Did time really slip away so adeptly that I did not notice the end of the decade is upon us? Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t give it much thought given all the years have begun to roll into one—all filled with good and bad? That’s true of life, as it is of video games.
This decade brought us some disappointments, good ones, and just okay ones. But it also brought great ones, along with some fantastic game composers, soundtracks, and songs.
It’s tough to remember what I played in January of any given year, let alone an entire decade. Some games just really stood out, of course. This is a best of the best that I played in the decade, after all.
For me, music in games is integral to the overall experience. For some soundtracks that’s an understatement. Others may not stand out as sharply. These 12 games (and/or series) I loved, in various years spanning 2010 through 2019, introduced me to a bunch of new musical artists with songs that made me teary or fired up to do battle with seemingly impossible bosses.
Here goes, listed by the year they released.
Release date: September 12, 2010 (NA)
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Composer: Tomohito Nishiura
There are few games that made me weepy. Professor Layton’s third adventure (and last, chronologically speaking) has the honor of being the one that made me shed more than a tear. In the puzzle game, Layton contends with losing the love of his life twice. A gentleman always wears a hat but when the professor removes his in a heart-wrenching moment near the end of the game, tears welling in his eyes, I lost it.
If I’m being honest, I don’t remember much of the soundtrack composed by Tomohito Nishiura. That isn’t to say it was atrocious. It’s just that I’ve been so far removed from the trauma the game brought that I haven’t listened to it in years gone by. Upon a re-review, it’s as I expected—executed expertly to accompany sorrowful memories of a grand scheme conducted by the game’s villain, Future Luke (Clive), and his own tragic reveal along with Layton’s sad revelations.
Here’s one such composition that is threatening to make me cry all over again:
Release date: June 9, 2013
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Composer(s): Manaka Kataoka, Atsuko Asahi, Kazumi Totaka
In the summer of 2013, I spent many nights getting acquainted with various TAY community members. We did it through the clunky 3DS friend system, putting article call outs for exchanging friend codes. In the end, we caught many sharks, hit each other with nets as the official greeting, and plotted many pitfalls for unsuspecting fools.
The game’s crude multiplayer was fun but also formed many real life friendships—some great ones I have to this day. Saturday nights were for music performances at Club LOL with K.K. Slider. Watering cans were for keeping the flowers alive and shoes watered (not looking forward to that again in 2020 with New Horizons).
I’ll always love the Animal Crossing series, I think. It’s true not all the spin-off games have hit the mark (why I’m still playing the mobile game, Pocket Camp, is beyond me). But the life simulation game is the mostly stress free kind of life I wish I had. I don’t know what the next entry, New Horizons, will bring. Chill music at every hour of the day? Probably. Debt I can pay off at my leisure? Yeah, likely. But if it also nets me new friends (or have fun with the ones I already have) along with the new fish and bugs I’ll catch, it’ll be just fine.
Release date: August 31, 1999 (Original) | February 4, 2015 (digital release)
Platforms: PlayStation, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Composer(s): Miki Higashino, Keiko Fukami
It’s not cheating if a game, originally released in 1999, appears on this best decade list from 2010 to 2019, considering I only played it for the very first time in 2015. There’s also the fact that, regardless of decade, this sequel is one of video game’s greatest achievements.
An incredible story set during a war, the lines blurred as to no clear cut designations of “bad” and “good,” one of the most ruthless (if not the most) villains I’ve ever had the displeasure of encountering... Suikoden II is so complicated, and just simply brilliant, that words don’t justify how extraordinary it is. I’ve tried. It’s still not enough.
There’s so much going on in Suikoden II that the peaceful moments are fleeting. I missed them at the beginning of the game, longed for them at the end, and still ruminate on how haunting the entire journey was:
Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Release date(s): October 23, 2012 | March 10, 2015
Platforms: PC, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Dennaton Games
How much do I love Hotline Miami and it’s sequel? I could tell you the story of how these games helped solidify a relationship with a fellow writer as we poured over just how brilliant they are, and still talk about them to this day.
I could also relate how much this game inspired me: enough to nervously reach out to the artist, El Huervo—responsible for the cover art of the game, some of its music, and has a character based on him in-game--for an interview in 2017. And then went to his and another featured band’s live performances at E3.
Basically, if there’s one series (and in this case, I consider both entries as one long experience) that impacted me most this decade, it’s Hotline Miami. The brutality of its violence. Its rawness in asking pointed questions about how we consume that violence. The vagueness and head-trip used in its execution to deliver that message. The music that fueled it all.
