What’s the earliest song or piece of music you remember from a video game, have a think about it, the earliest song you remember? After thinking about it for a while, I remembered mine; it was this:
Listening to that simple little tune, it’s hard to imagine that today we would have people such as Nine Inch Nails and Dragonforce performing game soundtracks and groups like the Eminence Symphony Orchestra and Video Games Live selling out concert halls to perform music inspired by and written for video games.
Music in video games has evolved so fast since its original inception back in 1974, it’s easy to forget where it all began, the first video game to feature sound was released back in 1974, though the first actual video game was released all the way back in 1958 which was a happy accident by William Higinbotham, an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was a US nuclear research facility, where he programmed an analogue computer to simulate the bouncing effect of a ball and then later adapted this into a small but working game of table tennis. Higinbotham thought that the program would ‘liven up’ the guided tours with his ‘Tennis for Two’
But the first video game with sound, like I mentioned, released in 1974, was Nolan Bushnell‘s Pong.
Originally tested in a local bar, Pong’s only noise was a subtle and instantly recognizable sonar ‘blip’ when the digital ball got batted back from one player to another, sound effects were born!
By 1975, Midway Games had imported the game Gunfight from the Japanese developer Taito, this was the first game to use a microprocessor instead of hardwired circuits and a one channel amplifier provided mono gunshot sounds.
In 1977 the Atari Video Computer System (later renamed the 2600) was released just before Christmas and a generation of home console gamers were born! Coming with nine games to play with, the 2600 produced sound effects the likes of which had never been heard of before. Including the familiar sound effects of Breakout!
1978 gave way to arguably the most recognizable video game of all time, Space Invaders!
Imported from Taito, again by Midway, Space Invaders taught this new generation of gamers how effective sound effects could be, with the pulsing rhythms and increasing tempo as the Invaders neared the player, it would result in players’ blood pressure heightening, their palms sweating with pure digital panic for the first time!
Staying in 1978 for a while, this year saw the birth or the Magnavox Odyssey2 which was designed so that each game was presented on a programmed cartridge therefore having its own collection of sounds and music, before the Odyssey2, video games were limited to the sound effects that were hardwired into the actual console itself.
With the 70’s drawing to a close, Atari’s Asteroids hits the arcades in 1979 and similar to Space Invaders the year previously, this game included sound effects that effected the player in different ways, it employed a thumping, repetitive rhythm that sped up as game-play intensified. The piercing laser shots, exploding asteroids, and high-pitched squeal of enemy UFOs all added to the intergalactic tension.
But that wasn’t all for the 70’s, that decade also introduced the first talking video game!
Major League Baseball for Matel’s Intellivision featured a computer generated voice with a limited vocabulary of “strike” “ball” “out” amongst other phrases of equally grainy and scratchy quality.
So we bid farewell to the 70’s in video game music history and bear witness as the birth of the single most recognizable icon in video games, I am of course, referring to the international sensation of Pacman!
Pacman was developed by Namco and released into the world in October of 1980 where he started his reign of world domination with over 100,000 units sold in the US alone upon release.
Pacman was the birthplace of some of the most recognizable video game sound effects we still know today, from the opening ditty, to the sound of Pacman dying and the unforgettable ‘wakka wakka’ of Pacman moving.
The impact of Pacman was on a biblical scale, to the point where two Atlanta musicians Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia created a spoof version of Ted Nugents “Cat Scratch Fever” renaming it “Pac Man Fever”
The song became so popular that when it was released into the US singles chart it reached number nine. This prompted Bruckner and Garcia to release an album featuring tributes to games such as Frogger, Donkey Kong, Asteroids and Defender.
Staying with Defender, this game was also released in 1980 and quickly became Pacmans greatest rival for world dominance. One of its selling point was its impressive ‘wall of sound’ that created a heat pounding experience during this time period.
1981 saw the introduction of Mario and Donkey Kong, for which creator Shigeru Miyamoto composed the music himself on a tiny electronic keyboard. Destined to forever be lodged in the memories of an entire generation.
