Some of you reading this will have had Atari’s VCS or 2600 as your first console. If you are a little older, perhaps it was the ColecoVision, or if you were lucky, even Nintendo’s NES. Moving on, there was the Sega Mega drive, Super Nintendo, and Sony PlayStation, which was really the first console that can be considered as being part of the “modern” age of Video Games.
The earliest consoles and their music
Ninety-nine percent of games on the Atari had no music at all. People were amazed when Pitfall 2 was released, featuring a custom soundtrack made possible by specialized chips inside the cartridge. The Coleco was much better – I remember my neighbour trying to convince me his Atari was superior and lent me Manic Miner and Spiderman as a demonstration of this.
Not having music is one thing, but most of the games were truly awful as well. This led to a complete collapse of the North American video game industry in 1983, which only recovered after Nintendo released their NES (AKA the Famicom) two years later.
The first consoles with real sound hardware
While Nintendo absolutely dominated the US market with their NES, here in England the Sega Master System was much more popular. I remember arguing fiercely about the merits of the two machines on the school playground, convinced that my Sega was the better machine. The games were more colorful, but a lack of third-party support in the early years resulted in a high ratio of sub-quality titles on the Sega.
Later, I borrowed an NES with a few games during the Summer one year. Playing Megaman 2 on the NES for the first time was a revelation – the soundtrack was amazing, dramatically improving the overall experience of playing the machine. Contra, Castlevania, Batman, and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles also featured memorable chiptunes, forcing me to accept that the Sega wasn’t entirely superior after all.
Thinking back, I can’t remember one game on the Sega that had a truly memorable soundtrack – perhaps the original Sonic the Hedgehog could qualify, but the sound hardware was inferior to that of the NES, and it really showed.
Improved sound hardware arrives with the 16-bit generation
By the time the Mega Drive was released, I’d been given an Amiga computer instead of a new games machine. The Amiga featured four channel sound, which could be boosted to eight channels with a little clever programming. I became obsessed with MOD files, the demo scene, and found myself regularly embarrassed when my mum caught me bouncing around to Jesus on E’s State of the Art, and even Lemmings 2 – I loved the title music in that game!
Nintendo’s next machine again featured superior hardware to the Mega Drive and was able to faithfully reproduce the arcade soundtrack of Street Fighter 2. I suddenly felt that same disappointment when the Amiga port of Street Fighter 2 featured awful music, though I know today that this was due to sloppy work rather than a lack of capability in the Amiga.
It’s amazing just how much more enjoyable the next generation games were as a result of their improved sound capabilities. Combined with the huge leap in graphical quality, it really did feel like the future had arrived.
The CD Generation brings real music to video games for the first time
It wasn’t long before video games finally received real music, rather than chiptunes produced by synthesizer chips. The Sega Mega CD, and later the Sony PlayStation, allowed full music tracks to be added to the disk along with the game. The impact of this cannot be understated – suddenly, video games didn’t feel like toys for children anymore.
Games such as Tony Hawks Pro Skater featured music from popular bands, and the Orbital & Chemical Brothers tracks featured in Wipeout gave the PlayStation a level of credibility that simply hadn’t been possible before. Music could feature vocals and real instruments, dramatically increasing the level of immersion and allowing game developers to create real emotion – from the sadness of the death of a major character in Final Fantasy 7, to the fear instilled by Resident Evil. The soundtrack of Resident Evil became a source of inspiration for Skywind, a popular iGaming developer, who managed to create the slot machine version of the title and become one of the best casino games by using a mix of creepy music and dramatic crescendos whenever the win comes.
Video game music was no longer an afterthought – it was an essential element of every AAA title.
And it wasn’t just the music either – the CD format also brought something else
The CD format (and later DVDs and Blu-rays) could hold vastly more information than the cartridges used by earlier machines. This allowed for voice-acting, with famous actors often being hired to voice the major characters in the biggest games.
Of course, the music wasn’t always great – there were games that featured awful soundtracks too. The latest consoles often allow you to choose your own songs as background music, if the tracks featured in the game aren’t to your liking. This was a great addition which once again, greatly enhanced the experience of playing your favorite games.
It almost feels like we have reached a plateau now. The huge generational leaps between previous gaming machines feel like ancient history now, but technology has a habit of surprising us when we least expect it, so who knows what the future could hold for video game music.