An Ode to Video Game Music

The Legend of Zelda soundtrack
Listen!

It’s our opinion a video game soundtrack is more integral to the gaming experience than graphics.

Controversial? Well, we just feel like a great soundtrack stands the test of time and makes your emotional connection with a game more palpable. So, we’re taking a special look today and the history of this industry and some of the spectacular results.

The Technology: Formative Years

First up, a note on the surprising technical limitations early video game soundtrack pioneers grappled with.

Industry legend David Wise – arguably the greatest video game composer of the lot – was picked up by British developer Rare in the 1980s. Wise showcased some of his compositions in an impromptu demonstration when studio managers visited the music shop where he was working.

They hired him on the spot – one of the steals of the century. Wise immediately began creating music for the NES, but it’s his work on the SNES that’s most famous.

But what the above video demonstrates is Wise had to do much more than simply produce catchy tracks. He had to work around the technical limitations of the time, thumping a vast amount of effort in to ensure he could fit his music into the likes of a Donkey Kong Country 2 cartridge.

The Music

One of the most delightful things about gaming over the decades has involved hearing these famous compositions evolve.

From the basic Zelda intro above we first heard in the late 1980s, with each console we’ve heard the music develop until it reached a full orchestral sweep.

But, cutting back to the 1970s, and you have the likes of the Atari. It had incredibly limited musical capabilities, instead emitting primitive sound effects.

But by the mid-1980s Nintendo’s NES home games console could produce the likes of the above in the first Legend of Zelda game.

On Sega’s Master System, gamers could experience the likes of this from Sonic the Hedghog. You’ll note the familiar boopy, beepy quality to the compositions here – along with how they continuously loop due to memory limitations.

After this era of gaming, soundtracks really started to take off. The SNES era, in particular, marks some of the greatest gaming soundtracks in history.

Meanwhile, the rise of PC gaming in the 1990s also led to more advanced compositions – including the arrival of more orchestral pieces. This was opposed to the looping tracks of the Sega and Nintendo eras.

Although restrictive for musicians working on the SNES, if you’re David Wise you could turn this into the likes of the below.

Meanwhile the arrival of the PlayStation brought about new storage capabilities, so music had a sharper quality to it – plus, there was now room for expansive soundtrack considerations.

And whilst consoles upped their respective games, the PC was pushing boundaries forward.

The likes of The Curse of Monkey Island turned to more cinematic, expansive concepts. For a title in 1997 this, along with its artistic vision, was highly impressive. Just two years after the legendary Donkey Kong Country SNES trilogy, we were getting the likes of this.

In the early 2000s we saw the arrival of Sony’s PS2, along with Sega’s Dreamcast, and Nintendo’s shift towards CDs with the GameCube. You can start to hear the full orchestral sweep coming into effect.

The quality was reaching movie soundtrack level. Limitations were disappearing; a full harmonic creative scope was becoming available. And developers continue to take full advantage of it.

As heard in the classic Shadow of the Colossus, in all its magnificence, a mere decade after David Wise’s sterling efforts on the SNES.

Dramatic stuff. And as video games are now more appreciated as an artform, the soundtracks are an integral part to this newfound respect.

You can see this in big AAA budget blockbuster games. Naughty Dog hired Argentinian film composer Gustavo Santaolalla for The Last of Us’s soundtrack.

The result is stirring stuff; ultra-high-quality and the type of brilliance non-gamers might be surprised to find in those childish video game things.

It was very difficult to select just a handful of pieces for this post. Such is the breadth of brilliant music available – we’re merely scratching at the surface.

As such, we’re happy to claim we’re in a golden age of musical creativity thanks to the video games industry. There are so many fantastic soundtracks to choose from – whether hailing from the indie scene or major developers – and it’s a joy to behold.

But we feel it’s important to keep the disctinction of overt video game music going. The heyday of bleeps and bloops – many indie games revert to this stance to channel the past. And it’s really down to you whether you prefer that, or the new artistic scope of a full orchestra.

Although even indie games now have the capacity to boast highly impressive music. As you can see in Dead Cells.

But we’re going to close with the almighty The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Nintendo’s Zelda series if legendary for its music. There are even regular concert performances across the world you can attend.

Nintendo’s arrival into the vast, intricate open world title offers a meditative approach to soundtracks. Although Breath of the Wild has its moments of spectacular orchestral might, for us the 2017 game shines the most during its introspective moments.

And so, as Link, you can stand high atop a tower with the might of digital nature sweeping before you. Or scale a colossal mountain. Or go hangliding across the open plains.

Whilst you do so, you get those self-aware piano tinkles – minimalism alongside sweeping grandeur. It points to a very bright future for video game soundtracks.

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