Tons of video games, especially racing and sports titles, often employ licensed music from popular bands and musicians to fill their song line-up, such as “Bring the Noise” in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and “Feels Just Like It Should” in Need For Speed: Most Wanted. They do their job well and sometimes even become iconic of their game, as in the case of Crazy Taxi‘s “All I Want” or Dead Rising‘s “Gone Guru.”
However, there are other games that take a long way around to produce their own original game soundtracks that are as distinct and interesting as licensed music, a collection of symphonies that wouldn’t even be noticeable if they’re played from a random radio station. Therefore, when you feel the need to flex your gaming soundtrack cred, these are the best music you can play to your friends.
Released as a Wii-exclusive, PlatinumGames‘ debut title was a hidden gem not only for arcade-y action fans but unexpectedly also for hip-hop enthusiasts. PlatinumGames composer Naoto Tanaka collaborated with eight different American hip-hop and rap artists, including Sick-YG, OX, Doujah Raze, and Bandy Leggz, to produce 20 pieces of music (with a total length of 50 minutes). Each acted as perfect companion pieces to Jack Cayman’s bloody rampage as he participates in a death game called DeathWatch.
In an interview with Original Sound Version, Tanaka himself said that while he made the backtracks first, he gave all contributing artists the musical freedom when adding lyrics and performances to maximize their individual sounds. And it definitely shows in the end result. While each track has particular elements that fit with each in-game level theming—such as “Let’s Go!” utilizing Asian flair to its instrumentation being used in the Japanese-inspired level Bistro or the horror movie-like Mad Castle level’s background melody “Crazy” having lyrics talking about the full moon and wolves howling—everyone’s style of singing still managed to shine through.
OX’s “Ride!!,” “Get It Up,” and “Breathe,” for example, are more upbeat. Doujah Raze’s “Come With It” and “Deathwatch” are a bit more somber. Meanwhile, Bandy Leggz, as the only female vocalist, feels aptly applied to showcase the ferocity (and cockiness) of the sole two female bosses in the game, RinRin and Elise, through her “You Don’t Know Me.”
2. Anarchy Reigns
You could say that this game is some sort of reboot and/or spiritual sequel to MadWorld. It didn’t just feature a number of the same characters from the previous title with different roles, notably Jack, Black Baron, and Big Bull, but once again PlatinumGames worked with American hip-hop musicians to fill the game with 31 brand-new, blood-pumping soundtracks.
Compared to MadWorld, Tanaka might’ve had a more hands-off approach to the making of Anarchy Reigns’ soundtrack, considering the musical styles are a lot more varied this time around. Rap still dominates the album; however, there’s also an emphasis on electronic instruments and even comedic lyrics. Rushden & Diamonds’ “They Came From Underground,” in particular, sound like a double act, describing the game’s post-apocalyptic world in a gruesome-yet-silliest way possible. Although returning artists all come with outstanding tracks, other newcomers managed to steal the show as well, with “Here We Go” from Theory Hazit as my personal favorite.
The whole soundtrack features composition and tempo that not only belongs to the violent in-game universe but also features additional messages and meaning outside of the game. Skitz the Samurida’s “We All Soldiers” expresses how humanity could get desensitized to the violence of war, and Doujah Raze’s dark lyrics in “Testin’ Me” describe someone who has to keep fighting and abandon his loved ones to protect them.
And unlike MadWorld‘s album, which was only released as a limited-edition bonus, you can actually buy Anarchy Reigns‘ (or also known as Max Anarchy in Japan) album from the internet. Well, at least digitally on iTunes, since I’m not sure if the Avex Marketing label is still physically producing it, considering the game was released back in 2014.
3. Killer Instinct
Mick Gordon’s DOOM (2016) and Eternal‘s soundtrack have definitely taken the world by storm, but maybe you’ve missed his other masterpiece. Yep, that is the Killer Instinct Season 1 and Season 2 albums. Most of the tracks in the collection are instrumental, chants, or sung in other languages (to fit each character’s globe-trotting theme), but a select few like the TJ Combo’s “I’m Back (to Rise)” or Orchid’s “Touch Me and I’ll Break Your Face” definitely wouldn’t sound out of place if you play it through a car’s speaker.
