– Or: how I learned to love tugging on heartstrings –
Video game music, in an of itself, is widely recognized as an art form that has evolved as rapidly as the home and arcade entertainment technology that houses it. Frequently thought of as “bleeps and bloops,” that has changed significantly. Once upon a time notes were entered by hand in a scripting language of one form or another. Now some large scale games ship with scores recorded by symphonic orchestras. Some even come stock with bone-crushing metal! The .. uhh … musical kind. Not actual tempered steel to be bludgeoned with. That would be awkward and expensive to ship. ANYWAY. The evolution of video game music as a niche of listenable music is a completely different blog post for another time.
This post? We’re going super deep dark sub niche to people who take video game music and do things with it. As a hobby.
What does that mean exactly? Come with me on a journey of musicians who thought it would be fun to “modernize” old familiar chestnuts.
We already covered the niche of 80’s music in another post but this goes SUPER ULTRA NICHE. Like, boutique niche. Hipster niche? Maybe.
Examples will be provided. Many of them. There will be no quiz at the end.
And links. So many links. Popcorn might be warranted.
Historical pop music precedent
“But George,” you might ask. “What’s the point of taking a song that already exists and doing something new to it? Doesn’t it just sound fine on its own without self-indulgent modification?” To which I would answer “To the latter question, I give a qualified YES. To the former, I shall commit the sin of answering a question with a question. Who did ‘Life is a Highway’ better? Rascal Flats or Tom Cochrane?” Your answer could be anything from “Rascal Flats, of course” to “Tom Cochrane is the one and true and updates are an abomination in the face of the flying monkeys” to “Who’s Tom Cochrane?” to “What’s a highway?”
All are valid answers.
More examples. Dolly Parton‘s “I Will Always Love You” vs Whitney Houston‘s version. My preference is Dolly Parton, of course, because DOLLY PARTON.
Weezer covering “Happy Together” originally by The Turtles. or “Africa” originally by Toto to satisfy massive internet memeage.
Twenty One Pilots’ version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley. The same song covered by … uhh … darn near everyone. Andy Williams, UB40, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pentatonix, David Hasslehoff, and the list goes on.
Many groups that got their start as far back as the 60s filled their sets with cover songs. The Rolling Stones first few albums were loaded with covers.
Exhibit B: Holiday Music
As I write this entry, it is the week before Western Christmas (those still on the Julian calendar will have 13 more days of confusing but christmas-music-free radio) and Christmas Music is all the rage. Some of you may have even survived Whamageddon (not linked here just in case. ‘koz you know). Another instance where it’s a song that has been covered several times. Christmas Music Cover Songs could be its own blog post but suffice it to say that it qualifies as “cover songs.”
This is a well established tradition that goes back far enough to stand the test of time. For now. Until it doesn’t. Then it won’t. Times do change. Until those times change, we’re going to have plenty of covers of covers of covers. Enough to make every bed in the world nice and snuggly.
Back to the music of video games. While 1978’s “Space Invaders” became the first video game to have a continuous background sonic landscape, it wasn’t exactly music. Four notes played, over and over again, but it was there. 1979’s “Asteroids” followed with a similar soundscape.
1980? “Pac-Man” brought ditties. Full length songs, they were not. Recognizable music? You betcha. Just that little ditty was enough to spawn a fan-fiction album of greats inked by Buckner & Garcia named “Pac Man Fever.” I still have a cassette tape of this album even though it has long since demagnetized from overuse. I picked up the CD version eventually. Nostalgia strings, right?
1981 brought “Donkey Kong” and a few new ditties.
There is an argument to be made that the first melodic musical content came with “Rally-X“, released by Namco in 1980. This argument appears to be controversial and I’ll leave the controversy for someone else to parse. I didn’t sign up for drama. Just the writing part. ANYWAY!. 1980 is a nice round number, divisible by at least 2, 5, 10, and 198.
Remember the year, though. Based on that benchmark, we’re almost 42 years after that year as of right now.
VERY BRIEF history of video game music
Like, preposterously brief. We have to cover a tiny bit of 42 years worth of game music evolution in a very short period of time.
Arcade cabinets were able to take advantage of sound chips that would allow them some basic sound programming. 2, sometimes even 3 channels were available to take advantage of melody and harmony.
Yamaha’s YM Sound Generator Chips brought more channels of music and more sound capabilities. Sega’s “Carnival” used this technology to leverage a cover of a classical piece of music. (see? we’re back to cover songs again)
1981 brought Konami’s “Frogger” with a whopping ELEVEN different game tracks. Short, but numerous. 1982 brought Namco’s “Dig Dug” where the music was tied to game player movement. Novel concept! But those dragons. Grr.
1982’s Colecovision had four channels as heard in “Slither.”
Laser Disc Games like 1983’s “Dragon’s Lair” took advantage of massive storage space to put real music into the ears of game players.
1982’s Commodore 64 had 3 (+1 undocumented 4bit sample channel) with a wild array of waveforms and filters with such examples as “Skate or Die,” “Rambo 3,” “Batman,” “Commando,” and a whole slew of others too numerous to link.
