Since the pixelated days of Pong and Space Invaders, video games have always strived to be on the cutting edge of technology. Not a month goes by when I’m not blown away by the amazing visuals and brilliant storylines on offer in some of today’s triple-A blockbusters, and marvel at how far the industry has come in such a short time. I’m currently roaming the beautiful open Hyrule fields of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game which offers sweeping vistas and a gorgeous art style that just wouldn’t have been possible when the original The Legend of Zelda hit the NES all the way back in 1986.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I’m able to argue with a teenagers on the internet whilst shooting lasers at giant robots in games like Titanfall 2.
But as important as visuals and graphical horsepower are to the latest and greatest in gaming, the same reverence really ought to be extended to video game music, its changing role in the industry and its huge influence on popular culture. Nowadays, some of the most widely recognised music comes from the world of games, and over the past decades we’ve moved from short MIDI files created in isolation, to a fully-fledged industry in its own right—including contributions from famous bands and musicians, and huge orchestral performances attended by adoring fans.
Although early arcade machines had experimented with sound effects, it wasn’t really until the home console boom of the late 1970s, as well as the huge popularity of the Atari 2600 system, that we really saw sound itself become an important aspect of gaming thanks to synthesised, computer chip music. You might struggle to find someone who doesn’t know the iconic sound of a Pong ball making a lovely satisfying ‘bip!’ as it safely hits its on-screen paddle, but it was Space Invaders’ eerie alien drones that many think helped sow the seeds of modern game music.
Repetitive, monotonous and filled with a strange sense of dread, Space Invaders’ pixelated marching sounds would speed up as the invaders edged closer to the surface of Earth, subtly adding tension to events as you played. It might be a stretch to call this music, but the sounds of Space Invaders create a genuine pressurised atmosphere – regardless of whether gamers at the time knew it or not.
In the 80s, the extra processing power allowed a firmer focus on more traditional music across the medium. Werewolves of London on the Amstrad is a great example of the kind of music I grew up listening to in games. Its soundtrack is spooky yet upbeat and plays pretty much non-stop as players roam the streets of London, attempting to lift their terrible curse by eating angry policemen. Listen out for the pitter-patter of tiny werewolf feet as you saunter along cobbled streets and misty back alleys.
Game music from this period was becoming an effective way to add a sense of tone and purpose to gaming in much the same way it does today, albeit in a cruder fashion. However, it was the likes of the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo (SNES) in the 90s that brought us true digital effects thanks to multi-channel chips, stereo sound and other technological advances. Music was starting to become a core aspect of gameplay itself.
Super Metroid on the SNES is a fantastic example of a development team attempting to create a mood that complements gameplay using this new technology. Its music is lonely, isolating and claustrophobic. For a game about a lone bounty hunter in exploring long-forgotten ancient ruins, it’s pretty much perfect. Super Metroid’s 16-bit music was composed by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano, who helped lay the groundwork for atmospheric music that wasn’t simply designed to be a catchy tune.
Music was now an essential component of the video game landscape, adding a sense of atmosphere to a game but also standing as a creative output in its own right. From the music in the first level of Super Mario Bros. to Street Fighter II’s character select screen, music was now wrapped up in some of our greatest gaming memories.
With sound finally a core part of gaming, and the ever-advancing technology of the time allowing composers to spread their wings, it was only a matter of time until music itself became a gameplay feature. ‘Rhythm action’ games like Guitar Hero (2005) and Rock Band (2007) need little introduction, but it was 1996’s Parappa the Rapper on the PlayStation (which this month received a remaster on PS4), which laid the groundwork, giving us CD quality sound alongside 32-bit original effects. Parappa the Rapper’s unique art style and zany aesthetic were in service of the beat-driven actions that players were asked to perform.
The days of the enforced limitations of sound chips and MIDI are now long behind us, and sung or rapped lyrics are a viable option for games music, meaning that composers have a full range of expression available to help them tell stories through music in games. Taking the concept of Parappa the Rapper one step further was the PlayStation game Vib-Ribbon (1999), which would create wireframe platforming levels based off of players’ own music taken directly from a CD of their choice.
One of my favourite games of all time is also a fantastic early example of music being used to manipulate and change gameplay—2001’s Dreamcast title, Rez. Its storyline is a fairly flimsy tale of computer viruses and mainframes, but its real energy comes from the way players create their own music as they play. As players shoot down beautiful retro-tech enemies, extra musical layers are added to the game’s core soundtrack, resulting in a unique musical experience every time you play. Rez’s tunes may sound like they belong in a dodgy East End night club, but the game is a visual and audio assault on the senses and real proof of the way music can be used to truly alter the way we play.
With the limitations of early arcade, computer and console technology fading away by the early noughties, modern gaming was ready to show us the true impact of its music on the wider world.
Continued in “Part 2: A modern movement“