Seven Composers in Gaming You Need to Hear

Music. It’s such a wonderful thing, is it not? Permeating every medium of entertainment and serving as a constant cultural impact throughout human history, it’s a wonder it’s not more deeply appreciated in the video game industry. In the wake of all the E3 insanity and the endless debates and controversies that come with it, let’s take a look at seven of the greatest contributors to the wonderful realm of music in gaming. As always, feel free to share your own contributions as well, and spread the joy of music to those around you!

7. Gustavo Santaolalla
Notable works: The Last of Us

Perhaps the most obscure name in this list, Gustavo Santaolalla only has one video game credit thus far: 2013’s heralded The Last of Us. Outside of that, he is a two-time Academy Award-winning composer for his contributions to Brokeback Mountain and Babel. Having made a name for himself in cinema, it’s not difficult to see why he was selected to score the wonderful soundtrack for The Last of Us. It is dismal, solitary, and perfectly representative of the game in its often slow-moving pace, especially with the guitar-driven main theme. He ranks at the bottom of this list simply because he only has one gaming credit. Hopefully that will change soon.

6. Jesper Kyd
Notable works: Borderlands series, Assassin’s Creed series, Darksiders II

Though I’ve played a couple of Assassin’s Creed games, Jesper gets my vote here because of his work on Borderlands. Taking cues from other composers, the music serves as a backdrop against the world of Pandora, but that by no means diminishes its prominence. Contrariwise, the subtle tones of Borderlands’ soundtrack serve to strengthen the atmosphere and complement the overall game extraordinarily well, much in the same vein as Shadow of the Colossus (composed by Kow Otani). Of course, the Assassin’s Creed games Jesper composed also benefited from great tracks. All in all, he might not be the most prominent composer, but Jesper Kyd definitely constructs music that suits their respective games perfectly. He also composes music for movies, short films, and both game and film trailers.

5. Yoko Shimomura
Notable works: Kingdom Hearts series, Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven StarsMario & Luigi series

Two things happened the first time I popped a Super Mario RPG cartridge into my Super Nintendo: I fell in love with RPGs and I fell in love with Yoko Shimomura. The funny thing is that I wasn’t aware of either at the moment. I had no idea what a role-playing game was back then, and I wasn’t plugged into the video game music scene enough to acknowledge who the composer was. I just knew I loved the gameplay and the music. Handling some remixed compositions from the great Koji Kondo is both a daunting and difficult task, but Shimomura executed it consummately, and what’s more, her original compositions (dare I say) outshine the remixes.

A freelance composer who once worked for Squaresoft/Square Enix, she has also composed music for the Kingdom Hearts series (mostly solo, though some of the recent efforts have been co-written by other Square Enix composers) and Nintendo’s Mario & Luigi RPG series. Other credits include Xenoblade ChroniclesParasite Eve, and its sequel The 3rd Birthday. She is currently working on the score for Final Fantasy XV, and I cannot wait to hear how well she handles it.

4. David Wise
Notable works: Donkey Kong Country series

I’ll be honest: the single reason David Wise makes my list is his contribution to the Donkey Kong Country (and Land) series. While he has taken on a couple of other bigger projects (Star Fox AdventuresDiddy Kong Racing), it is his work on the Donkey Kong Country games that sees him among my favorites. His percussion-based themes complemented the atmosphere of the platformers perfectly, and to this day whenever I pop in a Donkey Kong Country game, I am as swept up in the soundtrack as I am in the superb gameplay. His return to the series with Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze was much welcome, and a nice treat for longtime fans of the series. Here’s hoping it won’t be his last outing with the series.

3. Koji Kondo
Notable works: Super Mario Bros. series, The Legend of Zelda series

There’s no denying Koji Kondo is one of the greats of the gaming industry. Heck, the Super Mario Bros. theme is probably the most recognizable tune in all of the gaming world. Though many of the spinoffs in his flagship series’ are composed by others, he is notable for continuing to compose most major entries in the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Aside from that, he serves as a supervisor on many Nintendo titles, Mario games chief among them. While Super Mario Bros. was his claim to fame, his work on Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s IslandSuper Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess rank among my personal favorites.

2. Austin Wintory
Notable works: JourneyThe Banner Saga

Another composer stemming from the medium of cinema, Austin Wintory is notable for composing the first video game to ever be nominated for a Grammy Award (Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media). Sadly, I have yet to play anything he has composed music for (that will change very soon), but hearing the bravura of his compositions alone entices me to play every game he has scored. Emotion drips from every piece, painting a vivid illustration of the games they represent. He is also quite eclectic, offering both blood-pumping, fast-paced tracks, as well as more ambient, emotive pieces that will drive listeners to tears. Not to be outdone, his film compositions are outstanding, as well.

1. Nobuo Uematsu
Notable works: Final Fantasy series

Of all the talent in the gaming industry, Nobuo Uematsu still stands among the elite. Working for many years under the employ of Squaresoft/Square Enix, Uematsu is responsible for composing almost every Final Fantasy title, contributions to Chrono Trigger, many of Mistwalker’s projects (Blue DragonThe Last Story), and even the main theme from Super Smash Bros. Brawl. From 8-bit soundtracks to rock to full orchestras and choirs, Uematsu’s versatility renders him one of the most prolific composers in gaming. He has also dipped into anime and film with Final Fantasy Unlimited and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, respectively. Now a freelancer, Uematsu is currently partnering with many other industry leaders for Project Phoenix, crowd-funded through Kickstarter and set to release in 2015.

Despite such a wide library of scores, 1994’s Final Fantasy VI and IX are still cited as two of his best compositions. Personally, I have always enjoyed his work on Final Fantasy VII and X, as well as the arrangements of his Final Fantasy tracks with his symphonic rock/metal band, The Black Mages.

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