If you have a similar blog roll as I have, if your RSS feed features a lot of people like Syp or Syl, then you inadvertently have run across a lot of post that showcase the authors’ favorite game music tunes. Have you ever noticed how a lot of them seem to be from the “good olden days” of 8 or 16 bits? Why is that?
Undeniably, sound quality has gotten better over the years. Most games these days have full symphony orchestras at their disposal. So why is it that those primitive tunes are stuck in our head?
The Nostalgia Hypothesis
One plausible argument is that it’s simply music from when we were younger, and that nostalgia is playing a trick on us. While the music is objectively worse, we hold it in high regard because it subconsciously reminds us of our childhood or youth.
That is an interesting point, but in my opinion, it’s completely wrong, bollocks, utter shite, patronizing, selling that music short. Yes, game music these days has a lot more budget – and with it choices – at its disposal, but, in a way, that’s what makes it less memorable. It’s just too similar to film music.
The Uniqueness Revelation
In my opinion, there are two reasons that make this game music from the 80ies and early 90ies so memorable. Both of them have to do with the technological limits of the time.
One is that music was not saved as PCM file. That was way too large, from a data perspective. Instead, what you published with the game was a rough description that you fed into a synthesizer. Even today, you can find a niche mod tracker scene that keeps alive this concept. This meant that you were severely limited in what you could play, typically to maybe 4 notes at the same time (8 notes if you were lucky), and “notes” in that respect included percussion and sound effects in the game. (Hint if you don’t know much about music: you need three notes to even produce the major/minor chord that has been the fundamental basis of western musical harmony for at least 400 years.) This limitation leads to a focus on the fundamental melody. In contrast, a lot of film music diffuses into a barely tangible wash of harmonies that never seem to go anywhere and melts in your hand like rancid pudding; blame Wagner and what came after him for that (yes, I loathe Wagner; different topic). 8-bit melodies are great because they never lose their focus, because they can’t afford to.
However, that’s not even the most memorable thing about that music. If you listen to contemporary game music, especially big-budget, it’s almost indistinguishable from big film music. That’s not entirely a good thing, though. Except for very avant-garde 70ies music, the sound of 80ies and early 90ies consoles and other computers was completely unique: even 80ies synth music was different. In a way, the sound chips of that era, while they often tried to emulate existing instruments, created a completely new sound space, virtual instruments that had never been there before.
In that way, that early game music is some sort of cultural heritage that is unique and only existed as state-of-the-art for that short moment in time, before technology caught up again. That it’s still, maybe more than ever, cited in low-budget indy games, is a testament to its uniqueness.