1981 also saw Tempest, Atari’s first color vector game and a close rival to Defender in terms of sheer noise power. Tempest was one of the first machines to use Atari’s POKEY chip, the primary function of which was to generate sound. The chip had four separate channels so that the pitch, volume and distortion values can be handled individually. Tempest has two of these chips with a total of eight channels of sound. Atari also released the soundtrack for Tempest separately; this is believed to be the first stand-alone video game soundtrack release.
1982 sees the release of what is essentially the first console generation jump as Atari releases its 5200, incorporating one of the aforementioned POKEY chips inside. Several arcade favorites migrate over to the 5200 including Robotron 2084, Joust, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Centipede.
1982 also saw the first beautiful union of video games and rock music as Journey Escape debuted on the Atari 2600, the game featured digitized versions of Journeys hits including Don’t Stop Believing as the player controlled the band members as they dodged angry managers and crazed fans to reach their tour bus in outer space…they don’t make games like THAT anymore!
1983 saw the release of the unforgettable classic, Dragons Lair. Released by Cinematronics, Dragons Lair was the first game to use laser disc technology and as such, was the first game to feature sound in stereo with actual human voices – those of the actual animation staff.
With the dawn of 1985 came another of the most recognized music pieces in video game history, the arrival of Tetris!
Created and unleashed upon the world by Russian programmer Alex Pajitnov, the highly addictive game of Tetris came with some equally addictive music to accompany it. The most notable song in Tetris would, of course, be the main theme.
Interestingly, the song was originally a Russian folk song which told the story of a girl and a peddler haggling over a price.
As Tetris was infecting the ears of a generation of gamers with what was essentially lift music, one of the legends of gaming was stepping into the limelight, enter Mario…
Super Mario Bros was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System and is considered by many to be one of composers Kenji Kondo’s first masterpieces. The sounds in Super Mario Bros. helped with the flow of gameplay and was arguably an integral part of the game itself. Sounds such as the ditty when you are invincible helps you time how long the power-up will last.
1986 saw Sega retaliate to the NES with their Sega Master System which featured four dedicated sound channels, three for sound and one for noise whilst Atari released their 7800 console, which automatically had built-in backwards compatibility for the game from the 2600.
1986 also saw Nintendo release their Famicom (Japanese NES) add-on in the form of a disc drive. Though this never made it to the UK or US shores, this peripheral signals the beginning of the shift from cartridges to disc gaming.
During the years of 1986 and 1987, two main franchises were born for Nintendo, these were the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, bringing the work of both Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu respectively into a league of their own with some of the most beloved music in video games, including the ‘final fantasy fanfare’ which is still used today.
Moving forward to 1989 we see NEC releasing their TurboGrafx-16 in the United States which featured a 16-bit graphics processor. NEC also released a $400 portable CD player attachment which played games from discs.
In retaliation to this, Sega released their Sega Genesis which featured 16-bit graphics and a six-channel stereo sound.
1989 also saw the release of Mega Man 2 on the NES which, whilst being praised by gamers for its console-pushing graphics was also noted for its music. Each level had it’s own theme music, with phrases and motifs specific to the games long list of villains such as Quick Man, Metal Man, Wood Man, Heat Man and, of course, the evil Dr. Wily himself.
This year also saw the release of a game featuring the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on the Sega Genesis saw Michael running through pool halls and graveyards looking for lost children whilst shimmying to the digitized sounds of Billie Jean, Another Part of Me and Beat It…in hindsight this game seems slightly creepy…
1990 saw both Nintendo and SNK releasing consoles, Nintendo unleashed their super-powerful Super Famicom, (released in 1992 in the UK as the Super NES), a 16-bit system with better audio and graphics than both the Sega genesis and TurboGrafix-16 meanwhile SNK releases their dominating 24-bit NeoGeo in both arcade and home format and with its 8-bit sound processor it provided 15 separate channels for sound.
With the start of a new decade saw a new direction for the music in video games, ActRiser being released on the SNES heralded in the use of sweeping symphonic scores in video games. In this side-scrolling/RPG/world builder, several pieces of impressively orchestrated music were used.
1991 also saw what was arguably the single most important point in the world of sports video games, running commentary!
