Bleeps and Bloops: An Introduction to Videogame Music

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NES: R-O-C-K in the N-E-S? For many gamers, the NES was their first exposure to quality video game music.NES: R-O-C-K in the N-E-S? For many gamers, the NES was their first exposure to quality video game music.
Video game music (VGM) has come a long way from its bleeps and bloops of yore. Early arcade games had brief snatches of music, but no real memorable melodies. Out of the early home video game systems, the first real mainstream console to feature consistently memorable video game music scores was the Nintendo Entertainment System. While some view the old-school chiptune sound of the NES era as childish and simplistic, they would be greatly mistaken-- because of the limited range of electronic "instruments" available, these compositions featured truly unique melodies combined with a stylish chunky electronic synth to create a sound many enjoy.

Music quality on the console side of things stepped up with the release of the 16-bit consoles. The Sega Genesis combined the classic chip-synth sound of the NES with a MIDI-esque sound not unlike the Adlib sound card for the PC. While the Genesis had its notable VGM scores, particularly in the techno/electronica styles of Sonic the Hedehog and Streets of Rage, its quality of VGM paled in comparison to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The SNES stripped away any trace of chipset sound for a lush higher quality MIDI sound comparable to the high end Sound Blaster AWE 32 PC sound card. Piano sounded like piano, strings sounded like strings, but trumpets still sounded like a duck squawking its final death throes.

Of course, with the release of CD-based console systems, the quality of music instrumentation improved by leaps and bound. You had some live instrumental tracks on the Sega CD, but lack of audio compression at the time kept things from sounding truly stellar. It was with the release of the original Sony Playstation that music in games started to use higher quality samples, some of them even featuring original vocal songs and scores by full orchestras!

But of course there wasn't just music for consoles; there was also music for home computers. That's another topic for another article (please see fellow Armchair Arcadian's Matt Barton's classic article The Rise and Fall of Game Audio for another take on video game music [one that is more focused on PC music] throughout the ages)...

Creating a list of notable video game music over the years was quite challenging. I'm sure the hardest of hard core gamers will rake me over the cyber coals for not including their favorite song, system, or composer, but rest assured I stand by my decisions. If you have other titles to suggest for a potential "sequel" to this article, or if you want to add comments at all, please do so. I'll be very interested to see what our readers think of this audio/textual article.

Please note that the audio version of the article may cover different songs than this text version. To get full enjoyment of the article, read the text version and listen to the audio version.

The release dates used are from the original release of the game. For several of the titles listed, this is the Japanese release date.

PC

1. MANIAC MANSION “THEME” 1987
Composed by Christopher Grigg & David Lawrence
Maniac Mansion: A high point of Maniac Mansion was its funkadelic theme by Christopher Grigg and David Lawrence.Maniac Mansion: A high point of Maniac Mansion was its funkadelic theme by Christopher Grigg and David Lawrence.
While not the first game to do so, Maniac Mansion featured music that was only for the PC-Speaker since it was made before sound cards existed. This theme music for the game remains one of the better examples of PC speaker music.

2. LEISURE SUIT LARRY 2 “FOR YOUR THIGHS ONLY” 1988
Composed by Al Lowe

Though there were many sound cards for the PC that were capable of MIDI music, one of the better-quality cards was the Roland MT-32. One of the first composers to write music supporting the MT-32 was Al Lowe, who actually started off teaching music to high school students before composing music for and designing video games.

3. SPACE QUEST 3 “INTRODUCTION THEMES” 1989
Composed by Bob Siebenberg

Though Bob Siebenberg is better known as the drummer of Supertramp, he did work the music for Space Quest 3, which was one of the earlier examples of a composer from the film and television industry working on music for a video game.

4. WING COMMANDER “FLIGHT AND COMBAT” 1990
Composed by David Govett

Wing Commander was one of the first video games to have music that changed in real-time depending what you were doing. This is a very common practice now, but at the time it was revolutionary.

