The Dummy Guide To Video Game Music, Part I

A step-by-step exploration of the influences that music has had on the world of virtual gaming, and vice versa.

The influence that video game music has had on the producers of today is huge, be it the chiptunes of Crystal Castles, the use of gated white noise to act as a snare or a hi-hat, grime upstarts learning their chops on Music 2000 or more profound ideas of button-pushing. Here, we’ll take a look at the history of video game music and explore some of the impact these truly revolutionary sounds have had on many underground musicians today.

The early days of video game sound

The first electronic game was developed as early as 1958, when a crude yet enchanting tennis game, the aptly-titled Tennis For Two, was made from a modified oscilloscope. This game was silent, and games remained silent for the next fourteen years. Gaming’s first ‘talkies’ moment came with Pong in 1972. Pong’s simple bleeps and bloops, the earliest sounds in video gaming, became something of a standard form for video game sound effects, and are still recognised as the archetypal sounds of retro gaming today.

After the breakthrough of Pong, gaming as an entertainment medium grew in popularity, primarily through arcade machines. These games made minor developments in sound, such as Midway’s Gunfight (1975), which included a microprocessor and one-channel amplifier to generate its gunshot effect. But they mostly use audio sparingly – a bland introductory tone at the beginning of a level, or a monophonic background loop, for example. The release of Taito’s Space Invaders (1978) brought with it an early but innovative use of music, with the game using sound dynamically – not just as an accompaniment, but an integral part of the gaming experience itself. A constant, melodic backing track consisting of four simple bass tones would loop over and over throughout the level but, ingeniously, this track would increase in tempo as the invaders got closer. The sense of drama and urgency that this created would cause the player to panic and make rash decisions – and insert more coins as a consequence.


Space Invaders (1978)

Soon after the release of Space Invaders, pioneering synth pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra would be the first band to incorporate a gaming influence into their music. Throughout their career YMO would be early adopters of new technologies, and their track Computer Games, taken from their self-titled debut album in 1978, utilised a sample from Space Invaders’ chiptune. YMO adopted an influence of video game sounds, but the sound of video games would later adopt a YMO influence – titles such as Super Locomotive (1982) and Trooper Truck (1983) contained digitized cover versions of their song Rydeen. YMO member Haruomi Hosono also composed many video game soundtracks over the years, and released a covers album of Namco arcade tracks in 1984, simply named ‘Video Game Music’.


Yellow Magic Orchestra – Computer Games (1978)

Video game music made many leaps and bounds in the following years, much of this down to advances in the silicon technology that the gaming machines used, as well as a drop in their cost. The main advance in this time was the introduction of multiple sound channels, which allowed musicians to substitute the monophonics of yore to create increasingly intricate compositions. As gaming shifted from the arcade to the living room, platforms such as the Nintendo Entertainment System had to change their soundtracks accordingly.

Nobuo Uematsu neo-classical score for Final Fantasy (1987) sits at a crossroads between the world of high culture and popular entertainment, setting a benchmark of sophistication for a medium that was still considered to be for the brainless. Each character and area in Final Fantasy had a distinct theme, and certain motifs would recur throughout the game, adding an extra emotive layer to the gameplay. Uematsu’s most famous piece, used in almost every Final Fantasy game since, was the Prelude, an arpeggiated string piece that deserves to be considered a landmark in electronic music when taken on its own merits.


Nobuo Uematsu – Prelude (1987)

Modulating frequencies and waving tables

In 1980, Yamaha introduced frequency modulation (FM) synthesis to the world. Up until now, pulse code modulation (PCM) was the standard for generating sounds, with PCM responsible for the NES’ distinctive 8-bit effects. FM was a comparative revolution in sound. To simplify extraordinarily, FM was capable of simulating real instruments, usually in a charmingly artificial way, such as on the insanely popular Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, an affordable FM synth released in 1983 that was responsible for some of the best (and worst) sounds of the 80s. The hyper-digital FM sound chips made inroads into gaming soon after – first on the fragmented PC market, such as on the tongue-twistingly titled NEC PC-8801 MkII SR, released in 1985, but more popularly on fourth-generation consoles like the Sega Mega Drive in 1988. Yuzo Koshiro was one of the most inventive composers for the Mega Drive, somebody that understood the creative possibilities of this sound on gaming, masterminding soundtracks to games like The Revenge Of Shinobi (1989) and Streets Of Rage (1991).


