Music in video games
has come a long way over the years. The first video games, Willy Higinbotham
's Tennis for Two and Steve Rusell's Spacewar
, featured no audio components whatsoever. It wasn't until the introduction of the modern arcade cabinet in games like Computer Space
that the audio aspect of video games was even considered.
Of course, this has all changed now. Squaresoft's RPGs routinely showcase full-blown works of art that rival the classic 16th century operas, let alone the mostly forgettable movie scores of today. Konami has turned game music on its ear with the increasingly popular Dance Dance Revolution, where the soundtracks are not only featured in the game, but dictate the rhythm and tempo of play. And in 2000, the NARAS allowed game soundtracks to be eligible for Soundtrack and Instrumental Composition Grammy Awards.
Like most aspects of modern videogames, the ultimate source for the revolution of video game music was Pong. Before Pong, no video game had ever used sound, not even the Odyssey (the first home console system). The immortal bleep-bleep bloop of Pong was the first time sound had ben incorporated into a videogame. And while games such as Taito's Gunfight began to use microprocessors for digitized sound, no game had yet hit upon the idea of background music.
The first appearance of what might be called music came with the breakout of Space Invaders and Asteroids in 1978. While neither game had a tuneful theme song per se, they featured pounding backbeats which accelerated in tempo as the action quickened. If not the first use of music, this was certainly the first use of sound design to enhance the experience of a video game.
Without a doubt though, the first game theme to truly penetrate into pop culture was the Pac-Man ditty. While primitive in that it used only cheap synthesizer beeps, it nevertheless enhanced the feel of the game by smoothly fading into the defeat or victory music as levels were cleared. Another notable use of sound in early videogames was Atari's Tempest. Atari created a chip (name: POKEY) specifically to generate state-of-the-art digital sound for the game. The chip could produce of to eight "voices," each with adjustable variables such as pitch and distortion. The Tempest soundtrack also holds the honor of being the first commercially released video-game album. The POKEY chip later made it's way into Atari's failed 5200 system.
In 1983, Spy Hunter was released, featuring the loudest arcade cabinet to date. It was also one of the first games (along with Dragon's Lair, which of course was laserdisc-based) to incorporate stereo sound to blast its famous Peter Gunn.
The NES was the first home console to regularly utilise background music. Nintendo's composer supreme Koji Kondo wrote the now-famous themes to both Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda. To this day, Zelda's theme is considered one of the greatest pieces in game music, and is actually a staple of Japanese orchestras in concert. Hot on the heels of Kondo, another legend emerged from the 8-bit era. Nobuo Uematsu, who would soon acheive global renown as the music composer for Squaresoft's Final Fantasy games.
However, up until that point, sound in games was still limited to unrealistic beeps and generally weak console synthesizers. The most that could be hoped for was that those beeps would be in stereo (still found today in the Game Boy). The "big leap" for video game music came with the introduction of the TurboGrafx-16.
While an afterthought in America and also-ran in Japan, the TG-16 revolutionized music by offering a CD player attachment. While overpriced and rare, the musical quality available far outshone it's contemporaries, the Genesis and SNES. The first truly symphonic, epic score for a videogame came in the form of the underrated RPG Ys. Nihon-Falcolm's in-house team created a driving rock-orchestra score that, in retrospect, was at least 5 years ahead of its time. Despite floundering in obscurity on a failing system, Ys is recognized by video game geeks/experts as the turning point in modern video game music.
However, this is not to say that Sega and Nintendo rested on their laurels. The Genesis' sound chip was quite advanced, relying heavily on drum samples, stereo effects, and advanced brass synthesis to create hard-edged, fast soundtracks. The defining Genesis soundtrack is indisputably Streets of Rage, which was arguably the first game to feature a full-blown, high-fidelity techno soundtrack.
The SNES's chip was more like a traditional MIDI chip, and since its specialty was realistic instrumental arrangements, Nobuo Uematsu continued his incredible work on it. The Squaresoft RPGs of the SNES, notably Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, featured audacious, full-length movements and dozens of recurring character themes.
However, the future clearly lay with the compact disc. When the Sony PlayStation established it's near-monopoly after clearing out it's unsucessful competitors (3DO/Jaguar/Saturn), the optical storage format allowed movie-quality background music to become a matter of course. In addition to in-house music, games such as Wipeout and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater began to license pop music from artists for use in their games. Other games such as PaRappa the Rapper and the aforementioned Dance Dance Revolution took the concept one step further and used their music to drive the gameplay. And companies such as Konami, Squaresoft, and Capcom still churned out high-quality soundtracks to their franchise games.
The latest trend is video game music is actually returning to the roots of Space Invaders, with dynamic soundtracks that shift and fade with different levels of action on screen. This can be seen in such PlayStation2 games as Rez, and to a lesser extent, in Capcom's Devil May Cry. This makes music another free-adapting facet with videogames, finally putting it on a par with graphics and gameplay.
With the latest generation of systems fully embracing DVD and optical technology, and video game music slowly but surely taking hold in the general consciousness, it is important to recognize the rich history of music in video games. Be it the guitar riffs of a fighting game, the techno of DDR, or the swelling chorus in Metal Gear Solid 2, video game music is slowly but surely becoming an increasingly profound extension of this burgeoning art form.
Sources: Gamespot.com's "A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music," Steven Kent's "The First Quarter: A 25-Year History Of Video Games," and www.icwhen.com.