Amazing Moments of Licensed Music in Video Games

Music and sounds have always been an integral part of video games.  Whether it was the 8-bit bleeps and bloops of the NES, all the way to the crisp, HD orchestrated music featured in modern games, I have always taken an interest to the sounds and scores of my favorite games.  Halo, for instance, while not totally being my cup of tea, features some of the most beautiful ambient songs I have ever heard in a game, or anywhere else for that matter.

While countless other examples of great music made specifically for games exist, sometimes I don’t think the use of great licensed songs are given enough credit. Much like in movies, the perfect song at the perfect moment can make the difference between a generic experience and an unforgettable sequence.  As someone who is obsessed with music, I take a great deal of interest in songs within games.  Though I do enjoy the great original soundtracks many games have to offer, when it fits a scene perfectly, previously recorded tunes from established artists hold a special place in my heart.

I decided what better way to highlight some of my favorite tunes within games then to put together a comprehensive list.  In no particular order, here are my favorite licensed songs used in video games.


Song: “Aint No Rest For the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant

Borderlands is a game filled with an amazing amount of awesome, much like a bacon cheeseburger.  But what really sold the game to me wasn’t game footage, the first person shooter mixed with a role playing game, or even Claptrap.  What drew me in was the stellar intro video.  That clip alone, featuring this quirky little song along along with character introductions, had me hooked.  Not only is the rest of this game fantastic, but after my first time playing, I made an instant purchase of that song.

While the actual song is longer in length and features a couple extra verses, it’s usage does an amazing job of setting the tone for the game, as a great entertaining and off-beat experience.


Song: “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones

If you are anything like me, you have a deep love and appreciation for war movies, especially modern wars.  I will totally nerd out to the likes of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and a plethora of others.  Vietnam War movies are extremely intriguing, in that the war is the first major loss for the US Military, and the events in the war are exceptionally gruesome.

This particular scene as shown in the video, to me, is the most powerful scene in any Call of Duty game to date.  The usage of this particular track as an audio backdrop to the scene’s pure chaos and bedlam is absolutely perfect.  This song, along with gunfire and explosions, feels ripped right from the scripts of a classic ‘Nam movie.  Hearing that song while playing this particular sequence had me grinning from ear to ear while getting the adrenalin going and inducing me to shout “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning!”

While I might not be crazy about the Call of Duty franchise as a whole, Black Ops is the closest to a great single player experience as you’re going to get in a multiplayer centric game.


Song: “All I Want” by The Offspring

Arcade games were great at taking a simple concept and making people want to do that repetitive action over and over again.  Nobody in the 90s nailed that quite like Crazy Taxi.  Everything was rather simple and to the bare minimum.  4 characters, 1 map, 1 goal and a soundtrack featuring 8 songs, by only two bands (The Offspring and Bad Religion) comprised the finer points of the game play experience.

But in all that simplicity was a game that was quirky, exciting, fun and addicting.  The soundtrack comprised of two of the most popular punk bands of the 1990s, helped add to the desire to speed, crash into cars, and feed the arcade cabinet full of quarters.  Punk, mayhem, and cab driving; it all goes together.


Song: “New Girl” by The Suicide Machines

I used to be a skateboard kid. By that, I mean I tried so damn hard to perform an Ollie, but failed like none other.  But what I did do, and accomplish, was playing the ever living daylights out of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 on the original PlayStation.  It catered to two of my loves in the mid 90s: extreme sports and punk rock / ska music.  The Suicide Machines belonged to a genre known as ska-core, or punk rock infused with ska.  This label of music worked out perfectly for the game, which also featured many other prominent ska and punk bands of the time.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I played this game with the very first track to this particular song.  It was great, and loads of fun.  This is the reason I’ve very sadden by the HD remake soon coming out, as it has been announced the original soundtrack will not be retained.

If only I was clairvoyant and knew at the time that the series would eventually fall by the wayside….


Song: “Butcher Pete (Part 1)” by Roy Brown

Fallout 3 is arguably my favorite game of this console cycle. One of the best things about the game was the usage of old music to re-enforce the retro-future feel.  The score that’s blasted to your ears via Galaxy Radio really helps set the tone and adds an amazing depth and emotional weight to the experience.