Yuzo Koshiro – Streets Of Rage OST – Stage 3 (1991)

FM synthesis is the backbone of a lot of the maximalist, grime-leaning school of bass music, such as the ‘purple-wow’ sound, and the approach to sound design favoured by many of these producers is not a million miles away from the classic noises of the Mega Drive. Joker, in an interview with The Stool Pigeon, describes the purple sound as “Sega Mega Drive meets R&B meets grime with a little bit of dubstep thrown in and a funk twist.” With bass toned down, many purple tracks and grime instrumentals in the Terror Danjah mold could easily belong on a classic platform game. D.O.K released the excellently addictive Chemical Planet on Butterz in 2010 – its sound is typical of purple, but it’s actually based around a sample taken from the Chemical Plant Zone on Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992), a level where one of the risks the player faces is falling into a purple ooze.


Sonic The Hedgehog 2 – Chemical Plant Zone (1992)


D.O.K – Chemical Planet (2010)

By comparison, the SNES used sample-based wavetable synthesis, which combined preset digital samples of instruments with other basic waveforms to create a more realistic sounds. Karen Collins, writing in her book Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design, says that despite the superior technology, the SNES “still maintained a distinctly chiptune and poppy feel, relying on the aesthetic of the 8-bit era…whereas the Genesis [US name for the Mega Drive] had more progressive-rock stylistic traits, the SNES leaned more toward more popular music of the early 90s.” The SNES would typically have soundtracks that were string-centric and traditional, compared to the Mega Drive’s more techno-inflected, synthetic scores. PC gaming, meanwhile, was making developments with their sound card technology, the history of which follows a trajectory which is perhaps too exhaustive for inclusion in this guide, but which interested souls can explore here.

The music on these consoles was played live with MIDI. MIDI works not by streaming an existing piece of music but by sending an instruction to play specific notes, in specific sequences, on specific instruments. Due to the live nature of MIDI, soundtracks could change dynamically according to the gameplay. One of the most popular examples of an ‘adaptive soundtrack’ is Super Mario Bros (1985), but one that sticks in my memory particularly was on a game I played at a friend’s house as a kid. In the Looney Tunes tie-in Taz (1992), the background music would speed up as enemies approach, whilst jumping would make the background music go up a note, getting higher in pitch with each successive jump. Admittedly both the game and its soundtrack were a jumbled mess in execution, but the ambition was there. When games moved from the cartridge to the CD, much of this dynamism was lost, as CDs allowed games to store pre-recorded music on the disk and stream them in-game.

Video game music: seriously avant-garde

Whilst many music critics will often cite the usual synth wizards, house producers and techno rebels as innovators of electronic music, video game music is rarely acknowledged for its radical and avant-garde qualities. Rewind to the birth of game audio: Pong had sounds that were abstract and alien, and in no way sound authentic. A bat hitting a ball does not make a ‘boop’ sound in reality, but to the player, on an unconscious level, this sound – a sound unlike anything else at the time – just does.

The fusion of styles during the late 80s/early 90s period of gaming was truly ahead of its time too, discarding genre in a way that sounds natural, much the same as many a post-internet artist today. In an article for Dummy about his favourite video game soundtracks, Hudson Mohawke talks about ace Mega Drive racer Road Rash (1991): “You played a motorcyclist that had to beat up other motorcyclists with bats and chains and stuff. It was excellent, and because it was about bikers, the soundtrack is this really crude imitation of heavy metal, so you get these amazing ‘power chords’ but made with the chunky sounds like you get on a cheap Yamaha keyboard. Then, maybe because the people composing the music didn’t really know a lot about biker gangs, you’d get these disco bass arpeggios. Ridiculous.” Road Rash is not considered a ‘classic’ soundtrack, but its digital mashup of disco and metal predates Justice’s Waters Of Nazareth by about fifteen years.


Road Rash

As gaming moved into its fifth generation, the shift in sound leant towards streaming audio, using real-world, pre-recorded music, marking a return to pre-existing forms of sound. Steve Hasuchildt, who has released records both solo and as member of synth wizards Emeralds, is a scholar in the history of video game sound, and a firm believer in the radical nature of these early compositions. Speaking in an email exchange about game soundtracks, Hauschildt says: “Even being confined to lower sample rates meant the composers really had to stretch their creativity and create a new form of music out of what they had at their disposal…I think the repetitive nature of the music and fast arpeggiations grew out of a necessity to make something new and interesting until FM patents and eventually CD-quality sound would be introduced. It’s not outrageous to think that these guys were truly exploring a new world of sound.”


Steve Hauschildt – Peroxide (2011)

The overlap between the gaming and music industries is vast and full of cross-references and influences, but we hope that the outline provided above is sketched in just enough to give an idea of the whole. Part II, exploring in more depth how gaming technology and marketing have shaped today’s musical landscape, is coming soon.

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