5 Retro Playstation Soundtracks That Understood the Assignment

Game development is very much a balancing act. Numerous elements go into the creation process and ensuring all are in accord for a project is a formidable task. In the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 era, this was paramount to a successful title or franchise. However, one element that could elevate a game to even greater heights or bring a middling or badly-received game up a notch was a perfectly matched soundtrack. Still very true today! The ‘90s and early ‘00s saw a wealth of talented composers work their magic on various games and produce soundtracks that reflect them so completely they still affect us nearly twenty to thirty years later.

Here are five such PlayStation soundtracks that well and truly understood their respective assignments and turned in Grade A musical goodness.

1. Pandemonium!

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  • Publisher: Crystal Dynamics, Electronic Arts, Crystal Dynamics, Bandai…
  • Release Date: 1996
  • Available On: PlayStation, PlayStation 3, PSP

If Bubsy 3D has taught us anything, getting zany platformers right is far from a walk in the park. Developers walk a fine line between juvenile and bland, eye-watering and uninspired. And while it’s impossible to please everyone, some aspects are an absolute must! Pandemonium!—Toys For Bob’s first foray into platformers—was a 2.5D title that managed to get the balance right for the most part, but was hit and miss with critics. But an aspect that was suited perfectly to the colourful, wacky fantasy romp was Burke Treischmannn’s soundtrack.

Similarly showcased in The Horde back in 1994, Treischmann’s knack for medieval whimsy flowed into each track, capturing the fantasy setting with a hint of surrealism. The first hints of bardcore long before it was even thought of! The jaunty bardic main theme is sampled into many different level tracks such as the wood-clacking Spider Forest and the regimented Soldier Barracks; a nice touch. Sounds reminiscent of Eastern instruments are also used in unusual ways but to great effect: didgeridoos in ‘Lost Caves’ give a primordial feel while the goblet drum and ney-like sounds in ‘Dragoon Skyfort’ evoke images of djinn and efreet in ethereal palaces. And as each level was split into two sections, each section had a different but connected theme – double the earworms!

It may have been regarded as lacking innovation on release, but Pandemonium! was musically on point under Treischmann’s direction. As for a standout track, while the main theme is undeniably catchy, ‘Dungeon Tower’ has my vote. One of the slower tempo tracks, its darker atmosphere and use of key changes set it apart from the others, staying in your head rent-free.

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2. Wipeout XL

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  • Publisher: Psygnosis, Tantalus Interactive, Digital Images, Coderus
  • Release Date: 1996
  • Available On: PlayStation

After WipEout’s success the previous year, developer Psygnosis found that gamers had developed a thirst for two things: intense anti-gravity racing and beasty techno jams. So with the next instalment, they were keen to quench that thirst on both counts! WipEout 2097 (XL in the US) was an instant hit, greatly improving the graphics and craft control. Adding impressive new racetracks and a slew of new power-ups to wreak havoc on the racetrack also went down a storm. But of course, Psygnosis didn’t just leave it at that. They also brought a killer soundtrack to back it, exhibiting the best of what UK electronica had to offer!

WipEout composer Tim Wright—aka CoLD SToRAGE—returned with new tracks, plus now electronic mainstays such as Underworld, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy. Instrumental mixes of singles, reworked tracks from past albums and tracks written exclusively for the game created a futuristic racing fan’s dream. And while the original had a more high intense tempo, 2097’s tracks are no less evocative. ‘Atom Bomb (Straight 6 Instrumental Mix)’ by Fluke is simply made for the race track with a reverberating opening build before slapping down a pulsing beat. ‘Dust Up Beats’ from The Chemical Brothers revamps a 1994 EP track with a sci-fi edge and catchy hooks. And The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter (Instrumental)’ is a blood-pumping beast that needs no introduction.

Combined with a nightclub tour collaboration with Red Bull, WipEout2097’s soundtrack was a techno triumph that crossed mediums and showcased stellar UK talent. Picking a standout track is a tough call. But, while ‘Firestarter’ is the most well-known, it has to go to the one that had us hooked from the demo: ‘Body in Motion’ from original WipEout king CoLD SToRAGE.

