You don’t need to be a music major or career composer to notice that the music quality on 16-bit games was superior to the 8-bit predecessors.
Instead of orchestrating a collection of similar sounding tones and layering them for a simple, succinct melody, game devs and composers now could change the type of tones used in the music, simulating a wider array of instruments and creating a whole lot of great soundtracks in the process.
It wasn’t easy picking out the best of the best because there were so many great ones. Even middle-of-the-road soundtracks seemed to deserve a bump if the game was just that damn good, and so many from that era are that damn good! However, we wanted to really celebrate a select few of the biggest standouts.
Here are our picks for the top 20 soundtracks from the 16-bit era.
20) Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
The 1993 release Shinobi III provided us with a great hack-and-slash action game and one of the best Genesis chiptune OSTs ever. The sounds used on each stage sounded similar to an 8-bit era of orchestration, but with some additional range made possible by the Genesis’ more advanced sound chip, there were some new sounds available to heighten the impact of each song.
The result is a whole array of catchy tracks that stay lodged in your brain long after you put down the controller. With an ‘80s style of upbeat dance, bass bumping beats, and the occasional downtempo mellow track, there’s a lot to love about Shinobi III’s OST.
19) Gunstar Heroes
At a glance, Gunstar Heroes was just Contra with a different coat of paint on it. Those, however, who picked up a copy and gave it a fair shake learned that it was something truly special.
While true that the similar side-scrolling shoot ‘em style of action and frantic gameplay pace is reminiscent of Contra, the game adds special touches that make it its own, like combining weapons. I mean, what’s not to love about a lightning saber?
To make a special game even more special, the soundtrack is on point. The rhythm section of each song holds it down and keeps things lively, while the leads and melodies give each area of the game its own triumphant fanfare to help you celebrate the feeling of being a total force to be reckoned with.
Epic soundtracks like the one from Gunstar Heroes help emphasize each moment of the experience, making it even more special. It’s no wonder the game, despite having considerably less mainstream recognition than Sonic or Super Mario, is lauded as one of the best games of the era anyway.
F-Zero on the SNES was not yet as massive as it would become on future systems, but its beauty was in its simplicity and it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. With new technology at play, the creators wanted to show off the capabilities of the system and really let gamers know that a faster-paced racing experience, heck, gaming experience now awaited on the SNES.
There were only a handful of racers and levels, but each racetrack had its own iconic track to back the action. “Mute City” was a delightful opening song for each playthrough, while “Big Blue” remains one of the most recognizable songs from any game on any system, even to this day.
What F-Zero lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality. This music totally slaps!
17) Kirby Super Star
Kirby Super Star was bound to feature one of the best soundtracks on the SNES, but it was a bit unfair since the game was essentially eight unique titles rolled into one mega release. Kirby developers had to pull something off, as it was already 1996 and the greatly anticipated next gen N64 was right around the corner.
Luckily, the devs delivered a comprehensive set of titles ranging from a classic linear Kirby with whimsical songs like “Green Greens” and “Bubbly Clouds” juxtaposed with do-or-die tracks like the one in the fight against King Dedede.
Each title offered a different flavor. “The Great Cave Offensive”, which focused on treasure hunting, doubled down on big timpani drum sounds, staccato strings, and brass that boldly sold the feeling of adventure to the player as Kirby and Co scavenged the caverns in search of loot.
By contrast, “Revenge of Meta-Knight” pulls in ominous tones leading up to tense upbeat tracks as Kirby takes down the Halberd and rides away on a motorcycle for one of the most undeniably badass moments of the pink puff’s history.
Now start up a new game of “Milky Way Wishes” and the music reflects the change yet again by featuring ethereal, cosmic-themed entries that convey the vastness of the universe and the space themes of the game.
Because of the incredible size of Kirby Super Star, the game is tasked with creating not one solid score, but several, and they pull it off and give us some of the best music of the era.
16) ToeJam and Earl
ToeJam and Earl is definitely not your usual “hero is called to action” kind of game. Rather, you’re two alien rappers, as the title would suggest they are ToeJam and Earl, who crash landed on Earth and need to pick up pieces of the wreckage to repair the ship and skedaddle.