Joe Montana Sportstalk II hits the Sega Genesis with ‘full running commentary’ which was little more than the single word announcer ‘shoutouts’ that previous sports games like previously mentioned Major League Baseball for Matel’s Intellivision but many suggest that this game paved the way for gaming mega-titles like the Madden franchise.
Sticking with the Sega Genesis, this was also the year that saw the release of the classic side-scrolling beat em up , Streets of Rage, with it’s dance/techno soundtrack and drum samples it made full use of the Genesis’ advanced sound hardware.
Between 1992 and 1993 we saw the release of both the Sega CD and the 3DO which further pushed gaming toward disc games. The 3DO, made by Panasonic, was a super powerful 32-bit console with a custom 16-bit processor and 17 separate channels for sound, taking maximum advantage of the CD-ROM format. It released with outstanding reviews, unfortunately the original $700 price tag ensured that not that many were sold…
On the Sega CD, Sonic CD broke the mold with its true CD quality soundtrack, if you saw the musical credits for Sonic CD you would be mistaken for thinking it was an actual audio CD, aligned with its anime style cut scenes, this made Sonic CD stand out regardless of whether you played it or not.
Not to dominate the field in this year, Sega were given a run for their money when Atari released their blistering 64-bit console, the Jaguar!
Actually comprised of two, separate 32-bit processors, nicknamed ‘Tom’ and ‘Jerry’ by the developers, the Jaguar user one of the massive 32-bit processors, ‘Jerry’ to handle all of the sound duties to produce CD quality sounds with full stereo effects.
1994 saw Square’s wildly popular Final Fantasy series hit a new high with Final Fantasy VI for the SNES (Re-released as Final Fantasy III in the US in 1999) The soundtrack for this game is a great example of composer Nobuo Uematsus work and an evolution in the soundtracks of gaming, each character had their own recurring theme throughout the game and the sheer variety of styles used in the creation of this soundtrack was staggering. This soundtrack is still considered to be one of the best video game soundtracks even to this day.
1995, whilst being a notable year for consoles, saw no real evolutions in the music in video games, Sega released their Sega 32X add-on which allowed the Sega Genesis to play new 32-bit cartridges which added two more sound channels with its built in PCM stereo sound chip. Sega also released their 32-bit console, the Sega Saturn in the US, the console featured two separate sound processors, a Yamaha FH1 24-bit digital signal processor and a 22.6MHz Motorola 68EC000 sound processor.
Sony also joined the 32-bit revolution by releasing their 32-bit console, the Playstation. The 24-channel sound chip provides CD-quality stereo sound and has built-in support for digital effects such as reverb and looping.
In 1996 we found Nintendo releasing their 64-bit console in the US, creatively titled, the N64. The N64 relied heavily on its exceptionally powerful CPU to handle much of the task of creating music and sound effects.
1996 was also the year we saw another wonderful union of two of the most popular franchises of that era, The monumental Quake first appeared on our PC screens with the equally monumental music, created by Nine Inch Nails front man, Trent Reznor, Reznor had such an interest in the title that he asked for his bands signature logo ‘NIN’ to be put on the ammo crates that you pick up in the game.
1996 also saw the shuffling of tiny undead pixel feet as we saw the first in what would be a mega-franchise, Resident Evil!
Resident Evil, being released on PC, Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, created the ‘survival horror’ genre by itself. Taking inspiration from the horror movie genre, it used sound effects such as the clicking of undead dogs fingernails, shuffling of zombie feet and sometimes the absence of any sound effects in a room of the game would build the tension.
Swooping in this year also was Wipeout XL, a game that helped link the bridge between gaming and music artists. Featuring songs from some of the larger techno artists of that time such as The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Future Sound of London. Wipeout XL really stood out because it was one of the first games that included the ability to choose which track you wanted to listen to during a race, a feature which would eventually become common place amongst racing games.
A mention for 1996 needs to go to one of my personal favorites, Wild Arms. Released as one of the more underrated JRPG’s, Wild Arms featured some wonderful wild west inspired music and sound effects and the opening theme will forever stay with my as one of the most memorable pieces of video game music that I still find myself idly whistling.