5. COMMAND & CONQUER “IN THE LINE OF FIRE” 1995
Composed by Frank Klepacki

As CD-ROMs became the dominant format for computer games in the mid 1990’s, some composers took advantage of the increased storage space. The soundtrack for Command & Conquer was so popular amongst fans that they requested Westwood Studios to release a soundtrack of it, which they did. While game soundtracks are common in Japan, in the US they still are pretty rare (though becoming more common in recent years).

6. KING’S QUEST VI “GIRL IN THE TOWER” 1992
Composed by Mark Seibert

King’s Quest VI was one of the first high-profile CD-ROM games for the computer. Several professional voice actors were used and it even had an end credits song with lyrics, Girl in the Tower. The song isn’t even very good (notices how it rips off the style of Alan Menken’s Disney scores), but it marks one of the first times an original vocal song was recorded for a video game. As campy as this number is, it is still an improvement over later Vocal VGM legends as I Am The Wind and Inca People.

7. DIABLO “TRISTRAM” 1996
Composed by Matt Uelmen

As technology continued to advance, one of the most important areas that improved for composers was sound compression via the MP3 format, resulting in better sounding music. Diablo uses a combination of live-instruments and samples in its score, which is more atmospheric than melodic.

8. HALF LIFE “KLAXON BEAT” 1998
Composed by Doug Laurent

Many modern games feature music that is used to set the mood of different areas of the game and Half Life is no exception. Half Life is unique because the composer for the game was also the sound designer.

NES

9. SUPER MARIO BROS. “MAIN THEME” 1985
Composed by Koji Kondo Bleeps_Bloops_Koji_Kondo: Koji Kondo, composer of the original The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. games, created VGM that was either playful and bouncy or stirring and majestic-- no small accomplishment!Bleeps_Bloops_Koji_Kondo: Koji Kondo, composer of the original The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. games, created VGM that was either playful and bouncy or stirring and majestic-- no small accomplishment!

This is arguably the most recognizable piece of video-game music in the world. Despite the limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System, it still manages to be a catchy piece of music.

10. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA “ZELDA OVERTURE” 1986
Composed by Koji Kondo

Another very famous example of video game music. Originally, this song was meant to be the Maurice Bavel's infamous classical music piece Bolero. When Nintendo didn’t want to get the rights to it, they had Koji Kondo write this piece instead.

11. CASTLEVANIA “WICKED CHILD” 1986
Composed by Kukeiha Club

Music in the Castlevania series remains some of the most remixed video game music to date. Wicked Child manages to convey a sense of panic, which fits is nicely with the horror theme of Castlevania itself.

12. DRAGON QUEST “OVERTURE” 1986
Composed by Koichi SugiyamaKoichi Sugiyama: Koichi Sugiyama, composer for the Dragon Quest series, got his start as a traditional classical music composer/orchestrator/conductor.Koichi Sugiyama: Koichi Sugiyama, composer for the Dragon Quest series, got his start as a traditional classical music composer/orchestrator/conductor.

Originally known as Dragon Warrior in the USA, the Dragon Quest series remain one of the most popular franchises in Japan. Koichi Sugiyama was a classically trained composer before working on music for video games. Sugiyama also helped organize the very first video game orchestral concert with the Family Classic Concert in 1987.

13. FINAL FANTASY “MAIN THEME” 1987
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu

The video game franchise with the most albums is the Final Fantasy series by Squaresoft. The first game in the series featured almost two dozen pieces of music, an impressive feat for a Nintendo game.

SEGA GENESIS

14. SONIC THE HEDGEHOG “SPRINGYARD ZONE” 1991
Composed by Masato Nakamura

The Sega Genesis was the first 16-bit video game system that did well in the US. Its sound capabilities were better than the NES, but still limited. Music in the original Sonic the Hedgehog had a nice, upbeat quality to it with a more electronica sound than Koji Kondo’s bouncy Super Mario Bros. music.

15. CRUE BALL “DR. FEELGOOD” 1992
Arranged by Brian Schmidt

While the game itself is a mediocre pinball game, it remains one of the earlier examples of using licensed pop music (or, at least, synthesized takes on it) in a video game. It featured three songs from the band Motley Crue.

