I previously talked about how a good story can elevate a game but it is not the only thing can make a game memorable. Music and the sound effects can also help us to become immersed in the world. Of course, game-play is still king, after all if you had an excellent soundtrack but an awful game, you may as well just listen to it on Spotify. However, music does have an effect. It can make us feel emotional in certain scenes, it can get us pumped up or it can be a merry jingle that gets stuck in our heads for the day. The games sound effects can also enhance our enjoyment of a game. It can be satisfying hearing a sound when you achieve something, or irritating when it doesn’t sync up.
I remember going to a youth club as a kid and they had a Space Invaders arcade cabinet. There wasn’t much in the way of sound effects but what was there felt so satisfying. Hearing the effect when you took out a space ship was confirmation of my “achievement”. I would sit there and just play until I ran out of money, seeing how far I got. I’d imagine this feeling was the same for those that played the Atari 2600. I never played the machine in its heyday as my first console was the Sega Master System. I do have an Atari Flashback machine and I do enjoy playing it every now and again. While the games are nowhere near as complex as later ones, the sound effects and visuals really do suck you in.
As the 8-bit era rolled around, the music and sound effects became more detailed. The very first game I ever played was Alex Kidd in Miracle World. To this day, I can still hear Tokuhiko Uwabo’s iconic soundtrack, especially the main theme. Every time I think of it, it ends up stuck in my head for hours (it’s there right now). It was also amazing to hear it switch up as you moved into the underwater stage (yes, I’m easily amused). Another aspect that I loved about the game was the sound effects. It was brilliant hearing the beeps as you smashed bricks, picked up money and punched enemies. Everything felt like it had a certain weight to it.
Speaking of 8-bit, I don’t think it would be possible to talk about the improvements made to gaming sound tracks and sound effects without mentioning Koji Kondo. The moment you press start and are launched into 1-1, the majesty of the game hits you. Mario is fun to control but the music is equally as addictive. You may hear it over and over again depending on how good you are at the game but it never grates. It is simply amazing. Then come the sound effects. Hitting blocks, stomping enemies, shooting fireballs and mowing over enemies while using the star are all so satisfying. The music and sound effects are one of the reasons I adore the original Super Mario Bros.
Of course, Super Mario Bros. wouldn’t be the only video game that Koji Kondo composed. One that many people the world over love probably has the greatest 8-bit sound track of all time – The Legend of Zelda. Its iconic main theme can still be heard today in the countless sequels but the original is truly a work of art. It helps to add to the wonderful experience. Of course, The Legend of Zelda is an excellent game to play but imagine it without Koji Kondo’s wonderful composition.
Compositions and sound effects took a giant leap in the 16-bit era. They became more complex, almost orchestra quality (we’ll come back to that). In many games they helped to guide our emotions. Even the most minimal of compositions helped to build a haunting atmosphere. Two games that spring to mind for this are Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV. These were two games I came to late (I didn’t have them when I originally got my Super Nintendo). Super Metroid has a haunting soundtrack that makes you feel alone but at the same time it is sprinkled with fanfare for when you pick up an item to give you a real sense of achievement. It is also incredibly satisfying when you blast things in the face due to the wonderful sound effects. Super Castlevania IV still has moments of gloom but it also has some adrenaline pumping tracks. Playing through each level accompanied by the wonderful score is such a joy, especially when you get to the end and hear some classic tracks. Also, the whips sound effects are excellent.
We can’t talk about 16-bit soundtracks and not mention the machine with blast processing. The Sega Mega Drive had some wonderful compositions. Streets of Rage’s soundtrack got you pumped to take on the scum of the streets. Each punch that connected with an enemy carried such weight. Yuzo Koshiro did such a wonderful job (of course, this wouldn’t be the only Sega game he’d compose for). To this day, I still love hearing the bazooka go off as you accidentally use your special. The Sonic the Hedgehog series also had a wonderful soundtrack, especially Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (I wonder why). They helped to encapsulate the sense of speed (and dread when you were drowning). Bouncing in to badniks, landing on Robotnik’s head and even losing your rings all produced wonderful sound effects.
The next generations brought with them exciting 3D game-play, complex stories and wonderful audio (and less wonderful voice acting). Perhaps the best example of how to do a video game track (and also how not do) is probably the Resident Evil series. They have wonderfully creepy scores that create a sense of fear. The sound effects are chillingly delightful. They still fill me with a sense of dread, especially when I hear the zombie groans. However, the first Resident Evil had two separate soundtracks. One that is beautifully scary and the other that… well… let’s just say it exists. It can sometimes break the immersion, which is saying something when the voice acting is so comical.
Well I said we’d be back to orchestra and here we are. How could I write something and not include the Final Fantasy series? Nobuo Uematsu has crafted some of the most wonderful soundtracks in video game history. His music has even gone on tour with an orchestra (and so has many others). And speaking of orchestras (how many times is that), it’s also probably one of the most famous scenes in the whole franchise. The wonderful compositing is mesmerising and even more impressive by the fact its on a 16-bit machine. My favourite Final Fantasy tracks come from the PlayStation 1 era. The emphatic One Winged Angel, the haunting The Extreme, the majestic Festival of the Hunt. All masterpieces.
Of course, original compositions aren’t the only soundtracks in video games. Licensed soundtracks became more and more common over time. I still remember hearing Song 2 by Blur in FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 and Ocean Colour Scene’s Hundred Mile High City in Three Lions. Perhaps the best use of a licensed soundtrack in a video game is the Grand Theft Auto series, especially Vice City and San Andreas. They both use licensed music from the time to really immerse you in the period. They also have some absolute “bangers”. I can’t tell you how many times I refused to get out of the car because Billie Jean or Welcome to the Jungle came on the radio.
What are your favourite video game soundtracks? Are there any sound effects that really stick out in your mind? Or do you simply turn the music off?