Brief history of music in gaming

Once a mere afterthought, video game music is now an industry in its own right. Let’s take a look at how things have changed over time.

Computer games have evolved greatly since the first titles were released in the early 1970s. As technology improves, gamers are treated to increasingly impressive graphics and ever more complex storylines. The same is true of video game soundtracks. Once a mere afterthought, in-game music is now a booming industry in its own right. Let’s take a look at how things have changed over time.

Arcade Games

Music is a big part of what makes computer games fun, but it wasn’t always the case. Two of the earliest arcade games, Defender and Pac-Man did not feature a soundtrack at all, only the

most basic in-game sound effects. But another, oft-forgotten game was released at the exact same time as these two classics of the genre. Rally-X was announced to much fanfare, with experts suggesting that it would be the most successful of the innovative new arcade games. Although those predictions fell flat, Rally-X is still an interesting footnote in video game history. The simple, melodic, repetitive tune heard during gameplay can be said to be the first ever in-game soundtrack.

Fast forward to September 1998 and we see the relationship between games and music take a new twist. Dance Dance Revolution is not simply an arcade game with a soundtrack, but the soundtrack actually is the game.

As the music blares, players must stomp their feet in time with the arrows appearing on screen, along to the beat. A revolution indeed, the new gaming craze swept the globe. As popular as ever today, the games are not only still produced, but there are even national and international DDR championships.

Console Games

The first generation of home gaming systems were launched around the same time as the first arcade games. Extremely basic systems such the Magnavox Odyssey could barely even offer graphics, let alone a theme tune. So it wasn’t until the release of the enormously popular Atari 2600 that we saw the first home video game with music.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns by Activision featured a character called Pitfall Harry, who would have to avoid snakes, crocodiles and scorpions. As he does so, a musical loop plays in the background. Whenever the hero fails, the theme tune slows down and if he takes certain actions, the music changes. This sort of thing was unheard of at the time.

As we moved into the handheld era, gamers were blessed with one of the most iconic video game themes of all time. The release of Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989 brought Korobeiniki, a Russian folk song, to a global audience. Better known to you and I as A-Type, it is best understood as the main theme music from Tetris. And what an absolute belter it is too, with its upbeat tempo and highly addictive hook.

A few years prior to this, we saw the release of the first Final Fantasy game. The long-running series, which continues to be produced today for the PS5, is well-known for its incredible soundtracks. Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu is responsible for much of it, having composed all of the music for the first nine games by himself. Aside from winning awards, much of the game’s music has also been reproduced live on tour by several well-known orchestras.

In 2005, Harmonix gave the world Guitar Hero. Essentially, this game is to the games console what Dance Dance Revolution is to arcade machines. Players must tap the buttons on a miniature guitar in time to the commands seen on screen in order to earn as high a score as possible. Hundreds of high profile bands and artists feature in the many incarnations of

Guitar Hero, whose run came to an end in 2015. But not before it had shifted five million units globally, worth in excess of two billion US dollars.

Online Games

Gaming online can potentially mean different things. We have massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) but there is also online casino gaming. Slot games, for instance, are known for their soothing sound effects and hypnotic tunes, which so delight fans of online wagering.

If you enjoy such games, there are dozens of music-themed slots too, featuring well-known artists like ZZ Top, Jimi Hendrix and Kiss. You can find good slot games with online casino comparison sites. These also help you to find the biggest welcome bonuses, safest gaming licenses and most convenient payment methods.

One of the earliest MMORPGs to place an importance on music was Habbo Hotel, first released in 2000. In later versions, players could create their own songs, or Trax, which was an extremely creative gameplay element.

As this genre developed, so did the complexity of the in-game music. Notable fan favourites with award-winning soundtracks include Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls Online and of course, World of Warcraft.

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Buddy Iahn
Buddy Iahn founded The Music Universe when he decided to juxtapose his love of web design and music. As a lifelong drummer, he decided to take a hiatus from playing music to report it. The website began as a fun project in 2013 to one of the top independent news sites. Email:
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