First impressions are important. That’s true both in people and video game consoles.
The first time you boot up a new gaming system can be a magical moment when done right. There’s always a built-in bit of tension anytime you get a new video game console, as you gingerly unbox it and set it up. That prelude can feel like an orchestra tuning its instruments, building anticipation for the moment where you’ll finally get to power it on and hear the opening notes of a long symphony. And I’m not just speaking in metaphor here; I’m talking about the all-important console startup sound.
Video game systems have a long history of utilizing boot-up sound cues. In the early days, systems would feature full songs (we’re looking at the Sega Mega System), but those long intros eventually shrank down to shorter melodies and atmospheric scene setting. Today, startup sounds have the tendency to become iconic. They’re the first thing you hear when booting up devices for years on end, so the best ones tend to stick in your ear for a lifetime.
There’s an art to creating that perfect sound, though. It not only needs to be something you wouldn’t mind hearing every day, but something that sets the tone for that device. The jarring opening of the first Xbox let us know it was an edgier system than its competitors, while the PlayStation 2’s eerie synth-scape prepared you for … well, I have no idea what that was about honestly, but it’s certainly memorable. In our quest to find the best ones, we combed through every startup sequence we could find, from handhelds to consoles. These are the 10 sounds that we love the most (and one that we absolutely hate).
The worst: Atari Jaguar
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To emphasize what makes a great startup sound, we must first start with what makes a terrible one. So let’s start by dissecting the worst of the bunch: the Atari Jaguar. The sequence gets off to a bad start with a simulated jaguar growl. It’s corny, but I suppose it at least gets your brain ready for a “wild” experience. It doesn’t stop there, though. After a few awkward seconds, letters fly across the screen to form the word “Atari” as a goofy series of descending clown notes plays. That’s capped off by a triumphant little melody that’s once again tonally out of step with both sounds that preceded it.
It’s an absolute mess, one that makes the Jaguar seem like a bit of a joke (the visual sequence even ends with a spinning cube, each side plastered with jaguar photos). What I’ll criticize specifically here is its descending note sequence. That gives the sense that the device is powering down, not on. You’ll notice that a lot of the best start-up sounds have notes that ascend and build to a crescendo, playing with your anticipation as it boots up. Little details like that make a difference, and it’s what we’re looking for in our search for the best.
10. Sega Dreamcast
Before we talk about Sega, let’s get something straight off the bat: No, the Genesis’ iconic “Sega” melody is not actually that system’s startup sound. That little sound clip appeared before certain games, but not during the console’s actual boot-up sequence. Don’t email me about it.
Instead of discussing that, let’s talk about the Dreamcast. The system had a few different startup sounds, but the one I want to highlight is its most ambient one, which featured raindrop-like sounds as an orange ball bounced around the screen. There’s something otherworldly about the sequence, as an airy, sustained note plays underneath those echoing droplets. It almost sounds like you’re floating. It’s a relaxing introduction that makes every Dreamcast play session feel like a true escape from the world. Later consoles would better perfect that sensation, but I can still feel those little raindrops on my skin.
9. Meta Quest 2
You might argue that the Meta Quest 2 shouldn’t really count as it’s not explicitly a video game console. However, the VR headset is primarily aimed at gamers, so I’m making a judgment call here. While perhaps an unorthodox pick, the Meta Quest 2’s short and simple opening chime does exactly what it needs to do. The goal with VR is to make players really feel like they’re experiencing the future. The Quest 2 immediately enforces that every time you boot it up with a gentle sound that feels like it was pulled from a sci-fi movie’s spaceship. It’s a transporting little sound that quickly takes you out of your home and into a Star Trek holodeck.
8. Steam Deck
Valve’s Steam Deck clearly took a lot of notes from systems you’ll read about later on this list, and that works to its advantage. The four-second clip is an amalgamation of little soundbites. It starts with what sounds like two gentle button clicks, almost similar to something like the Nintendo Switch. There’s a bit of airy atmosphere after that, which calls PlayStation’s systems to mind. That culminates in a deeper synth tone with shades of Xbox. This may sound a little messy on paper, but it gets across the idea that the Steam Deck can play just about anything. You’re not constrained to one platform’s games — and you’re not even locked into one boot-up screen either! It can be completely customized to anything you want, reinforcing the idea that the Steam Deck is everything all at once.
7. Nintendo DS
While I could wax poetic about a lot of sounds on this list, Nintendo’s strength often comes from its simplicity. The original Game Boy, for instance, only gives players a joyful two-note chime that makes it sound like the system itself is happy to be powering on. The Nintendo DS stays true to that simple idea, quite literally doubling down on it. Modernizing the iconic Game Boy tone by adapting it to piano, Nintendo makes a very subtle change by layering a bit of echo on top. That makes it feel like you’re seeing double as the tone continues to ring out, mimicking the two-screen system’s signature gimmick. Above all else, though, it’s just a downright pleasant sound that I’m never mad about hearing anytime I turn the handheld on.