What’s unique about this particular track is the lyrics themselves.  While many folks, including myself, have this misconception that all songs from the 1950s were about love and as vanilla as could be, some Google searching and a Cracked article will reveal that older songs weren’t as clean as we once thought.  This song makes one of those lists; it’s about a man who really loves the ladies and loves killing them in a grotesque way.  This is the kind of song that should’ve been featured in Manhunt rather than Fallout 3.

Regardless, I fell in love with this song so much that it became my alarm song for a couple of months, much to my wife’s dismay.


Song: “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins

While Fallout 3 featured a soundtrack and a setting portraying a retro-future Washington D.C., Fallout New Vegas does an equally great job of setting you in the wild west of the nuclear wasteland.  While you will encounter some of the same faces as before, (Rad Scorpions, Raiders, Brotherhood of Steel, amongst others) the new cast of characters play on the radically different setting for this next chapter in the Fallout series.

To add to that setting is a couple old songs that really play to the environment of the game.  Specifically, the gunslinger ballad of “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins just makes you want to shoot everything in sight and feel like a bad ass in the process.  There’s just something special about whipping out a gun, turning on V.A.T.S and blasting a raider square between the eyes while this tune is playing.  It just makes for an amazing little experience.


Song: “Go Outside” by Cults

Sports games are well known for using licensed songs in the menu screens and sometimes in game.  These soundtracks however, usually seem like a random hodgepodge of whatever random 20 tracks showed up on someone iPod, rather than a properly assembled list of songs.  A lot of times, they work even poorly during game play. (I’m looking at you Madden…)

However, every now and then a song works in some weird way.  Enter this particular track, which seemed like an odd choice to be featured in a sports game.  However, I found the perfect occasion that made me fall head over heels for this track.  During batting practice, this song, with its calm and collective rhythm actually helped me settle down and concentrate on the pitches and their locations. I ended up downloading this song just so I could import it into MLB: The Show 12, for the very same circumstance.


Song: “Through the Fire and Flames” by Dragonforce

It almost seems unfair to not mention a song from a rhythm game in this list.  After all, that entire genre is built on licensed songs.  While everyone has their preference on music, it’s almost universal that this particular track is remembered by almost everyone who has played it, as the most difficult song in any of these games.

This particular track can be found in the ending credits of Rock Band 3 after you’ve beat the main story mode.  I remember by that time I was so exhausted that I literally put the guitar down midway through this song.  As you can see from the above video, it obviously takes some impressive skill.

You can also find this track in Brutal Legend and Konami’s arcade games Guitar Freaks and Drum Mania 6.


Song: “Today Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube

This is another franchise that was known for its extensive usage of real songs on radio stations.  These lists were so expansive that they would later be released as their own soundtracks!  As awesome as almost all of these radio stations were, none were more fitting than, “Today Was a Good Day” in Grand Theft Auto III: San Andreas.  Most of the setting of San Andreas is taken right out of the early 90s hip hop culture, with some of the characters featuring striking resemblance to real rappers of that era.

I liked this track long before playing the game and running around the streets of San Andreas while blasting this song might have made me as close to a thug as I’ll presumably ever get.


Song: “Compass” by Jamie Lidell

It’s hard to think of a moment in any game that has been so powerful, so moving that it could bring a grown man to well tear in his eye, as this song is in Red Dead Redemption.  If you haven’t yet played this game, the above video doesn’t do it justice.  If you have played this sequence, you understand how perfect this song was at the particular moment it was used.

The whole moment this song is playing during the game, I was filled with all sorts of emotions.  I also had a lot of questions as to how that moment would play out for the ending of the game.

The ending to this game, which begins with the playing of this song and ends after a couple more hours of game play, along with the greatest twist in a video game ever, is really the most beautiful sequence of events that I have ever seen in a video game.  It was truly the icing on the cake.


Obviously there are countless other examples of some great tunes used in video games.  Feel free to comment below with some of your favorite moments in games of great usage of licensed tracks.


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