Thursday, October 2, 2014

Burying Video Games in the Desert?

Do you enjoy video games and their soundtracks? Then join me this month as I explore a brief history of video game music. Last time, I began by discussing the first known coin-operated game with sound, invented in 1897, and went on to talk about arcade games of the 20th-century. Today, let’s move on to look at early consoles that people could actually take home and play.

Many of you first-generation gamers remember the Atari Corporation that began in the 1970s. Did you know, however, that their failed attempt to create an intriguing E.T. game following the release of the major motion picture caused consumers to second-guess whether purchasing consoles was even a good idea? This major video game bust led to Atari burying over one million copies of the E.T. game in the desert!

Due to this video game crash, sales drastically decreased between 1983 and 1985, right around the time the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came on the market. Hoping to improve the gaming industry following the crash, NES marketed their product as entertainment rather than a video game system. They also promised to buy back their systems from any consumer or retailer who lacked satisfaction.

With the invention of the NES came a huge leap forward in gaming technology. This new system contained five sound channels, enabling it to accommodate more complex music than what we saw with Space Invaders during my last post. Below, you can watch wave visualization videos from the NES containing the theme from Super MarioBrothers and The Legend of Zelda, both by Koji Kondo.


The music you hear in the clips above became a stylistic trend that people today can immediately relate with video game music. In fact, many modern-day games purposely use what composers call “chip tune music” in order to evoke the sounds of the early 80s. It is now an artistic choice, however, rather than a technical restraint.

Wrapping up today’s post, I wanted to mention a fun video game music fact discovered by a scholar at Ohio State University, Dana Plank-Blasko. During the early video game industry, developers rarely hired composers, so oftentimes, the music you hear was actually created by a programmer rather than a musician. Because classical music is not under a copyright, many programmers pulled from historical composers to accompany their games. One such example is the Captain Comic game released by NES in 1988. Using Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the programmer forgot to include the key signature and accidentals (sharps and flats) in the music, causing Bach’s beautiful work to sound completely butchered! You can hear a good example of this if you skip to 8:35 in the clip below.


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