Simple bleeps and bloops were how it started. Harsh digital approximations, jubilant hi-score signifiers, and the simplest of melodies to accompany the play, all of which strained to the limits the potential of the sound chips of the time. Fast forward a scant twenty-five years and we find top composers creating lush, interwoven soundtracks to all manner of digital adventures. Indeed, Hollywood’s best can now often be found scoring for the black box rather than the silver screen. These kind of bold orchestral arrangements are now standard fare for gaming’s triple-A titles, but always in the background there have been those that have clung to the blips of old, unwilling to ditch the 8-bit aesthetic they inherently now associate with gaming. The phenomenon has even invaded the mainstream music world, like a virus overwriting standard instrumentation with subtly placed chiptune pulses. How have these computer noises invaded our brain so thoroughly, and what is the way forward for video game music?
The original theme for Super Mario Bros. was written by Koji Kondo in 1985. It is one of the most inherently recognisable pieces of music to Generation X & Y alike, yet it was created on a system which could only produce one sine, one noise, and two pulse-wave voices, granting the composer a maximum of four simultaneous tones. Early games used three channels for music, reserving the fourth for sound effects. Later, programmers figured out how to use all four channels for music, having one drop out for the moments when sound effects were needed. This kind of creative economic thinking for ways to eke every bit (literally) out of these early chips went a long way to defining their sound. Another trick was using 1 voice to do super fast arpeggios, to trick the ear into thinking it was hearing full chords. Percussion was made from timed bursts of static, and any spare voices could be used to double up the main melody, providing a basic delay effect.
Every voice had to be used to its full potential. The tune also had to be interesting enough to stand up to intense repetition; in a game like The Legend Of Zelda, players might hear the Overworld theme dozens, perhaps hundreds of times during a complete playthrough, but still it is fondly remembered by many. Indeed the theme is so evocative of the game that snippets of it have been woven into the soundtracks of nearly all the Zelda games since.
Nothing much changed in the 16-bit era; more channels for voices were allotted and so fuller sounding music could be programmed. There was even the potential for (pretty badly sampled) vocal snippets to be included; many a player’s first gaming memory will be turning on their new Megadrive, only for it to announce its creator's name back at them.
The real sea change for video game music came with the arrival of the Sony PlayStation, the first CD-based console. For the first time, games were able to include soundtracks of real sampled instruments, or even full CD-quality recorded songs. The first soundtrack which really hit home for me what a grand leap forward this represented was the seminal Final Fantasy VII, then the latest in a series of hit JRPGs, and the first one on the new PlayStation system. Written by veteran FF / Squaresoft composer Nobuo Uematsu, the many varied pieces, inextricably tied to events and locations on reluctant hero Cloud's journey resonated strongly, especially now they were not constrained by a maximum limit of voices.
Video game music is still pretty niche listening here (at least outside of actual gameplay), but in Japan (where, at least in the beginning, most of it originated from) it is massively popular. Uematsu-san has released over two dozen albums of his scores, several of them hitting the top spot in the Japanese charts. We in the west have not latched on to the game music craze in so direct a fashion, but the beeps of bygone years continue to inform mainstream music makers today, from the syncopated squares of Ke$ha's debut album through Kanye's processed beats to Beck's 'Gameboy Variations' EP.
There are those in the hardcore underground, however, that believe in the authenticity that only the original hardware can bring, creating brand new albums on the original chips using specially adapted gear like HardSID or LittleSoundDJ. We have artists like Anamanaguchi and Disasterpeace creating new soundtracks for similarly inspired new retro games, and others like Tettix, Pixelh8 and Northern Ireland's very own Chipzel and Skip Cloud, making tracks in this style for the hell of it, because these are the sounds they grew up with, the sounds they love.
Video game music continues to grow and evolve, and although arcing out in one direction we have the new wave of game scorers in the cinematic style (Nick Arundel's Arkham City score stands out in particular), the base sounds that the generation before us coaxed out of those early consoles will remain forever special, and will intermingle with existing and future technology in exciting yet unforeseen ways.
I leave you with the words of respected remixers RAC, from their 'Nintendo vs. Sega' EP:
"Like most people our age, we grew up playing videogames. The countless hours glued to the TV playing our favorite games inspired us to put together a short tribute to these fantastic devices. Whichever side you were on, nobody can deny the amazing games offered on both platforms. There is incredible value in what these composers did with the limited hardware and this is our way of showing appreciation.
We updated their sounds a little bit and in a way, prove that good songs transcend genres.
Thanks Nintendo and Sega for the great memories."