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Video Game Music
Classic FM Handy Guides
By Daniel Ross
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2015 Classic FM
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From the Arcade to the Home
Imagine the noise of a video games arcade and you'll probably hear the electronic whoops, beeps and whistles of sound effects, and perhaps the occasional tune that signified the beginning of a new level. Genre classics such as Pac-Man (1980) had a recognisable theme composed by the game's sound director Toshio Kai, but examples like this were confined by the computer chips that held them – simply, the arcade machines couldn't cope with anything more complicated than a couple of sounds at a time. If a game developer wanted to include music in his magnum opus, it had to be programmed in, and not necessarily by anyone with any musical training. Unsurprisingly, the use of music was almost a millstone around the neck of your average game developer in the 1970s and 80s.
An early pioneer, though, was the iconic Space Invaders, made by Japanese gaming giant Taito in 1978. Game developer (note: not composer) Tomohiro Nishikado (born in 1944) was among the first to create a theme that could be heard while the game itself was being played. Well, perhaps 'theme' is a strong word. Essentially, the player would hear the same four notes repeated over and over, gradually becoming faster as the enemy swooped closer and closer to the player. What's crucial here, though, is that the music, such as it was, was audible during gameplay, not just between levels. Still, having only one melodic line to play with at a time was a huge restriction on what composers could do and it wasn't until later in the 1980s that the technology to use more than one note at a time developed.
In 1981, Frogger (made by Konami) contained several different themes for various points during the game and even changed to reflect the player's outcome (those of a certain age and with a misspent youth will remember the thrill of getting your frogs across the road and the subsequent change in musical theme). The composer of said themes is sadly anonymous, suggesting that again perhaps a slightly more musically minded developer is responsible. Other games, such as 1982's Dig Dug (a Namco classic), also contained multiple themes, some of them distinctly Baroque in sound, but there were still severe compositional restrictions thanks to the limitations of the sound technology available. Strangely enough, this stunted style of music has continued to have immense appeal to enthusiasts, and musicians still use 'chiptune', as it was eventually termed, in plenty of alternative pop and dance music today to inject a certain nostalgia into their recordings.
Things were, however, still a great distance from the orchestral scores that we've come to appreciate today. Major technical innovation would be required to allow the genre to grow, which started with games moving out of the arcade and into the home.
The Arrival of Consoles
When gaming moved out of the arcade and into the home thanks to consoles such as the Commodore 64 (released in 1982) and Nintendo's Famicom (released in 1983 and later to become better known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES), so the musical capabilities of the machinery started to become a little more serious. Two names that have gone on to achieve legendary status in the video game music industry are Koji Kondo (born in 1961) and Nobuo Uematsu (born in 1959), thanks to their music composed for the Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy games franchises respectively.
Another leading light in the early days of video game music was Koichi Sugiyama (born in 1931), who composed the main themes for the popular role-playing game (known as RPGs in the business) Dragon Quest I in 1986. Sugiyama wore his classical influences on his sleeve and, remarkably, his soundtrack became the first to be re-recorded by a full symphony orchestra, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing on the 1986 CD release of the game's main themes. Of course, the sound in the original SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) version was still limited by technology, but a seed had been planted. Indeed, Sugiyama's role in the birth of live video game music concerts was to eclipse his popularity as a composer in the story of the genre – but we'll come back to that later.
Koji Kondo's Link to Greatness
Kondo's Super Mario Bros. theme from 1985 took advantage of the increased memory power of Nintendo's NES/Famicom and its not insubstantial five available channels of sound, and kicked off a game music revolution. That theme, with its bouncy, approachable feel, has become completely synonymous with the moustachioed Italian plumber it represents, in exactly the same way that John Williams' theme for the movie version of Superman did with the eponymous tights-wearing superhero in the 1970s.
Kondo was also notable in that he was the first composer ever hired by the gaming giants at Nintendo, where he continues to work to this day – an investment that has seen him create many further Super Mario game scores into the new millennium. His main theme for Super Mario Bros. has been orchestrated and performed by countless orchestras in recent years, ensuring that his compositions have made the full transition from chiptune to symphonic piece.
Another success for Kondo came with The Legend of Zelda. These games have a very special place in the industry. Another Nintendo title (Nintendo are the granddaddies of the gaming industry, having created such series as Super Mario, Donkey Kong and Pokémon), the Zelda franchise kicked off back in 1986 with its first game for the NES, subtitled The Hyrule Fantasy. Much of the gameplay focuses on the main character, a boy named Link, who spends the majority of his time roaming around a fantastical woodland landscape trying to locate and save the titular Princess Zelda. It's an immersive, story-led game in the RPG genre and the Nintendo team worked on it at the same time as it was putting the finishing touches to the first Super Mario Bros. game. As a result, it's almost the complete opposite of Mario – focusing on strong story elements and a slower rate of gameplay that championed puzzle-solving and emotional investment in the characters.
