Gayme Corner: A Brief History of Beep-Boop Video Game Music

Welcome to the third installment of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I’ll talk about games, all types of games, and the ways that we play them.

Whenever I have to do a bunch of small, almost-mindless tasks — copy-pasting bits of code, making a costume prop, chopping lots of vegetables — I often like to pretend that I’m in a cheerful video game and put on some 8-bit or chiptune music to make the job a little more fun. I have a pretty spotty attention span by nature, but something about that type of music, the beep-boop textures and infinite loopability, puts me in a groove of focus and productivity. A little of that effect is just engrained in me from a childhood of hours-long roadtrips spent playing my GameBoy with my headphones on while my parents blasted their own music. I’m used to doing one type of thing for a long time while listening to, essentially, remixed Pokemon music. A lot of it is just the design of the genre. The most iconic video game music actively engages a player in the game, in both what’s happening immediately and also in driving them to keep playing. An entire history of tech and design led to the kind of sounds that we can distinctly identify as “video game music.”


pong

The iconic beep-boop was included in one of the earliest successful video games, Pong. Creator Alan Alcorn was told to “add sound,” maybe applause or cheers, in the last stages of development. While poking around, he found that the game’s sync generator already had several tones available, using the square waves that the machine created anyway, so he just took two harmonious tones for when the ball hits a paddle and when the ball hits a wall, and one discordant tone to signal a miss and a point scored.

Music at that time was mostly stored on cassette tapes and records. They were expensive and delicate, and it didn’t make sense to compose a separate analog soundtrack for a computer game. Instead, it was easier to add music in via the sound chip. Chiptune music had its own quirks: the technology could only sustain one melody at a time, and songs were very short and either looped continuously, like in Space Invaders or only used in between stages, like in the original Pac Man. At-home consoles didn’t hook into more complex sound systems. The Atari 2600 only played two tones at a time. Even with these limitations, though, music still had an effect on gameplay. The four notes in Space Invaders speed up as aliens descend, subtly causing a rising panic as the player loses. The same happens with the higher levels of Tetris, making the time to place a new block feel even shorter.

Of course, as technology got better, so did sound capabilities; wave generators could produce more waveforms that changed the pitch and timbre of the notes, sound chips could carry more channels for accompaniment and harmonies, at-home systems like the NES and GameBoy were increasingly affordable, and music became a huge component of games. This is when Koji Kondo composed Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, video game music that’s notable not just for its catchiness, but also its interaction with the player. Kondo deliberately set the rhythm and tone of the music to match certain movements and zones, so that players felt more integrated into the world of the game. It has an environment of its own, and it seamlessly incorporates sound effects that the player triggers, like jumps and coin pickups and those four notes that play when Link gets an item. Because the game can’t predict where a player will go and how long they’ll linger in a place, each musical theme has to be modular and also loop seamlessly.

mario-kart-rainbow-road

As ground-breaking and popular as his compositions remain, Kondo wasn’t the only one making infectious, mood-specific music for video games. Many of the influential chiptune soundtracks from the SNES/N64/GameBoy era were composed by women. Almost the entire score of the first Castlevania was written by two women, Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima. While Terashima also worked on the sequels, Yamashita went on to compose music for Power Rangers and Mega Man X3. Miki Higashino singled-handedly composed almost all of Suidoken. Soyo Oka set the tone for titles like Sim City and Mario Kart. The most well-known composer, Yoko Shimomura, was the main contributor to Street Fighter, Street Fighter II, Mario Kart, and, later, the Kingdom Hearts series. Creeping into the realm of games that could play music from a CD, Tekken and Tekken 2 were composed entirely by Yoshie Takayanagi and Yoshie Arakawa.

The tech kept evolving. Personal computers became more affordable, games could be loaded onto CDs, eliminating the limitations of console sound chips, and composers could be more ambitious with their arrangements. Meanwhile, aspiring electronica producers, people who actively sought out the 8-bit sound, could buy an old console for cheap, pop it open, and use those weird hollow-resonant tones in their own songs. And it’s not like the technology got better all at once. GameBoys used 8-bit chips for years into the PC-gaming age until the GameBoy Advanced came out with 32-bit chips. 8-bit music persists, to this day, whether in its original form out of nostalgia, or cut up, remixed, and mashed up with a whole bunch of other songs and bookended by two samples from former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.