Noticeably in 1997 we had the memorable and impressive 2D side scroller, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The soundtrack in this title ranged from heavy metal riffs to grand, gothic classical tracks. Featuring an overarching gothic feel whilst implementing heavy metal and hard rock music was visionary for its day. Also, the game disc featured a hidden track.
1998 saw the return of a familiar face. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time debuts on the Nintendo 64 with an impressive soundtrack. Aside from this glorious soundtrack, the game is one of the first to include music creation as part of its core features. Using the Ocarina in game, you could solve puzzles, call your horse Epona and even teleport.
Having already been a storming success for two years in Japan before this point, PaRappa the Rapper storms onto UK shores in this year. The bizarre and colorful setting of the rhythm game instantly became a hit with gamers the game nicely blended karaoke without the need to make your neighbors suffer. The soundtrack for PaRappa the Rapper was one of the more memorable of soundtracks
With 1998 also came the birth of a revolution a Dance Dance Revolution! Released by Konami. Dance Dance was a game that took player interaction to the next level, you stood in front of a panel of four arrows and as the floating arrows on screen met the ‘action bar’ at the top of the screen, you stepped on the corresponding arrow. Dance Dance was one of the better known ‘Benami’ music games to hit Japan, which included Guitar Freaks, Drum Mania and Hip Hop Mania which allowed you to play guitar, drums and scratch a turntable respectively. We may have found the idea amusing back in 1998 but these games paved the way for games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
The highly anticipated and monumentally disastrous Sega Dreamcast arrives to kick off 1999. Sporting a powerful 128-bit processor and super intelligent sound processor, which has a 32-bit RISC CPU with 64 channels.
1999 also saw the clash of the skating titles as both Neversoft and Z-Axis Ltd release skateboarding titles with license-heavy soundtracks. Neversoft released Tony Hawks Pro Skater which featured an alternative-punk soundtrack featuring the likes of Goldfinger, Dead Kennedys and Primus. Z-Axis Ltd released Tony Hawks main competitor, Thrasher: Skate and Destroy which went in the hip-hop direction with acts such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash.
1999 also saw a landmark in the history of music in the video games industry, the 8bitpeoples invasion!
8bitpeoples was founded in 1999 by Jeremiah “Nullsleep” Johnson and Mike “Tangible” Hanlon and is still based out of the New York area, they focus on creating music with an 8 bit aesthetic, which means they use and reuse dozens of different sound effects from classic video games to create music. Many of the contributors are giving their music away for free on the 8bitpeoples website: http://www.8bitpeoples.com/
Continuing with the DIY soundtrack theme, we now see a game that allowed you to insert your own CD’s into your Playstation to generate in game music. I am of course referring to Vib-Ribbon. Released in the UK and Japan only, Vib-Ribbon saw you controlling a small hand-drawn figure as he ran along a line, dodging obstacles that were created by the beat of the music, slow and steady dirges saw a nice easy paced level whereas manic techno songs saw chaos ensue. Vib-ribbon quickly became a cult classic.
Also more than worthy of a mention is the Overclocked Remix site, founded in 1999, OverClocked ReMix is an organization dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of video game music as an art form. Its primary focus is www.ocremix.org, a website featuring thousands of free fan arrangements, information on game music and composers, resources for aspiring artists, and a thriving community of video game music fans.
The new millennium saw the release of the Playstation 2 and with it came a 128-bit Emotion engine CPU, 48 channels of sound plus 2MB of dedicated sound memory. Significantly, the PS2 can also play DVD movies, another step toward the promised land of ‘home entertainment’ convergence.
The year 2000 also bought us the Hitman series from IO Interactive, stepping forward as one of the dominant assassin games around. IO initiated what has since become an increasingly popular practice: commissioning an entire orchestra to score the action! In this case, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Things must have gone well as the BSO went on to score more IO games including subsequent Hitman titles and the Red scare strategy title Freedom Fighters. Hitman 2‘s soundtrack was also scored by the orchestra.
