Everyone knows that a decent soundtrack can be the icing on the cake of an excellent game, and likewise that a memorable soundtrack can be enjoyable as its own experience. There are plenty of classical scores that have found fame beyond their respective games, such as the score for Super Mario Galaxy and those of the Final Fantasy series. However, the use of licensed tracks to accent parts of a game can be just as powerful as a commissioned score.
The Super Mario Galaxy score is my favourite commissioned music by far.
Here are a few games which I feel either benefitted from an excellent choice of licensed background music, or have rearranged pre-existing tunes to produce something special. I have played some of these games extensively, while others are still on my to-play list but their soundtracks have found their way to my headphones regardless. Skip to the end for a Spotify playlist of my favourite tracks! Warning: there will be spoilers from this point onwards.
1. Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (2004)
Besides being pitch-perfect skating games in their heyday, Tony Hawk games have also been renowned for blowing plenty of their budget on top-drawer licensed tracks. They tend to feature a variety of genres, catering to most people who are likely to want to bomb around on a board. I got into the series relatively late with Underground 2, so this has been the soundtrack that has stuck in my head the most (you can listen to the entire soundtrack here).
While the soundtrack holds up well in 2017, the humour doesn't...
The soundtrack was particularly influential on me as a 12-year old budding music aficionado, and it gave me the perfect introduction to certain classic artists/bands, such as The Doors and Johnny Cash. It also stoked a lifelong fascination with oddball bands such as Ween and the Violent Femmes (as Project 8 did with Primus). The later games (since I purchased every single release between Underground 2 and Proving Ground) had some gems in their soundtracks, but it was Underground 2 that educated me in how good games and good music can be a winning combination. In addition, it encouraged me to explore genres of music I wouldn't have considered diving into before; while American Wasteland sparked a love of Public Enemy through its inclusion of Burn Hollywood Burn, Underground 2 started it all with the excellent Holy Calamity [Bear Witness II] by Handsome Boy Modelling School.
I'm willing to bet I spent hundreds of hours cruising around beautifully depicted cities such as Barcelona and New Orleans, pulling off impossibly large combos and savouring Ramones and Red Hot Chilli Peppers tracks. I recently picked up the first Underground, but I doubt even the nostalgic experience of putting another genuinely good Tony Hawk game in my PS2 disc tray will feel quite the same as being a young teenage girl absorbed in skate culture. I never quite did become Vanessa Torres' successor, unfortunately.
2. Saints Row: The Third (2011)
The Grand Theft Auto series, which is traditionally one of the Saints Row series' main competitors, has always had a great selection of tracks for the driving sections of its games: think Billie Jean in Vice City. However, Saints Row: The Third pips the GTA games to the post for me, specifically when it comes to matching music perfectly to the feel of the game and also to set pieces. It's hard not to get pumped up for parachuting into enemy property and shooting your way through when the backing music is Power by Kanye West, even if Kanye has gone considerably off the rails since the game's release.
It's worth noting that the game lets you drive around to a huge array of radio stations, just like the GTA games. These are well matched to the fact that the game had a pretty impressive character customisation system for its time and for a game released on home consoles. Want to become a granny kingpin? You're absolutely welcome to tear through Steelport to the strains of Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream) by The Icicle Works, with a greying head of hair and a machine gun in tow. The featuring of this song was also pretty powerful for me, as it was a song that was played in my house as a young child on a fairly regular basis, but I had no idea who it was by until I picked up the game in 2015. The other tracks used also make it easy to sit back and relax while darting from mission to mission, making the time in-between grenade launching bouts thoroughly enjoyable.
I've not got round to playing Saints Row IV but the clip of Zinyak hacking into the car radio and singing along to Biz Markie's Just a Friend has ruined that song for me permanently; I can't listen to it anymore without cracking up.
3. LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011)
LittleBigPlanet 2 was one of the games that came with my used PlayStation 3 in 2015 (the other being Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time). I'd played the demo of the first LittleBigPlanet in-store just after its release and had been wowed by its presentation, but nothing prepared me for just how entertained I would be on starting the first level of LBP 2 years later.
The game is chock full of tracks which anyone who grew up in the UK (at least) will recognise from popular culture or adverts, remixed and covered to cheery perfection. Piece this together with a fairy-tale voice-over by Stephen Fry and all of the online content, and you have a firm favourite from the seventh generation of consoles. Not only is it a game you'll be pleased to return to again and again (despite the servers gradually shutting), but it might be a title that deserves filing away to show to children or future children. The selected music goes a big way towards making it the ray of sunshine in the sea of blood, guts and gore that tended to swamp the PS3.
4. Crash Twinsanity (2004)
While the first three games in the Crash Bandicoot series are lauded as treasures of the platforming genre (and Crash Team Racing is considered a fine cart racer), the later PS2 etc. releases have been largely viewed as mediocre. Crash Twinsanity, for example, has a mere 64% rating on Metacritic for its PS2 version, and scored an only marginally higher 66% for the Xbox version. This is despite having a soundtrack which is at least partly burnt into the brains of those familiar with the dreaded "Internet meme".
A necessary addition, you guys. I am so, so sorry.
As a borderline music theory nerd, however, it's hard not to appreciate this soundtrack; in fact, I think on an academic level it's my absolute favourite. It takes a classical giant, Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, and not only makes it funny, but does so through pure acapella. My first thought when I listen to it is how much of a headache that must have been for Spiralmouth to compose, as it requires so many different layers to work as a humorous nod. The soundtrack is mainly original work in the same vein, and I have to congratulate the music director for getting the tone just right - since Twinsanity is one of the sillier concepts for a Crash Bandicoot game (just as the police officer dude is one of the sillier-looking Village People), having an equally daft choice of soundtrack is what, frankly, makes me want to play the game. It may seem a long shot but games which put their own spin on famous pieces while receiving a higher critical score, such as Rayman Origins and even the LittleBigPlanet series, are probably slightly in its debt, since it was one of the trailblazers for this type of game music.
5. BioShock Infinite (2013)
BioShock Infinite is one of the best examples, from my recollection, of a game using licensed music to signpost core plot elements. This works particularly well if you go into the game knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, as I somehow managed to do in 2016. Wandering through 1910s Columbia and spotting a barbershop quartet singing God Only Knows by the Beach Boys feels instinctively jarring, but on the first playthrough it takes a second for the gears to click into place as to why you feel uncomfortable. Similarly, the use of a snippet of Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears, when Elizabeth accidentally opens a tear in the fabric of time and space and finds herself in 1980s Paris, felt like a stab in the gut and ultimately made me want to find out as soon as possible what was going on.
Using the player's musical knowledge against them, to let them know something is afoot or to unsettle them through anachronisms, is certainly one of the most clever uses of licensed tracks that I've seen in modern gaming. It's interesting to note that there are other ways games can use music to scare or unnerve than through the music notes and chords themselves: the context of its use and the frequency thereof are also big players. Ultimately, I will never forget the guttural reaction I had to those out-of-place tracks in BioShock Infinite.
What are your favourite uses of licensed music in video games? Are there any songs which you can imagine being put to good use in video games? Let me know in the comments down below. In the meantime, enjoy this mini-playlist of songs from the games mentioned above!
(The version linked may not be the exact one used in the game)