Here’s the thing about a video game soundtrack. It has to be more than just a collection of good music.
I mean, anyone can just throw money at record labels and cobble a licensed soundtrack together. EA Sports do this every year, but nobody buys — or even notices — games like FIFA or Madden for whatever pop/rap group is blaring over a menu screen.
They key to a great licensed soundtrack, one that actually matters, is to not only have it made up of great music, but have that music play a part in how you experience and remember the game.
And no game has done this better than Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Vice City’s soundtrack is the key to your entire experience with that game. All those white suits, cocaine jokes and all those perms, none of it would have mattered if your murderous rampages weren’t accompanied by some Mister Mister or Cyndi Lauper or vintage Bryan Adams.
In setting their game in the past — a caricature of 1986 Miami — Rockstar had a job ahead of them. The GTA games are as defined by their cities as they are by their missions, and a sense of place is perhaps what players most remember about each game. GTAIV’s drab grey streets, GTAV’s sun-drenched pavements, San Andreas’ blue sky and palm trees.
With Vice City, though, Rockstar had to rely on more than just architecture, character design and recent memory to build a coherent world. They had to drop the player into a city and time that, even though the game was released in 2002, many hadn’t experienced or couldn’t remember.
They did this through art and design, yes, but they did it more effectively through music. Vice City’s soundtrack isn’t just the best licensed video game soundtrack of all time, it’s the best 1980s soundtrack of all time, somehow managing to contain all the right artists from all the right genres.
It did this by pioneering the series’ trademark “radio station” soundtrack system, where genres and styles of music are divided into separate stations then fleshed out as their own mini-soundtrack. Vice City featured seven of these, and every single one was just about perfect.
I mean, look at this: V-Rock, the game’s rock and metal station, may not have any Metallica (whose rights are a nightmare), but it does have Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe. The new wave station has Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Gary Numan, Kim Wilde, A Flock of Seagulls and Spandau Ballet. The pop station has Michael Jackson. The rap station has Run-D.M.C.
These artists may not be as nuanced or niche choices as we’ve seen in more recent games (indeed, they’re blindly obvious choices), but they don’t need to be. Vice City wasn’t a game about showing how cool your sound team and designers were, it was a game about taking you back to the 1980s, and it made damn sure it got every iconic and evocative 80s artist it could get its hands on in order to do just that.
A particular highlight is Emotion 98.3, the game’s soft rock station. Fronted by the husky DJ Fernando Martinez, its smooth power ballads were completely at odds with the exploding cars and dead pedestrians that punctuate Vice City’s missions. But for every other moment, those times you’re just driving around in the rain past pink neon lights (which, remember, is most of the time in these games), it is damn near perfect. Regardless of the track, you’re transported straight back into the 1980s, because music this synthy and this corny could only have come from one decade in time.
And that’s exactly what Rockstar wanted/needed it to do. Mission accomplished. They didn’t go out and buy the most popular songs from the 80s, they went and got the most 80s songs from the 80s.
Vice City may not have been the best Grand Theft Auto game, but it’s still remembered fondly by many — myself included — because it did more than just string some city blocks and crude jokes together. It went back in time and got 1986's fashion, architecture and colour palette just right, but the fuel powering that time machine was a soundtrack that was immersive, poignant and at times funny as hell.
This story was originally published in February 2015.