Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Brief History of Early Video Game Music

In the beginning, mankind created video games. And it was good. But it wasn't great.

Back in the early days of games, programmers were having enough trouble creating a working product, putting all of their work (and processing power) into gameplay and graphical output. From the earliest, Tennis for Two, to more sophisticated early games like Galaga, there was either very little music (usually in the form of title screen jingles) or no music at all. It makes sense; this was back when the limits of gaming technology mandated that designers carefully choose how each bit of data was consumed. They just didn't have the space to worry about music when they were having enough trouble getting the game to run.

As shocking as that may seem now.

In fact, early on, there wasn't even a proper way to store music within a game's memory. The only recorded music available was in the form of hard copies, such as cassette tapes or even phonograph records. The best example of a game using this technology is Midway's 1983 arcade classic, Journey. In this oddity, you play as the band Journey as they travel through space in order to retrieve their instruments. Since music was deemed important for a game about a rock band, the arcade cabinet included a cassette of simplified versions of the band's greatest hits. However, since these tapes didn't have the wherewithal of a standard sound chip, very few of the arcade cabinets still contain their original cassettes.

One of the first games to utilize a soundchip to provide background music is 1978's Space Invaders.

Space Invaders

The soundtrack (if you can call it that) is very simple. Each time the aliens move in unison, you hear a descending, chromatic four-note scale that repeats indefinitely. It's not very complicated, to be sure, but it certainly sets the mood for the game itself. According to an article on cracked.com, the increasing speed of the invaders is due to a glitch that makes the program move more quickly when there are less enemies on the screen; likewise, the music speeds up proportionally until it becomes an unrecognizable blur of notes, distracting and distressing you just enough to let that last invader through your defenses to conquer Earth. It's a simple but powerful technique, one that has earned the Space Invader a place as the mascot of the Video Games Live concert series. Not only that, but the orchestra dedicates a special segment to the menacing music used in the game.

The first game credited to have uninterrupted, melodic background music is Rally-X, an arcade game released in 1980.


Again, this soundtrack is far from complicated, but it was effective enough to communicate the need for the player to hurry and collect yellow flags before their fuel supply ran out. Note how some of the music cuts out when the player collects a flag or creates a smokescreen. As I said before, the hardware used for these games was running at full capacity, and there were only so many channels through which to filter sound (for example, the Atari 2600 was only able to generate two tones at any one time due to its limited hardware capabilities). So, instead of completely sacrificing sound effects or acquiescing to having a less intricate soundtrack, the Rally-X -- and many, many other games in this time period -- was programmed so that certain musical tracks would be disabled briefly in order to play sound effects. The trend would remain prevalent throughout the 80's and into the early 90's while sound technology continued to evolve to allow simultaneous music and sound effects.

One of the more influential games in terms of soundtrack evolution is Frogger, released in 1981 by Konami.

Frogger (Fun Fact: The working title for this game was "Highway Crossing Frog")

With the inclusion of at least 11 different compositions for various situations in the game (background music, title screen, game over, etc.), Frogger helped establish the idea that a) music didn't have to be exclusive to playable parts of the game and b) game music could be comprised of more than one major composition. As you can tell from the above video, more care was being taken into creating full songs to accompany the gameplay. While Space Invaders and Rally-X had significant contributions to the advancement of game music, one can only whistle the same few notes repeatedly before they become boring or, worse, incessant. Frogger was one of the first games to include a catchy little ditty to the game; something that could be hummed or whistled and could act as another way in which the experience is memorable for the player. Perhaps it could have acted as a marketing technique to get players to remember the game and come back for more, but that's merely idle speculation.

One of the last influential arcade soundtracks before the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System was that of Namco's 1982 hit, Dig Dug.

Dig Dug (composed by Yuriko Keino)

Firstly, it's important to note the player's influence on the soundtrack. If you stand still, then the music stops, and when you start moving again, the music picks up where it left off. In a way, this gave the player control over what music he or she heard in the game. One could run around underground, ignoring the enemies for several minutes while listening happily to the joyful background music, or one could lie in wait at the end of a long tunnel, silence accompanying his or her ambition to catch the enemy by surprise. While a seemingly simple technique, this opened the floodgates for not only player-controlled music but also environmentally-controlled, time-controlled, and even substance-controlled music.

Secondly, it's significant because it is among the first games to list a composer. In the previously mentioned games, either the soundtracks were most likely created by a programmer (in the case of Space Invaders) or simply anonymous or unknown (in the case of Rally-X and, surprisingly, Frogger). While it's hard to imagine a contributor going unlisted on a project today, it wasn't all that uncommon in the early days of video games; the fact that Dig Dug broke the trend helped provide a basis for future game composers to have their work recognized.

Video games are part of a continually changing medium, and nothing showcases that fact more than the growth of early game music. From cassettes to digitally-produced sound, from four-note soundtracks to player controlled themes, video game music came a far way even in its first decade. The realm of game music was turned on its side with the introduction of the NES. But that's a story for a different time.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. It'd be great to read about your thoughts on the NES era and beyond.

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