori and the Blind Forest at the top of this list. The first Ori introduced me to the concept that a masterfully produced soundtrack could motivate a deadset buying decision.
However, I decided to give composer Gareth Coker the respect to at least wade a bit in his followup soundtrack in the series for Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Which then led to me being utterly entangled and falling headfirst into this 3 hour Odyssey-level musical epic.
What solidifies this game’s placement at number one for me is how brilliantly Coker conveys a vast multitude of feeling. Intrigue, joy, crippiling loss and hard won victory are some of the emotions conveyed expertly with a full array of symphonic power and unique instrumentation.
I tremble at the idea of choosing favorites within this score because the movement in it’s entirety flows so seamlessly along. Still, the ataviostic fear of “Howl” still shakes me for hours after listening. “Mora the Spider,” makes me want to buy a battleaxe to smash things with, while the original themes incorporated within “Escaping the Sandworm,” make me tear up and fill my heart full of slicing nostalgia. “In Wonderment of Winter” is straight up Tolkein-esque in the best ways. I just can’t choose one, they’re all so impactful. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a flawless classic. Go forth and listen reader, I beg thee!
One final thing to address: No Hollow Knight on this list. Now look, don’t get sour at me. I initially didn’t even think this genre would be featured, so I stuck Hollow Knight on the “Best Original Action/Adventure Soundtracks” list. For the record, it performed gloriously. Would it have beat out Ori? Eh, moot point.
Glad to be able to share my deepest, most sincere joy of listening to video game soundtracks with you, dear reader. Til’ next time!