My Top 10 Favorite Indie Game Soundtracks
I grew up loving video game music of all kinds. As a kid, I especially loved the tracks that provided memorable, hook-driven melodies. As sound and music technology got better, a lot of games started taking a more cinematic approach with their soundtracks. While this can be excellent and effective in the right context, I found myself longing for the goofy, in-your-face “earworms” of yesteryear.
So where can a lover of melodic hooks go for good video game music nowadays? The occasional AAA title can still come through with a whistle-able tune (Mario Odyssey has several excellent tracks, for example), but for me the real action is happening in the indie scene!
What follows is a list of my top 10 personal favorite indie game soundtracks. There are a LOT of games out there, of course, so I am sure I have missed about 3,000 good ones, but if you’re looking for some mostly-retro-inspired soundtracks to browse, hopefully there are some good ideas here for you!
10. Crossing Souls
Now here’s a game that really knows how to punch you in the face with the 80’s! Crossing Souls employed two different composers to bring two different (but incredibly era-appropriate) music styles to the adventure – Chris Köbke for sweeping John-Williams-esque orchestral goodness, and Timecop1983 for moody, electronic 80’s soundscapes.
I like both of the styles, although Chris’s more aggressively melodic work hits me closer to home. There are several main themes that recur throughout, and it’s fun to recognize them as they pop up again.
Owlboy has production values to spare. Like Crossing Souls, it employs a grand, orchestral sound to convey adventure.
Many of the tracks are more ambient than melodic, but there are a few excellent standouts, and the whole OST has a rich, high-quality sound to it that repays a full listen.
8. The 13th Doll
The soundtrack to the 7th Guest, composed by the Fat Man, is one of the legendary scores of early PC gaming. Somehow, the Fat Man managed to make the scratchy SoundBlaster cards of yesteryear produce amazingly moody and atmospheric sounds – but by means of solid jazz-inflected, melody-driven music. The 13th Doll is a recently released “fan game” of the 7th Guest, and is a loving attempt to recreate the creepy mansion and its puzzles.
Although there are a few homages here and there to the original Fat Man score, the soundtrack is an almost entirely original work by Chris Bormend, and it manages to recapture a fair amount of that strange MIDI soundscape while introducing some new and interesting hooks.
While it may not reach the heights of the 7th Guest’s phenomenal score exactly, I found the music enjoyable and compelling.
7. Fox n Forests
Fox n Forests lovingly recreates the pixel art aesthetic of the 16-bit era, recalling games like ActRaiser. This soundtrack was a fun discovery.
The score hits you hard and up-front with the harmonies and sounds of the 90’s, but better than that, introduces some new and memorable melodies. The score is a tad inconsistent in places, but there are several good tracks here that I find myself coming back to in my “indie game playlist.”
6. Elliot Quest
The pixel art aesthetic of this Zelda 2-styled “Metroidvania” feels like a curious blend of 8-bit and 16-bit, but the music (by Michael Chait) is solidly from the 16-bit era.
It manages to capture that curious 90’s “pungency,” and includes a number of pretty direct homages to SNES soundtracks. There are a number of strong melodies here, too, particularly the main theme (that recurs throughout the OST), and the town music.
The music helps gives them game a unique and occasionally moody atmosphere, but with the occasional peppy tune to keep things from getting too dour and one-note (like so many indie titles nowadays…)
As a game, Ultionus was a bit too far on the challenging side for me, but the soundtrack is excellent. I was surprised to learn that the music was actually an early effort by famed indie composer Jake Kaufman (of Shovel Knight fame, among others).
The first several tracks of this OST are wonderful, with memorable hooks and (again) a recreation of those pungent 80’s and 90’s VGM harmonies.
I can’t rank this in good conscience, of course, but I’ve been trying to bring similar retro-melodic values to the soundtrack for my own game, Adventures of Chris.
4. Deltarune Chapter 1
Toby Fox’s sequel/prequel/something-or-other to Undertale doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, particularly with the boss themes, but there are still a lot of good tracks here.
The variety is excellent, making the whole OST a fun listen by itself, and several of the travelling tracks are wonderfully catchy. The high-energy main battle theme is also a lot of fun.
I listened to the whole OST and enjoyed it immensely even before playing the game, and that’s usually a good sign!
3. Shadows of Adam
Composer Tyler Mire has created a wonderful score for this JRPG, taking inspiration not only from games of the era like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, but adding a unique jazz-inspired layer that works remarkably well and gives many of the tracks a more unique sound.
The score includes both direct homages to the tropes of 90’s JRPGs and more original tracks with a jazz or big band flair. I find there are excellent tracks from both sides.
I should probably be honest here, though – at first listen this OST didn’t sound as strong as I now think it is. But it grew on me pretty fiercely over time, and it’s one I keep coming back to over and over.
2. Shovel Knight
Jake Kaufman’s Shovel Knight soundtrack gets a lot of love, and deservedly so. The very first level opens with an exciting melodic hook (“Strike the Earth”), and the next several levels keep up the momentum as well.
The instrumentation is wonderfully 8-bit, even if there are a few too many instruments to sound perfectly authentic, but the overall effect is still wonderful.
Some of the music for the later levels loses the momentum, and the loud, highly compressed “wall of sound” aesthetic gets a bit tiresome if you don’t interleave this OST with other soundtracks, but the good stuff is still VERY good.
Yeah… it’s great. And a lot of the covers are great.
It’s still my fervent belief that it’s the melodic and memorable soundtrack that made this game what it is.
I’ve been trying to bring similar retro-melodic values to the soundtrack for my own game, Adventures of Chris.
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