A brief history of video game music
We got two-tone consoles and a microphone.
But it wasn’t always this way. Video game music was little more than ambient bleeps and bloops in the beginning, as the medium took its tentative first steps. The first attempts at innovation in this area consisted of “Hey, what if we just attached a record player?” (Which was also the single most ‘70s idea possible.)
Space Invaders was the first game to have a continuous “score”—before that, if music was used at all it was used sporadically, usually at the start and end of a game—but you’d be hard pressed to call it “music.” The thumping, pulsating drone was supposed to mimic (or manipulate) the player’s heart rate and would slowly increase in tempo as the Invaders got closer and closer to your defenses.
As technology advanced, game designers began thinking more like filmmakers—adding music that would stir emotions or give an epic sheen to even the most featureless, monochromatic pixel blobs.
Strap on those headphones and get ready for a quick tour through the history of video game music.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, monophonic digital “music” known as “Chiptunes” started to work its way into video games—most notably in the 1975 arcade game Gun Fight, which marked a character’s death with a tinny version of Frederic Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (also known as the “Funeral March”).
Other games started using short musical “stings” as introductions, such as Pac-Man (see the “earworm” above) and Pole Position in 1980 and 1982, respectively.
I wasn’t kidding about the record player thing. Even as late as 1984, game makers experimented with using vinyl records as game disks—storing games, music, and extras on flimsy records played through a turntable attached to a computer.
Not long after they invented South Detroit, arena rockers Journey pushed the in-game music envelope with their eponymous arcade game that featured digitized versions of hits like “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Wheel in the Sky,” and “Chain Reaction.” (With a playable Neal Schon!!) This was achieved through an actual cassette tape deck stuffed inside the arcade cabinet. (Yes, really.)
The Journey game would also be the first example of popular outside music (not original music or public domain) being used in a video game. You’re welcome, Grand Theft Auto.
Sound capabilities continued to be limited (the Atari 2600 could only handle two tones at a time), but eventually technology allowed for a lot more varied usage. Frogger (in 1981) was able to have intro and outro music as well as 11 different gameplay tracks depending on the level.
The art of video game music would continue to grow to the point where composers started to become famous in their own right, with many selling albums of their work—such as Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda), Miki Higashino (Yie-Ar Kung Fu, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), David Wise (Donkey Kong Country), and Yuzo Koshiro (Shinobi)
Finally, in 2001, the PC game Black and White featured an in-game Winamp interface (remember that?) that allowed players to port over their own music from any CD. Later, consoles like Sony’s PlayStation would allow this level of music customization, too.
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