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Roots of Electronica: Video Game Scores

Many important strides in electronica have been informed by a commercial purpose. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, for instance, an institution responsible for some of the most enduring and innovative electronic compositions of its age, was not primarily designed as an artistic powerhouse, but rather as a simple factory for sound-effects and television jingles. Since electronic music has always been largely instrumental, flexible, and simple to produce, its efficacy as a functional sonic tool has meant that many great electronic compositions have been created for filmic or corporate purposes.

Video game music is probably the best modern example of pioneering electronica fueled by a commercial imperative. The core reason for the existence of video game scores is simply to add coloring and atmosphere to the gameplay, but obviously the ingenuity of the best known video game composers has elevated some of this music into a culturally significant force. The modern popularity of 8-bit remixes and the use of Nintendo accents in genres like vaporwave have shown that functional game soundtracks have transcended their humble origins to become guiding factors in much of modern electronic music.

Early game scores were typically monophonic and highly repetitive. The sonic limitations of early gaming systems and the general simplicity of most video games meant that the scores accompanying them had few dynamics and little melody. Tomohiro Nishikado’s 1978 Space Invaders theme, for instance, is incredibly basic, comprised of four repeating notes that vary only in speed as the difficulty increases. It’s one of the simplest pieces of music that can claim iconicity, with an influence that entirely transcends its basic construction.

Despite its superficial crudeness, the Space Invaders theme endures on merit of its unique sense of atmosphere. As the first continuous video game score, the Space Invaders theme introduced two important ideas into the field of gaming: 1.) that music could play a role in enhancing the engrossing experience of the gameplay, and 2.) that the flat, minimal sounds of chiptune music were unique and desirable. The concept of the hummable, repetitive theme became a staple of many early arcade games, and the distinctive analog sound of the arcade score found its way into popular music, through songs like The Pretender’s “Space Invader” and Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac Man Fever”. Even today, the Space Invaders sound remains archetypal, and fashionable as a stylistic reference for electronic and pop musicians from Beck to Skrillex.

Through the 1980’s, as video games gained narrative complexity and visual sophistication, the music followed suit. The most celebrated of the 8-bit video game soundtracks is Koji Kondo’s 1985 score for Super Mario Bros. Comprised of six distinct themes, Kondo’s soundtrack was a marked departure from the functional flatness of the works that had preceded it, and it imbued the Super Mario Bros. gameplay with surprising variance in mood and atmosphere. Kondo was aware that gaming scores were not simply wallpaper, and expressedly set out to make music that would “convey an unambiguous sonic image of the game world” and “enhance the emotional and physical experience of the gamer”.

The salsa-tinged, maddeningly catchy Super Mario Bros. theme remains an iconic piece of music, recognizable even to those who have never played the game. Unlike the minimal Space Invaders phrase, the Super Mario Bros. theme feels like a full, fleshed-out composition, and the songs that accompany it on the game soundtrack each have the ability to recall a specific image and feeling. Despite remaining confined to the chippy 8-bit sound of classic arcade games, the Super Mario Bros. score proved that gaming soundtracks were capable of transporting people into aural fantasy worlds, tinged with legitimate emotions. Koji Kondo would go on to expand on the idea of “video game music as emotional composition” with increasingly complex musical pieces like the score to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a collection of songs majestic and moving enough to warrant classical tributes and critical appraisal. The influence of Kondo’s work remains massive not only in video game composition, but also in the popular consciousness, where his dreamy, pop-tinged moods have inspired artists from Grimes to Jonwayne.

At the dawn of the 1990’s, video game scores had grown not only more emotionally complex but also more sonically sophisticated. Thanks to technological advances in gaming systems and the introduction of digital synthesizers, scores grew more textured and musical, with a closer comparability to “real life” electronic music. Probably the most acclaimed soundtracks from this 16-bit era are Yuzo Koshiro’s scores for Streets of Rage 1 and 2. Influenced by breakbeat and house music, Koshiro painstakingly crafted some legitimately visceral songs whose rhythms contained the true warmth and power of 808 drum machines and eschewed the 2D shallowness of earlier compositions. Were it not for the trademark buzz of the video game synthesizer underlying some of the music, the Streets of Rage soundtracks sound like they could have been real dance records, and in fact, a retrospective review of Streets of Rage 2 on Vice published last year drew critical comparisons between Koshiro’s score and music scenes like acid house, PC music, and Detroit techno.

Obviously many great video game scores have continued to be produced since Streets of Rage, but the removal of most significant sonic limitations means that there is no longer any real difference between gaming scores and real-world music. While scores are certainly more able to be realized in their full complexity today, the signature sound associated with video game music will probably always be based in the 8 and 16 bit eras of the past. The uncanny blend of sophisticated ideas and crude electronics remains influential to many modern artists, and certain segments of remix culture retain a fascination with the tinny nostalgia evoked by old gaming consoles. Of course, these scores are also greatly enhanced by an association with the games they represent. In an interesting way, with memorable enough scores, video games can sometimes play like prototypical music videos: imaginative visual accompaniments that fuse with unique electronic music to create a full-fledged artistic experience. Video game scores may have started out as crude commercial necessities, but through the ingenuity of some groundbreaking composers, they have transcended their roots to become a major influence on modern culture, an electronic facsimile of “real” music that was often more interesting than what it attempted to imitate.


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Michael Coe

Michael Coe is a regular contributor for OneEdm’s “Roots of Electronica” series. He lives in Los Angeles, California and is a writer and performer for the multimedia collective Count the Clock. Interests include music, writing, music writing, and everything in between

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