On Classic Game Music

Chiptune-Setup-Game-Boys

Editor’s Note – This editorial was originally posted on the now defunct gaming site Splitkick.com

Sound design has always been one of the most important parts of gaming to me.  Music and effects help immerse me in the experience nearly as much as the visuals.  Growing up as a child of the 80’s I was exposed to some of the most memorable game music.  The themes from Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Legend of Zelda are all iconic and instantly recognizable to gamers of that era. Even the simplistic “bloops” and “bleeps” of the Donkey Kong opener evoke images of jumping barrels and climbing ladders. So why isn’t there as much memorable game music anymore?

Year after year games are improving graphical and audio fidelity.  So you’d think with technology evolving, the music would be even more memorable, right?  This doesn’t seem to be the case. I would defy anyone to pick out three pieces of music from Gears of War, or Call of Duty simply by ear.  It seems that as high budget, triple A titles become more complex experiences, they’re moving towards more cinematic (and forgettable) movie-like scores.  Halo may be the only flagship franchise in recent memory that has a recognizable theme.  The music may be fitting to underscore the action-packed, emotionally driven narratives of the current gen, but I’ll be damned if they’re catchy.  I know the background music in the club scene of Mass Effect 2 was bad ass, but I’d be hard pressed to remember the melody if you asked me to whistle it.

Initially I thought I was just biased towards the games I was raised on.  Then I realized I wasn’t the only person who thought the music in Metal Man’s stage or Kraid’s Lair rocked harder than present day offerings.  Bands like The Advantage, The Minibosses, and a slew of chiptunes musicians all gravitate to the 8 and 16-bit era sound.  Perhaps it’s the more simplistic, catchier tracks of days gone by that translate well into covers, or maybe it is the nostalgic feelings evoked from a time when games were simply “games” rather than “experiences”. Either way, not a lot of people are covering the music from Far Cry, but I have a Castlevania ring tone on my phone. For the record, it’s “Vampire Killer – Reprise”.

While high profile releases no longer seem to contain memorable music, the indie game scene (perhaps due to the nature of smaller budgets) seems to be a breeding ground for creative musicians. Some great offerings in the retro music category include  titles such as Super Meat Boy, Scott Pilgrim, and Castle Crashers. While these don’t capture the cultural zeitgeist of the classics, they do a fine imitation.  It’s great to see developers creating pieces that are both original and an homage to the old style.  Hopefully they will continue to try and emulate these tones to create a whole new set of catchy tunes for a new generation of gamers.

One of the benefits of digital music is the ease of access we have to it.  So I encourage any of you reading this to check out some great classic music from games like Contra, Castlevania, the Mega Man series, and more.  A quick Google search of “chiptunes” will turn you on to a bevy of great artists who draw inspiration from these and other titles.  Even if we no longer use the cartridges, we can keep the best era of gaming music alive and well by listening to it and sharing it with one another.

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