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Generation review: Best soundtracks

By Chris Schilling on Thursday 26th Dec 2013 at 2:00 PM UTC

We've not quite bid farewell to the last console generation, with PS3 and 360 in particular still likely to hang on well into the New Year, but it's high time we began to celebrate some of its finest moments. Compiling a list of the best soundtracks on those two consoles (and, of course, the Wii) has proven incredibly tricky, however: there's simply been too much good stuff to choose from.

Rather than opt for the most obvious choices we've tried to pick out a more varied selection, and so there are a few leftfield picks in our mix. We've also discounted single themes to concentrate on soundtracks in their entirety, highlighting moments of excellence to represent them. Which does mean, sadly, that we're discounting individual pieces if we weren't quite so impressed by the whole. So while we're loath to exclude the brilliant Nate's Theme from the Uncharted series, or Mass Effect 2's delightfully hypnotic Galactic Map tune, you won't find them here.

Music is a particularly subjective medium, of course, and we're confident most of you will disagree with our list - in which case, feel free to contribute your own choices in the comments. Either way, sit back, put some headphones in andcelebrate some of the best video game music of the past 7-8 years.


inFamous

The preponderance of dark, post-apocalyptic worlds was something we grudgingly grew accustomed to during the last generation, though few found the sounds to match the aesthetic. The same can't be said of Sucker Punch's sandbox adventure a burned-out city of greys and browns lit by sparks from protagonist Cole McGrath's electrical superpowers that met its aural match in Brazilian composer Amon Tobin. Using everything from dustbins to shelving units, a Chinese zither toa bass drum with dried beans poured onto it, Tobin's work was a striking amalgam of sound design and pulsing electronica. It may not have been to everyone's taste, but it was unique.

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Assassin's Creed II

Danish composer Jesper Kyd has been making video game music for over 20 years now, and while he's probably best known for his work on the Hitman series, it was during EzioAuditore's first outing that he produced some of his finest work. In a soundtrack as sumptuous as the Italian architecture, it's the strident Venice Rooftops that is the obvious standout, the driving percussion providing the adrenaline of a pursuit, as choral voices and strings supply the fittingly graceful, elegant top notes. It's a hero's theme in all but name, a lithe, characterful and memorable piece for a protagonist with similar qualities.

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Xenoblade Chronicles

One of the best RPGs of the last decade was also one of the most underappreciated, but Xenoblade is a terrific game with an equally strong soundtrack. In a collaborative effort, it's Yoko Shimomura's compositions that stand out, the woman responsible for Guile's Theme and the Kingdom Heartssoundtracks turning in a blend of up-tempo pieces with quieter, more introspective themes. The perfect example of the latter is the game's title theme, a mournful, melancholic piece that accompanies the sparse menu screen, but grows more affecting still in a later reprisal. Delicate and beautiful, it highlights Shimomura's versatility as a composer.

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Nier

Cavia's rough-hewn action-RPG was as wonky as it was inventive, but its story and music are among the best of its kind. It's difficult to pick a single piece out to represent Nier's astonishing, eclectic soundtrack, with four composers each contributing a range of themes from the clanking metallic percussion of The Wretched Automatons to the heartbreaking strings and childlike vocal of Emil's Sacrifice. But Song of the Ancients may be its most memorable melody, a theme with a dynamic surprise in the game as sisters Devola and Popola contribute soft, graceful vocals to an already gorgeous instrumental piece.

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

Both of the Super Mario Galaxy soundtracks could easily qualify here. The original has Buoy Base Galaxy, the best Star Wars theme never written; the majestic, euphoric brass of Gusty Garden Galaxy; and the lost Disney-on-Ice classic that is Rosalina's Comet Observatory. For our money, though, the second game has the edge for its slightly broader musical range. Koji Kondo's happy, dancing violins on Puzzle Plank Galaxy are a highlight, but we've plumped for the joyous Yoshi Star Galaxy theme, whose jaunty melodies and thudding drum beats somehow perfectly capture the goofy appeal of the loveable dino himself.