Now it’s a whole genre! Not just in music, but also in gaming. Sound reactions to player actions drives a huge part of mainstream video games. Remember Dance Dance Revolution, the game so big it was part of a montage in Imagine Me & You? And Rock Band? I was always drums and I was a solid mediocre at it. Even offshoot games like Mario Paint have a composer feature that you could use to recreate any pop song in 8-bit (here’s a version of “Call Me Maybe” with Carly Rae Jepsen’s voice replaced by cat meows, here’s a version of Toto’s “Africa”, and here’s just an 8-bit cover of “Bad Blood”). A whole generation of video game pioneering has led to some fantastic soundtracks in recent titles. Life is Strange nails the moody-indie high school acoustic genre. Kentucky Route Zero has a track list full of soulful folk songs. Assassin’s Creed is full of ambient background music and well-placed sound effects. Still, thanks to a rich legacy of music that hit me right in the childhood, nothing gets me quite in the plug-in-and-play mood as much as an 8-bit tune.


What are some of your favorite video game soundtracks? Got any favorite 8-bit bands? Also, let me know what you’d like to see featured in future Gayme Corner posts! We’re all ears, all the time.


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Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

47 Comments

  1. It’s not 8-bit, but Journey has the most beautiful soundtrack <3 (everything about that game is hauntingly beautiful). Seriously, who has not played this game yet and owns a PS system, they should drop everything and play it! I bought a PS3 a few months ago just for this and The Last of Us and it was well worth it!

    Overall, my favorite soundtrack is that of the Mass Effect trilogy. It has so many memorable moments that are enhanced by the soundtrack, so many times it makes you take out the tissue box! This piece is one of my favorites https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IitCQCaKi3E

    Also, Witcher 3's soundtrack is a killer! Especially the Slavic/Balkan Shakira music that plays while you are fighting!

    • Journey is practically a religious experience. I still dont know how the devs pulled that masterpiece off.

      Witcher 3’s music is great, that whole game’s culture is so rich.

    • OH YOU WENT THERE. You brought up the ME trilogy’s soundtrack! You went there and now I need tissues because it’s three years after the last game was released and that f*%#ing trilogy still makes my heart ache. Whether it’s “Vigil” or “Suicide Mission” or “Leaving Earth” or “And End Once and For All” or “I Was Lost Without You” or that one song by Faunts, the music from ME never fails to give me chills. *sigh* And I see you are a paragon. I, too, am a paragon, even when I try not to be.

      • Haha, actually I am more of a paragade because how can I resist those awesome renegade interrupts as well as hanging up on the council in the first game 😛 But with my companions and people in need I’m a paragon <3 (as well as irl :P)

        AND YES FOR THE TISSUES!!!! I plan to do my yearly playthrough of the trilogy after I finish Witcher 3 and I am already preparing my tissues because that third game…and that music is there to literally squeeze tears out of you! Even if I played it 3 times already, it still gives me all the feels!

  2. Also, forgot to say, I love this corner and I hope it goes on a for a long time! As an avid gamer I long for a games discussion safe place away from stupid immature straight boys, from the misogyny and homophobia that usually pops up everywhere.

    If any gamer ‘straddlers want to chat about games, I’m always available 🙂

  3. Of the 8/16 bit era…Tetris, Legend of Zelda, Crono Trigger, and Secret of Mana are the ones that stick out most.

    Of modern games…indie game Bastion, followed by Transistor (same composer as Bastion), Portal, and Guild Wars.

      • I always loved a good soundtrack, but the Bastion soundtrack was the first one that I heard that I said “I MUST HAVE IT!”. It then lived in my car’s CD player for about two months.

        I feel soundtracks in general are getting far better, and more attention is being paid to making them fit with the games.

    • I was a kid during the 8-bit era, and the Zelda and Mega Man series left an indelible impression in my young cranium. I still listen to Mega Man rock cover band, The Megas (Google their Bandcamp), who weave the series’ songs into actual, canon-rooted narratives. (their recent 2-album tribute to Mega Man 3, History Repeating, is _fantastic_)

      I’m also going through a hardcore chiptune phase right now (Big Giant Circles, Anamanaguchi, I Fight Dragons), because it makes for amazing music to write code by. And I just discovered a new favorite in Slime Girls, thanks Amanda Hamilton! ^_^

  4. This is awesome! I love video games, but I may love video game music even more, especially 8 and 16 bit era tunes. Some of my favorites are:

    – Final Fantasy I through X by Nobuo Uematsu (really eclectic, running the gamut from hard rock battle themes to beautiful love themes)
    – Zelda series by Koji Kondo (I’m so mad I didn’t get to see the Zelda symphony when they were in town. Would’ve loved to have heard Gerudo Valley live!)
    – Mega Man series ( Mega Man X is a perfect soundtrack)
    – Castlevania Symphony of the Night by Michiru Yamane (a gothic masterpiece)

      • That sounds great! I hope I get to see them someday, too. I cry every time I listen to the orchestral CD that came with my copy of Skyward Sword, so I will probably be a puddle of happy tears when the real deal comes along.