Sung by Ali Edwards, a name that will show up again in this article, “Touch Me and I’ll Break Your Face” from Season 1 plays like a combination of catchy rock-pop with a heavy ’90s electronics influence. It is also jam-packed with subtle classic Killer Instinct references, such as the radio sound effects from Rareware’s original recording sessions and vocal samples of Faye Newborough, the original vocalist of Orchid’s theme in the old game.
Meanwhile, the eight-minutes long “I’m Back (to Rise)” is a hard-hitting techno rap with high production values and strong vocal performances from Omega Sparx, who performs the main rap lyrics. It tells TJ Combo’s desire to prove that he can still keep fighting to regain old glories; definitely one track you should add for your workout piece. If you have metalhead friends, “Warlord,” “Ballet of Death,” “Inferno,” and (especially) the Tibetan screamo “Herald of Gargos” are excellent choices to play through the aux as well.
4. Metal Gear Rising
Metal Gear Rising is definitely well-known for its memes. But it cannot be understated how its soundtrack, full of fiery wailing guitars, strong electronic synth, heart-pounding screams, and even the use of auto-tune here and there, helped build that popularity as well. To know the tone of the game and the album, simply listen to “Rules of Nature”; a bit edgy but undoubtedly not trying to take things too seriously. Just wanted to make you feel highly excited about things to come.
Like “Rules of Nature,” “I’m My Own Master Now” and “The Hot Wind Blowing” are more straightforward. Others, like “Red Sun,” utilize a trace of dubstep. “Return to Ashes,” “Collective Consciousness,” and “It Had To Be This Way” added lyrics with political intrigue that feel suited for a Metal Gear game. While Free Dominguez’s “A Stranger I Remain” mixes things up a bit by using female vocals. Jamie Christopherson and all contributing artists’ efforts should be applauded for bringing much-needed life and energy to Rising, especially with the use of synths and auto-tune to enhance the futuristic cybernetic visual of the game’s world.
Aside from the ending song “The War Still Rages Within,” which has melancholic lyrics and somber rock, the musical style pretty much stays the same from one track to the other. Still, it fits the pace of the hack-and-slash gameplay like a glove and a treat to be listened to over and over again both in and outside of the game.
5. Devil May Cry V
If we’re talking about Devil May Cry V‘s soundtrack, the vocal tracks are undeniably the main attraction of the whole album — most notably Nero and Vergil themes, “Devil Trigger” and “Bury the Light,” respectively. Simply put, “Devil Trigger” is just one heck of catchy hybrid rock-pop track that fits Nero’s personality like the Devil Bringer to his arm; cocky, impulsive, rebellious but a bit of a softie and prone to playing around. Ali Edwards as the vocalist brought her A-game when singing this.
On the other hand, the industrial-symphonic metal “Bury the Light,” performed by Victor Borba, illustrates the trouble and anguish of Vergil that tried to bury his humanity. But in the end, he accepts it as an inseparable part of himself while the song blasts into the powerful chorus.
But that doesn’t mean the two others are neglectable. “Crimson Cloud” by Jeff Rona and Rachel Fannan has an emo-metal feel to it as it tells the story of V’s quest to regain his complete self. While Dante’s “Subhuman” by Michael Barr (replacing Eddie Hermida) featuring the band Suicide Silence might’ve missed the mark with the series’ main character’s bombastic personality, but it could still be interpreted as showing some cracks in his emotional vulnerability, especially regarding Vergil and an inner conflict with both his human and demon selves. Even so, no matter how you interpret it, they can be easily enjoyed by metal fans.
Capcom and DMC V‘s main composer Kota Suzuki wanted each of these “key tracks” to give identity to their characters. Something that could exist separately from one other but still works together within the Devil May Cry universe. And in that regard, the sound team and composers have done it extremely well. These vocal tunes shine a bit more in-game, though, thanks to the dynamic battle theme system where the better you play the game (reaching up to the SSS rank in combat), the more parts or layers of the music will be unlocked. Even the lyrics are rearranged and remixed in real-time.
6. Afro Samurai
Lots of action anime aficionados probably have heard of the Afro Samurai series, either in the comic book or animated form. But the video game version, released for Xbox 360 and PS3 back in 2009, in all likelihood slip past most people’s radar. As with the anime, rapper RZA was still selected as its music supervisor, and somewhat similar to the animated movie, the game’s soundtrack is a mix of funky instrumental and conventional rap songs with a heavy Japanese influence. Although if you’re expecting the return of a broad selection of high-profile MCs just like the anime’s score, such as Big Daddy Kane, GZA, True Master, and RZA himself, you better temper your expectations.