Usually unmentioned by gamers and generally seen as one of those ‘let’s forget that happened’ moments, Sega released their virtual-pet simulator on the Dreamcast: the ludicrously titled Seaman!
Seaman featured small fish-like creatures that you could converse with through the games unique voice recognition technology, gradually letting you hold entire conversations with the small aquatic beings.
Moving away from Sega unhealthy ideas about seaman for a moment, we also saw Nintendo release Hey You, Pikachu on the N64 in 2000. The game featured everyones favorite yellow Pokémon running through a series of literally endless mini games, directed by the players voice using the microphone and voice recognition pad that came with the game.
2001 was the year we saw two industry giants, Nintendo and Microsoft play catch up with Sony with the release of the Gamecube and Xbox.
The Gamecube, with its specially dedicated 16-bit DSP sound processor powers 64 channels with a 48KHz sampling frequency. The Xbox, on the other hand, sported a 64-voice I3DL2 audio processor with 64MB of unified memory and a 200MHz bandwidth to the CPU, sound designers were given an enormous amount of power to work with!
With the birth of the Gamecube came the arrival of Super Smash Bros. Melee, the opportunity for designers to do something unique. With the game being based on the idea of pitting different characters from different games against each other, the sound designers, with the aid of the orchestra assembled specifically for the game; dubbed the ‘Smash Orchestra, painstakingly recreated and remixed songs from the original classic titles. Tunes from games such as Star Fox, Donkey Kong Country and even Dr Mario were all given the ‘Smash Orchestra’ treatment.
The Sony Playstation was not left out of 2001 though with Harmonix releasing Frequency, a rhythm action game that featured bands such as Freezepop, No Doubt and my personal favorite, Powerman 5000. In Frequency, you controlled an octagonal tunnel, each side of the tunnel representing a different layer of the music in the game, be it the vocals, guitar, drums etc. With each wall of the tunnel containing three ‘notes’ that must be completed by pressing either the square, triangle or circle button. An interesting, and sometimes confusing concept.
2002 was a landmark year as this was the year that The Black Mages formed. Nobuo Uematsu, Kenichiro Fukui, and Tsuyoshi Sekito, three composers for Square Enix formed together to create The Black Mages. Uematsu is the composer of the majority of soundtracks in the Final Fantasy video game series. The band arranged Uematsu’s compositions in a rock style often similar to progressive metal, achieved with the additional use of synthesizers. Since its inception, the band expanded to six members with the addition of Keiji Kawamori, Michio Okamiya, and Arata Hanyuda.
2002 was also an important year for a different reason; this was the year that we had Kingdom Hearts. Including many of the characters from the Final Fantasy series and a host of characters from different Disney movies including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan and Hercules. The important factor in this game was that a lot of the characters are voiced by their movie voice actors, blurring the line between video games and movies that little bit more.
2003 bore witness to a revolution! A Karaoke Revolution!
Developed by the two biggest rhythm game developers at the time, Konami and Harmonix. Karaoke Revolution bought the somewhat embarrassing activity that you would usually need a few drinks in you to attempt, to your home! The game came bundled with a USB microphone and the in-built recognition software could recognize if the player was in the correct range of acceptable pitch and give them points for it.
2003 also saw the union of both hip-hop recording label, Def Jam Records and EA as Def Jam: Vendetta was released. The hip-hop themed wrestling game featured songs from artists such as Public Enemy, DMX, N.O.R.E. and Redman
By the time that 2003 rolled around, it was expected that any skateboarding or extreme sports video game would be accompanied by a pretty beefy soundtrack, usually comprising of either metal/punk/rock songs from some of the latest artists. Tony Hawks Underground is no exception to this rule, sporting songs from artists such as KISS, Deltron 3030, Murs, RA the Rugged Man, Bracket, NOFX, The Clash, and Sublime. Interestingly, in T.H.U.G you had the option to disable certain songs or entire genres of music depending on your mood.
Given Square Enixs previous love affair with Disney back in 2002, it’s understandable that when Square Enix announced their first US concert featuring the music from the Final Fantasy games entitled Dear Friends in 2004, they would hold it in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The concert was first planned as a one off but considering its overwhelming popularity, Square Enix decided to take the Final Fantasy music on tour, even playing FMV’s from the games to accompany the music.
