1990 Silicon Dreams Games and Movie Reviews: The Music of Video Games

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Music of Video Games

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In the beginning there was 8bit music. There's the Super Mario Brothers theme, forever stuck in my head for one. Any other song I have to take a break to think about, but the Mario music I can bring up in my mind at any point during the day/night. Just think about it and it instantly starts playing. My gaming 'career' started out with coin-slot arcades and NES games and their sounds are going to be forever burned into memory. So let's look at some of the most popular music themes in video games and where they came from? 

Even before Mario came out, there was Pong and Tetris, whose sound was made entirely out of bleeps and beeps with equally simplistic visuals. With the more complex slot machines and the NES, though, came something entirely different - games now had 'themes' and a score, a tune that you could actually whistle to. Later on games would develop more and more complex soundtracks as the technology caught up with the artists.

Nintendo 8-bit: We've already mentioned Mario, but some other games deserve a special notice as well, like Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout. Now this is an NES game that was a huge frustration for a lot of people, but what I remember from it was that it was challenging, about as abstract as a Picasso painting, with enemies being in lines of floating orange puffs, cans of soda, coffee cups and drills. The music is a classic example of Disney, and it fits great with the game.

And then the 90s came and brought new and exciting hardware and software opportunities for game developers! Both game visuals and sound would never be the same. 

The Years In-Between: 80s Speed Metal and Heavy Metal FAKK: There's a bit of asynchronicity in that statement. 80s metal in 90s Video Games? More likely than you think. The early 90s computer game scores were mostly melodic and atmospheric backdrops for the gameplay. We've already covered the Diablo music score already in a previous review, so we're just going to skip that one. I'll just say that it's one of the most fitting and simplistic, but still involving music scores I've ever seen in a game. Diablo II follows suit with a classically medieval theme. But that's Blizzard, they like to do things properly. Elsewhere in the gaming industry the situation with music and art in general turns more and more chaotic as the hardware slowly starts to take over the game-design process. Imaginations run wild with the possibilities, and there's more than one mediocre or plain uninspired titles coming out as the will to experiment with the tweaks and tricks of the new technology overpowers the process of actually creating a compelling game. It's no surprise then that the music here varies from anywhere to anything. Despite that right at the beginning of the millennium came one of my all-time favourite games Hitman: Codename 47 with an amazing soundtrack by Jesper Kyd. A couple years later Hitman 2: Silent Assasin added some more of the best quality scores to the video games scene. I've yet to play Contracts or Blood Money, but something tells me I'm going to enjoy them too (Jesper Kyd was hired for the work on the compositions successively in all four games). 

And nowadays they come in special edition cases, with a beefed up price tag along with a DVD of the lead designers talking about the production. World of Warcraft is a fine example of that, since that's been a part of the special edition box-set, ever since the original game came out. 

Chopin (Wikimedia Commons)
Classical Music has been a staple of Japanese media, intended for the Western market, since forever. Or at least since anime... Remember when animes had traditional Japanese scores? Well not-quite anymore, with a few exceptions. Nowadays it's catchy J-Pop themes mostly, but with J-RPGs and more recently MMORPGs it's strictly classical themes, for the purpose of creating a sense for expansiveness, and a feeling of a complete universe in the game. With WoW it's typically epic scores, themed based on the different races of the game. The night elves are characteristically mellow, the dwarves are standard medieval with a pinch of honey mead and a cosy fire, I don't particularly remember anything special about the Draenai space alien music, but I'm sure it matched whatever purple crystal laden settings they had (also space-demons). What's special about WoW is not so much the noteworthiness of it's scores but the way they work perfectly with each different zone, dungeon and battleground. Still some dungeons, especially the ambiance in one populated by owl-like druid things in the Shattrath area, seemed eerily similar to the theme of The Blood Tower from Act I of Diablo 2. Could it be Blizzard reused that one? The high-point of any Blizzard game these days is the tongue-in-cheek references to pop culture, so the music is no exception to that. In the Alliance settlement of Hellfire Peninsula you can listen to an extremely original interpretation of Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp by Matt Uelmen.

Part 2: Will be coming up shortly!


  1. Mate, 8bit music was LEGEN wait for it and I hope your not lactose intolerant because the last part of the word is DARY!

  2. Wsan't alive when the 8bit was around..feel like I missed out a bit :(

    Weird Interesting News

  3. Video Game music is actually a favorite genre of mine. Have you seen Video Games Live? Probably my favorite concert experience. Also, I'm returning your follow.

  4. Does anyone else think that Hans Zimmer should compose for a video game?

  5. I still have a soft spot for 8bit music after all these years.

  6. interesting read
    I really love music from the 8 and 16-bit era, specially the ones by capcom

  7. Much of the music which I did for wow:tbc was originally made for d3 seven years ago. This wasn't my first use of Chopin, I'm proud of "coda", which was on the d2 soundtrack but not in the actual game.

    Thanks for the thoughtful writing.


  8. Cash.. Money..
    Toasting in an epic bread


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