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The Lost Art Of Videogame Music

The world of videogame music has changed an awful lot over the last forty years, from simple bleeps and arcade attract music through to modern orchestra scores and artist supplied tracks. We have more possibilities for music than ever before, but I do worry that the art has lost much of the magic that used to make it special.

For me the heyday of videogame music was the period from around 1986 to 1994, where the sound chips were sufficient to produce fantastic musical melodies, but struggled with full blown audio playback. From the sunny chimes of Magical Sound Shower in Outrun, via the club sounds of Project X, through to the funky basslines of Sonic the Hedgehog, game music was custom designed to get the most out of often limited hardware. Indeed some music developers complained that even on Amiga games, they often got as little as 1k of memory to create the music.

However, the great thing about limitation was that it pushed composers towards melody. There was little in the way of production to hide a weak tune. In the same way that the gigantic restrictions on cigarette marketing produced some of the most inventive and abstract advertising ever made, the primitive re-creations of instruments produced a style of musicianship different to anything before it, and one that has influenced a whole generation of artists.

Take the incredible use of the Commodore by Rob Hubbard, to produce such complex yet infectious tunes as those written for Commando, Sanxion and Crazy Comets to name but a few. Likewise the outstanding use of the weak Megadrive sound chip by Yuzo Koshiro andMasato Nakamura, who soundtracked the lives of Sega kids through the Sonic games, Streets of Rage and more.
Before writing this I conducted a test by playing through Sonic the Hedgehog one and two, and I could sing note for note every single tune. It has been a long time since a game had music with anywhere near the same effect.

What happened?

CD Audio and MP3’s changed the way game music worked. One of the crossover games was Ridge Racer, with specially composed audio that gave the game a specific feel of its own. Ever since then, starting most notably with WipEout, games tend to fall into one of two categories: Assorted existing songs by musical artists that are selected for the game, or specially composed music that acts more like a film soundtrack, backing the game up without ever really making its presence clear.

The problem with the former is that, while it may provide great music, it has no real connection to the game it is soundtracking. Sure, the inclusion of Firestarter and other tracks in the WipEout series gave it an identity just as much as the amazing design by The Designers Republic, but few games since have had the same care or focused approach to music selection. The latter works great for creating tension and enhancing the atmosphere, but often at the expense of character.

The arrival of the ability to play cd audio music sounded the death knell for the old way of making game music. Just like the gap between pixel art and hand drawn art, developments in technology changed the way things were done. Yet the ability to do anything, has sadly led in most cases, to most games all doing the same few things.

Racing game? Pick a few recent indie hits or upcoming rock bands. FPS? Silence is more realistic, or let’s have an orchestra build up tension.
This all has its place, but I miss the days when game music was part of the hook that kept you playing.

Perhaps more importantly for those of us who grew up with gaming in the 1980’s and 90’s, most modern game music no longer gives you the feel of playing a game, and it no longer provides the game with an individual character of its own. Of course, that doesn’t mean they need to be full of retro synths and 8-bit bleeps, and sure, maybe a melodic tune isn’t right for Call of Duty, but there are so many games that would feel far more engaging with more melodic music.In fact, despite the long popular trend of gamers appreciating old chip music, the only full priced games I can remember playing in recent years which have music with that kind of character are Nintendo and Sega games.

Perhaps that is part of the magic that keep those two brands special, even through all of their many failures. The orchestral score to Mario Galaxy has that wonderful combination of atmospherics and melody, and the jazzy stylings of Paper Mario 3DS give me hope for the future. In addition, the proliferation of mobile games on iPhone and Android is bringing back pixel art and chiptune style melodies to a mass audience after a long time underground.In a time when the influences and sounds of gaming are more prevalent than ever in the sounds and melodies of popular music, is it too much to expect that gaming itself retain some of the musical magic of the past?

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Rob is an advertising strategist and author of 'The Ad Pit' blog. Rob has been playing games for 25 years - which makes him feel very old. He used to have a victory ratio of 40:1 in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, but that was a long time ago! #dogyears

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  1. This is a fantastic piece. My favourite piece of videogame music has to be the soundtrack for Gods, although Turrican 3 (level 3) was also awesome.

    • @Simon Burns┬áThe loading music for Gods was brilliant. Those protracked songs that took up a whole disk were the Amiga’s┬áspecialty. (See also Blood Money and Starray)

  2. Thanks Simon, I find it hard to narrow down my favourite music to just a few pieces. Maybe a top twenty countdown in order at some point!

    • @RobMortimerVA well, everyone could pick their fave five and ill compile the results(they will be completely biased of course!)

  3. The musical agenda for most modern mainstream games seems to be ‘awe’ over melody. They may not be as catchy but the themes from the Uncharted, Metal Gear series are just as memorable for me. Though I probably wouldn’t recognise a COD theme if it punched me in the face. Good article.

    • It sometimes amazes when finishing a mainstream game like COD just how many people work on such forgettable soundtracks, although I loved the music for Uncharted 2

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