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Block Rockin' Beeps: What's Behind Gaming's Greatest Soundtracks

Eurogamer contributor Paul Butler delves into the world of game music.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Video games are huge, collaborative endeavors where many disparate arts come together to create a single entity for our enjoyment, and just as in theater, cinema and television, developers have learned the power that music holds.

Since the very earliest days of gaming composers have been striving to enhance our experiences with their skills: to excite us, to inspire us, to amuse us. Sadly this element of gaming is sometimes overlooked since, in the process of assessing games, there are so many parts to consider and, understandably, there's only a finite amount of space to examine them all. Priorities have to be assigned, and outside music-centric games like Guitar Hero or Lumines other elements usually take necessary precedence.

This is where I come in. I adore game music across its broad history, and I want everyone to see just how brilliant it is, and how it's used to make our gaming experiences that much more wonderful. So I'd like to take you through a few tracks and give you an insight into what I feel makes them tick.

The Legend of Zelda is a series of icons and iteration. While each instalment brings with it new and exciting ideas they are also famously replete with familiar, reworked elements. Gameplay, setting and images all go through their tweaks and reappearances and so, in some cases, does the music. The most iconic track from Zelda is the rousing overworld theme, by Koji Kondo, that's been in place since the very first game on the NES.

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Link's short career as a conductor was marred by frequent inclement weather, somehow.

It's a classic composition, effective in all incarnations thanks to its driving simplicity that combines a precise militaristic percussive beat with a bright adventurous melody. It is a theme of grand expeditions, of striding across the greenery of Hyrule, fighting dangers and heading for triumph. It's also, for fans of the series, a welcoming reassurance, like an aural blanket that comforts them and reminds them of adventures past. Nintendo have employed it deftly throughout the years, as they do with most of their classic music, making sure that it doesn't appear constantly but rather as a treat of reminiscence.

There is a sense of purpose to scores. They have a role to play in the creation of the experience so they have to consider the actions that are happening and what information they have to convey. The Zelda Overworld theme is about calling players to adventure, but the next track has a very different purpose.

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Sonic moves at the speed of sound and is constantly pursued by the noise of recent farts.

There is nothing in gaming that has made me panic like the Sonic drowning music. I've played all the Silent Hills, both Amnesias and countless other scary games, but none can induce such a frantic level of urgency. It's 13 seconds of pure, unadulterated terror and while it's not a track you'd listen to for pleasure, it is one of perfect function. In the game you're racing to find air or clamoring for a bubble to spawn before the clock ticks down and you die. The escalating, ever-quickening kicks of the music imbue you with fear and, as my childhood memories recall, actually contribute to your failure as you panic more and more which leads to further mistakes and the inevitable drowned hedgehog. Masato Nakamua gave us a piece that fulfils its purpose masterfully.

Sometimes a game can be defined by elements beyond their gameplay, if the style is strong enough it can become the overriding association and even the major reason the game is loved. Dreamcast classic Jet Set Radio is such a game; it's a colorful, cartoon celebration of graffiti and anti-authoritarian subcultures. You play as members of a gang known as the GG's and your mission is to rollerblade about the city of Tokyo-to, spreading your beautiful, bizarre tags and dodging the over-enthusiastic police force who are under the employ of a sinister corporation. It's one of the earliest applications of cel-shading, using contemporary Japanese and graffiti-inspired art direction that was utterly unlike anything else at the time. Even today with the HD re-release it's still a striking game to look at, and the soundtrack is every bit as vibrant as the visuals.

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Funky rhythm's comin at'cha.

While every track from Jet Set Radio earns its place, it's the funky hip-hop sampling style of Hideki Naganuma that truly defines the game, as well as the feeling of the final great era of Sega. This track, 'That's Enough', is a fantastic example of bouncy, bright and fun funk that makes the music soar. It blends modern hip-hop beats with 70's-style bass riffs that suits the atmosphere and characters to a T. Naganuma is a master of sampling, able to pick a variety of music and vocal riffs and reform them into something that becomes greater than the sum of its parts and in this piece you can hear how that construction works. It's impossible to listen to this kind of music and not starting moving with it, the beats and style are infectious and it's that quality that really helps define Jet Set Radio as a game. It may have its flaws, notably the controls and camera are not always helpful, but it absolutely shines with a confident, happy swagger that ensures you'll love it and the music is a huge part of that.

The final idea I'd like to address today is about the sound of the technology. Right from the earliest days of gaming we've had composers seeking to utilize the technology and deliver incredible music. Through their skills and dedication it becomes obvious that all these different sound chips and hardware configurations are, in their own right, unique instruments. They have their signature sounds and feelings and the best composers brought those out in ways that keep the music alive, decades later.

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Matt Grey also worked on Driller and The Last Ninja 2.

Deliverance: Stormlord 2 is an action platformer that hit the gamut of 8-bit home computers in 1990. Each version of the game has its own music but I feel that the best is this composition by Matt Grey for the Commodore 64. The C64 had quite a revolutionary sound chip in the form of SID, which put an emphasis on synthesis practices that were in use for electronic instruments. Compared to what composers have at hand now it's incredibly limited, but at the time it was astonishingly powerful and this track revels in the rawness of the sound, enjoying the palpable triangle and square waveforms, embracing and understanding them. You could update the track, you could cover it, and while the music would still be great, it wouldn't be the same. The creativity that comes from the limited hardware makes for a unique sound, and it's the same across the board for computers and consoles. It's easy to identify a Genesis/Mega Drive, Amiga or SNES track just through sound -- they're indelibly linked to their times and their ideas but they're still valid and fantastic instruments to be appreciated.

It's great that in the last ten years game music has really started to take off in people's minds. Concerts like the Dear Friends series or Video Games Live events have shown that there is a lot of love for these pieces and that they're genuinely great music, something to be heard by everyone, not just the enthusiast. I want this to continue -- I want people to dig through games, to look at our past and present and understand this wonderful art form and to give recognition to its form and function. There's a treasure trove out there and all you have to do is look and listen. I promise you'll be amazed.

You can read more of Paul Butler's musings on video game music on his Block Rockin' Beeps blog series.

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