The Evolution of Video Game Music

Video game music is perhaps the most underrated genre in the music industry. It’s a shame when you think about it, considering the emotional impact video game music can have for the listener.

Now let me get this out the way. I’m a very avid gamer and have been playing games since I was 4 years old on my Mom’s Nintendo and Sega Genesis. However, most of my growing up came from the 6th and 7th generations. But because I’ve grown up with video games, I’ve been able to experience old school and new school gaming.

So, while we are exploring the evolution of video game music, we will also have to talk about video games. So, let’s dive on in!

History of Video Game Music

From Sounds to Looping Music

Original Atari 2600
The Original Atari 2600

Before the epicness that is God of War or Final Fantasy, we had Pong. Released in 1972 on the Atari, it consisted of three different sounds. While there were other games before Pong, none of them had sound. But thanks to Pong, this gave a boost to the video game industry and the world started to see video game arcades.

And while arcades helped boost the popularity of gaming, the game industry got another big hitter in 1978 with the success of Space Invaders! It’s claimed that one of the reasons for Space Invaders’ success is due to its music.

“Space Invaders used sound in a functional way: the rhythmical bass based sound-track which sped up with the rhythm of the game was an integral part of the game experience. Before Space Invaders, sounds in video games had generally been used as padding or a subordinate bonus, but afterward, game developers could no longer afford to ignore this aspect”.

Outside of Space Invaders, Asteroids, which had a two-note melody encouraged the desire to have game music go beyond the typical beeping noise that was so popular at the time.
Luckily, we were introduced to a real gaming song with the release of Rally-X in 1980. Granted, Rally-X isn’t a full-fledged song, but it was the first video game to have continuous background music.

Arcades and the Limitations of Music

Then we got the iconic Pac-Man, that adding music to its into cutscenes. This was made possible thanks to the first dedicated sound chip, PSG. I should note, we are talking about arcade games. At that time, this was a bit too complex to be implemented into a home gaming console. And while some arcades did have move advance chips installed, they weren’t used for implementing music, but rather for richer sound effects.

There was a marketing strategy behind this; music was only used for giving cues to potential players. Meaning, if a game wasn’t being played, there would be an “intro song” to entice gamers into playing the gaming cabinet.

Then when the game would start, the music would be replaced with sound effects. And while some gaming cabinets were capable of having music and sound effects, most didn’t have the available memory to implement the concept.

It wasn’t until 1981’s Frogger, that we were introduced to video game music without loops. It featured eleven different gameplay songs. However, the use of looping music had continued to remain popular because it was seen as a distinctive aesthetics in gaming.

While companies were creating original music, the use of precomposed music was also a common strategy. To create video game music, the sound would have to be transcribed into code.

Rise of Game Music and Soundchips

Video gaming was growing in popularity, and while there was a couple of video game crashes here the industry managed to pick itself back up. Outside of the Arcade scene, there was Apple, who had released the Apple II in 1977 and had ports that allied joystick to be connected.

This was a great step in the right direction, and it became even more apparent with the release of the Commodore’s C64 in 1982. And in 1983, we saw the release of MOS Technology, the SID-chip (Sound Interface Device). On a basic level, it allowed a large array of different types of musical capability. The only downside to the chip was it’s complexity for programming.

Video Game Music- SID Chip
A SID Chip

While these songs were cool for its time, many C64 games lacked music in their games due to the technical limitations. To counter this, programmers continued to create loops for their songs. Unfortunately, even with looping songs, the majority of storage was reserved for graphics. As started by composer Rob Hubbard:

“Sound has always been the poor relation of graphics in the computer game world, proof that humans are more interested in what they can see than what they can hear […]. Playing second fiddle to the graphics means you get allocated only a tiny share of the computer’s memory, typically between 4K and 6K. Not only do you have to fit your tune into that space, but you also have to find room to define all your sounds – not just for the music, but also for the game-activated sound effects.”

Rob Hubbard – Composer

Another issue that the composer had to face was making sure their music would still sound correct with different sound cards. Not all soundcards were created equal and could result in some wonky sounds. Composer Michale Pummell stated :

“It’s […] like writing for a string quartet. Image having only four instruments […] and you’re supposed to keep it interesting That’s the challenge”

Michale Pummell – Composer

The Rise of Nintendo

For most, it wasn’t until the release of the NES that people would consider video game music to be “real video game music”. From a technical perspective, the NES used a custom-made sound chip, that provided five channels. Even with 5 channels, the NES still had to share it with sound effects. However, this is where the genius of Japanese creativity comes into play.

Video Game Music - NES Channel Breakdown
Channel Breakdown for NES Soundchip

Despite its limitations, programmers were still able to take advantage of the hardware by creating a unique sound that is known to the NES. For example, composer Koji Kondo was known for creating two of Nintendo’s most famous themes of all time. The Legend of Zelda Overworld theme, and Super Mario Bros theme. Super Mario Bros, being the first game to feature constant background music written by a professional composer.

I mentioned earlier, that video game music is highly underrated. But this wasn’t always the case. In America, it was underrated, but in Japan, video game soundtracks were very popular. For example, Koichi Sugiyama took part in creating music for Dragon Quest and was the first video game composer to record his music with a live orchestra. In 1987, the Dragon Quest Concert Family Classics Concert” was held and was the first video game music concert in history.

