Home > Uncategorized > Freedom is Slavery: An Argument for Old-School Video Game Music

Freedom is Slavery: An Argument for Old-School Video Game Music


Writing an 8-bit OST that lasts for years in the gaming community’s collective memory is like riding a broken bicycle to win a road race against a tricked-out Porsche.

Maybe I’m being unduly influenced by the neurochemistry associated with nostalgia to put on my Luddite hat here, but something in me prefers the few-track, fewer-instrument harmonies of the NES and Gameboy eras to the complex and realistic orchestrations being written into games today. It just seems to me that greater restrictions on an artistic production demand more inspiration to make it emotive and catchy; memorable tunes cobbled together from harsh and simple substrate, therefore, have a much bigger “wow” factor than those molded from harmonically complex sounds that themselves lend beauty to a song. So, to borrow everyone’s favorite Orwellian quip: In video game (or maybe any) music, freedom is slavery—a composer’s freedom of nearly infinite choice in high-quality sound effects enslaves him or her to an audience that pays attention to the sounds themselves rather than what is being done with them.

One of the best OSTs I have heard—and that includes games on the market today—is Mappy Land (1988) for the NES. While the other aspects of this home console adaptation of a 1983 Namco/Midway arcade favorite have been crucified in many a review, the music of the NES version is doubtlessly one of its finer points. The ten-some different songs in this production are all composed of two tracks—a melody track and a rhythm/accompaniment track—and have been described as having a cheerful “ragtime” personality, which seems apt for a cute little game about a mouse being chased around the world by a group of evil cats. The most striking aspects of these songs are that while they’re extraordinarily repetitive, they’re also catchy, motivating, and all rather different despite their nearly identical instruments, and end up fitting their respective levels (which take place in locations as diverse as primitive jungles, moving trains, and haunted graveyards) quite appropriately.

I’m apparently not the only one to admire the prowess of a well-constructed arcade or first-generation home console ditty. One of the most widely recognized and remixed songs in the world is Koji Kondo’s Super Mario theme, which first debuted under the name “Ground Theme” with the 8-bit arcade game Super Mario Brothers. And the original 8-bit Legend of Zelda (1986), Final Fantasy (1987), and Dragon Warrior/Quest (1986) leitmotifs have managed to undergo relatively few changes despite several advancements in auditory technology. If anything, it’s the newer games that seem to have more variable soundtracks, even if the series themselves have proven almost as timeless (look at the central melodies of the original Tomb Raider (1996) versus the Tomb Raider Underworld (2008) theme, for example).

That’s not to say that today’s video game compositions are rendered worthless or forgettable by the realism and complexity already built into their instrument palettes. Quite the opposite: Modern VG music is undeniably multifaceted and beautiful in a way that sets it on par with other types of instrumental music enjoyed in many circles of society. The Halo III OST (2007), for example, uses live recordings from a 60-piece orchestra and 24-voice chorus, a first for the series and even many AAA titles at the time; it’s now sold in a two-part disc series as a product separate from the game. Rhythm games Dance Dance Revolution (1998) and Guitar Hero (2005) slowly broke the already-softening barrier between Top 40 Hits and the synthesized “bleeps and bloops” (still inevitably mentioned in most articles on video game music; why should this one be any different?) that people tend to blindly associate with video games even now. And Squaresoft god-composer Nobuo Uematsu has smashed almost every box in the VG music world with a stunning range of enthralling, stimulating, and atmospheric pieces for several RPG series, most notably Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, that have been rendered on countless non-gaming cultural platforms including live classical concerts, digitally distributed remixes, and his own progressive rock band The Black Mages.

This VG music industry’s burgeoning interdisciplinary tendencies have caused its productions to demand more respect from increasingly mainstream circles. Since 2004, for example, MTV has been awarding an annual VG Music Award, and starting this year, the Grammies will be explicitly including video games as a viable category for entry in its more general “Visual Media” awards. The renowned British Ivor Novello awards for musical composition also established a video game music category in 2010.

So the universe of video game music is maturing into something much more expansive than it was before—but, perhaps akin to the chasm in artistic quality between awe-inspiring flops like Reign of Fire (2002) versus low-tech classics like Metropolis (1927), this “progress” doesn’t necessarily spell “improvement,” at least for some Luddites like me. Dear reader, what do you think?

–shivaniran

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I liked your article is an interesting technology
    thanks to google I found you

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