The Best Uses of Licensed Music in Games: Then and Now

While there are a few cartridge based games that used licensed music (Rock n’ Roll Racing, and Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage come to mind), the emergence of optical disc-based media for games brought this aspect to the forefront. For the first time ever, Fred and Jon collaborate on an article to show a few of the best older examples of licensed music making awesome soundtracks in older games, and some more recent examples of specific songs making an experience or scene more impactful.

Crazy Taxi (Original 1999 release)
One of my favorites, if not my favorite game of all time. I don’t think any game since has ever matched what Crazy Taxi did with a mere 7 song soundtrack. Not only did the fast paced west-coast punk songs really compliment the frantic and high energy of the gameplay, they fit well with the fake California the game took place in, and set the tone of the game. If you mention Crazy Taxi to anyone who played the original game, the first think they are going to remember is either The Offspring or Bad Religion. Probably the first few seconds of The Offspring’s “All I Want;” Dexter Holland shouting, “Yah yah yah yah yah.” I didn’t even really care for The Offspring at that time, and I would go as far as to say that I was good enough at that game that I would actually lap the soundtrack so that I would be listening to the same songs over and over again, yet to this day I still think this games soundtrack could not be improved upon.

One word of caution, the XBLA version of this game did not secure the rights to keep the original soundtrack. The new songs are not good. It ruins the experience, which just goes to show how important the music is to the title. Get a Dreamcast and a VGA box, play that version, or if you’re going to play the updated version, do yourself a favor and create a custom soundtrack.

Spec Ops: The Line
Spoilers follow. As you may have heard on our latest episode, Spec Ops had an impact on me. While mechanically an incredibly average game, the things this game does to flip the war game genre on its nose are astounding. Audio does play a huge part in the experience, whether it’s the battlefield awareness from your squadmates, the fantastic voice acting, or the way the battlefield chatter breaks down and changes as you progress. But music is important, as well. During the first three-quarters of the game, the enemy has a DJ broadcasting and taunting the player. Not surprising, given that the game is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the game uses music that would fit in the novel’s most famous adaptation, Apocalypse Now. Besides the Vietnam-era classic rock, and towards the end of your trek to the broadcasting booth, the DJ, awesomely played by Jake Busey, throws on Martha and the Vandella’s “Nowhere to Run.” Nothing like a Motown classic playing as you’re knee-deep in the shit. Seriously, play this game. Skip to 1m32s to see what I mean.

Grand Theft Auto Series
I have to admit, I am not a fan of these games. I don’t like the goofiness of the gameplay and the things you can do in contrast with the almost macabre mafia storyline. Super open world sandboxes just aren’t my preferred game experience, but GTA3 and up did something so very unique in its endeavor that it’s hard to ignore. Just to give you that much more control over the gameplay experience, while you were driving around in whatever car you just stole, you could change the radio station in the car. Not only did the stations include music channels where you could pick the type of music that you most wanted to hear along with some great fake DJ banter and commercials, they also included some segments and funny content recorded just for the game. I could not tell you a single song in the game mind you, but it was to the effect it was used that made it a great execution. Of course, Vice City likely had the most iconic soundtrack of the series.

Saints Row: The Third
Sure, GTA can round up a bunch of great songs and throw them on radio stations, but what Volition did with Saints Row: The Third was just fucking awesome. This game doesn’t pull any punches, and skips the player straight into the fun. There’s no ramp up, shit is b-a-n-a-n-a-s from jump street. The musical accompaniment does the same. How does jumping out of a helicopter, into a pool, and killing a shitload of gangsters sound? Pretty rad? Cool – do it with Kanye West’s “Power” playing (YouTube). How about rushing to save the day in the last mission? Pretty standard video game stuff, but let’s do it to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding out for a Hero.” And one of the greatest moments in the game, pick up your homie and drive to a mission, oh cool, “What I Got” by Sublime is on (YouTube), let’s watch the characters sing along. Did I mention you can play with a zombie voice, and he can sing along, too? But the best (pun intended) moment has to be the use of Joe Esposito’s classic from the The Karate Kid.

Jet Set Radio
Jet Set Radio makes my list is not just because of how good the music was- Crazy Taxi has that covered. It’s because the game was so unique and showcased so much of what consoles could really do, right at a point in time where we were all going through the transition to the next generation of consoles. Games will full soundtracks were around, but their gameplay and polish rarely broached what JSR did. Not only did the game have a large and robust soundtrack of tunes most people had never heard, it also had some licensed titles from bigger named artists of the time (at least some of the remixes). The music fit the game well, helped created a memorable setting that people still go back to in their heads, and most of the tracks were just fun to hear. Many of the tracks are unique to a particular stage and add to the mood for that level. Fast chases have more upbeat music than strategic platformer levels, for example.

The game is being re-released sometime this summer (not soon enough) on XBL, PS3, and Steam. Unlike Crazy Taxi (I think Sega learned its lesson) the game retains most of its music, with only 2 tracks missing because of licensing issues. Sega is supposedly adding in some other goodies (cheevos and new graffiti are known so far) so I cannot wait for this to get a release.

Red Dead Redemption
This may be a bit of a cheat, since this song was written specifically for Red Dead Redemption, but damn if it isn’t good. About a third of the way through the game, John Marsden has made a run for the border, and there you are, riding your horse, when this song kicks in. There are no previous instances of a song with lyrics playing in the game, so I was taken by surprise. One of the most powerful moments I’ve had in a game.

Check out the latest episode of our podcast, featuring some of the songs mentioned here and our thoughts on the Ouya. What’s your favorite use of licensed music? Let us know in the comments.


Co-host of the show, video game archivist and historian, UI specialist, and name dropper. Jon Anderson is one of the founding members of Fantastic Neighborhood.