But despite this first game's legendary place in the industry thanks to all its technical and storytelling innovations, it's arguably Kondo's soundtrack that has stood the test of time most successfully. In its initial incarnation for the NES, the famous main theme is a folky, two-line melody in the familiar electronic sound of the console's limited musical voice. But it is beautifully, logically composed and, with the benefit of hindsight, it really does sound as if it could be scored for a full orchestra. Of course, that is eventually what happened as the video game music world became stronger and more inclined to revive older scores, but Kondo's original theme and several that occur throughout the early games in the series have very clear orchestral potential.
That main theme, though, almost didn't make it into the game. Kondo's original plan was to simply reduce and rescore French composer Maurice Ravel's epic orchestral masterpiece Boléro for the game's title screen, but at the crucial moment he discovered that the piece was still in copyright and, unless a hefty licensing fee could be found, he'd have to can the idea. So, with no little desperation, he supposedly composed the game's main theme in just one day. Whether that's true or not, it's yet more evidence that video game music composers were striving for that orchestral dimension, that sense of bombast and event that only orchestral scores can provide.
Kondo's Zelda music has since become the subject of many dedicated live performances and the later instalments in the series (perhaps most notably in 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time) rely heavily on music to trigger actual gameplay elements – learning and playing tunes in the game can unlock certain plot developments and secrets. But at the time of the early entries in the Zelda series – innovative though they were in terms of story, gameplay and music – greater interactivity and sophistication was still to come.
Nobuo Uematsu – The Gamer's Richard Wagner?
If composers such as Kondo and Sugiyama were among the first to take steps towards video game music being accepted as seriously as film soundtracks or even classical music itself, then Uematsu was the man who grabbed the baton and sprinted for the finish line. Uematsu (a self-taught pianist, Elton John fan and music-shop employee) composed his first Final Fantasy score in 1987 for game developers Square, and changed video game music for ever. The music still sounded lo-fi, the bleeps were still defiantly bleepy, but the music itself strived for the complexity and sensitivity of a full orchestral work.
Much like Richard Wagner did in his epic operas of the nineteenth century, Uematsu assigned different themes to different characters in the games, which themselves were almost Tolkienesque in their fantastical scope and range of characters. This kind of RPG married perfectly with Uematsu's symphonic leanings and a strange middle ground was struck between classical pastiche, classic Hollywood film scoring and those omnipresent chiptune sounds. Uematsu's career has, in many ways, been defined by his ongoing work on the Final Fantasy series (currently on its fourteenth instalment with several spin-offs besides), which has seen him finally realise his intentions of having his music played by a full symphony orchestra in the games themselves.
Games on CD
As small tweaks to home gaming continued to occur in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, so the accompanying music and its composers carried on as they had been doing. The arrival of 16-bit consoles including the Sega Mega Drive and the SNES meant that music could become more elaborate and up to ten sounds could be heard at once – in stereo, no less. Game developers began to experiment with pre-recorded music as well as music composed especially for their games, and a prevailing taste for techno- and dance-influenced soundtracks began to take hold. Theme songs and vocals began to crop up as much as the more instrumental Uematsu and Sugiyama orchestral models. Increasingly, movie tie-in games would feature rearranged versions of their popular main themes, such as Williams' Jurassic Park and Star Wars.
A huge change, however, was on the horizon. The so-called 'fifth generation' of home video game consoles began using CDs as a common vehicle for games, rather than cartridges – which meant CD-quality sound. Arriving on the market in 1994, Sony's groundbreaking PlayStation could support a whopping twenty-four channels of sound. Recorded songs were now staples of gameplay, those film tie-in games were suddenly resplendent with the original symphonic recordings of their themes, and all was geared towards a bright, orchestral future. But one key ingredient was missing – the perfect game to hang a full-scale, movie-style soundtrack on. Well, the missing ingredient turned up in 1997 – Final Fantasy VII.
Nobuo Uematsu's Magnum Opus: Final Fantasy VII
Unsurprisingly, after quickly establishing himself as a major player in the world of video game music, Uematsu was at the forefront of the so-called fifth generation of home gaming consoles (Sony's PlayStation, Nintendo's N64 and Sega's Saturn). By 1997, the Final Fantasy series was up to its sixth entry. Final Fantasy VII, released originally for the Sony PlayStation, has given video game music fans some of the most recognisable moments in the genre, buoyed an entire industry of live concerts and firmly plonked itself near the business end of the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Interestingly, given the technology now available to Uematsu, he didn't opt for a costly, complex symphony orchestra when it came to composing Final Fantasy VII. Instead, he decided that pre-programmed MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface – basically more bleepy sounds) instruments would be enough, but he held on to that all-important orchestral scope.
