Music: A Retrospective in Gaming

We only need to glance at the videogame sales charts for the preceding two or three years to see the impact music has had on the industry. Phenomena such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero and, to a lesser extent, DJ Hero have revitalized the position of music within the videogame world. Music is not only utterly pivotal to the enjoyment of a game but has now been adopted as the main selling point of some titles with certain tracks or bands being the sole reason of purchase.

The reason for this article is firmly entrenched in passion, a passion for both art forms and my own need to explore the relationship between them. I hope to be able to translate the importance of music within videogames and to share some tasty morsels of nostalgia with you all in the process.

[drop]I hope that it’s not overly presumptuous of me to say that you, dear reader, are between the ages of 13 and 30, are male or female, and once had a cocker spaniel named Tristan. Even if I’m wrong about the dog, the average age of TSA visitors remains in this bracket, which means that we all have a wealth of common ground. Our experiences in gaming may not be identical but they’ll more than likely involve a blue rodent or a mustachioed plumber. Out of these experiences comes our earliest memories, our first baby videogame steps and just like the tinker of a jack-in-the-box could evoke distant callings of crawling and standing for the first time, 8 and 16 bit melodies flood our heads with images and experiences from years even decades ago. This is the power of music.

Now for a sad opinion of inflated self worth, I feel that video game music will never be as good as it was in early days. By early days I mean Sega vs. Nintendo, Sonic vs. Mario, Link and his first big adventures and all those other lost games of yesteryear.

In the 8 and 16-bit eras, the technological capabilities within creating computer games was very much in parallel with the capabilities to create the music that would accompany them. You think of the 16-bit era, you think of the simplistic yet effective imagery, but it’s impossible to not hear the deliciously crude digital chimes that remind one of simpler times- in more ways than one. Limited capabilities lead to enhanced creativity with the apparatus available, and born of that was the sound undeniably belonging to the 80’s and 90’s.

Thinking of today’s video gaming, you immediately think of the unfathomable heights gaming has reached since the days of Pong, how graphics dazzle the senses like never before, how plots are often superior to the latest Hollywood offering, and indeed, the music gets it’s fair share of praise- arguably more so, due to the sheer majesty on offer, but the days when gaming helped to create the ‘sound of a generation’ are ostensibly a thing of the past.

As budgets and ideas get bigger, every aspect of a game has added potential for greatness across the board. From a musical perspective, there is a limitless potential for creating the sound desired for each game. Drama, excitement, and even terror are just a handful of emotions that can be harnessed more than ever through the wonder of today’s technology. However, whilst a 40-piece orchestra will stir many feelings and sentiments, it just won’t evoke the same kind of choking nostalgia found in the fanfare heard after earning a Chaos Emerald .

Audio still remains an integral part of the gaming experience, but as games became “grown up”, the accompanying music followed suit. From the rollercoaster synthscapes of Sonic The Hedgehog to the muscle-flexing swagger of Guile’s Theme, it all had a sense of cartoon whimsy. With the likes of Bioshock and Call of Duty, there are no rolling soundtracks tethered to the gameplay; here, you will find music meticulously placed at various points of the game to build on the teeth-chattering apprehension. But the operative word here is nostalgia; there isn’t any. Music in games nowadays has an entirely different purpose. Haunting minimalism, sweeping strings, dizzying crescendos: it’s cerebral with overwhelming results, but it’s unlikely that music such as this will sear itself into your memory for years to come.

[drop2]Nintendo often plays exception to the rule, sticking with the iconic soundtracks of their loyal mainstays such as Super Mario and Legend of Zelda; while the music has grown more grandiose (Super Mario Galaxy boasts a stunning and sophisticated soundtrack) it has fundamentally stuck to the essential elements of what helped the respective series sew themselves into the fabric of pop culture. Recreating that once simplistic magic in bigger and bolder ways helps to evoke that whimsical charm with a fresh spin. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the past is where the true nostalgia lies.

We may be in the minority but there are times in which these two intrinsically polarized worlds collide with unpredictable results. Listening to a certain album, collection, or record whilst playing a game through its entirety does something. Something happens deep inside the collection of cerebral arteries that makes it impossible to disassociate that album, that song, that tune with the game. To this day, Alien Ant Farm’s Anthology reminds me unreservedly of Alundra 2, while Alicia Keys Song’s in A Minor brings fond memories of Skies of Arcadia. It’s almost uncontrollable, it’s definitely unpredictable but it’s a testament to the link between music and videogames.

This piece was written in collaboration with my cousin Chris Johnson, a music journalist.

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17 Comments

  1. I’m 31 (soon to be 32) – Does that mean i am a freak??

    • I am too 31. Miles of 32 though ;-)

      • **off

      • We are apparently (according to the article at least) in the minority then! :(

        I am of course just joshing & it was in fact a great read. Have got the bloody Mario tune in my head now, so thanks for that Stuart!

    • However you did once have a cocker spaniel named Tristan, right?

      • No – His name was Gemima. :)

    • I too am 31 but I make up for it by acting like a 15 year old most of the time.

  2. Great, great read.

    Thinking back there were some amazing efforts back in the day. Master System, NES, SUPER NINTENDO and the Mega Drive. Even the handhelds were great, GameGear with Columns, how good?

    Sonic 1, level 2 – awesome tunes.

    My personal favourites are Super Castlevania on the SNES and Metal Gear Solid : Sons of Liberty.

    Great article, cant get the SONIC tune out of my head.

  3. Mario tune!

  4. great read.
    i remember reading on the net, that the average age of todays’ gamer is 36. which perked me up, as i fall in that category.
    guess because the gamers who were around at/near the birth of home gaming are still as passionate, as they were at the start of this fantastic medium.

    i hope to be gaming at least up to receiving my pension :)

  5. Thanks for the positives folks! Yeah the age thing is my bad, it’s really a huge generalisation but I’m willing to bet you people have the mindset of a 13-30 year old. Just a big thanks to my writing partner in this, Chris Johnson, he’s a music journalist (as the article points out) but if you’re into that sort of thing check him out on ‘Across the Line’ it’s a Northern Irish based music website/radio show. My plugging is done, thanks again for all the comments.

    • I always tell people that i am 31, but i have the body of a 60 year old, mind of a 5 year old – so it kinda balances out in the middle somewhere! :)

  6. I started writing music on the PS One game ‘Music’ by Codemasters. Haven’t looked back since!

    I will say though, that I’ve been quite underwhelmed by the ‘music’ genre games. Most of them have barely progressed beyond the initial Guitar Hero, and tbh I’ve actually been put off by the mass of plastic controllers.

    I hope someone does another music creation game that incorporates the Move and has connect-ability with other platforms.

    • I used to use that too and another one from a bit earlier on ps1 think it was called Fluid. You’d be better of looking for something similar on PC .

      • True, I’m actually hoping there’s some home brew being cooked up with the Move controller as we speak. This vid shows what’s possible with Kinect, just imagine what’s possible with something far more accurate. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqxUzhDIdqo

      • Fluid, making music with a trippy dolphin flying through electricity pylons… They don’t make ’em like that anymore!

  7. Great write up Stuart , your spot on about the way its evolved . The speccy used have great little ditties in games , me and my dad loved Hall of the Mountain King on Manic Miner . Streets of Rage was out of this world , it was the beginning of the rave scene and the guy was a genius who did all the music.

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