  5. Kingdom Hearts is definitely one of my favorites! The opening cinematic song for KH1, Hikari, had a huge impact on my musical taste thereafter. I love the Zelda soundtracks too. Who can forget the Gerudo Valley theme from OOT?

    Slightly off topic? For Christmas one year, my little bro got me a fan-made live recording of the Twilight Princess soundtrack (called Twilight Symphony). After I finished listening to it the first time through, I shed a few tears. It was beautiful.

  6. The music in the Golden Sun series (ignoring the DS game) is some of my favorite game music of all time. Not only is it really good music on its own, it’s a critical part of the game’s setting. I’d argue that the music is the single most important factor making Weyard actually feel huge and diverse, especially in the second game.

    Then there’s classics like Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda, particularly Ocarina of Time and Windwaker. I love the Molgera boss music from Windwaker. It’s flippin’ amazing.

    For modern games, I’d echo Grumpy above who called out Mass Effect. Mass Effect’s soundtrack is so perfectly tuned to both the game’s setting and the events as they happen. It’s immersive. It’s great.

  7. Thank you for this column! I have a lot of feelings about video games soundtracks…A LOT. I loved sonic growing up and can probably sing the whole of green hill zone. Picking a favourite is so hard, I own many and have 2 London Philarmonic Videogame music albums. Ok I’m going to eliminate Fallout because it’s the existing music curated for the game rather than composed for it that I like. I am currently obsessed with Dragon Age Inquisition and the music is stunning and atmospheric, I may have cried at one point, I love all the little bard songs as well as the incidental and battle music. Honourable mention to Bioshock Infinite as it’s awesome but super intense. Oh and the Last of Us…see, a lot of feelings.

  8. In addition to some of the other classics mentioned above, I also enjoyed the 8-bit music from Paperboy, probably more than I should have. I played that so often on my GameBoy growing up that my mom offered to sign me up for an actual paper route. I told her I was good, the virtual job was more than enough for me.

  9. I grew up playing the Sega Genesis so the soundtrack to the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games are kind of ingrained into my brain. I can’t hear “Green Hill Zone” or “Labyrinth Zone” and be sad but I also love from “Sonic 2” the music for “Emerald Hill Zone”, “Oil Ocean Zone” and “Sky Chase Zone”

    Other ones growing up, it was the music from Crash Bandicoot done by Mutato Muzika and Spyro the Dragon (soundtrack by Stewart Copeland of The Police. Isn’t that something? :P)

    It wasn’t until later that I got an old NES from a pawnshop and started learning more about Nintendo, I’ve fallen in love with the 8-bit music of “Super Mario”, “Legend of Zelda” and “Megaman”

    I need to check my iTunes but as far as video game music, you can’t go wrong at Overclocked Remix. They have a lot of different musical interpretations of classic video game music and any style you can think of, though it does skew more towards electronica. Also check out Slime Girls as far as chiptune music goes (on their bandcamp, they describe themselves as ‘chiptune ska’)

  10. “Remember DDR and Rock Band?” AHAHAHAHAHAHA you say that like we dont still invite friends over to get drunk and play RB, or push back the couch and break out the Red Octane. Real talk: the last ps2 game I bought was Disney Channel DDR. I mean, it had Miley on the cover, what was I supposed to do??

    My biggest dilemma rn is whether to buy an Xbone for the promise of RB4 being backwards compatible with the first 3 games, or just settle for playing the older ones + Beatles RB on 360 and RB4 on PS4. Help guys this has been tearing me apart.

    • I just bought an xbox one last week…mostly because I couldn’t help myself. Also because batman. Plus the whole backwards compatibility that is supposedly rolling out in the fall convinced me to buy one.

      • We’ve got Arkham Knight on ps4 (unless a different batman?), but backwards compatibility is def part of the selling point. My bf is a huge gamer (in the sense of constantly playing games instead of, I guess, having a facebook or tumblr) so I think he’s more excited about that aspect than me, but we keep our old consoles so… yeah. Idk. Rock Band though, shit. I just want to be able to play Bad Romance or This Aint A Scene on RB4 without having to switch consoles.

