The Best (Licensed) Video Game Soundtrack Of All Time

Here's the thing about a video game soundtrack. It has to be more than just a collection of good music.

I mean, anyone can just throw money at record labels and cobble a licensed soundtrack together. EA Sports do this every year, but nobody buys — or even notices — games like FIFA or Madden for whatever pop/rap group is blaring over a menu screen.

This story originally appeared in February 2015.

They key to a great licensed soundtrack, one that actually matters, is to not only have it made up of great music, but have that music play a part in how you experience and remember the game.

And no game has done this better than Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Vice City's soundtrack is the key to your entire experience with that game. All those white suits, cocaine jokes and all those perms, none of it would have mattered if your murderous rampages weren't accompanied by some Mister Mister or Cyndi Lauper or vintage Bryan Adams.

In setting their game in the past — a caricature of 1986 Miami — Rockstar had a job ahead of them. The GTA games are as defined by their cities as they are by their missions, and a sense of place is perhaps what players most remember about each game. GTAIV's drab grey streets, GTAV's sun-drenched pavements, San Andreas' blue sky and palm trees.

With Vice City, though, Rockstar had to rely on more than just architecture, character design and recent memory to build a coherent world. They had to drop the player into a city and time that, even though the game was released in 2002, many hadn't experienced or couldn't remember.

They did this through art and design, yes, but they did it more effectively through music. Vice City's soundtrack isn't just the best licensed video game soundtrack of all time, it's the best 1980s soundtrack of all time, somehow managing to contain all the right artists from all the right genres.

It did this by pioneering the series' trademark "radio station" soundtrack system, where genres and styles of music are divided into separate stations then fleshed out as their own mini-soundtrack. Vice City featured seven of these, and every single one was just about perfect.

I mean, look at this: V-Rock, the game's rock and metal station, may not have any Metallica (whose rights are a nightmare), but it does have Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe. The new wave station has Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Gary Numan, Kim Wilde, A Flock of Seagulls and Spandau Ballet. The pop station has Michael Jackson. The rap station has Run-D.M.C.

These artists may not be as nuanced or niche choices as we've seen in more recent games (indeed, they're blindly obvious choices), but they don't need to be. Vice City wasn't a game about showing how cool your sound team and designers were, it was a game about taking you back to the 1980s, and it made damn sure it got every iconic and evocative 80s artist it could get its hands on in order to do just that.

A particular highlight is Emotion 98.3, the game's soft rock station. Fronted by the husky DJ Fernando Martinez, its smooth power ballads were completely at odds with the exploding cars and dead pedestrians that punctuate Vice City's missions.

But for every other moment, those times you're just driving around in the rain past pink neon lights (which, remember, is most of the time in these games), it is damn near perfect. Regardless of the track, you're transported straight back into the 1980s, because music this synthy and this corny could only have come from one decade in time.

And that's exactly what Rockstar wanted/needed it to do. Mission accomplished. They didn't go out and buy the most popular songs from the 80s, they went and got the most 80s songs from the 80s.

Vice City may not have been the best Grand Theft Auto game, but it's still remembered fondly by many — myself included — because it did more than just string some city blocks and crude jokes together. It went back in time and got 1986's fashion, architecture and colour palette just right, but the fuel powering that time machine was a soundtrack that was immersive, poignant and at times funny as hell.


Comments

    I believe the best licenced video game soundtrack ever is Full Throttle.

    I still have the Gone Jackals album and listen to it often.

      Hahaha. Dude that is SERIOUSLY 90s of you.

      I've always loved that soundtrack too. Did many u-ies on the highway just so I could keep listening.

    Vice City is definitely the best licensed album for a game so far. It's absolutely perfect in every respect. Each station was master crafted in a way no other GTA game has reached, although San Andreas DID come close.

      I'm torn on it between Vice City and Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2.

      the 80's is a decade defined by it's music and fashion like no other, so in some respects it's almost easy mode to make a soundtrack that perfectly suits the game... but then THPS2 was probably just whatever the guys were listening to at the time so is also equally as lazy.

        Yeah +1 for THPS 2, that was totally awesome. Although THPS definitely was on the top of its game too.

        Such profound choices to be honest and GREAT selection :)

        I can't help but feel all these games come from the same time period for a good reason, licensed soundtracks were only in their infancy and songs were 'up for grabs' at that point. Now, it's commonplace and they cost big bucks to put in place.

    Yep, no matter how hard and broad I search for an alternative, Vice City is king. Nothing comes close in fact.
    It doesn't just complement the setting - it establishes the atmosphere in its entirety.