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3. Castlevania Chronicles

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  • Publisher: Konami, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, Konami Digital Entertainment
  • Release Date: 2001
  • Available On: PlayStation, PlayStation 3, PSP

Bringing the first in an iconic series to a new gaming generation (and a whole new console) is no small feat. But Konami proved more than up to the task, doing so not once but twice with the same game. Released originally as Akumajō Dracula on the Japanese system X68000 in 1993, Castlevania Chronicles came to the PS1 as late as 2001- the beginning of a whole new gaming generation. The X68000 game was ostensibly a remake of the original Castlevania on the NES and Chronicles took it a few steps further, not least with the soundtrack. How do you make a remake of an iconic soundtrack even better? Bring in Sota Fujimori, that’s how!

While ‘Original Mode’ is the same as the X68000, ‘Arrange Mode’ brought many new tweaks, including a new arranged soundtrack. Sota Fujimori performed new arrangements for each track, fully using CD capabilities but still staying true to the unique MIDI sound. ‘Vampire Killer’ gets you bopping with a fast intense techno vibe, ‘Thrashard in the Cave’ is a trippy chillout-meets-rave affair. ‘The Tower of Dolls’ gets one of the biggest revamps with a bombastic orchestral feel, evoking images of heroic battles atop towering structures.

Having missed Symphony of the Night, this was my introduction to the Castlevania series. And, as the original NES game did for the previous generation, it immediately drew me in. This game may be an often overlooked entry, but it is a more than worthy one. Plus, it has one of the most epic versions of ‘Bloody Tears’ in the entire series, MIDI-style sound and all.

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4. Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex

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  • Publisher: Traveller's Tales, Universal Interactive Studios, Konami, Eurocom Entertainment Software
  • Release Date: 2001
  • Available On: PlayStation 2

The iconic bandicoot’s leap to the PS2 was more tepid than triumphant. Taking the reins from Naughty Dog, Traveller’s Tales’ if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach was a safe move on paper. Sadly, however, a focus on gimmicks over innovation and weak characters and storyline prevented it from being the sixth-gen powerhouse it should have been. Shame. But say what you will about Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, cheeky Toys For Bob retcon and all. One thing Traveller’s Tales did have up their sleeve was composer duo Andy Blythe & Marten Joustra. And one thing both players and critics could agree on was the fantastic soundtrack.

Like with A Bug’s Life before it, the pair worked their magic, taking the signature musicality of the series and cranking the dial up to 11. Every track was unique to the level’s atmosphere, but with the strong bouncy beat Crash is known for. ‘Wizards and Lizards’ takes a jaunty Medieval flair and mixes it with grandiose crescendos for a pulse-racing dragon chase. ‘Droid Void’ channels a tense journey through an Alien-style space station with brassy bass, echoing synths and X-Files whistles. And ‘Crashes to Ashes’ was a grungy techno banger with a fiery fury worthy of the elemental mask it represents. 

What could have easily turned into a lukewarm Warped rehash was a score that went above and beyond with Blythe and Joustra at the helm. With an ability to truly understand the source material and make it surprisingly epic, they made Wrath of Cortex’s soundtrack something out of this world. And no track encompasses this more than the Level 24 track ‘Crate Balls of Fire’.

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5. Sly 2: Band of Thieves

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  • Publisher: Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Computer Entertainment
  • Release Date: 2004
  • Available On: PlayStation 2

Like the previous entry’s soundtrack elevated a mediocre experience, sometimes it can be the difference between a great experience and a truly fantastic one. Such is the case with Sly 2: Band of Thieves. It regularly pops up on many ‘Greatest of All-Time’ lists and for good reason. Widely regarded as the best in the Sly Cooper series, Band of Thieves built on the foundations of the original with an open hub and mission-based gameplay, as well as having all 3 Cooper Gang members playable. Other games were chasing popular trends, but the gang carved their own unique path in the platformer genre to critical acclaim. And what better fellow trailblazer to have at the musical helm than LucasArts legend Peter McConnell! 

McConnell tapped into the Saturday morning cartoon feel of the game while still illustrating an elaborate heist with high stakes. All hub and mission themes are adaptive to sneaking around and fighting enemies, ramping up the tension or action. And each also beautifully reflects both the real-world setting and the stage of the gang’s journey, physically and emotionally. Rajan’s palace in India fluidly thrums with echoes of the table and tanpura. The Contessa’s prison in Prague channels a gothic atmosphere with jittery strings, foreboding piano and sudden fortissimo stings.

Band of Thieves was a stellar entry in the series on its own, but McConnell’s flair and on-point composition was the cherry on top that made it superb. Like the previous entries on this list, it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. And to truly become one with Sly and the gang, one should visit them at their hideout in Paris.

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