So, which song did I enjoy the most? The whole damned soundtracks are the right answers. Yeah there are some that are in heavier rotation for me than others. But I’m not exaggerating when I say these soundtracks are perfectly utilized for every act in the games.
The indie titles by developer Dennaton and their soundtracks did more than just be that cool thing I played back in 2012 and then in 2015. The soundtracks introduced me to a range of new bands and artists, showed me that games could pull from relatively unknown performers for genres that I would not have previously considered—and just loved every single minute of it all...even when the games were frustrating as hell to play because they’re tough as nails, sometimes.
Hotline Miami 2 was especially great in the music department. I was so impressed with this artist, Carpenter Brut, that I spent a great deal of time with my headphones in, blasting his music from the discography I bought after I played the sequel. I also had the good fortune of seeing him perform live (it was something else! In a good, strange way) along with fellow TAY writers back in 2018.
This song sets the stage for a daring prison break in Hotline Miami 2. I still can’t get that section of the game out of my head. Though, if you didn’t glaze over the bulk of text, you’ll know I haven’t gotten the series out of my mind since:
Release date(s): March 29, 2011 (NA)| September 26, 2013 (NA)
Platforms: PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Composer: Hayato Sonada, Takahiro Unisaga, Ryo Takeshita
After tiring of the genre that made me fall in love with gaming, the games in this series brought me back. With so many sequels and stories taking players across the political landscape of Liberl, Erebonia, Crossbell, and Calvard, combing through the localized US games is a daunting task. But it’s one I’m extremely happy to have experienced (and as of this writing, I’m still working my way through Trails of Cold Steel III).
The music of the games have been gorgeous set pieces for the mythical and political plot points, mech-infused mysteries, and intense battles thrown at players. The games are smart, even if sometimes erring on the side of cringe-worthy anime situations and characterizations. But I don’t think I’ve played a series this past decade that has done so well to intricately weave its lore for a fantastically compelling world.
Paper Mario: Color Splash
Release date: October 7, 2016
Platforms: Nintendo Wii U
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Composer(s): Takeru Kanazaki, Shigemitsu Goto, Fumihiro Isobe
When Paper Mario: Color Splash released, the series was already being heralded as being in decline after 2012's Sticker Star. At least, vocal fans seemed to be angry by the battle system and distraught over the direction Paper Mario seemed to be headed in.
With no real background to those messy conversations, since I haven’t really played anything from Paper Mario, I dove into Color Splash with a blank slate. What I found was a funny-as-heck RPG. It was a little creepy, too. I learned to appreciate the Koopalings a lot more after playing. And I spent all the days playing it laughing so hard at just about everything. By the end of it, I was touched by the game, too.
Paper Mario: Color Splash came at a time when things weren’t going so right in life but it helped cheer me up. I couldn’t not be happy with its bizarre, on-point humour.
Clowns may be the worst but just listen to how jolly and ridiculous this piece is:
Release date: April 16, 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (played), PC
Developer: Dodge Roll
Composer/Artist: Adam ‘Doseone’ Drucker
Enter The Gungeon is the blessing of a bullet hell game that brought Doseone’s music into my life. The indie rapper collaborated with one of my favorite musicians in the past (see: Nevermen), and although I don’t really delve into the world of rap, Doseone’s music has been a brilliant discovery.
From his latest record with Alias (may he rest in peace), the co-founder of Anticon, to his work on the aforementioned Gungeon, Doseone’s music has been thoughtful and electrifying. He puts on an incredible live show, and on top of it, he’s a pretty cool, down-to-earth guy, too.
Release date: October 31, 2001 (PlayStation, NA) | September 16, 2016
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Heartbeat, Arte Piazza
Composer: Koichi Sugiyama
Over the past 12 years, I’ve fallen in love with the Dragon Quest series. It’s all thanks to the ports and remakes that landed on the 3DS. The truth is: I didn’t like Dragon Quest VIII all that much when it first released on the PlayStation 2. It’s regarded highly in North America from what I can tell. I couldn’t really pinpoint why I didn’t care for it that much until I started playing the other entries in the series.
The short of it is that Dragon Quest VIII is a straight role-playing game. You get from point A to B with your band of companions. Despite the Dragon Quest games being very traditional when it comes to their boss fights, it’s their structure, humour, and story-telling which makes many of the games shine. Dragon Quest VIII, for me, was not as compelling at its predecessor.