Graduating from Synthesis to Sampling
1983’s Famicom (which was also 1985’s Nintendo Entertainment System) was capable of a total of 5 channels and brought forward some of the most memorable and iconic themes in game music history. “Super Mario Bros.” is an example of a theme recognizable by folks who may not even have any interest in video games.
1985’s Commodore Amiga brought 4 channels but they were capable of playing digital samples of real instruments, skyrocketing its comparative realism capabilities. “Megablast,” “Apidya,” “Turrican II,” and “Zool” are examples.
1987 brought the release of Protracker which permitted virtually anyone to be able to write music based on the Amiga 4 channel digital sample era.
1988’s Sega Genesis introduced the warm, complex, and sometimes springy tones of FM Synthesis to games. “Shinobi III,” “Sonic the Hedgehog II,” “Streets of Rage” all stand as examples.
1990’s Neo Geo took even greater advantage of the FM Synthesis capabilities and even introduced surround sound in some of its offerings. “Turf Masters” is a golf game and the music is out of this world.
1990’s Super Famicom / 1991’s Super Nintendo brought a total of eight 16-bit sample playback channels for massive sounding games in the comfort of your own home. “Actraiser,” “Mega Man X,” “Super Metroid,” and “Super Mario World” are a small portion of a massive list.
The PC Home Computer had its own evolution starting with the Adlib card (FM Synth again), Sound Blaster (digital sound), and options by the likes of Roland (MIDI Soundsets) that later became on-card soundfonts for more realistic options. “Doom” in AdLib FM Synth is a good representation of that era. “System Shock 2” has some stunning music for the time.
Mixed-mode CDs brought a world of game graphics with pre-recorded music. While there are too many to mention, one that comes to mind is Trent Reznor’s (Nine Inch Nails) soundtrack for the release of “Quake.”
From that point forward, pre-recorded playback started to take over and become the norm. To keep it even remotely brief, we’ll stop there and jump back to some nostalgia.
How I started down the dark path of video game music covers
The mention of Protracker above is significant in this story as it led to a battery of utilities that allowed me to start down the dark path of “covering game music.” This started with using digital samples of recorded instruments to make medleys of music from the Legend of Zelda and Metroid franchises (links unavailable; I never uploaded those anywhere. yet). The thing about using trackers was: as fast as it was to jot notes down, after a while it became extremely tedious. After spending six years with those utilities, it was time to switch to the Digital Audio Workstation and start recording real instruments.
In 2004 and in an effort to learn to play the electric guitar, I started learning to play by copying the melodies of games I enjoyed in the past. I had it in my head that if I could play the bass, how difficult could guitar be? That difficult lesson manifested hard and it’s been an ongoing journey every since.
After finding out that there was a very small niche of individuals who were like-minded in this effort, I started participating in a monthly “for-fun competition” called “Dwelling of Duels” and used the monthly deadline as motivation to practice a metric boatload. The rule for Dwelling of Duels? The contest entries must be covers of game songs and must include at least one live instrument. Guitar was logical! There is an entire historical library of some of the greatest covers made in the annuls of its search engine. It is definitely worth checking out.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle…
While all of this individual effort was going, there were actual live bands that existed for the sole purpose of live-playing game music covers. Such bands as The Minibosses, Arm Cannon, The Advantage, The One Ups, Powerglove, Metroid Metal. If a fan of video game lore, you’d recognize most of the titles as word-play properties of various games and tropes.
I’ve been in two of them myself; “The Smash Brothers” in the mid 2000’s with game composer Jake Kaufman, and then later LONELYROLLINGSTARS with Metroid Metal alum Stemage, famed game music rocker Ailsean, and Arm Cannon keyboardist Cubosh among others.
It started as a hobby thing just working by myself and getting better and better at the genre until opportunities presented themselves and I couldn’t help but say “yes.” Being on stage in those bands has led to so many highlights in my adult life. I’d never trade it for anything.
The band activities tend to come and go as life gets in the way of planning something else. The latter of the two bands I’m in are spread across New York (upstate AND the city), Philadelphia, and St. Louis. The good news is that we’re all seasoned session musicians. This means we rehearse once or twice together – usually in a hotel room – just before getting on stage. The bad news is we are unable to get together often even when travel is a good idea.
The end boss of this post
Would live or updated/recorded versions of video game music sound good without the benefit of the nostalgia goggles? Not sure! I believe the music to stand on its own, however I’m also infinitely biased in its favor. There are probably more objective perspectives that can help answer that question. As games continue to evolve as an art form, it will be interesting to see where the evolution goes. Some newer independent games actually go backwards to “retro” style and bring back old technology to make new forms of entertainment. Everything old is new again, as the saying goes. As long as we don’t go through a fourth bell bottoms phase, we can carry on.
I would argue that modern “Final Fantasy” soundtracks stand on their own. “Dragon Quest” games with live orchestrations sound like something out of a 50’s Disney movie. Conversely, “Shovel Knight” is classic Nintendo Entertainment System music. There is so much to explore and appreciate, just like in any other style of music. And the library grows larger with each passing month.
If you’d like more recommendations of video game music worth listening to in any given style, era, or genre, I am happy to provide as much you can absorb! Let me know.
Until next time!
-= george =-