History of Video Game Music

A brief history of video game music and my thoughts in general on the topic.
December 29, 2010
Video Game Music: Beeps and Boops

When I was younger...

When I was younger, the greatest piece of music I had ever heard was Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog. The strange thing about this particular admission is that I am not alone. Many people have fond memories of what video game music, and to some extent, what video games themselves used to be.
As influential as the soundtracks to our favorite games might be, we never stop to think about them. We take them for granted, as simple background loops without substance because we don't pay attention.
Obviously, I am drawing a fairly long bow. However, when was the last time you stopped to appreciate the soundtrack to a video game based on its merits as a legitimate piece of music?. Have you even stopped to consider the validity of the medium?.
From a business point of view, video game soundtracks are lucrative. They are not designed to chart, so the perceived margin on them is lower. This is why developers who contract firms to press soundtracks for them end up making a lot of money on such a limited run of a particular soundtrack.
Anything that receives a limited run will have its own community of obsessive collectors willing to separate limbs from their bodies in order to get a piece of the action. They will sell out, and when they do there will be lots of happy businessmen and lots of happy nerds.

That said, I am trying to avoid contradicting myself. To say people buy these soundtracks simply because they are collectible is an outright fallacy based on the notion that only the most hardcore of fans will buy them.
No, there is a definite division in the types of people who buy a video game soundtrack. The issue is, they are such an obscure piece of merchandise you have to consider the limited demographic they would appeal to. When you consider how limited the demographic is it makes it easier to draw what you might consider narrow minded conclusions on the matter.
The two core demographics I can see are the collector and the fan.
The collector is a person whose brand loyalty ends up separating them from their money more often that it really should. Anything with a logo on it appeals to them. Therefore they are the perfect kind of people to target with soundtracks.
The fan is just a person who has heard the music, loves it and wants to keep it for the future. These people, the fans, are the ones who understand the legitimacy of video game music and will be the focus of my study today.

A history for those with little interest...

Like I realize there is no specific need for me to relate the entire history of the video game industry to you I also realize that you probably don't care. However, I would be remiss to avoid giving you the most basic understanding of the history of video game music in order to help you put everything I am saying into context.

In the beginning, there was only silence. Arcade games in the 70‘s, where the video game industry began, often lacked sound completely or had incredibly simplistic beeps like that of a PC speaker. In fact, the technology was probably very similar. However for this reason nothing could really be rendered in a tasteful, musical sense.
Advances in technology brought things like voice synthesis in Berserk and eventually technology advanced to the stage that arcade cabinet manufacturers began to put synthesizer chips in their units in order to generate music.

(Broken YouTube Link Removed)

- Berserk, (1980. Listen for the sound samples, note the lack of music)

Yamaha and Richo would provide a lot of this technology and it stands to reason that when arcade cabinets began to get more sophisticated the music they generated was beginning to become comparable to things you'd hear in chart music.
Around this time, consoles were becoming an accepted form of entertainment in living rooms all over the world.
Here too companies like Yamaha and Sony contributed their technology to home consoles to provide high quality triangle wave and PCM sound.
The difference in sound quality of the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo, bitter rivals in the early 90's, polarized fans who had their own opinions about each console.

- Terrible Beat, Revenge of Shinobi (1989. Note the bass and slightly unrefined sound.)

- Overworld Theme, Super Mario World (1991. Note the cleaner sound and more defined instrumentation.)

The Yamaha YM2612 used by the Mega Drive produced sound somewhat comparable to the synthesizer beats used by bands in the late 80's. Many games took advantage of this, most notably Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 which featured music composed by a member of a Japanese Pop band named Dreams Come True.

- Chemical Plant Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992. Note the vastly increased sound quality over Terrible Beat, use of improvised instrumentation using the full PSG range and wave tables and the general pop like feel of the track.)

The YM2612 produced scratchy, obviously synthesized sound that lacked the somewhat more natural, clean sound of the Sony DSP that the SNES used. However, the YM2612 produced incredible bass and an incredibly unique sound that many fans loved.
The Sony DSP was clean, clear and could produce life like drum, flute and guitar effects. It did however lack the certain dirty bassy, edge that the YM2612 had. With these differences, came much fighting and rivalry. Proponents for each had their arguments and would shout the other side down without listening to them. It was very similar to the situation between the Xbox 360 and the PS3, however unlike those consoles the SNES and the Mega Drive were nothing alike, so debate on their merits was (and still is) warranted and often quite heated.

As these consoles began to fade into obscurity and it was becoming time for them to retire, changes were made about the way we approached the music we listened to in games. Music being produced by the SNES and the Mega Drive began to become incredibly elaborate and sophisticated as developers struggled to squeeze every last ounce of musical sensation they could from them.
Sega took the initiative away from NEC to augment the existing console they had with a CD unit called the Mega CD. This allowed for cutscenes, higher quality music and Mode 7 effects on many different fields. When the Mega Drive and SNES eventually were abandoned, we moved to discs.

- Taking to the Air, The Terminator (1993. This is the Sega CD version of the game. Notice how creative this composition is.)

- New Junk City, Earthworm Jim (1994. This is the Sega CD version of the game. Again, this is an incredibly creative composition. It sounds way more sophisticated than it actually is and is just great to listen to.)

