Victor tries to understand what happened to music in video games and why aren’t they as catchy as the older tunes.
Let me give you a brief glimpse on how I usually start writing an article for Gamemoir. Obviously, good writing is created when you’re motivated and it can sometimes be difficult to find inspiration. So, what I usually do to excite my creative side is to listen to music. And, since I write about video games, I usually go to YouTube, search for some video game music I like and listen for a bit. A lot of times, it works and gets me in the mood to write.
It seems that I only remember the retro video game songs and none of the new ones. Last week, while I was searching for ‘inspiration’, I realized something: I was only looking for older tunes and never any songs from the later generation of games. That got me thinking as to why that is. It seems that I only remember the retro video game songs and none of the new ones.
I’m not saying that the music in video games that were created during the current generation is bad. Far from it! I actually think the songs from God of War is excellent and the background music of Silent Hill give an appropriate creepy feel. And Metal Gear Solid 3’s Snake Eater is actually one of my favorite songs! But they don’t just stick in my head. I don’t have the subconscious urge to hum “The End Begins.” In fact, if I heard it by itself on the street, I wouldn’t have any idea it came from God of War.
There was just something about the old songs which made them easily recognizable and easy to remember. Right now, just from memory, I can recognize the Base Theme song from Contra, the Green Hill Zone music from Sonic the Hedgehog and One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII. Oh, by the way, I never even played the original Sonic the Hedgehog! I just watched a video of it one time and the song got stuck in my head without me even knowing it!
I guess one thing the older tunes have going for them was how simple they are in composition.I guess one thing the older tunes have going for them was how simple they are in composition. The technology of the time just didn’t allow them to make complex songs with multiple layers. The original NES only had a few sound channels available and, seeing that one or two of them have to be reserved for the sound effects for the game, that left composers with the ability to only play one, maybe two, notes at a time. So, they really had to focus on the main melody and a few background notes to create a whole song.
Take a quick listen to the overworld song of the original Legend of Zelda. It may sound pretty complex but really, if you listen closely, you’ll notice only two notes playing at the same time and a faux drum beat. That’s it! One of the most epic tunes in video game history has only two voice tracks and nothing more.
Nowadays, modern consoles and computers do not have these limitations and have numerous sound channels so composers can go pretty crazy and make songs with multi-tiered tunes. Unfortunately, this makes them hard to listen to the main melody. Generally, a song with a lot of competing notes and no “clean” main melody makes it hard for the brain to wrap around and remember.
There are a few modern video game tunes that focus on the main melody, which is why they seem incredibly memorable to me. One example is Uncharted’s theme song. Yes, technically, it’s trying to rip off popular movie theme songs but, if you really think about it, most memorable movie theme songs follow the same formula: a simple, uncomplicated main melody that’s easy to hum.
Of course, this isn’t the sole reason why older songs are catchy. Having to listen to the same tune over and over and over again definitely helps getting a song buried in your subconscious. This is the same reason why some pretty awful songs get lodged in your brain. If you had a radio during the time Titanic was shown in cinemas, I’ll bet you can still remember Celine Dion screaming at you about how her heart will go on and on. Don’t worry. I’m not cruel enough to embed that song in this post.
Instead, let’s take a look at one of gaming’s most enduring soundtracks: the songs from the original Super Mario Brothers. The game has a total of 4 different stage varieties: overworld, underworld, underwater and castle. Not sure if these are their original names but anyone who’s played this game probably know the music of each stage just by those one word descriptions. You know why? Because when we played Super Mario Bros. and we go through those stages, we hear the same songs over and over again.
And we’ve all played Mario repeatedly so the tunes just buried themselves deep into our memories.And we’ve all played Mario repeatedly so the tunes just buried themselves deep into our memories. Not only that, in all honesty, I don’t think the underworld and castle themes aren’t even good! They’re extremely repetitive and loop back to the start in just a few seconds. But, since you’ve heard these songs multiple times, you’ll never get them out of your head!
I think modern games try to avoid repeating the music as much as possible. They try to create as much variety as possible, which I think is commendable and actually great to give gamers a more varied experience. But, at the same time, since we only encounter the song once during a long playthrough, we’ll never get to listen to it again, limiting their chances of embedding into our brains.
Actually, now that I mentioned it, I’m kind of relieved music composers for games have more tools and less hardware limitations to create songs. There was no way the NES could have pulled off tense atmospheric background music like the evasion theme of Metal Gear Solid or the haunting chorus of voices heard in Halo. They are still memorable in their own right but there was just something about the simplicity of the tunes during the early days of gaming that hold a nostalgic place in my heart.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll off to look for more video game tunes from my past. And, you know what I just realized…
Guile’s theme does go with everything!