1. Hotline Miami – Sun Araw, “Deep Cover” (2012)
Influenced by the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn crime film Drive, Hotline Miami is your classic top-down action single player video game: its protagonist kills mobsters, decodes secret messages and gets the girl — all while wearing a badass jacket. None of those things can be used to describe the reverb-laden psych drone act Sun Araw, whose track, “Deep Cover” makes a key appearance in the game, making it pretty ’80s in a retro way. Chances are you’re unfamiliar with the band, so even if you’re not into the game, you’ll leave way cooler than you began.
2. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – Goldfinger, “Superman” (1999)
Specifically: Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 & 2. Nothing embodies 1999/the early ‘00s quite like pop-punk and skate culture, here’s a game that delivers both. I’m pretty sure you could replace the soundtrack with a Warped Tour Compilation and no one would know the difference. Think Bad Religion, Papa Roach, Millencolin, Lagwagon. But mostly think “Superman” by L.A. ska punks Goldfinger, and that at this point in time, kids who played video games also knew how to skank.
3. Grand Theft Auto – Fever 105 DJ Oliver “Ladykiller” Biscuit (2002)
The mother of all licensed music soundtracks because these guys figured out how to please everyone: radio! Grand Theft Auto offers a bunch of different stations with real radio personalities, spanning all genres. Seriously, all of the genres. They even have their own YouTube video channel for their video game radio stations, ya know, just in case you’d rather listen to the soundtrack than play the game. Picking a song that fully captures the series is impossible, so I give this spot to Fever 105 DJ Oliver “Ladykiller” Biscuit. All baby makin’ music, all the time.
4. Gears of War 3 – Gary Jules, “Mad World” (2011)
Okay, so 99.9999% of the music used in this game is the stuff of original composition, but Gary Jules’ heartbreaking masterpiece, “Mad World” is used in the game (not to mention, the opening trailer.) And anything that reminds us of Donnie Darko is a-ok.
5. Madden NFL – Hed PE, “Suck It Up” (2003)
It’s virtually impossible to even begin summarizing Madden’s massive history in the licensed music game. They’ve completely dominated the 21st Century, (I mean, they found a way to make Andrew W.K.’s “Party Hard” work AND debuted Blink-182’s 2004 single “Feeling This,” at the time, under the title “Action.”) More importantly, they made the Hed PE single “Suck It Up,” seem all parts pure testosterone and no parts compensation. Sports!
6. Saints Row: The Third – Kanye West, “Power” (2011)
I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the whole “we will license music of all genres for our video game” thing is the child of college sport video games, but the Saints Row series does it well. Where else are you going to hear Liszt AND Fall Out Boy? Oh and the timing is usually perfect. Example: “Power” By Kanye West plays when you jump from a helicopter and shoot dudes while parachuting down.
7. BioShock – Django Reinhardt, “Beyond the Sea (La Mer)” (2007)
Unlike most of the other video games on this list that specialize in modern music, BioShock licenses music from the 30s 40s and 50s exclusively, including tracks from Cole Porter, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. There’s a really intense moment in the game where after surviving a plane crash, the first thing your character sees is a flyer that reads “No gods or kings, only man,” while Django Reinhardt’s haunting “Beyond the Sea (La Mer)” plays. Goosebumps!
8. Brütal Legend – Ozzy Osbourne, “Mister Crowley” (2009)
Ok, ok, so this is kind of cheating. It’s a video game that takes place in a fantasy heavy-metal world but guys, Manowar? Motörhead? SLAYER? Sign me up. The game concludes with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mister Crowley” (spoiler above!) which is what I want to hear when the world ends or whatever. Let’s end on a high note.
9. Prey – Clutch, “10001110101” (2006)
Prey is part-supernatural spirit journey part-alien takeover. It’s also very interactive: users can play video games and watch TVs with a few different channels. Most notably, Prey allows gamers to interact with a jukebox that plays a short selection of licensed songs, varying from heavy metal (Judas Priest) to pop punk (MxPx) to blues rock (Clutch.) Interestingly enough, the German industrial band KMFDM was slated to create the game’s soundtrack but the idea was quickly abandoned. Bummer! We could’ve been living in a world where teenage boys everywhere are really into EBM instead of EDM. Sigh.
10. Call of Duty: Black Ops – The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” (2010)
In Call of Duty: Black Ops, the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” plays second chair to the Vietnam War, a jungle battle scene on a ship that looks like it could fall apart at any moment. Other 60s staples are used, like Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” but only to up the adrenaline factor. I can’t imagine playing this while sitting down.
11. Battlefield 4 – Rihanna, “Run This Town” (2013)
There are approximately 1 zillion games in the Battlefield series. Of that zillion, few use licensed music. Battlefield: Vietnam is the exception, perhaps because it tackles a war known for its music (like Edwin Starr’s “War.”) But unlike most Vietnam War-themed games, Battlefield spans genre, including Martha and the Vandella’s “Nowhere to Run” and ‘60s garage rock the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Not stopping there, the latest in the Battlefield series, Battlefield 4, has been regularly running ads with Rihanna’s “Run this Town.” Someone must have been inspired by her mind-blowing experience in the movie Battleship (“Kentucky Fried Chicken!”)
12. Way of the Warrior – White Zombie, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 (1994)
One of the earliest examples of licensed music, Way of the Warrior’s entire soundtrack comes from the White Zombie album, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s probably because it was released in 1994 on the 3DO gaming system (so old it’s specified as “32-bit.”) Either way, at least White Zombie holds up.
13. Alan Wake – David Bowie, “Space Oddity” (2010)
Alan Wake wins at pop culture references. The psychological thriller / third-person shooter makes references to The Shining and Twin Peaks, verging on horror with allusions to demonic possession. The soundtrack is equally as haunting: with Depeche Mode and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on deck. The stuff of mall goth dreams—but complicated by ending with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Keep us on our toes, Wake.
14. Fallout 3 – Billy Munn, “Jazzy Interlude” (2008)
The third in the Fallout series is the first to use licensed music, an aesthetic focused heavily on 1950s utopic ideas, which is really weird considering the game takes place in the post-apocalyptic year of 2277. Following? It’s a retro-future where vintage swing is king via (fictional) Galaxy News Radio, including The Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, and most importantly Billy Munn — whose “Jazzy Interlude” couldn’t seem more out of place in most video games — but here, works. (Don’t tell the BioShock people.)
15. Dance Dance Revolution – Psy, “Gangnam Style” (2012)
Dance Dance Revolution: The ultimate in music aggregation. There are originally composed songs, there are remixes, there are covers, but most importantly: there is Justin Timberlake. And Men Without Hats. And Kylie Minogue. And Moby. You see where I’m going with this. “Gangnam Style,” where all pop culture culminates.