Authors Note: Try and find a quiet spot or have headphones ready before you dive into this article. Try and give yourself a bit of time to listen to the music and get the full effect!
Imagine playing your favorite game on mute. How would it impact your experience? Perhaps the game would feel flat, the story not as robust, or the action not as satisfying as it once was. Music, while we may not always realize it, serves an important role in the overall quality of the gaming experience. One of the largest impacts of music is that it helps us become immersed within the games' world and atmosphere. Music can also provide clues to help us understand the story, such as portraying emotions of key characters or events. During gameplay, music may also serve to get our adrenaline pumping with excitement or fear.
Video game music has come a long way since its humble origins. The first games were silent – there wasn't even a sound effect. Over time as technology improved, games began to have sound effects, short melodies, and full soundtracks. Early game developers and music composers had quite a challenge to use the technology they had available to create music that was able to tell a story or portray a feeling. Through their determination, however, dawned unique and influential music that has left a legacy even to this day.
Now we’ll begin a musical journey to explore the origins of video game music. As you listen, think about the types of sound that each generation produced. Contemplate the music and what feelings the composer was trying to portray. Kick back, unwind, and listen to some retro gaming sounds, and tracks, to gain an appreciation for early composers and how they shaped the face of gaming music.
Our journey begins several decades ago. For the purpose of this article, we’ll lump together the 1st and 2nd generation of gaming consoles as some of the more popular games at this time were ported from arcade cabinets. Some of the first gaming sound effects (not quite yet music) appeared in games during the 70’s. For instance, Pong only featured a sound if the ball hit the paddle or hit the edge of the screen. Space Invaders has a background beat that slowly increases as the aliens approach, as well as some psychedelic sounds for the gamer to enjoy. An early example of a recognizable music jingle was in Gun Fight when one of the cowboys was shot.
In the early 80’s both gameplay and music continued to improve and evolve in the arcade scene. Pac-man featured some short musical jingles as well as a variety of sound effects. One of the first games to have continuous background music was Rally-X. Our favorite amphibian, Frogger, had several short music pieces that were used throughout gameplay. Dig Dug was innovative in that the music would sync with the characters movements.
The early to mid 80’s began the 3rd generation of gaming and included systems such as Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System, Commodore 64, ColecoVision, and Atari 7800. These advances in technology began a new trend with game music and development. Gaming companies began to search for skilled composers to be a part of the development team to be able to fully utilize what the consoles had to offer. Thank goodness they did, or else we wouldn't have had the groundbreaking music tracks of Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., that helped pave the way for games and music to this day.
During this era of gaming, music really began to play its rightful role in the gaming experience. Before, a few sounds or melodies were used to give the game some interest, but now the music was able to tell a story or influence how the gamer feels. Take a listen to these tracks to see if you can get the feelings they are trying to portray. International Karate offers some oriental flair and cool synths to get you ready for battle. ‘Green Hill Zone’ from Sonic the Hedgehog has a cheery upbeat sound that gets you ready to be the fastest thing alive. The track ‘Wookie Hole’ from Battletoads enhances the feeling of descent in Stage 2 for the game. For a dose of determination and hype for a boss fight, ‘Dr. Wily’s Castle’ from Mega Man 2 will do the trick. Golvellius has a sense of adventure and purpose. ‘Song of the Grid’ from Ballblazer has almost a crazed feeling of concentration to it. Take a trip to the moon with Duck Tales catchy ‘Moon Theme’ that features some techy futuristic sounds.
The late 80’s and early 90’s started the 4th generation, this time introducing systems such as the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Amiga 500, Neo Geo, NEC TurboGrafx-16, and Atari STE. This generation brought greater complexities and depth to gaming music, with more intricate compositions and arrangements. The title theme for Turrican 2 has a techy futuristic sound and beat that gets you ready to shoot up some mutant invaders. ‘China Town’ from Shinobi 2 offers a dash of traditional Chinese instrumental sounds as well as a dose of determination. ‘Stickerbrush Symphony’ from Donkey Kong Country 2 makes you feel as though you are floating in the breeze, light as a feather. ‘Corridors of Time’ from Chrono Trigger gives you a sense of wonder and curiosity. ‘Go Straight’ from Streets of Rage 2 has a funky mix of dance, electronic, and 90’s sounds. ‘Corneria’ from Star Fox is just kick ass… it really gets you pumped! If you’ve been a bad boy or girl, get a listen to what Hell may sound like in ‘What the Heck’ from Earthworm Jim. A serious and determined theme can be found in the ‘Path of Fiend’ song from Golden Axe. ‘Chemical Plant Zone’ from Sonic 2 is upbeat and nearly dance-worthy, which is perfect for some fast and fancy footwork by our favorite blue hedgehog. Another song that makes you want to get your groove on is ‘Not There at All’ from Viewpoint.
The mid 90’s ushered in the 5th generation, including consoles such as Playstation, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, and Atari Jaguar. During this generation music began to shift to more realistic instrumentals and vocals. In Panzer Dragoon Saga, there is a song called ‘Sora Mi Areru Ec Sancitu’ that features beautiful women vocals and an ancient tribal vibe. Final Fantasy IX’s ‘Immoral Rhythm’ is a haunting song that includes instruments such as the organ, violin, and piano. In NiGHTS into Dreams they created their own lyrical theme song ‘Dreams, Dreams’ that features the vocals of two singers. Music inspired from movies was also replicated well, such as the ‘James Bond theme’ from Goldeneye 007 and theatrical Star Wars music from Episode 1 Racer. During this generation there also emerged unique soundtracks that gave games their own distinct personality, such as the recognizable music of Banjo Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Crash Bandicoot.
Music also began to be used more as a tool during this time, especially for instilling fear or action. In Tomb Raider, most of the time you are playing in silence until something dangerous is about to happen, which cues heart-racing music . A great example of atmospherically frightening music is ‘The Basement of Police Station’ in Resident Evil 2, which is quite creepy and suspenseful. Silent Hill, which does a great job of messing with your head in general, delivers ear-bleeding music with ‘My Heaven’. (If that left you in a bit of disarray, here’s one of my personal favorite tracks to soothe you.)
This concludes our musical journey, for today at least! I hope that you have a greater appreciation for early gaming music and how it has evolved over the years. I know I am impressed with how game composers were able to make such unique music with the limited technologies of the time. It is even more impressive that some of the tracks are still popular to this day, and are ingrained within our gaming culture. So next time you are playing your favorite game, take a moment to appreciate all the hard work that has led up to it and how the music is making your gaming experience even better!
Let us know your favorite gaming music, old or new, in the comments below!