Music and video games — a combination on par with chocolate and peanut butter in its deliciousness. While some games use original scores, other games are interested in interacting with pop culture as a whole, populating their background music with tunes we all know and love. Here, now, are several games that do just that. (Note: For this list, I tried to keep it to games that solely rely on licensed tracks for the bulk of their action, rather than games that have an original score do the heavy lifting while moments of licensed music punctuate it — which is why games like BioShock couldn’t make it.) Get out your headphones and let’s start listening!
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
Skateboard culture and music culture go hand-in-hand. Thus, it makes sense that the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series would have a consistently awesome playlist for you to pop your 360 varial kickflips to. For me, the apex of the series, both in terms of gameplay and music, was the second entry, which felt like it had a unified theme despite its enjoyable variety of bands and tunes. Any time Rage Against The Machine’s “Guerilla Radio” pops up in my life, I instantly think of this game.
Jet Grind Radio
Whether you know it as Jet Grind or Jet Set Radio, this game’s unique blend of dystopian humor, graffiti culture, skating tricks, and even some action gameplay (running away from those “Hup hup hup!” cops gives me adrenaline just thinking about it) has not been matched since. A huge chunk of its success is the wonderfully curated music, a postmodern smorgasbord of funk, electro, hip-hop, and even some house for good measure. To this day, “Sneakman” is my “I’m going 90 on the freeway” anthem.
Def Jam: Fight For NY
If you’re going to assemble, like, every single rap artist into a gleefully excessive fighting video game, you better make sure that soundtrack is fire. And holy cow, does the Def Jam: Fight for NY mix deliver, with intense cuts from folks like Public Enemy, Busta Rhymes, and Fat Joe. To many, Xzibit may be known as the genial host of Pimp My Ride, but to me, he’s the man responsible for this fight-underscoring banger.
NBA Street Vol. 2
The NBA Street franchise is smooth AF. While the first volume capitalized on this smoothness with funky, jazz-influenced hip-hop grooves, the second volume doubled down and cemented its stature with a collection of curated tracks that will make you feel dope as you dunk. Dilated Peeples plus Talib Kweli equals head-nodding awesomeness.
Grand Theft Auto V
Like any good entry in a blockbuster franchise, Grand Theft Auto V feels bigger, bolder, and grander than any previous installment, including its infamous radio stations blasting tunes while you cause Liberty City mayhem. Each station is curated by a heralded figure of music, with alt-hip-hop from Flying Lotus, indie-dance-pop from Twin Shadow, and funk from Bootsy Collins. For me, the biggest moment of incongruous joy comes from playing some smooth-as-silk soft rock, courtesy of Kenny Loggins, as I cause those police star warnings to increase.
If you’re going to set a video game in the hardcore world of metal music, you better bring a soundtrack that ain’t afraid to head-bang. Veteran game director Tim Schafer delivered and then some, with a list that even explores the different subgenres of metal. As an example, the fact that they would include an obscure Satanic-orchestral-metal band like Dimmu Borgir straight up blows my mind and leaves it splattered on the video game mosh pit.