I’m kinda fickle when it comes to most game elements. Eye candy is alright, and gameplay is important. But if a developer wants to instill a lasting, meaningful connection between myself and its game, the music needs to be amazing. I don’t like Halo: Combat Evolved, but its theme is fantastic. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 3? Amazing soundtracks. Bastion? Fez? VVVVVV? Win. Win. Win.
I could go at this all day. Mega Man, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, the Prince of Persia reboot (yeah, I said it), Ninja Gaiden, Faxanadu…. Rush‘n Attack? Awful game, kick-ass first-stage song. Contra, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Earthworm Jim…. You got a good game? Show me the soundtrack.
But this write up isn’t about any of those releases. We’re gonna take a trip back to 1998. The place? My computer desk. The reason? Let’s just say Nintendo’s reputation for family-friendly gaming had my parents ridiculously locked in on one brand of console, so it was either Nintendo or Nintendon’t. The PC was my last, best hope for non-Mario goodness.
So, I’m sitting down in front of my PC and looking at this weird, triangle-shaped box that I just cracked open. Dad took me 45 minutes out of town to go pick this game up. Today. My birthday. Go me. The cover art featured a skinny-lookin’ dude sporting a massive-bad hair day while carrying a huge sword. Whatever. The title of the game said Fantasy, so I rolled with it.
This being my first Japanese role-playing game, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Nearly 30 game hours later, I’ve pretty much dedicated all my free time to Final Fantasy VII. The title had pretty 3D character models and a fun fighting system, but these things didn't keep me playing. See, the game didn't technically support my hardware configuration (a problem much more prevalent in console ports for the PC back then). So I could play the game, and I did, but it ran at about three frames per second. This means every second, I got three frames of gameplay (at 320 pixels by 200 pixels). For reference, the Nintendo Entertainment System sported a resolution of 256 pixels by 240 pixels. The important thing to note here is that, while this looks perfectly fine on a blurry television, the resolution looked absolutely ghastly on a computer monitor. At the time, most games had a resolution of about 640 pixels by 480 pixels, roughly double what I was forced to play at.
“Well, that sounds stupid. Why would you play a beautiful, 40-hour-plus RPG like that? You’re stupid.”
Yes, I am. I am crazy stupid.
I vividly remember Dio's arena. I had to fight my way through a veritable army of combatants (or die trying) to earn my freedom, I stepped into the ring, readied my sword, and got bombarded by the sickest slathering of goosebump-causing synth and drums I had ever heard. As the battles progressed and my handicaps became more and more challenging, the beat just kept coming, progressing into an epic onslaught of criminally exciting highs and lows until, at last, I fell.
Dio congratulated me on my performance and gave me what I had come for. I was free.
I sat and stared at the computer monitor, musing.
“I could have done better.” Restart and reload.
That was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between myself and Square Enix. After feasting my ears on that music, I had to get my hands on Final Fantasy VIII when it hit PC to get another fix. I was not disappointed in the least. I had to go back to hear what I had missed in Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. The music in one title introduced me to an entirely new genre, and it was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.
Honestly, that time period made me realize what drew me to video games in the first place. When I thought back to classics like Commander Keen, Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventures, Epic Pinball, and Jazz Jackrabbit, the memories were less about the games themselves and more about the songs I had remembered while playing them.
SORRY, I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF HOW AWESOME THIS PHAT BEAT IS.
It’s exciting to look back at where video game music has been and what it is becoming. It's exciting and, to a point, depressing. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against a good orchestral score, and the tunes from the original Super Mario Bros. still hold some seriously nostalgic meaning with me…. But it feels like game music has slipped back to where it started out: something tacked on to fill awkward silences.
A very long time ago, music felt, I don't know, more "gamey" or something. I can’t put a word to it…. But it felt right. It had a synth-like sound unlike anything else you'd hear in movies or in pop albums. Nowadays, it kinda feels like someone writes a score and sells it to a studio. I don’t feel the same synergy.
Exceptions exist, like the ones I listed at the beginning of this piece, but I just generally don’t feel the music like I used to. But for a while there, the music was really something.
This is where I'd usually get all sad and languish in the throes of a nostalgia-induced depression, but I heard someone's bringing sexy back.
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