Video game music used to be limited to simple synthesizer melodies. But today, advances in technology have enabled video game soundtracks to rival the best cinematic scores. Here is a look at how video game scoring has evolved over the years, from the basic tunes of Pac-Man to the gripping soundtrack of Halo 2.
Early Arcade Game Music
Vintage arcade games used chiptunes. The synthesized electronic music was made using programmable sound generator chips that take electrical impulses from computer code and change them into analog sound waves. They are then output on speakers. One of the earliest examples of a game that used chiptunes is 1975’s Tomohiro Nishikado’s Gun Fight. Although chiptunes were revolutionary at the time, they only allowed for looped monophonic music and sound effects and were used sparingly; in games like 1980’s Pac-Man. The first game to use a continuous soundtrack was the classic 1978 game Space Invaders.
Early arcade game music was far away from the epic and thrilling scores of today’s games. However, early arcade melodies are still used in many modern games, perhaps because it is so synonymous with the birth of gaming. You will particularly find it used in puzzle games and online slot games like those at Casumo casino.
The Development of Video Game Music
In the early 1980s, both arcade games and home consoles started using programmable sound generator chips that allowed for more tones of sound. The earliest use of that technology was 1980’s Carnival, which replicated an electronic version of Juventino Rosas’ 1889 composition Over the Waves. That was the beginning of using actual scores in video games.
At the same time, some games began using sample sounds. For instance, in 1980, Tally-X was the first game to use a digital-to-analog converter instead of a tone generator to produce sampled tones. And, also in 1980, Stratovox was the first game to use speech synthesis. Around that time, frequency modulation synthesis was being commercially introduced too, which enabled game developers to create and manipulate more distinct sound characteristics.
By the mid to late 1980s, new techniques had evolved, and the quality of composition had noticeably improved. Indeed, many composers made a name for themselves with their game scores, such as Koichi Sugiyama, Ron Hubbard, and Koji Kondo. At that time, video game soundtracks started to become extremely popular. In Japan in the mid-1980s, cassette game soundtracks were selling like hotcakes. That made companies like Sierra and Interplay sit up and take notice. And soundtracks soon became an integral part of every major video game. In 1986, soundtracks gained the recognition they deserve when The Golden Joystick Awards introduced the Best Soundtrack of the Year category.
Many famous popular musicians have scored video games over the years. For example, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored the game Quake, and Michael Jackson provided uncredited music to Sonic the Hedgehog 3! Other notable names to have scored games include Beck, Stewart Copeland, and Paul McCartney.
The Development of Soundtracks
The 1990s saw the introduction of pre-recorded music being utilized in video games. That had many advantages, including sound quality. For the first time, music could be produced for video games freely with any instruments, and any number. Game developers could now simply record a track to be played during the game.
In the 2000s, personalized soundtracks became a big thing. For instance, Audiosurf’s custom soundtracks are the main game element. Players choose a music file, and the game generates a race track based on the pitch and tempo of the tune. The Grand Theft Auto series also supports custom soundtracks by enabling them to play on the in-game radio station.
The 2000s and 2010s saw hardware becoming more powerful. For instance, the Xbox 360 has a sampling and playback rate of 48 kHz for 16-bit, and the potential for a massive 256 simultaneous audio channels. And the PlayStation 3 handles multiple types of surround-sound tech, and it has a sampling rate of up to 192 kHz.
Today, more and more games are coming out with original and breathtaking scores. Notable ones of recent years include Halo 2, Rayman Legends, BioShock Infinite, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. They are as good as any epic movie soundtrack out there.