Since the two are rappers, music is intertwined with the game from the get-go, but what makes this such a strong entry is that there’s something totally unique about the presentation. Most games of the era would pick either hard rockin’ tunes to sell the badassery or big orchestral sounds for an epic feel.
ToeJam and Earl respectfully declined going in either of those typical directions and elected to get funky with it, featuring walking basslines, spine-tickling keys, and funky fresh melodies that keep your toes tapping and you moving and grooving through the game’s areas.
Instead of a 16-bit hard rock album, we get what could’ve passed for a Parliament Funkadelic album. The comedic and lighthearted tone of the game supplemented by colorful personalities, pop culture parodies, and an impressive soundtrack make ToeJam and Earl an underrated and often overlooked Sega Genesis classic.
15) Contra: Hard Corps
No high octane side-scrolling shooter would be complete without an adrenaline-boosting, heart-pumping soundtrack to heighten the impact of each heavy-hitting frenetic foray through endless walls of gunfire.
Contra: Hard Corps was a competitive title on the Genesis, bringing in fans who were looking for a challenging but endlessly engaging title to tackle over and over in pursuit of perfection.
If you were one of the few gamers talented enough to actually get through most or all of Contra: Hard Corps, then you also had the pleasure of experiencing one of the best soundtracks of the era as well. Featuring fast-paced, high tempo tracks that kept the action high and the tension thick, each stage was an auditory delight.
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14) Super Metroid
Super Metroid is a certified classic, cementing its legacy with superior gameplay and an atmosphere that cannot be outdone.
Players assume the role of Samus once more for her only adventure on the Super Nintendo, following her rival Ridley as he attempts to abscond with a stolen infant Metroid. Samus will traverse alien environments of all kinds in her pursuit, acquiring a number of new abilities in the process.
What Super Metroid’s soundtrack does very well is mixing in flairs of heroic fanfare amidst unsettling ambient tones. Zebes is an alien world and we get the feeling that where we are is very dangerous. We’re not having a leisurely stroll through the park. It’s basically the SNES equivalent of tiptoeing around Xenomorphs from Alien.
This makes for a masterfully crafted atmosphere that both encourages the players to push farther into the depths while also reminding them that anything could happen at any time, and unknown hostels are lurking just past where you can see.
Super Metroid would be the only entry of the series on the SNES, but the legacy lived on and remains strong to this day.
13) Thunder Force IV
The Thunder Force series always featured a great set of tunes. How else could you go on blasting your way through hundreds of enemy vessels without the right soundtrack?
For our pick from the series, we give it to Thunder Force IV, which does a fantastic job weaving together solid electro pop-rock tracks to blend seamlessly with the sounds of lasers, bomb blasts, and enemy ships exploding as you blast through this pseudo-bullet hell masterpiece.
Over 10 frenetic stages with 10 bosses waiting to bully you into memorizing their intricate patterns through trial and error (yeah, like a whole lot of errors), it’s a substantial game that stands out on the Genesis and with a soundtrack that totally kicks ass.
12) Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium
Fans of the Phantasy Star series often debate if the second or fourth installment was the pinnacle of Phantasy Star on the Sega Genesis. Both are solid games featuring a fusion of high fantasy and science fiction alongside high quality anime art.
Both games have great soundtracks as well, but we’ve got to give it up to Phantasy Star IV because of the sheer magnitude of the game and the seemingly endless areas we adventure through on our quest to abolish the Dark Force from the dimension permanently.
From the lighthearted backing tracks of Motavia to the downtempo vibes of Dezolis, there’s a lot of variety in the tempo and feel of the songs, which is impressive considering the instrumentation almost comes off like an 8-bit soundtrack.
Despite the sounds blending together in each area, we get some real standouts thanks to the superb composition. The battle theme is tight, the boss theme is epic, and the serious boss music you get when facing off against big time threats like Zio or the Dark Force on the Kuran satellite, the music lets us know all bets are off.
The music in Phantasy Star IV really plays well with the action and emotion of the game, making it one of the best on Sega Genesis and helping the game stay competitive even by today’s standards.
