When I think back to the music of that time well, I think of Madonna and Wham! But after that, I think about all the music I absorbed subconsciously playing video games on my ColecoVision. Ladybug, Mouse Trap, Zaxxon, The Smurfs game--all had soundtracks that were influential to me. I can directly correlate my love of certain types of music now to those soundtracks. Mouse Trap helped foster an appreciation for prog, for instance. The Smurfs was instrumental in my later affection for basement pop. CastleVania? Goth music, of course.
How much of this music affected our culture, and still affects it today? The Sony Playstation sold 70 million units worldwide by 1999, compared to the roughly 14 million classical CDs sold during the same year. And that's just the Playstation--there are myriad other home systems, not to mention games.
Many of today's video game scores are created by using Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology. Essentially, MIDI instruments are computer-generated sounds that either mimic or use recordings of traditional instruments. Such instruments vary from violins and timpanis to fantasy sounds, but all can be controlled by a keyboard attached to a computer. This makes it simpler for video game composers to write symphony-like works--in fact, they don't even need an orchestra. By combining classical orchestration, and MIDI instruments, the video game music of today has become a pool of magnum opuses. Is this where classical music will find its new audience?
High Art: From Pong to Prog
The first video game soundtrack on a home system was a series of two hollow ringing sounds--a tinny "pong" and another higher-pitched "pong." It was Pong, released by Atari in 1976, and, though such simple sound effects seem primitive by today's standards, the computer-generated, technological sounds of ping-pong gave atmosphere and depth to an otherwise one-dimensional, line-drawn game. The sounds were constructed by Nolan Bushnell (who later gave us the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza chain) and Alan Alcorn, Pong's creators.
Skip forward a few years, to 1982. After a serious of ups and downs (including Bushnell's Atari company approaching bankruptcy on several occasions), the video game system market experienced an explosion. The first digital keyboard was about to be invented (the Yamaha DX-7, in 1984), and Atari, Mattel, and Coleco were all competing fiercely for a stronghold. Since the single-line days of Pong, home video games suddenly became complicated: Donkey Kong and Pac-Man ruled both the arcade and the home.
Sadly, the ColecoVision was diminished to the second string in home video game consoles. Though it had exclusive rights to Donkey Kong, the rest of the games were paltry imitations of more popular arcade and Atari games. Ladybug and Mouse Trap were sad versions of Pac-Man, and Gorf was a LOT like Space Invaders.
Even still, the soundtracks were some of the best on the market. Mouse Trap, for instance, is still widely regarded on the Internet as one of the best game soundtracks of all time, and a key element in the game's level of fun. Its mono sound, eerie disharmonics, and ever-increasing speed not only built excitement, but also lent a sort of carnivorous nature to the game that would have been missing otherwise. And though the uncredited composers only had one channel to work with, there was a heady complexity to the music, suggesting a progressive rock influence.
In 1985, the Nintendo system introduced Super Mario Brothers, a spin-off of Donkey Kong and arguably the most recognizable soundtrack on earth. (The little jingle when your character died--an instrumental piece that seemed to laugh and say, "Oh, well; maybe next time!"--was also, quite possibly, the most annoying song ever.) As the game's popularity overtook the nation (even resulting in a related movie, 1989's The Wizard, starring a young Fred Savage), the soundtrack ingrained itself into more and more minds. What was most intriguing about this music was that it changed at each level of the game. When Mario was traipsing throughout mushroom land, the song was upbeat and high-pitched, with a scratchy beat. But when he was in the lower caves, or in a castle with fire, the music became ominous and dark, as if cobwebs surrounded the game's interface.
Now, home video game systems are as common in every household as a package of Q-Tips in the medicine cabinet. (See above percentages regarding Playstation.) The music is considered a high art form by video game obsessives, with numerous websites (store.yahoo.com/animenation, www.vgmuseum.com, and www.vgmusic.com are among them). You can even purchase some more current video game soundtracks, as with movies and television programs. Background music and scores for video games are just as important as its characters, and has actually been elevated to the equivalent of movie scores--classically orchestrated, usually by one person, and, in most cases, using computer-generated MIDI instruments.
The New Classical
Perhaps the most revered of all current video game composers is Nobou Oematsu. Because of his complex, extensive scores for the Final Fantasy role-playing games, he's been called everything from a musical god to "the John Williams of the video game world." And with good reason: Oematsu has composed the scores for nine (!) versions of Final Fantasy, not to mention work on game-related CDs Ten Plants, Phantasmagoria, and Gun Hazard, among others. My personal favorite of Oematsu's works is the score for Final Fantasy VII, a futuristic yet fantastic group of songs that accompany the game's otherwordly graphics and convey its story--one of rebellion, hardship, and triumph. Some of his arpeggio-heavy compositions approach a new-agey feel, and that's no mistake--Oematsu composes New Age music in his free time. But for the video games, he writes his music with the care of a chemist, mixing vast, all-encompassing themes with simple, watery tunes, never obscuring his traditional Japanese influences. In "Chasing the Black-Caped Man," Oematsu combines a MIDI flute sound that sparkles like diamonds with an inquisitive, driving melody. "Judgement Day," the song used for one of FF7's many fantastic fight scenes, uses an approaching bass sound, drums, and a tambourine (all MIDI) to illustrate how imperative it is that the player wins the battle. Oematsu's brilliance is most evident in "Cinco de Chocobo," a MIDI jazz guitar piece that accompanies the introduction of the Chocobo (a large, yellow bird used for transportation).
Another influential composer is Yoko Kanno, who's not only contributed to various video games but has crossed over into the classical, jazz, avant, and J-Pop worlds. (J-Pop stands for Japanese Pop, and is much like American mainstream pop music, but without the influence of R&B.) Her extensive discography includes scores for anime such as Macross Plus (her most famous to date) and The Vision of Escaflowne, although her prettiest work was for the Sega Dreamcast's NappleTale. Some of it is minimalist, fairy-like piano music; other tracks approach robust, candy-coated parade themes; all of it is striking. Yoko Kanno writes with much emotion, composing from her gut, but without sacrificing maturity and forethought.
With a huge pool of other revered video game composers, including Yasunori Mit-0suda (Chrono Cross, Tobal No. 1, and the wildly popular Xenogears), Koji Kondo (Mario 64, Zelda 64), and Jeremy Soule (Doom), it is interesting to speculate how these soundtracks might affect people in the future. Many modern composers are channeling their works toward the video game industry, a forum that reaches a larger audience (and offers considerably more money). Since video game music is not played on the radio in America, the only way fans can discover their music is through video games. And, however subconsciously, these composers are undeniably the new face of a new technology and media-based classical music.