All the best video games have epic audio arrangements, carefully crafted to enthral gamers. Behind every awesome soundtrack is a highly-skilled video game composer.
Everyone knows that incredible visuals and stunning gameplay are essential to a good game. Twenty-first century gamers are almost spoiled by immaculate character design, expansive world-building and immersive filmic narratives.
Yet a forgotten artistry and key driver in any game’s overall aesthetic is its music. In this article we focus on the composers behind some of the best video game soundtracks.
Let’s find out about the best video game composers of all-time.
20. Gordy Haab
With his John Williams-esque stylings, Gordy Habb is praised for grand orchestral compositions and is widely respected as an elite orchestrator.
As a video game composer he has worked on a number of science fiction and fantasy titles including Halo Wars 2 along with Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
He also won Video Game Score Of The Year for his work on Battlefront along with three awards at the 2016 GDC G.A.N.G. Awards: Music of the Year, Best Interactive Score, and Best Instrumental Score.
Haab’s work has been lauded by The LA TImes as “the B-side to John Williams’ score,” with Billboard’s Steve Schnur, president of music for EA insisting “Gordy is one of the few composers in the world on Lucas’ short list.”
19. Jason Graves
Jason Graves is an incredibly skilled musician in his own right. He is a drummer and orchestral maestro, having arranged music within a range of media settings including film, TV and video games.
He has worked for numerous developers in his time including Quicksilver, Ubisoft and EA.
Graves’ works include The Order: 1886, the Dead Space series and Tomb Raider. In total he has composed scores for over forty video game titles. A talented and prolific video game music composer.
18. Toby Fox
Toby Fox is known to be influenced by the bygone era of 16-bit, with many works found on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or SNES. He cites Earthbound as a major influence on his compositions.
This is evident within his most famous title Undertale. The series received nominations for a British Academy Game Award and three Game Awards.
Fox was also responsible for the game’s overall look and character design to go alongside his wonderful soundtrack.
Other notable achievements include his involvement in the soundtracks of Super Smash Bros Ultimate and two Pokémon titles.
17. David Wise
The timeless compositions of David Wise are somewhat legendary amongst the Super-Nintendo gaming communities. Rather than relying on artificial audio effects, Wise is instead known for recording realistic instrumentals, leaning on elements of jazz to create soundtracks full of rich organic character.
Wise can play a range of instruments from the piano to trumpet and is also an accomplished drummer. He has even featured in a number of bands and performed live up until 2004.
The majority of Wise’s most well-known music lies within the Donkey Kong brand, specifically Donkey Kong Country and Diddy Kong Racing. Other compositions include Snake Pass and Battletoads.
Wise is regarded as one of the first composers to test the boundaries of 16-bit music hardware in creating much of his work on the Donkey Kong Country original soundtrack in particular.
16. Masato Nakamura
Masato Nakamura has an interesting background in music beyond composing. He is a talented vocalist and bassist, in the late 1980’s forming a band called Dreams Come True who went onto sell over 50 million records worldwide, before eventually moving into video game music.
Known primarily for his work on the Sonic The Hedgehog franchise, responsible specifically for creating tracks on iconic levels such as ‘Green Hill Zone’ and ‘Starlight Zone.’
The organic sound he’d cultivated through his playing roots were crucial in building the bass tones associated with many of Sega’s efforts. It provided a stark contrast to the joyful, clean and often sweet melodies found in Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog instead providing a host of swaggering arrangements that were more cutting edge.
15. Michiru Yamane
Michiru Yamane’s fixation with music formed in early childhood where she quickly developed a passion for rock music and classical sounds too. She also has a background in music theory which gives her a thorough understanding of constructing many different song styles.
Her first commercially successful work was the main theme for King’s Valley II in 1988 with Yamane also composing for titles such as Symphony Of The Night and Suikoden III.
Yet arguably Yamane’s most iconic composition pieces are seen within her work for Konami and the vampire hunting classic franchise Castlevania. She produced scores for both the main title sequences along with some of its spin-offs and is even credited for influencing the typical synthesiser driven Konami sound.
Interestingly, her style is largely based around classical composers, utilising heavy orchestra vibes and also adding electronic rock sounds to create a haunting atmosphere perfect for the slaying of paranormal enemies!
14. Akira Yamaoka
Akiri Yamaoka began his video game music composing journey at Konami back in 1993.
His most famous work to date can be heard within the Silent Hill franchise. The team behind this classic gaming series specifically requested that Yamaoka compose its score.