11) Chrono Trigger
Composer Yasunori Mitsdua wanted to create music for Chrono Trigger that would not easily fit into any existing genre to showcase how truly special the game was. In many regards, he did just that, from “Frog’s Theme” to “Magus’s Theme” and everything in between.
Mitsuda pulls in a lot of ambient, arpeggiated string melodies and piano tones to make the serene moments feel calm and soothing to the player, lulling you into a peacefulness only to be interrupted when an enemy encounter suddenly starts and bombastic bass and brass pierce the stillness with force and fury.
That’s what makes the music of Chrono Trigger so great. It juxtaposes really mellow tones with big sounds for big moments. Whatever the feel of the scene, the backing tracks are always on point.
We especially love “Robo’s Theme”. I mean, Mitsuda did not want it to sound indicative of any genre, but tell me that it doesn’t sound a little like Rick Astley or Hall & Oates?
Definite ‘80s dance vibes on that track, and we’re all about it!
10) Shining Force II
In 1993, RPGs were only starting to get some footing in the United States, with many entries from Japan losing out to more mainstream titles like Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. In the genre, entries from the Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star serieses began welcoming a new generation into the genre.
Shining Force II, in this regard, was completely overshadowed by bigger, badder titles despite being one of the best old school tactical RPGs, and it remains a solid entry even today. Supplementing the immersive and endlessly deep gaming was a soundtrack that really amplified the experience, elevating it to even greater heights than the characters and plot alone.
As with any RPG with a strong soundtrack, the battle themes are on point. We get military snare drumming and blaring brass highlights to add drama to the fight. Composer Motoaki Takenouchi knows when to lead with the melody and when to let it fade back and let the mood of the tune carry the bulk of the lifting. The ending result of his music are tunes that rise and fall gracefully as you strategize your way through each battle.
Overall, Shining Force II is a top-notch gaming experience with an epic soundtrack. Dedicated RPG enthusiasts have known this for ages, but newcomers to the genre and retro enthusiasts might consider adding this timeless classic to their backlog immediately.
9) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Released in 1996, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars marked the last Super Mario entry on the Super Nintendo system, the first appearance of Mario in a turn-based RPG, and one of the best Mario games ever made.
We follow a silent but especially talented at charades Mario as he teams up with Princess Toadstool, newcomers Mallow and Geno, and Bowser (yes, that Bowser) as they band together to thwart the threat of sentient weapons that seek to fill the Mushroom Kingdom with weapons.
There’s so much to love about this game from the new characters to the new combat system to the fun yet serious plot, all with an impressive soundtrack backing each moment. The battle theme is fun, the level themes are catchy, and some of the songs are pure standouts.
Smithy’s Battle at the end is the perfect blend of fanfare and finality with blaring brass and dance beats fused together for a grandiose finale, all until Smithy assumes his second form and the music becomes more sinister to reflect the pure evil of the villain himself.
How about the Forest Maze? You need only fifteen, nay, ten seconds before it’s lodged in your brain for the rest of the day. Just so, so catchy.
But the best song in the game requires you to complete a number of steps before you have a chance to face the optional and omnipotent boss, Culex. The tune may sound familiar. That’s because it’s a re-composed version of Final Fantasy II’s (or Final Fantasy IV if you want to be 100% correct about it) boss music.
Make sure you’re totally ready for a real challenge if you dare face off against Culex and his collection of crystals. Smiting Smithy does not at all mean you’ll succeed against this all-powerful being.
You have been warned.
8) Sonic the Hedgehog 2
This one hurt a little. I mean, picking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 over the original? Over the famous “Green Hill Zone”!?
True, “Emerald Hill Zone” doesn’t hold a candle to Green Hill when it comes to first stage songs, but it’s not a bad one. It’s catchy, it’s upbeat, it’s everything that would inspire your little blue hedgehog friend to start spinning those legs in circles and looping the loopty loops. Robotnik’s themes are on point in the sequel as well, blending a certain sense of dread in with the inherent campy and silly nature that Robotnik somehow happens to convey even when dead serious.
Each succeeding area boasts catchy tunes that stay in your head for days. “Hill Top Zone” starts real minimalist with one isolated instrumental but the sound gets real big as it drives forward, bringing in ambient strings and other melodies to supplement an all-around banger of a track.
