Being a fan of Nintendo-based video game music has historically been pretty tough. Older aural aficionados would cling tightly to their Killer Cuts CDs, dedicated collectors wept at the triple-digit pricing of rare Japanese CD sets containing most, but never quite all, of a popular '90s RPG soundtrack, and everyone else wondered why publishers seemed to have such a problem sorting out an obvious and mutually beneficial deal. Like the game, do you? Then order the soundtrack from your nearest retailer!
Or not, as the case was 99% of the time.
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Thankfully that default position of professional disinterest has shifted in recent years, and now music lovers all over the world are able to get their hands on more video game soundtracks than ever before.
What were once import-only rarities are now just a casual Spotify search away, and what once didn’t exist at all now get ornate limited-edition music boxes and premium vinyl releases. Many of them will still cost you a pretty penny, but they're more readily available and affordable than ever — we're moving in the right direction.
It’s time to take a fresh look at just how much game music is out there, and where you can get it. We begin with old-school media (don't worry, we'll get even older-school before long)...
Now almost 40 years old, the compact disc remains a straightforward and DRM-free way to get your hands on the biggest game soundtracks old and new. Nintendo itself has started releasing lavish box sets for chart-toppers like Breath of the Wild and Animal Crossing: New Horizons (the Zelda series has even had several orchestral concert albums made available too) with other titles, such as Link’s Awakening and Splatoon 2, receiving comprehensive multi-disc albums; all ready and waiting to be purchased through your favourite import website.
Closer to home Grandia, Actraiser, Streets of Rage II, and Skies of Arcadia all have official soundtracks released by the France-located Wayo Records and, at least in this writer’s experience, Mick Gordon’s growling soundtrack to Doom is something to be picked up from a small branch of HMV.
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Although often buried under wildly inconsistent tagging, both iTunes and Amazon offer a plethora of soundtracks in all regions, running the full spectrum from titles you’d expect them to have (such as Monster Hunter Rise — albeit with Japanese text — and Legend of Mana’s newly remastered soundtrack), titles you’d hope they’d have (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Hades, the entire Devil May Cry series), and titles you’d never dare dream of asking for.
Need to buy the soundtrack for Dreamcast homage ‘em up SEGAGAGA, Capcom’s Dino Crisis 2, or Namco’s Pac-Mania? You can do that right now, straight from your phone — no foreign currency gift cards or secondary accounts with fake addresses in the right country required, Just prod, purchase, and play.
Until the wax cylinder makes a mainstream comeback, vinyl is currently the trendiest of all audio formats, and gaming is keen to capitalise on its success. It’s large, tactile, discs are a joy to behold, and the mildly ceremonial nature of choosing and then playing one specific album in order is something of a pleasant novelty in 2021.
Labels like Brain Wave and Data Discs have led the way with this anachronistic (at least in terms of digitally produced video game music) format, and thanks to its boom in popularity, game soundtracks on vinyl are easily purchased (you’ll need to be quick if you want a specific variant, mind you) and can be anything from classic arcade shmups like Gradius, Ketsui, and the previously un-soundtracked Treasure legend Ikaruga, to indie hits such as Untitled Goose Game (an inventive album that cleverly mimics the game’s cheeky nature with its double-groove system, resulting in slightly unpredictable plays) Shovel Knight, and Celeste, or even the towering blockbusters of the last decade. Skyrim’s on vinyl. Dark Souls is on vinyl. Minecraft’s on vinyl. Pull any game’s name out of a hat and it’s either on vinyl or soon-to-be on vinyl (which will probably sell out its initial batch in seconds).
No game too niche to be considered for a vinyl release these days. Bliss.
Last but certainly not least is streaming, a format so frictionless that most platforms don’t even make you pay anything to listen to the wonderful melodies contained within — so long as you can tolerate the ads, that is.
Here the much-loved RPG developer Falcom arguably rules supreme, its online offerings stretching all the way back to a selection of albums originally released in the late 1980s while also including the soundtracks to games so new they don’t even have English releases yet, plus the vast majority of everything in between, too.
Square Enix is just as thorough, enabling users from everywhere and anywhere to listen to official recordings of NES and SNES classics, the very latest releases, concert performances, and even their own “Chillhop LoFi remixes”, although we won’t pretend to be cool enough to know exactly what that entails.
More specifically for Switch-owning music fans, you can enjoy listening to the varied delights of Undertale, Octopath Traveler, XCOM 2, and Hollow Knight without having to do much more than log in to your streaming platform of choice.
So, things are definitely better than they’ve ever been, to the point where finding game soundtracks in very ordinary local places is pretty unremarkable. Resident Evil vinyls, once the stuff of dreams, are now housed in the same stores that stock “100 Greatest Dad Rock Hits”. Anything from retro chiptune to soaring symphonic arrangements can be accessed via a phone or tablet.
Could things still be better? Of course they could. There are still far too many easily-spotted holes in gaming’s music catalogue, and plenty of odd inconsistencies across regions and formats — it’s still not a given that a new vinyl release will be accompanied by a digital equivalent, for example, and even if you do bear in mind licensing issues and label preferences that have to be negotiated when re-releasing vintage OSTs, that scenario still feels like a too-obvious missed opportunity for someone somewhere down the merchandising line.
Even so, what we’re seeing right now is game music finally being taken seriously without having to constantly fight to justify its existence to a more mainstream crowd; as audio entertainment in its own right, as something worth enjoying, indulging in — and ultimately paying for if you want to see (or hear) even more in the future.
Lots of options make for happy ears — let us know below how you like to enjoy your video game music when you're not playing the games themselves in the poll below, and be sure check out the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features.