At the beginning of the age of multimedia, around 1994 starting with the 3DO and earlier with the Amiga CD32, we began to experiment with ways of streaming high quality music from CD's. Some companies like Sony adopted closed standards like XA while others simply opted for the simple and easily licensed Red Book (which can be read by ANY CD player).
Music began to incorporate sophisticated arrangements, while some simply opted for only slightly enhanced synthesized beats.
As the age continued and the Saturn and Playstation matured so too did the video game soundtracks. Guitars would wail, orchestra's would soar and cheesy pop ballads would drift from the speakers of your massive 51cm television.
The music began to reflect the times, with each iteration of a popular franchise either trying something different, or adhering to the current musical fads of pop ballads and dirty guitars.

- Episode 1, Panzer Dragoon (1995. It is difficult to find anything comparable to this in 1995. Very few games displayed this type of polish and commitment to providing a splendid auditory experience.)


- Rare Hero, Ridge Racer (1995. An example of a developer simply following the lead of current industry fads and including a techno soundtrack with their product.)

As that age ended, so too did innovation. Established paradigms in video game music would continue to evolve and be incorporated into future games. Things pioneered in the mid 90‘s like dynamically changing music, atmospheric cues and the use of ambience to warn of danger lingered in the industry as soundtracks began to become an aforethought.

- Heavens Night, Akira Yamaoka (2001. An incredibly haunting trip-hop track. Some of Akira's best work occurs when he settles on his trip-hop style.)

Certain composers like Akira Yamaoka displayed an incredible creative flair for the art of composing relevant, atmospheric and beautiful tracks to use in games. However, these composers were few and far between.
Little happened after this and like everything, detail in sound design was slowly pushed to the back of the line behind multiplayer.

That isn't to say video game soundtracks have completely lost their direction, however the incredible creative genius of the 90‘s and early to mid noughties is missing with only few composers still displaying any sort of flair and passion for the field.

I don't see why they matter...

I don't blame you.

Well, not now. I understand why you feel such apathy towards them. Video game soundtracks have always been there yet we don't pay enough attention to them.
They make you feel scared, happy or apprehensive. They add or create atmosphere where there was none before and whether you realize it or not they are designed to marry with the graphics and the gameplay to provide cohesion and balance in the games you play.
Recently, they have mattered less and less. Certain soundtracks like that of Petri Alanko's work on Alan Wake is beautiful while others, like the vastly more popular (for some reason) Gears of War franchise use offensively dull orchestral pieces that could be from anything.

- Welcome to Brightfalls, Alan Wake (2010. A beautiful, magnificently composed track that smacks of melancholy but also of a fresh start. Excellent.)

The issue is the more popular the IP, the less quality you see in the soundtrack. This is probably due to the fact that the less money the developer spends on things like technology and sound design, the more money they can make from their millions of units sold.
It's perfectly understandable for a developer and publisher to want to make as much money as possible. However, in the past the video game industry was about creativity, accessibility and innovation. Money was secondary to these motivations. There wasn't nearly as much money in industry in the early to mid 90‘s so innovation and providing something different, fresh and incredible was all you had. This meant everything had to be polished and glimmering. That was how you sold units.
Now, names sell units. Perceived notions of quality sell units. Word of mouth sells units. Not proven competency, no.
That's not me saying nothing good is made now. It's me saying things should be better, less generic. We're so advanced from 1995 but we're so creatively stagnant it beggars belief. Occasionally one or two games will be launched that play like a refreshing dream. However amongst them is a constant slew of GTA clones, Call of Duty clones and pretentious adventure games.

That is why it matters, that is why you should care. If you compare two vastly different pieces of music, one developed in 1996 and one developed in 2006, how is it that the one from 1996 sounds more sophisticated and developed?.

- Volcano Valley Zone, Act 2, Sonic 3D Blast (1996)

- Jacinto Prison, Gears of War (2006)

Then again, you might listen to the track from 1996 and hate it because you aren't used to, or don't like the archaic technology being used to produce it. However, stop to just pay attention to the way the rhythms, beats and melodies are layered and presented. Read into how it sounds, close your eyes and try to imagine the level this particular piece of music is from. Now, do the same for the other track. It's just so generic it doesn't seem to mean anything or add anything to any atmosphere there could possibly be. In other words, it doesn't stand on its own and that is the difference.
It's a sign of the times. In a way, the music of the games we play are a perfect indicator of the times we play games in.

So what do I do to appreciate it more?

If you want to build a whopping collection of tunes from video games there are many resources you can find. Google is your friend and it'll help you out a lot.
The fact is, there are thousands of games out there, each with very long lists of music. It'll take you a while, if you have the patience to look, to get used to what developers have good composers and therefore are worth chasing down.
But, in order to answer the question; What do I do to appreciate it more?, that isn't up to me to say. If you want to try and appreciate video game music more, I'm glad you're taking the initiative to appreciate something many talented people spent hundreds of cumulative hours composing for you to enjoy.
But, if chart music is more your bag, then that is that. It'll never be anything more to you than the stuff that plays in the background while you kill things. In that case, so be it.
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