“Casino Night Zone” combines a pop-sounding melody with some real funky rhythms and you’d be inclined to gamble away every last ring if it weren’t for that pesky timer that rushes you along.
Speaking of being rushed along, have you ever almost drowned in Chemical Plant Zone or Aquatic Ruin Zone? That little ditty of a song that plays as you take your last breaths of air is just horrifying. Pure panic-inducing stuff.
The “Death Egg Zone” track and “Final Boss” theme are bangers too. Start to finish, this game has the beats that keep you bobbing your head every step of the journey.
We’ve got love for the original, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has better music and it’s the better game. Some might disagree, but this is the hill we chose and it’s the hill we’re going to die on.
And it’s an Emerald Hill.
7) Castlevania: Bloodlines
Castlevania games are known for a great many things– unparalleled side-scrolling adventure gameplay, incredible style and aesthetics, dark plot themes and characters, and a slammin’ soundtrack that combines gothic sounds with rock and electronica.
Castlevania: Bloodlines does all of these things and, while less developed than its eventual successor Symphony of the Night, it does a whole lot right to help lay down that blueprint for the future historical entry.
Therefore, the soundtrack is no slouch. There are gothic and baroque melodies throughout to keep you feeling a certain sense of unease while battling through baddies, but when that beat drops, boy does it drop in hard.
Even with melodies that sound like Dracula himself composed them, the addition of a heavy beat and intricate leads gives a rock feel to the creepy castle tunes for a slammin’ soundtrack that sets the tone perfectly.
6) Streets of Rage 2
With so many complex and intricate gaming experiences available on the Sega Genesis, it’s interesting that one of the best soundtracks available came from an unassuming yet iconic beat ‘em up. That’s right, Streets of Rage 2 clinches the top spot for our Genesis picks, as all entries past this point will be strictly SNES.
Using only a limited range of sounds on the soundtrack, Streets of Rage 2 kept the tempo high for an adrenaline-fueled foray through the game’s areas. Composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima know when to keep the beat bringing the track forward while blaring leads and melodies that stick in your brain for hours.
The music ranges from straight ‘80s rock style to house dance music to alien techno. Start to finish, there’s no dearth of infectiously catchy songs to bop to as you battle through each of the game’s eight stages.
5) Super Mario World
Give it up for the SNES OG– Super Mario World set so many precedents that anyone who fails to acknowledge its impact on modern gaming deserves a swift smack to the mouth.
Nintendo’s usage of the word “world” is especially intelligent considering the detailed map of interconnected, intertwining worlds each offering a unique flavor. We have classic locations like Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, and the Forest of Illusion, but no matter where you are the music is top-notch.
The first few levels are classics, and any gamer that grew up with this game could reliably hum the tune even if it’s been decades since they last played. The commonly used song “Athletic Theme” is especially iconic, featuring an intricate piano-type midi melody that frantically flies across the keys. It’s the perfect tune to heighten the tension when the scrolling side of the screen is pushing you toward your doom and you really have to nail that jump!
What was also interesting about the music was how Yoshi changed the song. It was subtle, so not everyone noticed, but give it a try in case you never knew back in the day. You’ve got a cool backing track, end up finding your favorite dinosaur buddy, hop on and– what’s that? Bongo drums?
It’s a subtle but cool touch that added even more style to an already stylish soundtrack.
4) Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
So we all know that Donkey Kong got his iconic moniker from a bad translation job, as he was supposed to be “Monkey Kong”, but is that also the reason we got “Diddy’s Kong Quest” instead of “Diddy’s Kong Quest”?
Actually no. It’s a play on Diddy’s Conquest. Get it? Kong Quest? Conquest?!
Anyway, the Donkey Kong Country games were known for amazing gameplay, a colorful cast of characters and baddies, superior graphics, and, you guessed it, top-notch music.
Even after the 16-bit era, we associate Donkey Kong with cool tunes. Right? DK! Donkey Kong! (Come on, sing it! I know you know the words.) DK! Donkey Kong is here!
Okay, so maybe the DK Rap from the 64 version was a little polarizing, but I digress. The music on the original SNES trilogy was top-tier, pulling in instruments and sounds that were not often heard in other games and adding a unique quality to an already immensely immersive gaming experience.