Yamaoka is responsible for many more soundtracks across both the 90’s and 2000’s including Road Rage and Shadows of The Damned. He is famed for composing tracks with dark tones and heavy powerful rock-based arrangements.
Since 2010 he has been a sound director at Grasshopper Manufacturer. His latest work is Psychological Horror epic The Medium with Silent Hill 2 also on the horizon.
13. Jeremy Soule
Jeremy Soule is an incredibly well-respected American video game composer. His father was a music teacher which gave him the foundation to learn instruments and ultimately hone his craft.
Soule had always been a fan of video games from a young age and after graduating high school in 1994 he secured a job at Square. Some of his most well-known work includes Morrowind, Oblivion and the worldwide phenomenon Skyrim.
He is renowned for composing some of the most beautiful and timeless music within the fantasy role playing game sub-genre, focused on classic orchestral tones to create dramatic and enthralling scores.
Soule’s soundtracks appear on over sixty video game titles to date. He has composed music for the Harry Potter series, several children’s games and Total Annihilation, which was his first award winning score.
12. Harry Gregson-Williams
English composer Harry Gregson-Williams is well-established as both a video game composer and also as a film music composer, developing scores for a string of Hollywood films including Shrek, The Chronicles Of Narnia and The Martian.
Having won a musical scholarship for his piano playing in early childhood, he then began to collaborate with some of the world’s best musicians and has since built an impressive body of work.
Within the video game industry, he has composed music for both the Metal Gear Solid and Call Of Duty Franchises, working on their numerous sequels over a fifteen year period. His arrangements are known for being typically intense and dramatic to suit these series’ particular style of gameplay.
Gregson-Williams even helped devise the musical accompaniment to a theme attraction, his compositions used as part of the Shrek 4-D ride, currently operating in Universal Studios within North America and Japan.
11. Winifred Phillips
Known for her huge melodies and epic orchestral arrangements, Phillips’ work is often described as worldly and unique. She was always an avid gamer, playing everything from classic side-scrollers to shooters and RPGs.
Yet it was only after her explorations into Radio that Phillips moved onto video game music composition. Her greatest scores include LittleBigPlanet, God Of War and the main theme to Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.
Phillips has also written a book entitled A Composer’s Guide To Game Music in 2014, which won several awards including a Non-Fiction Book Award and National Indie Excellence Book Award.
The publication was an enormous success with a Japanese version published in 2015, the alternative edition entitled Game Sound Production Guide – Composer Techniques For Interactive Music.
10. Junichi Masuda
Junichi Masuda is the ‘Godfather’ of Pokémon sound.
The producer and video game composer has worked on the franchise since its inception. His first involvement with the series was its sound design for the original Red and Blue games. Since then Masuda has composed music for other Pokémon games such as Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire along with Diamond and Pearl.
It is said that his work draws much inspiration from modern composers and in particular the style of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Masuda’s composing expands beyond video games with work on music for the Pokémon anime series too.
9. Yuzo Koshiro
Taught by his Mother, Koshiro quickly learned to play the piano with help from the masterful film composer Joe Hisashi, who is famous for composing music for Studio Ghibli film productions.
Koshiro soon found employment with Japanese video game developer Nihon Falcom and through his time at the company benefited greatly from experimenting with their wealth of music technology.
Famed for his innovative ‘chiptune’ or 8-bit style, Koshiro’s back catalogue is extensive. He eventually rose to prominence through his work on iconic SEGA production Sonic The Hedgehog and notably composed music for their awesome side-scroller Streets Of Rage.
Koshiro eventually started his own company, Ancient, in 1990. Beyond the realms of the video game industry he also composed numerous original soundtracks and even developed music for famous virtual YouTuber Inugami Korone.
8. Grant Kirkhope
Kirkhope is known for the diversity in the style of music he composes.
Some of his work is typically dark and atmospheric. Apparently heavily influenced by legendary music composer John Williams, he has scored soundtracks for Perfect Dark and also the main theme of GoldenEye 007.
He has also devised soundtracks for many other gaming series including Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Kazooie.
Unlike many of the video game composers on this list, Kirkhope often leans on melodic soundscapes that are both fun and catchy, likely a result of his work on the quirky and child-like Banjo-Kazooie series.
Kirkhope has been nominated for various BAFTA, ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association) awards.
7. Mahito Yokota
As a long-standing Nintendo sound guru, Mahito Yokota has composed an array of fantastic arrangements throughout an impressive back catalogue of gaming hits.
He was once an audio director for established Japanese video game developer Koei before finally joining Nintendo.
Known for his genius in the world of orchestral composition, he has been responsible for constructing the soundtracks of Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend Of Zelda.