6. PlayStation 4
PlayStation’s approach to sound is much different from any other company on this list. Rather than producing quick jingles, Sony’s systems tend to open with atmospheric soundscapes that create a strong sense of space and tone. On a personal level, my favorite of the bunch is what we got with the PlayStation 4. The downright chill composition is an interweaving collection of heavily affected guitar noodles, drenched in shimmering reverb. It doesn’t necessarily match with the console’s library of cinematic action-adventure games, but it’s a soothing introduction that always gets me ready to settle in for reflective stories like God of War or The Last of Us.
5. Sega Saturn (Japan)
The Sega Saturn actually has multiple star-up sounds depending on which version of the console you had and in which country. In America, we got a fine soundscape consisting of wind chime-like synth notes building to a bright crescendo. While cute, that pales in comparison to the Saturn’s boot-up sound in Japan. It’s significantly more grandiose, almost mimicking Richard Strauss’ Thus spoke zarathustra in miniature. We get three ascending notes that layer over one another and build to a bright twinkle as the system’s logo is revealed. That makes the experience of booting up the Sega Saturn feel a little awe-inspiring, as if you’re about to step into some vast, exciting digital worlds. What better lead-in for Nights Into Dreams is there?
4. Game Boy Advance
To this day, the Game Boy Advance jingle brings a smile to my face. I don’t think that’s solely my childhood nostalgia speaking either. Nintendo seemingly designed the handheld’s opening sound to be bright and welcoming. That’s apparent in its initial glissando, which arcs in such a way that it feels like a rainbow (likely no coincidence considering the GBA logo that appears under it is rainbow-colored itself). That caps off with the original Game Boy chime, connecting the system to Nintendo’s nostalgic past; it quite literally tells you that this is a more advanced Game Boy right in the sound. All of that makes for a sound that’s perhaps best represents Nintendo itself — a company that’s all about offering bright, playful experiences with a side of warm nostalgia.
3. Xbox 360
What I particularly love about the Xbox 360’s iconic startup sound is its sense of motion. When it begins, we almost get a whooshing noise that makes it sound like we’ve just flown through a wind tunnel. As we approach the end of it, we begin to hear something on the horizon. A light orchestral swell perks up like a sunrise in the distance. That alone is evocative enough, creating the sense that you’ve just been zipped through a portal and are looking out at a bold new world. As that ends, we get the sequence’s most iconic — and most unexplainable — sound. The best way I can describe its airy audio motion is by likening it to a shooting star in the sky. It passes by quickly, glistening in the brief moment where you can see it. It’s a little twinkle of wonder in the audio landscape before you start backstabbing your friends with an energy sword in Halo 3.
2. Nintendo GameCube
A lot of Nintendo’s best sounds are all variations on one another, but the GameCube introduction is unlike any intro the company has ever made. The peculiar audio clip is built around a series of ascending marimba hits that almost stagger like a staircase. It’s a little off-kilter, and almost feels like you’re walking through an M. C. Escher painting toward the soft orchestra hit at the top. It’s unusual, but that’s what makes it perfect for the eccentric GameCube. The system’s game library is among the most varied and unpredictable in all of gaming, giving us everything from Metroid Prime to Cubivore. The appeal at the time was that you never really knew what you were going to get next, and that’s reflected in a quick piece of music that’s similarly hard to pin down. Some popular memes have even played with it, extending it into an endurance joke or transitioning it into a cover of Toto’s Africa.
The GameCube startup also gets a shout-out for being one of the only ones to feature an Easter egg. Depending on what buttons you press on your controller during the sequence, you can change the original sound to a jungle rhythm or a childlike circus riff. It’s a fun way to keep friends on their toes before booting up something like Super Smash Bros. Melee. Sometimes mind games are the key to victory.
1. Sony PlayStation
Sony has gotten a chance to do several startup sounds over the years between its four mainline systems and two handhelds. However, it hit perfection on its first try. The original PlayStation startup sound is an absolute master class in audio design, creating a wholly unique tone that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. There’s a lot to unpack when digging into it. The core of its composition only revolves around two bass-heavy, ascending notes. They’re so low that you can almost feel your bones rattle, like the power of the system is blaring out of the screen. The soundscape around that is even denser though, bringing in twinkling synths that swirl in its commanding orbit. It ends with an otherworldly shimmer as the PlayStation logo appears on-screen, one that’s inviting and eerie in the same breath. It’s hard to put your finger on the mysterious world you’re about to walk into, but you can’t help but follow it.
The PlayStation intro tone is so strong that it’s earned a lasting legacy in lo-fi aesthetic culture. You can even hear it kicking off one of the greatest R&B records of all time, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Though Sony has largely tried to follow that success with its ambient orchestral tune-ups on PS3 and PS5, the almost alien, digital nature of the PlayStation’s startup noise makes for a sound that’s synonymous with the sublime and mysterious world of video games.