June 8, 2018

Nostalgic Tunes: A quick glance at pre-2000 game music

Some of us don’t even notice it. Some shrug and mention a classic game (Tetris, anyone?) whose killer tune has made it into today’s popular electronic music. And some still hope that the composer’s name will make it to the game’s packaging.

Video game music has come a long way since its single-volume pinging from a computer tower. High-budget games like Call of Duty are now bringing in external composers like Hans Zimmer and are recording with symphony orchestras.

As we ease into a new year and soak in the glory of symphonic backing music, let’s take a really broad look at the music’s development and reminisce over some classic tunes. Leaving the very basic chip sounds of Pong, we’ll skip to the iconic 8-bit tunes. Most of us find a little smile on our faces when we think of this age, of the NES and MS-DOS.

Music was still composed mainly by people who happened to be working on the game at the time, but it was now being allocated to specific sound cards or sub-systems. Game developers realised that the music contributed its significant worth to the game’s popularity.

Video game music has come a long way since its single-volume pinging from a computer tower. High-budget games like Call of Duty are now bringing in external composers like Hans Zimmer and are recording with symphony orchestras.
And popular they remain. I heard Tetris as a ringtone on the train last week. Earlier this year, I spent a good fifteen minutes just driving in circles to hear ABC Classic FM playing tunes from Super Mario Bros. as a tribute to the late Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo’s former CEO).

Interactive sound came into play (pun intended) with Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders (1978). Does anyone else feel like their lifespan’s been shortened by the number of near-heart attacks brought on by this game and its four-note heartbeat that your own body tries to match, as the invaders draw ever closer?

Skipping through the decade at a speed matching Rad Racer’s rapid Sunset Coastline, we reach the mid-80s. Constant music during gameplay was the norm for most console games. Nintendo, seeing its potential, hired Koji Kondo for the exclusive purpose of composition, and we were blessed with themes from Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda.

Yet while these themes have shone through the generations, they are constant throughout the game, until Lucasarts took Space Invaders’ example one step further. Interactive music really showed off in the PC point-and-click The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Composer Michael Land took a location’s theme — the town of Woodtick, for example — and created a variation for each sub-location. Entering one of these would trigger a seamless transition to each variation.

As we head into the mid-90s, video game music becomes more celebrated with orchestras playing popular themes live to full audiences. Next time we’ll continue on to explore games with live-recorded scores, and what we expect from game music in 2014.

For now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the heat to a bit of Ocarina of Time’s Gerudo Desert theme, and put the question out there:

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