He also collaborated with Koji Kondo during the development of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World series.
6. Yasunori Mitsuda
Originally a sound engineer, Mitsuda rose through the ranks of Square Studios to work on both Final Fantasy and Secret Of Mana. Further success was to follow for Mitsuda, his soundtracks for Chrono Trigger and Xenogears brought to life by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.
Work on other popular franchises soon presented themselves with Super Smash Bros enlisting his talent for a number of games in their series.
Mitsuda has also broadened his horizons beyond video game music by composing for a range of animated films such as Level Up Norge and Valkyria Revolution.
In 2001, he founded his own music production studio and record company called Procyon Studios and Sleigh Bells.
5. Kazumi Totaka
Kazumi Totaka has been composing video game music for over thirty years. His first works consisted of 1992’s X along with Super Mario Land 2 and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past.
Alongside his video game composing, Totaka is a voice actor (most famously voicing Yoshi in the Super Mario series) and also a sound designer, the latter opening the door to work on huge franchises such as Wii Sports and Animal Crossing.
“Totaka’s Theme” has become an ‘easter egg’ within the video game music world, a unique quirk whereby he includes a special and personal melody in all of his game’s soundtracks.
He was also responsible for the main theme to Wii Sports and has also developed soundtracks for Wii Music.
4. Martin O’Donnell
O’Donnell’s first musical compositions involved writing and recording advertisement jingles for TV and radio, including products such as Mr. Clean and vitamin brands. The American maintains that this medium helped hone skills that enabled him to construct memorable and catchy song arrangements.
Before moving into mainstream console titles, O’Donnell forged an epic career by composing music for PC game Myst and then its follow up Riven.
But it is his work on the Halo series that O’ Donnell is most celebrated. The game is an undoubted global success, and has sold over 81 million copies to date.
O’Donnell is known for utilising intense beats and memorable arrangements. He even collaborated with ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Salvatori and C.Paul Johnson on the 2014 video game Destiny and is contracted to do so on any future instalments.
3. Yoko Shimomura
Having composed video game music since the late 80’s, Yoko Shimomura is an experienced and established video game composer. One of her first composing works for Capcom was on the cult-classic arcade game Street Fighter, more specifically the composition of Guile’s Theme.
She cultivated her reputation by working for Square Enix and developing music for Kingdom Hearts, with the soundtrack still revered even today. Eventually she broke away from the organisation to set up her own company Midiplex.
Shimomura is also known for her contributions to Final Fantasy XV, Legend Of Mana and Super Mario. She is deeply fond of a wide range of music styles, from delicate piano runs to pulsating rock guitar, her emotive and often thunderous soundtracks spanning across forty-five video game titles.
2. Nobuo Uematsu
A pioneer of video game composition, Nobuo Uematsu was born in 1959 and grew up having had no musical training. It wasn’t until age eleven that he began to learn the basics of composing and as a graduate went on to compose music for various record companies.
Uematsu was given the opportunity to score video games following an approach by an employee from Square, a video games developer famous for a series of successful Japanese role playing games.
He went on to work for Square Enix, most famously devising music for the Final Fantasy series, from its first release up to the game’s ninth iteration, also including the title’s main theme. Uematsu created music for other game franchises including Chrono Trigger, Blue Dragon and opening theme to Super Smash Bros.
Uematsu is heavily praised in the industry for his originality, and whilst taking some influences from other genres, his overall creativity is both unique and outstanding. His style is best described as emotive with grand operatic atmospheres.
He has made several appearances in the annual Classic FM Hall of Fame, an annual compilation of the 300 most popular classical works as polled by listeners of U.K Radio station Classic FM. Uematsu is widely regarded as one of the greatest video game composers of all time.
1. Koji Kondo
Koji Kondo an undisputed Nintendo god, and truly one of the great video game composers to have lived.
He is responsible for a huge slice of the company’s music output over many years, personally composing or advising upon an avalanche of famous titles, and is arguably the biggest influence on video game music.
Kondo has a music background, writing and performing in various rock and Japanese jazz bands. He initially began working for Nintendo as a sound designer and programmer, which bolstered his CV with not only musical expertise but practical skills too.
Having worked for the gaming giants since the mid-80’s, Kondo has penned scores for huge Nintendo titles like the classic theme from Super Mario, select music for Legend Of Zelda and even tunes on Wii games.
He has stepped back from the grind of composing and into a more directorial role but still has huge influence over Nintendo’s work even today.
“Music in a video game must not distract,” says Kondo. “But rather enhance the gameplay experience.”
Header image: Yuzo Koshiro
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