Dragon Quest Composer – Koichi Sugiyama

Despite, video game music being unpopular in the West, there is one person who breaks that rule. Nobuo Uematsu. Granted, he isn’t a household name, but he is more well known than any other video game composer. Uematsu is known for his work with the Final Fantasy series. Some of his most popular songs are “One-Winged Angel”, “To Zanarkand”, and “Aerith’s Theme”. According to Uematsu, he combines eastern and western styles of instrumental music, and that could be a contributing factor to his popularity overseas.

Bitter Sound Competition: Nintendo vs Sega vs The Rest

While Nintendo seemed to be on top of things, eventually some real competition came into light, and they didn’t what Nintendon’t.
Introducing “SEGGGAAAA”. Nintendo and Sega were really duking it out during the bit wars. Nintendo’s System was still stuck in the 8-bit era, while Sega was pushing forward with its 16-bit Mega Drive (Or Genesis). The Mega Drive not only had better graphic fidelity but had richer sound. Unfortunately, this didn’t change how songs were structured. Meaning, games still relied on looping strategies.

But thanks to the upgrade in the Mega Drive’s sound chip, games were able to have music that sounded closer to keyboards. But Sega’s advantage was short-lived with the release of the Super NES. Released in 1990, Nintendo’s had a larger selection of DSP effects, digitized sound, and full stereo sound.

The Arrival of CD-ROMS

New Media Format : CD-ROM
CD-ROM

With video game music becoming more sophisticated, we started to see covers songs and license music being used in games. But This increased sophistication in music was nothing compared to the introduction of media format, the CD-ROM. With CD-ROMS, games were able to use live instruments, vocals, and dialogue.

In other words, streaming audio was the main concept for integrating music, rather than programming it. And since the music was pre-recording, the sound quality drastically improved. There were still some issues such as gaps in music after a track had finished its loop, but the downsides were far and few.

The first 32-bit consoles were the 3DO and Atari Jaguar. And while a technical marvel, they were extremely expensive which led to limited third-party support and poor sales.

Sega did somewhat better with the Sega Saturn…sort of. The only console during the 90’s to be a success with its 32-bit CD-ROM tech was Sony with the Playstation. The funny thing is, Sony released the PS1 boasting about its 32-bit, while Nintendo went even further by releasing the Nintendo 64, which was a 64-bit system. However, unlike Sony, Nintendo decided to stick with a cartridge-based system, which led to limitations of its music capability.

“The Playstation’s competitor, the Nintendo 64, is also capable of producing 24 voices, but they are not ‘dynamic.’ This means that once a patch is allocated to a particular voice on the machine, it was very hard to change to a different patch. In addition, the Nintendo does not allow Redbook audio, as it does not use CD-ROMs.”

Despite Nintendo’s musical limitations, the company still introduced some amazing video game music such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The irony is, not only did Ocarina of Time have amazing music, you can technically create your own music by using the Ocarina in the game.
However, when it came to sound fidelity, PlayStation had Nintendo beat.

The only downside as I mentioned earlier were the gaps between songs after a song finished its loop. There were some exceptions to this, such as Nobuo Uematsu’s FFVII, which used MIDI from the onboard synth-chip.

Modern Day Video Game Music

Throughout the years we got games that had orchestral music, such as Sakura Taisen (Sega Saturn), and Heart of Darkness. And outside of orchestral music, there was the continuation of using license music in games.

For those who love skateboarding, we can all agree the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was damn cool! Fun fact: did you know the PS1 had a feature that allowed you to listen to your own music while playing a game?

Moving into the 6th generation of consoles, we were introduced to the Dreamcast, PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox. The Dreamcast, unfortunately, didn’t get to play with the other 3 consoles, since Sega discontinued the Dreamcast on March 31, 2001.

Regardless, we still had 3 new consoles; PS2 had a DVD drive, the Nintendo Gamecube finally made the jump to optical disc, although it was was a mini disc, and Xbox…well, it was equivalent to a big ass computer. At this point, the sound quality of music in video games is similar to what we have now.

Granted, there are some enhancements with today’s sound, such as Dolby Digital Atmos. We’ve reached a point where sound quality sounds great to the average person.

This is seen in music rhythm games. If you grew up in the late 2000s, then you may have heard of a popular little game called, Guitar Hero! Guitar Hero was far from being the first rhythm-based music game, but Guitar Hero took pride in providing high-quality sound when playing music (except for the Wii version of GH3).

Conclusion

In 2020, we have game systems that are capable of providing beautiful orchestral music, with amazing surround sound. But it’s far from perfect since there can be audio issues due to compression and low bitrate, but this is usually due to the user’s AV equipment.

Video Game Music is constantly evolving and with the release of the PS5 and Xbox Series X over the horizon, it’s never been a better time to be a lover of video game music; or just video games in general.

So, what are your top 5 video game songs? Feel free to write in the comment section, and let’s talk about games and music. Also, if you want to watch the video version of this article, be sure to check out the YouTube Channel, Enjoy Life Music.

As always Enjoy Life and Enjoy Music!

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