According to the IMDB page, only rappers Keonte Jasper, Cole Rodgers, and J. Ran (and possibly Agustus thElefant) are filling in for the game. Nevertheless, vocalists and composers involved in this project still do a bang-up job for this largely forgotten video game tie-in. Like the stylized visual of the anime and manga, it managed to satisfyingly combine Japanese flair with the modern style of hip-hop. The classic Japanese melodies of drum and flutes intro of “Kimono Dance” suddenly break into a fast-paced rap about stabbing someone with a Ginsu. Or the more subdued and melancholic “Fade to Black-FMZK Remix.” All serve extremely well as background tunes when you are busy slicing and dicing ninjas.
7. Jet Set Radio series
If you want something more varied, the Jet Set Radio series features tons of different styles for your amusement ranging from J-pop, electronica to rap, dance, trance, and more. This isn’t surprising since the game employs underground pop culture for its theme, where you play as a “bomber” gang member in inline skates spraying graffiti all over futuristic Tokyo and evading authorities.
Given that the game is set in a futuristic Japan, several of the music has unmistakable J-Pop elements. In particular, Guitar Vader’s catchy-but-annoying “Super Brothers” and “Magical Girl.” For something more on the electronica side, Deavid Soul’s “Yappie Feet” and “Electric Tooth Brush” by Toronto (SEGA’s Tomonori Sawada alias) have that up-beat vibe in which everyone could easily dance to on any dance floor.
And of course, we have to mention ex-SEGA composer and DJ Hideki Naganuma’s tracks when talking anything about Jet Set Radio. True to his reputation, Naganuma’s works basically headline the whole soundtrack. “Rock It On” is an energetic Japanese rock that almost sounds like it could’ve come out from one of many Sonic games. “Let Mom Sleep”‘s repetitive lyrics also don’t stop it from becoming an earworm, thanks to the vibrant musical backing. Meanwhile, “Grace & Glory” has unique haunting chantings that feel like they would fit well into an opera but are accompanied by a chirpy electronic instrument.
Like MadWorld to Anarchy Reigns, Future expanded the selection of scores. It adds a diverse selection of bands and musicians, including Scapegoat Wax, Russell Simins, the Prunes, Cibo Matto. And as you can expect, Naganuma also returns, with both original works and remixes from different artists. And personally, I find the snappy introductory “The Concept of Love” to be his best work in the whole album. As you can see from the wide range of musical artists featured in the series, Jet Set Radio is one heck of an introduction for new listeners of various forms of music.
8. Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune series
Lastly, in case your friends are more into electronic music or need something to pump you up while driving alone in the darkness of night, then this collection of underrated original game soundtracks is for you. Starting from the third game in the series, Bandai Namco’s arcade racing has finally created its own unique identity on the musical front, which is mostly carried by electronic-focused, EDM-style tracks. Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 3, for example, has the catchy electronic melodies of Love to Rise in the “Summer Morning” and “Feel the Moment.” And in Maximum Tune 5, the high-energy trance “Fallen Angel” will remind you of popular EDM vocals.
Then, having the longest soundtrack (just behind Maximum Tune 6), Maximum Tune 4 features quite a diverse soundscape. Starting from darker hard techno like “Dark Side Style” and “Black Zone,” the energetic “Driving Energy,” to “The Final Count Down” that incorporates unexpected choir and, my personal favorite, “Glory Days” that fuses funk, jazz, and trance into one unforgettable tune. “Drifting Into You” and “Re-Birth,” sang by Aubrey Ashburn and “Taillight,” sang by Emi Evans, are also there to please the need of fans of vocals trance tracks. And through “Love and Gold,” Maximum Tune 6 also finally presents one piece in a genre that used to be synonymous with its rival series Initial D, and that is Eurobeat.
Yuzo Koshiro is famous for his work on the Streets of Rage and other SEGA-related series, but starting today, Wangan Midnight should also come to your mind when discussing his name. Thankfully, starting from Maximum Tune 4, you can grab the game’s soundtrack digitally on iTunes to add it to your music collection. Meanwhile, Maximum Tune 5 and 6 albums are easily available to stream via Spotify.
That’s pretty much all my recommendations. Do you know of other non-licensed music that you think is worthy of being played through the aux as well? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.