Videogame soundtracks have come a long way from their humble eight-bit roots.
There was a time when videogames sounded less than symphonic. Before popular franchises adopted movie-calibre music, players were treated to a barrage of gritty bleeps and blorps that were largely cued to increase tension. The music in Space Invaders would get faster as the aliens came closer, for instance, or the Super Mario Bros. theme would speed up just as the level’s timer was about to expire. Those compositions might sound a bit primitive to a more refined ear, but today, we look back on that era with warm, fuzzy, nostalgic affection and wonder if maybe we didn’t appreciate the unassuming, endlessly looping ditties enough at the time.
Given the bare-bones nature of the medium’s earliest tunes, it may come as a surprise that classical musicians are turning to videogames for inspiration. Since 2005, a concert series called Video Games Live—which features international orchestras performing old and new video-game music alongside game footage and synchronized lighting effects—has been touring worldwide to sold-out crowds. And this month, the London Philharmonic Orchestra released The Greatest Video Game Music, an album made up of reinterpreted songs from old-school classics (Super Mario Bros.), cutting-edge blockbusters (Call of Duty) and even popular apps (Angry Birds). The covers span the spectrum from eight-bit to Dolby mixes and beyond, but the most memorable ones are from the first-generation Nintendo age—perhaps surprisingly, they’re great for more than just ironic reasons.
As much as consumers want their games to look and sound as revolutionary as possible, that impulse often comes with a reactionary nostalgia. The better technology gets, the more some consumers will feel compelled to regress to simpler times—hence the modern-day success of vinyl and the Hipstamatic app. As gaming has lost its innocence, indie developers and online marketplaces like the Wii’s Virtual Console have been working to revive the quaint qualities that made games (and their soundtracks) so unique. A similar retro romanticism has inspired musicians to give vintage videogame consoles a new life.
Some savvy tunesmiths have repurposed old gaming tools as musical instruments, which they use to create original compositions. This new genre, “chiptune,” emerged out of a shared nostalgia for the rudimentary chirps of eight-bit games. During Toronto’s last Nuit Blanche extravaganza, the TIFF Bell Lightbox held an all-nighter of live chiptune bands playing alongside game clips that were projected onto a big screen. Further proof of chiptunes’ snowballing popularity can be seen by visiting the music-sharing website eight-bit Collective (8bc.org), which has over 30,000 members.
This isn’t to say that advances in videogame music haven’t upgraded the actual gaming experience. Back in the day, Mario’s accelerating soundtrack was the acme of immersive integration. It’s still highly entertaining to listen to those tinny tunes, but there’s also an element of silliness that doesn’t jive with today’s more mature content. If these sonic backdrops once suited the goofy, fantastic nature of games, now they strive for pulse-pounding realism and heart-tugging drama, because that’s how gaming has evolved in terms of narrative, visuals and gameplay.
With the proper audio equipment, cop car sirens, shotgun blasts and exploding skyscrapers sound as convincing in videogames as they do in action movies. Like those films, games such as Halo supplement their surround-sound effects with equally high-concept music. All the glowing reviews of the Wii’s just-released The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword made mention of its lush music, likely because it’s the first time the franchise has used an orchestra. If you think that’s extreme, the soundtrack of 2007’s Halo 3 featured a 60-piece orchestra and a 24-piece choir.
Many factors have contributed to the new/old videogame music craze, but one stands out. According to a recent survey conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, 50.5 per cent of American households own current-generation game consoles—and that’s not even counting handheld devices, smartphones or last-gen models. Like all of the game-centric kids who grew up to become game-centric musicians, many of today’s parents grew up with videogames. What used to be a childish or geeky pastime is now a legitimate medium enjoyed by almost every demographic, who have myriad different tastes. Angry Birds is no longer just an annoying but strangely addictive app on your smartphone—now it’s on your iTunes playlist, too!