It was a tough call picking between Donkey Kong Country and the sequel, but we give it up to Diddy Kong for adding that special next-level flair and pirate flavor to a franchise already renowned for top-quality tunes.
The jolly Gangplank Galley songs? The atmospheric Gloomy Gulch tracks? The serene serenade featured in Arctic Abyss? The ambient strings and catchy lead in Bramble Blast? How about that percussion heavy backing track to Squawk’s Shaft?
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest has one of the best soundtracks from the 16-bit era, and possibly of all time as well.
3) Mega Man X
Nothing sets the tone for a rousing romp through a rigorous robotic rundown quite like roaring ‘80s style guitar leads and upbeat drum tracks to push it all forward.
The Mega Man series as a whole gives us some of the best chiptunes and hard rockin’ tracks that work exceptionally well as both great in-game music and great music in the car, on the go, or anywhere we happen to be, but we give the honorary distinction to Mega Man X.
Anyone who’s played the game can recall with pinpoint precision the wailing guitar leads in Spark Mandrill’s level or the rockin’ riff on Storm Eagle’s level. Or how about the bass-heavy Launch Octopus level music or the rolling bolero of Armored Armadillo?
We can all agree there’s a lot to love about the soundtrack on Mega Man X, just as we all should agree that the first level you should do when facing the Mavericks is Chill Penguin so you can pick up the leg upgrade.
Seriously. Get the leg upgrade first or don’t talk to me.
2) Secret of Mana
The Secret of Mana was an ambitious game that implemented a number of experimental approaches to tried-and-true tropes, essentially creating one of the most unique RPGs of the era that is remembered fondly as one of the best of the system as well as of all time.
With so much going right from the unique combat system to the depth of the characters, it’s no wonder that the music would be incredible as well. We love the ambient, atmospheric tracks and somber, subdued songs that set the mood for exploring, traveling, and such, but let’s be real here. The battle music totally slays!
Even from the very first boss fight, the music comes in and it comes in hard! With harsh tones that convey the absolute peril of the moment and a thumping bass beat, all accented by staccato strings reminiscent of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
The composition is genius though, because it doesn’t bring you up with that kind of intensity and just keep hitting you with it. The music breaks and goes into more melodic breakdowns, only to return back to the top and back to the intensely dramatic battle music that really drives home the feeling they were going for.
The battle against Dark Lich is also especially well-composed, serving as the perfect backing track for one of the most intense moments of the entire game. It’s got it all– hard percussion, chimes driving forward a lead melody, all supplemented by panic-inducing tones that sound like Trent Reznor had a hand in creating.
From start to finish, the music in Secret of Mana is pure brilliance.
1) Final Fantasy III
Alright, so we’re calling out this entry based on what was written on the SNES game box and cartridge, but let’s be clear. This is actually Final Fantasy VI, the epic tale following Terra, Locke, Celes, brothers Edgar and Sabin, and many, many more in their quest to stop the high fashion donning, clown makeup wearing, bona fide badass, Kefka.
Final Fantasy III, as it was called when released in the States, set the bar higher for all succeeding RPGs. The plotline was detailed, the characters fleshed out beautifully over the course of an extensive playtime, and the score was impeccable.
The legendary Nobuo Uematsu pulled out all the stops to nail the atmosphere, setting the tone just right during tense sequences, moments of intrigue, and, of course, intense battles against legendary creatures and foes.
The battle theme, boss battle theme, and final battle theme against Kefka as he essentially ascends into godhood does everything it can to illustrate the epicness of the moment. In fact, the final battle against Kefka, entitled “Dancing Mad”, is made, like all video game music, to repeat, but the full song is over 18 minutes in length– something unheard of at the time of its release in 1990 and even to this day.
But the real standout track in this game is the opera sequence, “Aria di Mezzo Carattere”, which set a somber tone with a set of string instruments over a melancholic melody and even featured the simulated voice of Celes as she sang of her love for whom she would wait until the end of time for.
The pure emotion present on this track takes an already amazing gaming experience and elevates it to high art. Hands down, Final Fantasy III is the pinnacle of musical achievement during the 16-bit era.