    • We still go round to our mates for a Rock Band/Guitar Hero night…it’s amazing. Stand the coffee table against the wall and set up the drums. We have the XBone, and I’m excited for new Rock Band 🙂

  11. ALSO ALSO ALSO since we’re talking classics, my favorite soundtrack of all time is FF6. If y’all havent dled the free OCRemix tribute album Balance and Ruin, it is INCREDIBLE. They treated the opera like Bohemian Rhapsody and it is epic as tits. And in general the album has a lovely 80s vibe to it. I almost always break it out when I’m traveling on long work trips.

  12. …sorry to keep commenting but this post has me really happy and got me thinking about Theatrhythm (who here plays?????) and also GUYS PERSONA 4 DANCING ALL NIGHT IS ALMOST OUT I JUST WANT TO BE HOLDING DISCO FEVER IN MY HANDS RIGHT NOW why is time cruel and pass so slowly

      • Curtain Call is SO GOOD. I mostly just shake my fist at wanting even more characters. Like Fang where is Fang why do they make sprites for these guys and not use them????

        I also want to try more online battles but I’m not sure how many people are still playing it online. I think the last time I tried even international didnt pull up anyone.

        I’m terrible and my cd is still in its shrinkwrap. But I have more DLC than I probably should.

        Do you carry your 3DS around for spotpasses? I usually dont bother unless I’m at a con be ause for some reason I assume normal humans dont so it would be pointless???

        • I just tried to play online and it was a no-go. 🙁

          One random thing I never get tired of seeing in Curtain Call: the Women Only bonus!

          I usually leave my 3DS at home unless I’m going on a trip (which doesn’t happen often, unfortunately). My one successful Spotpass/ Streetpass experience was at Star Wars Celebration VI a few years back. Most of my Mii Plaza is populated by people I “met” there.

          • Le sigh. How else are we to get those little achievements??

            The women only bonus is SO NICE. Also I love that they’ve expanded the cast to the point you can play with a full party from one game for a lot of games. I need to unlock more characters so I can play with YRP!

  13. I first got into games on my old Atari ST, and this definitely instilled into me a love of bleepy computer game music. In fact, my Dad still refers to playing games as “bleeping.”

    Here are a selection of particularly glorious/terrible tunes that I wish to share with you. It was commonly understood that the Atari ST had splodgier sound than rivals such as the Amiga, which other people think makes these tunes sound worse, but I feel they are much improved.

    1. Xenon. At times, this is like a slightly tuneful dentist’s drill.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoFM66LW-SU?feature=player_detailpage&w=640&h=360%5D

    2. Treasure Island Dizzy. I feel like this had a particularly short repeat, which only served to decay brain resources that were already fraught with trying to protect your errant egglet from accidental drowning.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOtEo5bAS8c&w=640&h=390%5D

    3. Outrun.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYA0v9QLJuw&w=640&h=390%5D

    4. Bubble Bobble. The sound of Baron Von Blubba (aka “that bastard skull thing”) is still very triggering for me.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urDOJsWzBhQ&w=640&h=390%5D

  14. The tunes from the original Pokemon games were definitely my favorites. The Route 3/traveling music still makes me feel like I’m setting out on the MOST EPIC quest.

    In a similar vein, I love the FTL soundtrack. It has a classic 8-bit vibe that has been given a smooth, easy listening update for the modern day. I’m also a sucker for the subtle changes that occur to the background track when you enter a fight.

  15. I had no idea so many classic video game songs were composed by women! That’s preeeetty awesome and this article is pretty awesome, tbh. It’s interesting to think about just how much tech has jumped forward in a relatively short period of time.

    As far as my favorite video game soundtracks… well, there are a lot. I love love love the Elder Scrolls soundtracks (Jeremy Soule is incredible), the soundtracks from the Mass Effect trilogy, the Legend of Zelda soundtracks (which is both because they’re amazing and also because it reminds me of when my sisters and I were little kids playing OOT over and over and over again), the music from Secret of Mana, the soundtrack from Dragon Age 2, the music and sound effects from the Paper Mario games, the music from the Deus Ex games, and the adorable compositions from Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Viva Pinata. There are definitely more, but I would be here all night. I loooove games, so I’m always down to chat about them, just so you nerds all know. :}

  16. I didn’t play video games a lot growing up since my father believed it would rot my mind but the game music in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Game Boy Color really stands out in my mind, If I was ever a witch I would want that to be the soundtrack of my life 🙂

  17. I can’t say much about 8-bit gaming music, but I’ve always loved 16-bit. Nobuo Uematsu and the work he did for the “Final Fantasy” franchise will always stand out for me. Other works of the Squaresoft house are great too.

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