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Journey

Austin Wintory's score was the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy, and for good reason: you simply can't imagine Journey being anywhere near as good without it.The whole soundtrack fits together like a complete symphony, a holistic work that enhancesthe mystery and ethereal wonder of the game's environments.With that in mind, it almost feels wrong to pick out a single theme, but fittingly, Apotheosis is both Wintory's score and the game at its pinnacle: a delightfully fluid, evolving piece of music that builds towards a euphoric high, with bells chiming and strings soaring skyward as the game's cloaked protagonist does the same.

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Fez

Disasterpeace was the perfect choice to score a game that blends the best of retro and modern design. Fez's soundtrack melds waves of electronicawith chiming chiptune melodies to form anmeditative ambient soundscape. It lends Fez's strange world an otherworldly feel, somehow enticing you to explore while maintaining an edge that suggests all is not quite as it seems. Adventure, the first song on the OST, is a particularly fine example of that alluring mix. With creator Phil Fish claiming to have left the industry, we may not see the planned sequel - and that would be a crime if it meant missing out on music like this.

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Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon

Tri-Crescendo's little-played Wii game was a sad, lonely post-apocalyptic adventure, a spiritual journey through an empty, ruined Japan haunted by the ghosts of the departed. Though sometimes awkward and even tedious to play, the bleakness of its world was matched by its curious beauty, and Riei Saito's sublime piano-led soundtrack provided its emotional anchor. By turns enigmatic and moving, Fragile Dreams' main theme, A Dedication To...Everyone, is the entire soundtrack - indeed, the game itself - in microcosm: quiet, affecting and somehow not quite like any of its peers.

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The Last of Us

Gustavo Santaolalla's defiantly non-traditional approach to composition was the perfect fit for Naughty Dog's spellbinding post-apocalyptic tale. Santaolalla uses an orchestra without violins, and tunes his guitars down for deeper, more resonant tones, in keeping with the empty bleakness of the game's world, while elsewhere hinting at Joel's heritage with country tinges. Haunting and delicate, the soundtrack as a whole is perhaps exemplified by The Choice, a melancholy theme that begins quiet, sparse and moving and evolves a darker streak. Little wonder it was chosen as the backdrop for one of the most pivotal scenes in the game.

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LAIR

Pity poor John Debney. Ably assisted by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cutthroat Island composer lent some of his finest work to the LAIR soundtrack, only to be overlooked when the game turned out to be awful. Factor 5's early PS3 title waslittle more than a Dungeons-and-Dragons reskin of its Rogue Squadron games with dreadful motion controls. Still, Debney's soundtrack did its best to convince you that you were playing a better game, notably in a wonderfully overblownpiece for the climactic battle. Elsewhere, the strident Firestorm with its thundering percussion is the perfect example of a grandiose theme the game's action entirely failed to live up to.

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Double Dragon Neon

Like LAIR, Double Dragon Neon's soundtrack is much better than the game it belongs to. WayForward bravely attempted to recapture the heyday of the scrolling beat-'em-up, but in doing so it only served to highlight the limitations of the era. Not so Jake Kaufman's gloriously catchy Eighties pop tracks that played in the background. There are several great tunes to choose from but the track that accompanies the City Streets 2 stage is perhaps the pick of the bunch, a song that, had it been released at the time, would almost certainly have troubled the top end of the charts.

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Motion-controlled swordplay and a denser, leaner Hyrule made for a divisive Zelda but there can be few arguments about the quality of the music. The first fully orchestral Zelda soundtrack was a revelation, stirring in remnants of older themes (Ballad of the Goddess is basically Zelda's Lullaby backwards) but mostly forging a bold new path all its own. Picking highlights is tough: the end credits medley is an astounding closer, while the dovetailing oboe and flute melodies of the Romance theme make for a gorgeous love affair. But it's the final variation on Fi's Theme that arguably resonates most - and in the context of the events it accompanies, the one most likely to draw tears.

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