SNES

16. SUPER MARIO WORLD “TITLE SCREEN” 1990
Composed by Koji Kondo

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System had far superior music capabilities than the Sega Genesis with support for up to 8 independent channels and a wider variety of samples. Here, Koji Kondo continues to keep his tradition of making music both catchy and cute with this ditty that reminds one of the works of Gershwin.

17. LEGEND OF ZELDA 3 “DARK WORLD” 1991
Composed by Koji Kondo

This piece takes advantage of a few of the MIDI instruments that the SNES could do well – percussion and strings. Dark World is a piece that wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy feature film!

18. FINAL FANTASY VI “ARIA DI MEZZO CARATTERE” 1994
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu

This is an excerpt from the much longer opera sequence (over 20 minutes!!) contained in the full game. While attempting to do an opera piece on the SNES is ambitious, this piece even incorporates synth voices to simulate singing!

PLAYSTATION

19. FINAL FANTASY VII “STILL MORE FIGHTING” 1997
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu

With the arrival of the Playstation, the first CD-based console that really caught on in the US, composers were free to use music as CD tracks. Uematsu was not able to do this for Final Fantasy VII due to the large video sequences taking up most of the megabytes on the discs. Instead, he uses higher quality synth combined with samples to make this driving heavy metal track.

20. WIPEOUT XL “LOOPS OF FURY” 1996
Composed by The Chemical Brothers

The original Wipeout featured music that was just licensed tracks from techno artists at the time; other games in the series followed suit. Now most sports games contain several licensed tracks, but at the time this was a novelty.

21. METAL GEAR SOLID “THE BEST IS YET TO COME” 1998
Composed by KCE Japan Sound Team

As console games became more and more cinematic, they started a trend taken from the movies—having an original song to play over the end credits. The Best is Yet to Come is an early, and excellent, Celtic example, even if it doesn’t quite mesh with the Tom Clancy techno-thriller vibe of the game.

PLAYSTATION-2

22. FINAL FANTASY X “TO ZANARKAND” 2001
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu

The Playstation-2 had the same storage capacity as a DVD, a huge increase in available space over a CD-ROM. Music could now be done at a much higher quality, as this piano piece illustrates with crystal clarity.

23. METAL GEAR SOLID 2 “MAIN THEME” 2001
Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams

To make their game feel even more like a big-budget Hollywood movie, Konami hired Harry Gregson-Williams (co-composer of The Rock and Con Air) to help on the music for Metal Gear Solid 2. Notice how it changes from its initial techno beats to a more percussive, brassy take on the same melody.

24. PRINCE OF PERSIA “SAND CREATURES” 2003
Composed by Stuart Chatwood

Most modern video-game music is more atmospheric. Stuart Chatwood does a nice job of incorporating an Indian feel to this action cue, which adds to the exotic setting of the game.

25. VICE CITY “VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR” 2003
Composed by The Buggles

Set in the 1980’s, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City used dozens of licensed period tracks to add to the flavor of different radio stations the player is able to listen to in the game. They later released a 7 CD set soundtrack for the game!

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Special Pixel Bonus Surprise!: For those who want to know a bit more in-depth info on VGM composers from both the indie and pro scene, be sure and check out some of my interviews from E-Boredom, I site I co-founded from 2002-2005. E-Boredom is not affiliated in any way, shape, or form with Armchair Arcade.

Hope you Armchair Arcadians have enjoyed this article! Feel free to post comments, if desired.

Author: Mat Tschirgi
Editing: Matt Barton
Images: Courtesy of Wikipedia
Special Thanks: Chris Braymen

Comments

RyuHayabusa
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Joined: 10/01/2006
Loved the VG music program!

Loved the VG music program! It seems to me that older music was better because they had to focus on the melodies more than than how realistic or orchestral they were. It would be awesome if you did a series like this. Thanks for the awesome program!

Matt Barton
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Hi, guys! Help me Digg Mat's

Hi, guys! Help me Digg Mat's awesome podcast by clicking HERE. Thanks!

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