8-bit Tunes And Why We Are Chasing Them

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.

5 thoughts on “8-bit Tunes And Why We Are Chasing Them

  1. Small addendum: I have this quote in my mind (which I can remember neither exactly nor who it came from) from a musician who basically said, “when synthesizers became available, we were all stunned and thought of the limitless possibilities. We were no longer confined by building physical instruments, but could make sounds all the ways we’d like… and then all we ended up doing with synthesizers was better and better impressions of instruments that already existed. How disheartening.”

    That’s what I had in mind when I said that there were “virtual instruments that had never been there before” in 8-bit music, if only for the limits of technology at that time.

  2. Pretty much the only thing you *could* make was hooks. So the songs stick in our head, and we loved them, but honestly, at the time it was kind of annoying after hour 12 of hearing the same thing over and over.

  3. Personally, I think it was a more basic change… back in the day I don’t recall any sort of granularity over sound, it was either “On” or “Off” (if you even had that choice) plus a volume control. I remember music being much more present, especially since there wasn’t any voice audio happening.

    These days, primarily in an effort to be able to hear dialogue, I tend to set the discrete music channel to low volume… it’s barely noticeable so I don’t actually hear the music very often. I could listen to a soundtrack of a modern game I just played for 100+ hours and not realize it came from that game… and I’d probably be thinking “ooh, I’d love to play a game with that music” while listening to it.

    Also, as TGP indicates, music was simple so it had to be catchy to serve any sort of function. I didn’t even own a Nintendo system at any point in my life but I can still vividly remember the music from Mario Brothers… it was a core part of the gameplay and the music was somewhat integrated with the basic interactive game sounds, I think, while now non-music sounds are related to actual sounds like birds chirping, wind, footsteps, sword clashes, etc that have nothing to do with the soundtrack. And yeah, nostalgia has certainly smoothed over the annoyance of listening to the same sounds over and over for days or weeks at a time.

  4. You are right in that, if you listened to a single tune over and over again, you could get pretty sick of it. Thankfully, a lot of audio designers learned early on that you needed variety. That’s at least one reason why every Mega Man level had its own theme tune. Of course, then you’d end up in final dungeons in RPGs, with awesome music that you hadn’t ever heard before, but that would play endlessly while you’re trying to fight your way through, until you can’t stand listening to it any more.

    Another revealing point is how you said that you could listen to game music and never realized you heard it 100 times before. That’s probably partially because you set the volume so low, but it’s also because lots of game music follows the film paradigm and just “isn’t going anywhere”. It just stays this nebulous thing that’s just draped over the scenery. You can make an art out of that, definitely: just ask Brian Eno. Then again, maybe there’s a reason Ambient isn’t exactly a great seller.

    I still think that the sound, as much as the melodies, made those 8-bit tunes memorable. There just isn’t anything else quite like it around. As much fun as all these “modern remixes” of 8-bit classics can be with their electric guitars or jazz combos or symphony orchestras, they always feel a bit off to me. Like a cover song, they can be good (occasionally), they can be bad (all too often), but they always feel slightly unreal.

  5. Just getting around to catching up on my RSS feed. Great post! I too have noticed that I turn the music in my games off, and have been doing that for years now. I never did that when I was listening to 8 or 16 bit tunes, no matter how many hours in a row I had to listen to them.

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