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past broke up the linear feeling with a story that jumped from the present to the past and back again, shaping the future of its world. It did so by telling individual stories, each intriguing and gutting, with NPCs that were horrible people yet so sharp and richly written. This format is true of many Dragon Quest games that came after: Dragon Quest IX, Dragon Quest XI, Dragon Quest Builders and its sequel.
What stood out for Dragon Quest VII was how it wielded its power to tell fascinating, relentlessly brutal stories. And then, it made sure to let you know you weren’t the Hero of your own story. The slaps to the face kept coming and they never really let up until the credits rolled.
Like its comforting familiarity in the monster designs, characters, fighting, and story departments, Dragon Quest’s music is a big part of that contribution. It’s hard to turn a blind eye to some of the controversies surrounding the composer that’s come out in the last few years. I don’t have an easy answer to whether it’s okay to like his music while hating and disagreeing with his views.
Release date: March 3, 2017
Platform: Nintendo Switch (played), Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Composers: Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, Hajime Wakai
It was after playing A Link Between Worlds that I realized I was tired of the Zelda formula. Attaining tools, beating related dungeons, fighting a boss, rinsing and repeating. The freedom to tackle the dungeons in any order was something the game did differently but there still felt a sameness to the whole affair. I was burnt out.
I may have carried some of that fatigue into 2017 when Breath of the Wild released. 2015's Tri-Force Heroes was a great break but only due to the fact I had friends to play the game with. It was fun, a bit off-kilter, and I had a good time. Promotional material for Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, reminded me of 2013. Another Zelda? Okay. I wasn’t impressed, and this was even after playing the demo at E3.
Zelda games are best when they’re weird. It’s why Majora’s Mask remains my favorite. And after all my misgivings about the series over the years, Breath of the Wild turned out to be up there. I wouldn’t say I loved it as much as many people did. It took a second playthrough goofing around, and terrorizing my sibling, to truly appreciate its scope and how it broke with Zelda tradition. But along the way I found the weirdness I enjoy. I found myself enjoying the serene sounds of nature in lieu of a score that played at every step.
And when the music did play? It soared because of those quiet moments.
Release date: July 25, 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (played), PC
Developer: Supergiant Games
Composer: Darren Korb
I jumped on the Supergiant games train late. When the rest of my TAY friends were singing Bastion’s praises, I was too busy attending to other games on my backlog to finally start playing. One day I did and boy did I kick myself. Though I suppose it could have been worse—I could have ignored their pleas and continued to live in ignorance, never knowing the greatness of the studio creating unique experiences, brilliant characters, and gorgeous worlds, all set to the stellar compositions of musician Darren Korb.
Pyre—the unlikely mash-up of visual novel and sports (???)—is not just my favorite of their four games (all extremely great in their own right) but also has my favorite soundtrack. If you know Supergiant Games and Korb’s body of work, that’s probably a tough call to make. Transistor, Bastion, and Hades (currently in Early Access) all have the things that make them stand apart and different. With Pyre, I found the soundtrack to be the most varied in musical styles, and love how perfectly it translated each of the incredible in-depth, diverse characters’ personalities in the game.
Release date: August 7, 2018
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (played), iOS and Android
Developer: Motion Twin
Composer: Yoann Laulan
If there’s one game I obsessed over this year, it’s Dead Cells. I think about this rogue-like often. When I’m not playing it, I ask myself why I’m not doing that. I know it’d mean hours of time trying to fight my way through its various creepy, icky biomes. Subsequently dying, restarting, hoping for a great weapon loadout, and not even minding when my favorite weapons don’t populate in the game because it’s just that fun.
One of my favorite parts of Dead Cells is its humorous protagonist, the headless. The other is its music. There’s one track, however, that played over the end credits that’s my absolute favorite. It’s amazing on its own but when I think back to the lengthy track playing over the hilarious end credits roll... well, I might just pick up Dead Cells again once I’m finished writing.
Release date: May 30, 2019
Platforms: PC (played), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Mobius Digital
Composer: Andrew Prahlow
There’s only so much anyone can say about Outer Wilds before spoiling the entire experience for those who haven’t played this sci-fi space exploration game. The same can be said about its soundtrack, and I cannot expound further.
What I can say is Outer Wilds is as beautiful as it is haunting. It’s also one of the most incredible and incredibly intelligent games I’ve ever had the good fortune of experiencing. The game isn’t just a great one I played this year or this decade. Outer Wilds is one of the best I’ve ever played—the kind I wish I could forget everything about it to experience it again. And again. And again. A fitting sentiment, perhaps, for that 22-minute time loop the game uses as its primary mechanic.
Until 2030, video games and your delightful music.