    Yeah I can't dispute that. Rockstar nailed Vice City in just about every way. I really wish they would remaster it with RAGE & give us a much needed refresh of the best GTA to ever be created. Followed by III & San Andreas.

    The original wipE'out" (hope I stylised it correctly) had an amazing soundtrack. I used to put the CD-ROM in my player and start from track 2 as back in those days all the data was on track 1

    Not my preferred taste in music but Alan wake originally had a good sound track.
    Shout out to the early ps1 days tony hawks.
    Plus games like doom had some good theme fitting tracks.

      A THOUSAND TIMES THIS!!!

      GTA:VC was ‘good’ in that it lifted the theming and flavour of the Scarface Soundtrack and then bolstered and built on it in a way that is fantastic.

      The “CoLD SToRAGE” soundtrack mix for the original Wipeout is phenomenal. So many ear worms, so many good tunes, so many artists (maybe it had something to do with me being mid-teens when I first played it; I had no idea who most of the artists were before playing the game).
      Few games have put me in such a cerebral state as the Wipeout Franchise when I’d get ‘into the zone’ while playing it, and that soundtrack was instrumental (pun intended).

      As it turns out, the OST for it garnered enough attention even before he untimely demise of ‘Studio Liverpool’ that CoLD SToRAGE Remastered then and put them on Bandcamp for an excellent price (in no way am I affiliated):
      https://coldstorage.bandcamp.com/album/slipstream-wipeout-volume-one

    Vice City is the only GTA I really liked. I've played 4 and 5 and whilst impressive, they just seem too big and too much for me to get into.

    But VC was just the bomb. Obviously I was a lot younger then with less choice of games and more time, but I just loved cruising around on a bike listening to 80s ballads. Brilliant times!

    No way I could say best but my choices are very similar to what I see here.

    Vice City, San Andreas, Tony Hawks (and the myriad of other extreme sports games that had a bounty of defining alternative culture to pull from)
    Gran Tourismo 2 still had one of the best cruising collections ever.
    Wipeout had an awesome futuristic sound scrounged from the electronic scene of the time.

    I can say my favourite licensed music moment from a game though.
    Having the characters from Saints Row the Third singing "What I got" from Sublime was.......sublime.

    This article is spot on, I listen to this soundtrack almost frequently. Might I add the PS2 Scarface: The World is Yours soundtrack as well? I must love 80's music a lot hahaha

    Regardless of whatever other failings it might have had as a game, Mafia 3 had a goddamn stellar soundtrack.

    Vice City's soundtrack was brilliant, I have it all on semi legal CD somewhere.

    Another fave is Burnout 3, the link rock suited the game perfectly.... so long as you turned off the DJ ;)

    Half Life 1 and System Shock 2 both had great music.

    A lot of the older 90s style games also had killer stuff. Probably because they were so limited in what they could do, it had to be stronger musically. I still remember the soundtracks from a lot of SNES games.

    FarCry 3 soundtrack is amazing. I listen to it on my phone at work all the time.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution is also a really brilliant listen. The main track, Icarus, is a classic.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n07RJW2BEBc

      Diabolical Adrenaline Guitar, gets the blood pumping

      Last edited 27/01/18 11:06 am

        Hell yes! The Black Mesa remake was cool, but I was really missing the original music.

        Do you remember when 'Hazardous Environments (Valve Theme - long version)' started to play in the game? I was like "oh yeah. This is getting serious".

        One of the first games I bought when I got back into PC gaming in '98. Remained my favourite game for a long time.

        I cannot understand why valve don't do their own remaster. Or make games anymore, for that case.

      Yeah the DE:HR soundtrack is amazing. I never listen to soundtracks but that one I have on my phone and listen to regularly. Good call!

    First cutscene ends. Get on the 'Faggio' in the alley. Listen to Billie Jean until a storm warning interrupts the song. Weave around the city hitting pedestrians and gaining a star or two. You haven't switched radio stations so Self Control by Laura Branigan comes on, which makes you get off the 'Faggio', hit start and turn off trails in the options to get rid of motion blur. Then a PCJ-600 drives past and blows you mind. This is when the game begins.

    Vice City is still my fav GTA game :D

    The soundtrack is probably a good part of why.

    * Need for speed UG 1 and 2 - Use to just leave the game in the menu and listen to it.
    * THPS2 - Another excellent
    * GTA Vice City - Used to just drive round the city not causing a fuss just so i could listne ot the radio, I do miss the GTA 2 concept where you could become a bus driver and do their route by stealing a bus lol
    * FF7 - Best original soundtrack IMO

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