When you think about it, music has increasingly become more and more important for a successful video game. Games which employ a good soundtrack can often be more impactful and bring their best moments to life. When I think of good soundtrack, I often think of games like Okami and Deus Ex. I think about how they wouldn’t be the same without their excellent musical score, and how many of those atmospheric moments would cease to amaze.
It made me wonder when music became such a meaningful fundamental to gaming. How long ago did it begin? When did it become important? I started researching these questions, and then began a search for the first good video game soundtrack. For it to be good it had to benefit the game, and not be repetitive like so many of the old arcade greats. I started at the oldest soundtrack I like, and one of the best known.
The original Super Mario Brothers is a prime example of a game which knows how to use soundtrack. It was so fascinating because it never got old, and all the little themes in it really benefited the world and gave the character more personality. When I think of the first good video game soundtrack, my mind immediately goes to Mario. Actually, I think of the NES as a whole. While the NES came out around ten years after music was introduced to games, I think it was the console which made it a priority. Sure, many Atari games had small tunes but in most cases they weren’t used to improve the gameplay or story. They were merely used to distinguish themselves from other games. The game itself never felt improved by the tunes which accompanied it. Despite my love for the NES and it's games which held many amazing songs, I knew for sure something had to exist before with a great soundtrack. But in order for me to find the first good soundtrack, I knew I would have to go far back. All the way back to where it all started.
For around sixteen years games didn’t have a single tune. Games were played with silence, until one game revolutionized gaming forever. However, finding the first video game to have music has been very difficult. The first electronic game to have music was Simon Says, but it isn’t exactly a video game. The oldest example of a game with soundtrack I could find was Gun Fight, also known as Western Gun.
It seemed promising. I’m not into western style music myself, but I think it can be used rather well, like in the game Red Dead Redemption. But when I saw gameplay from it, I realized Gun Fight’s tune just does not stand up as an appropriate soundtrack. It helped push music in gaming further than ever before, and while impressive for the time, it’s tune doesn’t necessarily stand up as a good song by itself.
From there, I shifted through the 70s and into the 80s as my head filled with nostalgia and hope. Repetitiveness was everywhere, and as the tunes mixed in my head I had trouble remembering which tune went with which game.
After listening to countless arcade soundtracks I realized something. So many of the arcade greats are instantly recognized by their memorable tunes, but memorable doesn’t exactly mean good. Pacman’s music may have sounded catchy at first, but when played after a few deaths, it was enough to enrage me. It brings back all my nightmarish deaths from the hideous, pink Pacman ghost. I’m afraid games like Pole Position also have annoying songs. I must have listened to over twenty different tunes, and my head was buzzing by the time it was over. Not a single one filled my head in a good way. Even the original Donkey Kong couldn’t calm my aggravation. I thought it fit well, but once again, it was just an endless tune which repeated over and over again.
Eventually, my search led me to the two final games I would have to listen to. Dig Dug was released in 1983. It featured music in the gameplay itself, and it played each time you move the character. The theme seemed dynamic and I felt as if my search had reached a conclusion. Everything seemed very promising. But as I played I grew more and more annoyed. I played Dig Dug for only one hour and my head still suffers. The theme will never stop playing and in this search I had mentally injured myself. It was as if I had stepped on a jellyfish.
And then I tried The Tower of Druaga. Finally, I had found peace. It had more variety than Dig Dug and the various songs which played reminded me of The Legend of Zelda. It wasn’t repetitive, it played in the gameplay, and you can listen to it for one hour without a single headache. However, even this gem was missing something. The music just didn’t have the spark I think it required. At this point, I finally gave up. I made the decision to stop searching, and just accept that there may not be a single game which had a truly good soundtrack from the pre-NES era.
I did find a lot in my search despite my inconclusive findings. I realize now that while many old arcade tunes bring back memories and provide nostalgia, they are actually enough to drive someone crazy. When you’re playing these games, the songs are more like background noise. But if you really pay attention, you will be faced with weeks of listening to those silly little tunes in your head. Despite this, arcade machines still make me excited every time I hear those familiar noises. They may not be great songs, but they still have this odd charm to them.
So at the end of my search, I can say that The Tower of Druaga really isn’t bad. The theme is quite enjoyable. It’s not what I would call good, but it is pretty close. And Space Invaders also deserves quite a bit of credit. I was never aggravated by it’s theme, and thought it was really cool how the music speeds up when enemies get closer.
I feel as if there is still more to find. Music is subjective, and I wanted to know what you think is the earliest example of a good soundtrack?