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14.2: 8-bit fun! Music and Sound in 1980s video games

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    8-bit Video Games in the 1980s.

    The Nintendos' NES system Sega's SG-1000 system

    (left): the Nintendo's NES system by Evan-Amos Public Domain; (right): Sega's SG-1000 system by Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

    The early 1980s initiated what is commonly referred to as the "third generation" of video games with 8-bit technology, which allowed for much more elaborate gameplay as well as more sophisticated graphics and sound. It was within this era where games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and The Legend of Zelda made first made their debut. The 8-bit technology even allowed for players to save their progress as they played their games, a must for games that take 20 or more hours to complete.

    The 8-bit era was ushered in with Nintendo's Famicom (or NES as it is known in the West) and Sega's Sega SG-1000, a much lesser-known system to game aficionados. Other 8-bit systems included the Sega Master System, Atari 7800, Nintendo's Game Boy, and the Commodore 64 (among many others). These systems each used their own sound chip (called a PSG or programmable sound generator) to create their music and sound. Compared to the earlier era of the 1970s, these chips allowed for a much more diverse musical palette, and much longer musical accompaniment. As a result, these companies hired trained composers to write music for these games; the music from this era has become known as chiptunes, or "music created by sound chips." This unit will cover music from the Nintendo's NES system, though there are many other systems from this era, each with their own unique soundchips and musical style.

    Music in Nintendo's NES system.

    Screenshot of Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo

    Gameplay of Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. (Screenshot from YouTube).

    The NES sound chip (called the Ricoh 2AO3) allowed for 5 different channels, each with its own unique timbre. These channels create different types of electronically generated sounds, each with their own unique timbre. Combining these sounds together created electronic music that resemble what we often hear in rock music: 2 "lead" or "melodic" channels (called square waves), 1 bass channel (called a triangle wave), and one "percussion" channel (called the noise channel). The last channel was for actual live sampling—real instruments or even recordings of the human voice could be recorded, and compressed over and over to make them fit on the cartridge! (You'll see an example of this in the video presentation for this unit). Watch this short video on the Nintendo's sound chips: you'll be able to hear each channel with its own timbre coming together to create music heard in some of the more classic video games of this era. In addition to the music accompanying the gameplay, composers and sound engineers also created different sound effects to accompany the games.

    Watch this video of playthrough in Super Mario Bros. released in 1985, paying close attention to the sounds you can hear in the background music. It may be difficult to hear because of the sound effects, but if you listen closely, you'll be able to hear 2 "melody" channels (playing in harmony with one another), a bass channel, and a percussion channel. Don't worry if you can't hear the instruments too easily --- the video presentation for this unit will cover this with more scrutiny. This tune composed by Konji Kondo, is in a very elaborate musical form, resembling an "Intro, A B B C A D D C D" structure, before repeating. Listen to this iconic melody and see if you can follow along with the different sections in this song's form. Remember: although you're not listening to live or acoustic instruments, you're still able to hear what sounds like a pop or rock band due to the number of instruments and type of sounds created.

    In an interview, Koji Kondo stated that the music from World 1-1 was written to "create music for the experience that the player is having," as opposed to simply providing background music. Each track from Super Mario Bros. doesn't simply accompany the fictional character, rather it reflects the player's gaming experience. This philosophy is incredibly important for composers wrote write for video games, as it helps with the overall sense of immersion, or the sensation of letting go of reality, and being submerged in the fictional world. (For those interested in this concept of immersion, consult this article from Frontiers in Psychology that addresses immersion in video games).

    Screenshot of World 5 in Super Mario Bros. 3

    Gameplay of World 5 in Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. 3 (Screenshot from YouTube).

    Super Mario Bros. was such a hit that it spanned two more titles for the Nintendo; Mario become the de facto mascot for Nintendo, appearing in dozens of games over the next 4 decades. The last Mario title for the NES called Super Mario Bros. 3 was released only 3 years after the first game was released; comparing the original 1985 release of Super Mario Bros. to 1988's release of Super Mario Bros. 3 demonstrates how much more sophisticated the technology became in such a short period of time. While the console itself didn't change, the cartridges that contained the games evolved and became more capable of higher quality graphics and sound. The screenshot above shows gameplay from Super Mario Bros. 3. Compare the two games in question, and you'll see that Mario 3 has much more variety in its colors and is more detailed. When you listen to the music, you'll even hear the introduction sound like "steel drums," which is a real recording of a timpani that has been compressed. In only 3 years, games were able to incorporate higher quality graphics and audio. For those interested in just how much more sophisticated the soundtrack to Super Mario Bros. 3 was to its predecessor, read this article by Andrew Head that discusses all of the new compositional techniques found within one of Koji Kondo's most famous soundtracks.

    Song form and style in Nintendo Music.

    Screenshot of Mappy Land

    Screenshot of 1983's Mappy Land (Screenshot taken from YouTube).

    Different games create different atmospheres. Some games are much more "kid friendly," and rarely involve any type of killing or violence. A great example of this game is Namco's 1986 release of Mappy Land, based on a 1983 arcade game called Mappy. This game involves a Mouse who needs to avoid cats to collect cheese and other presents for his girlfriend before proposing to her. Because of the cute-natured style of the game, the music resembles what is commonly referred to as "bubblegum pop" music—that is, pop music in a much brighter tone, similar to early Beatles songs like "I wanna hold your hand" and "She loves you" (as opposed to say, heavy metal of blues-based rock music). The music is mostly in the major mode, uses very little drum kit sounds, and the timbres are much brighter, focusing prominently on the two melodic square waves. Watch a playthrough of this game, and you'll hear much "happier" sounding music accompanying this kid-friendly game.

    Screenshot of Castlevania gameplay Screenshot of Megaman 2

    (left): 1986's Castlevania gameplay (Screenshot from YouTube); (right): 1988's Mega Man 2 (Screenshot from YouTube)

    Other games that involved more violence tended to incorporate more rock and heavy metal elements. 1986's Castlevania, which depicts a vampire hunter infiltrating Dracula's castle, and the Mega Man series, which involves a robot who has to blast his way through different stages full of enemy robots, though still targeting the youth, is a bit more on the violent side, and targeted more mature players. It should not be surprising that these games' soundtracks incorporate more heavy metal and rock music styles. Watch this video of gameplay from one of the levels in Castlevania: you'll notice that the music is much faster, using darker harmonies, and is even in a rock-style form of "Intro, Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus." Then, watch this video of the rock-style within one of Mega Man 2's levels, focusing again on the darker harmonies, faster tempo, and rock form of "Verse1, Verse2, Bridge, Verse3." These songs have become so iconic among video game music fans that musicians have covered them in their own rock style! Take a listen to FamilyJules' heavy metal cover of "Wicked Child" from Castlevania (the same tune you just listened to), and then take a listen to Gregg Rosetti's rock cover of the music from Mega Man's. You'll notice that these tracks lend themselves very well to rock bands, complete with their own guitar solos. When you're done, watch the video presentation for this unit, where you'll learn about rock form and style in early Nintendo music (and by extension, other 8-bit systems).

    14.2: 8-bit fun! Music and Sound in 1980s video games is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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