Music can be a powerful influence, capable of invoking or resonating strong feelings on a conscience or even subconscience level. It can make us kindle anguish, or it can potentially inspire us, and it can effectively communicate such feelings without the use of words or imagery. It’s a dynamic form of expression that should not be underestimated.
Yet, it seems to be an often overlooked subject in video games. When people talk about how awesome or how interesting a game is, they usually either describe how awesome the visuals are or how engaging its gameplay is, but rarely do they talk about how good a game sounds.
Is it that it’s a niche subject? Quite possibly, but soundtracks definitely have a stronger influence than we give it credit for. Sometimes a good musical rhythm can go a long way to make an experience more enjoyable, even go as far as encourage a struggling player to achieve success on a certain section of a level, or make a dramatic moment in a story-driven scene all the more dramatic. Like film, games can benefit by having a strong musical score.
Even back in the older days of games, as far as the 8-bit consoles such as the NES, composers have attempted to make elaborate and memorable compositions to compliment a game’s gameplay. Although such systems carried pretty strict limitations at the time, supporting only a limited number of independent sound channels, which had to also be shared with the rest of the game’s effects, and usually only produced primitive synthesized sounds. It was undeniably quite the creative challenge to produce anything that would remotely sound potentially engaging to the audience. Yet, to this day there is a considerable cult following for some of the soundtracks found on certain NES titles, with many high-profile themes having originated on the system.
Powerful themes such as the Legend of Zelda or Super Mario debuted along with their respective game on the 8-bit console, which are constantly remixed in modern titles, while other series such as Mega Man and Castlevania – renown for their memorable soundtracks – also started their early days on the console. Of course it was most definitely the fun gameplay that made them so popular and memorable, it is however undeniable that when hearing the themes of their respective games, fans can not help but feel a sense of powerful nostalgia, such is the effect of good music.
Although music is probably one of the most subjective kind of subjects, perhaps that is why it isn’t as talked about as graphics or gameplay, but maybe that is because it affects us so intimately, whether we are truly aware of it or not. Everyone listens to some form of music, whether it be orchestral, lyrical or otherwise, and the majority of the time we depend on it most when we are seeking some form of inspiration, which is the role usually intended when being incorporated into the video game medium.
Some companies have garnered acclaim for their catchy scores, such as ‘Sunsoft’, who utilized Nintendo’s soundchip in a unique way to produce music that feature a powerful bass, which was dubbed ‘The Sunsoft Bass.’ One of the main composers for their games was Naoki Kodaka, who utilized the technique to create some spectacular synthesized tracks, which included titles such as Batman, Batman: Return of the Joker, Journey to Silus, and the acclaimed classic Blaster Master. Kodaka has a considerable fanbase for his work, with some NES collectors seeking after specific titles solely for the reason he was involved in them. Rightfully so. Even mediocre titles such as Fester’s Quest are arguably more playable because of his work.
Other great composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, now one of the most recognized names in the game industry, launched his career on the system. Although he had done other works previously, it wasn’t until his work on the debut title of the now juggernaunt franchise, Final Fantasy when he gained his reputation as a composer.
Just like for a film, music can go a long way to set the tone and atmosphere of a game. Final Fantasy’s title theme makes such an example, with its simplistic harp-sounding rhythm invoking mystical and fantastical themes, which perfectly sets the game’s tone.
Castlvania sets both grim and triumphant moods in its compositions, which coincides with its dark fantasy world. The series most memorable theme ‘Bloody Tears,’ which was first featured in the NES sequel, Simon’s Quest features sounds which seemingly emulate an organ playing the chorus through the song. The rest of the soundtrack is just as elaborate, to such an extent that one can easily identify which part of the song could be played with real life instruments.
It took both creativity and ingenuity to create pleasant-sounding scores on the console’s limited sound chips, but composers delivered to audiences in spades. Arguably a lot of the music holds up very well to today’s standards – as long as one has a taste for unconventional music. There are many artists today, both amateur and professional, dedicated to create works inspired by the 8-bit days of old. Big communities such as OverClocked ReMix, which are growing ever bigger, daily release content from upcoming talented artists with remixed songs from our favourite video game soundtracks.
Almost every gamer has their favourite soundtrack. What about you? Have you ever played a game just for the sake of listening to its soundtrack? Has it’s music ever created that inspiring moment which compelled you to do better and finally beat that part which was holding you back?
Such is the gripping power of musical rhythm, forever driving us forward!