What makes a great indie soundtrack in today's gaming world? Is it personality? Charm? Uniqueness? Ron and I (Joey Davidson) teamed up to hammer out 10 of our favorite gaming soundtracks from the relatively contemporary indie scene.
What we wound up with is a list of 10 albums that we can easily, wholeheartedly recommend to you for your listening pleasure.
We've tracked down the Bandcamp embeds for each entry in this list (except for one, which didn't have a listing on the music site). With Bandcamp, you can typically pay what you want above a minimum asking price for the given album. This way, you can dig the tunes and support their respective artists.
Away we go!
Bastion's lowkey soundtrack plays up the dreadful sense of isolation the game creates. The Kid's lonely quest to rebuild a destroyed world is magnified by haunting acoustic guitars and low pitch gentle vocals.
It's cowboy music, perfect to play up the Kid's romantic lonewolf motif. The kind of stuff you'd hear sitting around a campfire at night, surrounded by nothing but the pitch black darkness beyond the flame's light. Totally alone.
Some soundtracks can take multiple CDs and span for hours on end, but Canabalt creates every piece of music it needs in just one simple track. Nothing fancy and nothing over the top. A simple title and simple beat back up a simple game where you are doing nothing but one thing…RUN!
Typically told through two voices, RUN! has its slow moments which capture the bleak and desolate world the robots have destroyed, and the fast moments which set a great pace for the anonymous runner to time his death defying leaps from building to building.
The oddball in this list, Dustforce is probably one of the only games that I've ever purchased based on its soundtrack alone.
A while back, a friend tossed me a link to this game's OST. I gave it a listen and instantly loved it. That forced me onto steam where I picked up a wonderful brawler featuring janitors with epic combat skills. Yep, that's Dustforce.
The music here is really whimsical, but that makes it great for work and study. A real gem.
With FEZ, creator Phil Fish needed a soundtrack that captured the essence of its exploration, its spirit, its old school vibe and its vibrance. Disasterpeace more than met expectations by delivering one of the best soundtracks in all of gaming.
FEZ is audibly brilliant. It's bright, it's dark, it has punch and it's somber. The soundtrack is awe inspiring, and it's one that I actually whip out every now and again during work hours. There's nothing quite like pounding through a 3,000 word review while jamming along to FEZ.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Maybe I'm just biased. I probably love this soundtrack so much because I've logged so many playing hours in the game that it supports. FTL: Faster Than Light released last year, and I didn't pick it up until the holiday season. Amidst the games I've been reviewing and the titles I've played to keep up with the daily scene, FTL has amassed well over 40 hours of my time.
I love every single track in this OST. All of them. A huge part of why I've been able to swallow more than 40 hours worth of this tough roguelike title stems from how good the tunes behind it actually are.
They all feel retro, spacey and big. And that's awesome for a game like FTL: Faster Than Light.
One of the most brutal games to come out in recent years is Hotline Miami. This top-down title puts players in a killing mood quickly, and it's a twisted ride that winds up feeling really gruesome by the game's conclusion. The soundtrack is an awesome piece of that puzzle.
"Crystals" by M.O.O.N. is one of the particular standouts, in my opinion. There's nothing quite like getting absolutely destroyed over and over on the same level in Hotline Miami with this track playing in the background. The game is tough and requires a lot of twitch reaction timing, but this song is one of the few capable of making that playstyle palpable.
Give the full soundtrack a listen, it's solid.
Long live the NES and long live 8-bit chiptunes. No other generation's music is more beloved and memorable than that of Nintendo's original home console. Plenty have tried, but few have been able to honestly capture the sheer intensity of 8-bit action than the team behind the indie PC hit Oniken.
What I mean by honest is that most 8-bit soundtracks out there might sound retro, but in reality, use audio channels and effects not available on the NES. Some would sacrifice authenticity for the sake of being cool.
Oniken's music could very well have come from the 80s. Had this replaced a handful of music found in the classics, (Ninja Gaiden, Power Blade, Journey to Silius) and not a soul would have noticed had they not known a change occurred.
Arcade puzzle games have never been my forte. Tetris…can't stand it. Columns…not my cup of tea. What a puzzle game needs for me to really sit and enjoy it is a heavy dose of character and an aesthetic which tricks me into believing I am doing more than just moving blocks or hitting a ball back and forth.
That's where Shatter gets it right. It's music creates an amazing rush of adrenaline, perfectly complimenting the slick sci-fi graphics with brilliant techno beats and melodies. Oftentimes, I found myself playing this above average evolution of Breakout for the music alone, beating the game for the sake of continuing the song.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP originally launched exclusively on the iOS platform. This portable game was, according to the game's user interface, meant to be played with headphones on. In fact, it's name alone, "EP," is a direct nod towards the world of music.
As such, the soundtrack behind the game was mystifying. Composed by Jim Guthrie,Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP packed its own "Sword & Sworcery LP" that featured absolutely awesome tracks from start to finish. It enveloped the gaming experience in the title so well that many regard this as one of the best soundtracks ever written.
They aren't wrong.
To the Moon
Every tragic story needs one thing to make it that much more of a tear jerker…piano. To The Moon's excellent soundtrack features a lot of that. Piano's here, piano's there. It doesn't especially matter though because each composition in this beautiful throwback to 16-bit RPG's is absolutely beautiful.
It's amazing that a simple instrument can reach emotional levels even the most grandiose orchestras might fall short of. To The Moon perfectly emphasizes that indie soundtracks are best left simple and pure.
Of all the lists to narrow down, this was one of the hardest. List to these albums, too. They are amazing.
Mutant Mudds, Journey, Braid, Monaco, all of Bit.Trip, Retro City Rampage, Spelunky, Cave Story and PixelJunk.