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The Audience is Listening
Going through an old video game collection and playing some of your old favorites can be a mixed experience. Some older games are undeniable classics because they introduced some new gameplay feature that's still popular today, incorporated a new graphic technique, or even had incredible music and sound. Other old games, which might have seemed good at the time, are completely horrible to play today and will make you wonder why you bothered playing them to begin with. I've found that, in replaying some of my old favorite games, the music is one of the things that remains very appealing about them. That's because some of these older game soundtracks actually are still quite good when compared with today's game soundtracks.
Mega Man 2's soundtrack still sounds great.
Music in recent games certainly isn't bad--far from it, in many cases--but developers seemed to take proportionally more time with their soundtracks in those days because of the limitations of the cartridge format and the systems they were working with. With the advent of the CD storage format and the use of redbook audio, developers could put music on the backburner because the same amount of effort wasn't required to create a solid soundtrack. You could just burn whatever soundtrack onto your game. Players accepted this for a while because it was amazing to have actual instruments providing sounds for the music, rather than having to listen to your console synthesize whatever sounds the developers tried to turn into music. But the novelty quickly wore off as games started to sound the same regardless of setting, gameplay, or any other characteristics.
Jeremy Soule's score for Icewind Dale is one of the most memorable aspects of the game.
Fortunately, the situation with music in console games has mostly reverted back to how it was in the good old days, as an entire electronic music genre has sprouted thanks to companies like Konami, Sony, and Sega. Once again, I think developers are taking a much closer look at soundtracks and how they affect the entire gaming experience.
PC games are an entirely different beast, as some developers prefer to abandon conventional soundtracks altogether in favor of ambient sounds, which works well in certain types of games. Ever since decent PC sound cards became commonplace, PC game soundtracks haven't really experienced the huge drop off in quality that affected console soundtracks. Warcraft II was probably the first PC game to make me realize how great some PC soundtracks could be, because it fit the theme and pace of the game so well. A more recent example of a similarly successful soundtrack is that of Tropico, whose authentic Latin beats not only fit the game perfectly, but also just gave the game a lot of character. Furthermore, just about any soundtrack by Jeremy Soule (Total Annihilation, Icewind Dale, Giants: Citizen Kabuto) is also worth noting, as very few other games manage to sound as epic as his orchestrations.
Music is an aspect of game design that's often overlooked--yet it can be so important for enhancing the overall experience of playing a game. If anything, it's one way to give a game some replay value, since some people actually go back to older games just to listen to a particular theme. I know I do.
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