By this time, music in video games had well and truly caved its own place in the genres of music, so much so that Spike TV Video Game Awards: Best of Video Game Music Hits: Volume 1 was released in 2004, featuring This Disaster by New Found Glory (from Madden 2005) Tear it Up by Andrew W.K (from NASCAR Thunder 2004) and Like This by the X-ecutioners (from SSX3)
By 2005, music and video games had taken their relationship to the next level with Guitar Hero. Released by Harmonix, Guitar Hero became an overnight phenomenon, with its patented plastic guitar and classic rock soundtrack, it gave players the chance to live out their rock star dreams without having to actually learning to play a guitar beforehand. The game was conceived when Harmonix originally pitched the idea of Frequency to Microsoft but were told by now-former vice president of game publishing Ed Fries that ‘no music rhythm game would succeed without a custom built controller.’ The original Guitar Hero featured songs from legendary artists such as Queen, Motorhead, Ozzy Osbourne, Boston, ZZ Top and Deep Purple.
Microsoft released their revolutionary Xbox 360, sporting over 256 separate channels for music alone and its 32-bit audio processor, it was clear that by this point in music’s eevolution ‘movie like’ sounds in video games had well and truly become a reality.
2005 was also the year that saw the first performance of Video Games Live, a concert series created and produced by industry veterans and video game composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. The orchestra performed live music from video games with lighting effects and videos played throughout, they even included some audience interaction moments in some of their concerts.
A good way to kick off 2006 would be with a fresh batch of technology.
Both Nintendo and Sony to release their new consoles, both the Wii and the Playstation 3 respectively feature a multitude of processors in them, each featuring Dolby Surround sound support bringing the ‘movie-like’ sounds to fruition for gamers.
Rounding off 2006, Harmonix sold the highly successful Guitar Hero franchise to Activision for roughly $100 million dollars. At February 2011 the franchise had shipped roughly 25 million units and earned Activision up to $2 billion dollars…not a bad investment.
But Harmonix wasn’t out of the music video-game relationship just yet; they went on to release their latest baby, Rock Band in 2007 which was essentially the same idea as Guitar Hero but with the added feature of being bundled with a microphone and a set of imitation drums! Rock band was released with a new wave of rock and metal classics such as Metallica – Enter Sandman, Boston – Foreplay/Long Time, Faith No More – Epic and Iron Maiden – Run to The Hills (although this was a cover version)
2008 saw the release of Bionic Commando Rearmed on the Xbox Live Arcade and whilst being an enjoyable game to play, it was praised for its faithful remixes of the original Bionic Commando soundtrack. The soundtrack was later released on CD.
By 2009, live tribute groups such as Video Games Live had gained massive popularity, VGL performing more than 70 shows in 2009 alone; it appeared to many people that the interest in video game music had shifted from the actual soundtracks of video games to the tribute acts and the remixes. The industry seems to be evolving again.
2009 also saw the straining of a music/video game relationship, the Guitar Hero franchise had released 10 version of the game across the different platforms and people were getting bored. The once innovative idea of mixing music and video games was becoming stale, with Guitar Hero: Smash Hits being released to a multitude of low review scores, people were realizing there was only so much music you could put into video games before it started to lose meaning.
2010 also saw much loved live video game performers, The Black Mages disbanded, Nobuo Uematsu said that he was disappointed with the decision but it had been exceedingly more difficult to find time to rehearse. A sad day for video game music fans.
By 2011, Activision had laid Guitar Hero to rest, people analyzing the situation said that Activision had ‘strip-mined the franchise’ People even suggested that Activision overuse of the Guitar Hero franchise had watered down the relationship between music and video games so that it was no longer a magical union but rather an expected segment of any game now that the soundtrack should be painstakingly processed or involve at least one orchestra/band.
And so we move on into the not too distant future, with (currently) no confirmed next generation technology for gamers, the questions remain; is there anywhere else that music and video games can go from here? Are there any new places that this, once magical union, can go to?