More than any video game soundtrack before it, Final Fantasy VII embraced the notion that video game music should serve the same function as film music. And with this particular role-playing game, it made perfect sense. The plot, which unfolds over something like forty hours of gameplay, concerns the quest of a band of characters in a far-off planet to bring an evil electricity corporation to justice and the ultimate conflict between them and Sephiroth, an ex-soldier hell-bent on world domination (it makes perfect sense when you play it). Putting it mildly, there was plenty of material for an eager composer to get his thematic teeth into.
Uematsu again assigned different musical melodies and segments to the main characters, locations and themes, in the same way that Wagner and Williams had done before him. The most notable of these, 'Aerith's Theme', will be known to Classic FM listeners as the piece that stormed the Top 5 of the Hall of Fame in 2013, but there are several different themes here that are comparable to the most memorable of movie themes. The climactic 'One-Winged Angel', for example, has a bizarre choral intensity to it, with Uematsu claiming to have been influenced equally by Igor Stravinsky and Jimi Hendrix.
Technically, another distinguishing feature of Final Fantasy VII was its extensive use of Full Motion Videos (known in the business as FMVs), which bookended key segments of the game. Essentially they're sections of video comparable to computer-animated movies that, naturally, required music in exactly the same way. Uematsu, rather than just composing repetitive themes for these sections, completely embraced their filmic quality and approached them in the same way a film composer would. Dazzling action sequences and fantastical visuals were now equalled by their scores, which were every bit as impressive. FMVs are now the industry standard when it comes to presentation, but Uematsu was among the very first to capitalise on their musical potential.
This melting pot of influences, the rapidly catching-up audio technology and the arrival of a game with themes epic enough to warrant such a huge soundtrack undertaking created the perfect storm. Final Fantasy VII remains one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time and has sold well over 10 million copies worldwide. As a result, Uematsu's themes were now sewn into the canvas of video game music as a genre and, crucially, there was a huge audience for them. There had been successes before, but never one as global as this.
Games Like Movies
Operating alongside the Final Fantasy series was another epic of the RPG genre, the Ys series. Pronounced 'ee-su' and released originally on the NEC PC-8801 home computer in Japan, it has a similar history to Final Fantasy, but as yet still hasn't taken off globally in the same way, despite new instalments now being released in Western markets. What these giants of Japanese gaming culture do share, though, is a distinctly cinematic aesthetic and story arc, and a fantastical setting. Musically, the energetic themes of composer Yuzo Koshiro (born in 1967) for early games in the series (it kicked off in 1987 with Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished) were dominated by purposefully 'poppy' electronic sounds, with occasional toe-in-the-water visits to orchestral instruments.
Koshiro would later wow the soundtrack world again with his work on the influential Sega Dreamcast title Shenmue in 1999, but his role was actually bigger than these titles alone. What his role shows is that this cinematic style of gaming, where players are encouraged to be involved in complex, emotional storylines for long periods of time, was becoming commonplace, even standard. This is fundamental for the soundtracks and their composers – video game music was going to have to step up and soundtrack a range of emotional situations, not merely provide background bleeps for shooting things. If video games were going to be taken seriously as an artform, then the music needed to share that goal of complete, emotional immersion. Composers such as Koshiro and Uematsu were key to this transition.
More to the point, the Western world was now seeing just what the Japanese game developers and composers had been doing, and it was time for them to compete. The US and Europe, with their by now formidable history of film music and classical music, was surely poised to make some serious contributions to the genre too.CHAPTER 2
The Arrival of Orchestral Scores
It's perhaps unfair to say that the Western world of video game music had some catching up to do, but it can't be denied that the focus, until the late 1990s, had very much been on Japan and its burgeoning orchestral prowess. As we established, Japan had created something resembling a first wave of video game music, thanks to Uematsu, Kondo, Sugiyama and Koshiro.
What the US and Europe had going in their favour, however, was a huge boom in video game sales as the 1990s proceeded, and the lucrative prospect of movie tie-ins. Williams' music for monster-selling movies and franchises such as Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and others had been scaled down to soundtrack the more lo-fi sounds of the 1980s and 90s video game market, but with CD technology and high-quality audio becoming a standard on home consoles, the idea of putting an orchestral soundtrack to a home video game was now turning into a reality.
Excerpted from Video Game Music by Daniel Ross. Copyright © 2015 Classic FM. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents
1 From the Arcade to the Home,
2 The Arrival of Orchestral Scores,
3 The Record Industry,
4 Video Game Music in the Concert Hall,
5 Mobile Gaming, Online and the Future,
6 20 Essential Video Game Music Scores,
About Classic FM,
About the Author,