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.”
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.
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.