You know that feeling you get when you’re driving down a highway at sunset, and the perfect song comes on the radio? All of a sudden, it feels like you’re in a music video, or that bit at the start of a ’90s teen movie, where everything is sparkling and perfect. The music becomes a soundtrack, and your life becomes a story.
There are a few brilliant moments like this in media, too — ones that deploy the right song at the right moment for a perfect synergy of feelings. Think of how Edgar Wright uses licensed music in his films to underline tense, snappy moments and add comedy, or the use of Don’t You (Forget About Me) at the end of The Breakfast Clubor the Imogen Heap-scored season 2 finale of The OC, which became so iconic that it got its own SNL skit.
Just like movies and TV, video games have been slowly, but surely learning to marry music and mechanics to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not that widespread of a practice, admittedly — the cost of licensing music in perpetuity is prohibitively expensive even for the more moneyed studios — but when they get it right, they get it right.
So, here’s our list of some of the best uses of licensed music in video games. Imagine the satisfying ka-chunk of a Walkman play button as we begin, and make sure to fast-forward down to the bottom of page two to have your say in our polls…
Publisher: 2K / Developer: 2K
If we can’t have Fallout on this list, at least we can have Bioshock, a series that was happy to incorporate both time-period-appropriate and entirely anachronistic music into its scenes. While it could be argued that ‘Beyond the Sea’ is a little lyrically on-the-nose when it comes to Bioshock’s themes and setting, it doesn’t really matter too much in this case, because the combination of the loungey ’50s vibe And the oddly melancholy tone of this song is enough to pull it out of being too much. It’s just perfect.
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Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: PlatinumGames
This super-poppy remix of Fly Me To The Moon sounds like it should be in a Dance Dance Revolution game, but no! It’s the soundtrack to Bayonetta kicking angel butt, and it serves as a gorgeously stupid upbeat, goofy cover that makes you want to roundhouse Metatron right in his face with your ludicrously long legs. The moon theme was continued in Bayonetta 2 with Moon River, and Moonlight Serenade in Bayo 3, but let’s be honest: this was the best one.
Publisher: Rockstar / Developer: Rockstar Games
GTA’s radio is not like many other games on this list. Instead of deploying one perfect song at the perfect moment, instead of the radio soundtracks all the terrible decisions you make while you drive through the trilogy’s many locations. That means that every player’s experience is different — perhaps your most memorable moment was set to Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’, or maybe you have fond memories of crashing into pedestrians to Heart’s ‘Barracuda’. Either way, plenty of bops to be found here.
Publisher: Square Enix Europe / Developer: Eidos Montreal
Peter Quill’s whole thing is his Walkman. Well, that and his cool-guy refusal to follow rules. So, it makes sense that the Guardians of the Galaxy game would take that theme and run with it. Composer Richard Jacques replaced the ’70s songs on Quill’s mixtape for ’80 bangers, and spit them carefully and sparingly exactly at the right moments to make you feel like a powerful superhero who chooses his own soundtrack. We’ve picked the Huddle moment here, which requires players to execute a pep-talk perfectly if they want the music to hit just right.
Publisher: Harmonix / Developer: Harmonix
Is it cheating to have a music game on here? No. We make the rules. But the reason Fuser is here, and not any other rhythm games, is because it lets the player dictate how the music sounds. A rhythm game usually asks you to play a song exactly right; Fuser puts the control in the hands of the DJ, providing you only with a catalog of songs to add into the mix, and asking you to hit the beats. You are the one that makes it good, and like in the example above, you can make it really good. Fuser provides a lot of power with its tools, and then leaves the execution up to you.
Publisher: Electronic Arts / Developer: Criterion Games
Don’t you just get tingles when you hear the first few Slash-strummed notes of Paradise City? What a song to introduce the sun-scorched world of Burnout Paradise that goes by the same name (don’t tell anyone, but it’s just a fictionalised mish-mash of Californian towns). Alongside Guns ‘N’ Roses, Burnout Paradise also pulled from the soundtrack stylings of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, putting names like Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction on playlists once more.