The Sound of Music: Why Video Game Soundtracks Matter

How a stranger from the other side of the world made me appreciate the art of game music

by Sam Desatoff

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I have a lot of fond memories about growing up playing games. I can vividly recall opening up my NES one birthday in the early 90s. I still remember the layout of Airman’s stage in Mega Man 2 despite having not played in years. In a bit of odd recollection, I also have a memory of playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project during the holiday season, and I got further than I ever had before: the boss fight with Leatherhead. I became so nervous that had some kind of dumb mental break down and I ran out to my mother. She, of course, thought I was ridiculous. What else was she supposed to think when her five-year-old ran out of his room blabbering about mutant turtles who were also ninjas?

Coming part-and-parcel along with memories of gameplay and level design, however, is the music of the games of my childhood. Despite the musical limitations of the 8-bit era, each game managed to have its own auditory identity. The high-energy tunes of the Mega Man series were unmistakable, and it is still nearly impossible to hear the jungle theme from Contra without playing through the game in my head. The ability to elicit such nostalgia is one of the reasons classic video game soundtracks are looked upon so fondly, and the fact that there exists a market for vinyl video game soundtracks is a testament to their longevity.

Growing up, I sadly did not put much stock into video game music. I took it for granted, assuming that music was just something games needed so that we weren’t playing in silence. But, during my adolescence, I had an experience that, to this day, has made me appreciate just how powerful a single track from a video game can be.

Beginning in middle school and continuing through my high school career, I played water polo. For most of those years, I spent much of my time with the same group of core guys. We spent much of our spare time together as a team, and this is where I developed my love for many staples of geek culture. We often spent our lunch periods playing Magic: The Gathering, or in our coach’s classroom playing video games. In one rather geeky case, one of my teammates had burned a copy of the soundtrack Final Fantasy VII, our favorite game, to CD. We often found ourselves playing those discs as background noise for or Magic duels.

During one of our last years in high school, the family of one of our friends and teammates hosted an exchange student from Italy for about six months or so. One day, we were all riding in my car. There were four of us, including the exchange student. The student didn’t speak much English, so he was sitting quietly in the back seat. My friend Ray was sitting in the passenger seat, and he decided to put in his Final Fantasy VII CD. He skipped ahead to Rufus’ parade music.

When the music started, the exchange student, from the back seat, leaned forward, pointed at the stereo, and said, in broken English, “Final Fantasy! Final Fantasy!” Everyone in the car got a kick out of it. We laughed and jumped around the CD looking for his favorite tracks. Afterwards, nobody every really talked about it again. We had had our fun and moved on. But that experience really impacted me in a way I’m not sure the other guys could identify with. Indeed, before writing this post, I text the other two guys who were in the car with me that day, but they didn’t remember anything about any Final Fantasy music.

The fact that a complete stranger from another country, who spoke little to no English, recognized the music from my favorite video game said something hugely important about the power of the medium. Games, and the music contained in them, are a global force. They transcend borders and languages. They are unifying. Unlike books or film, there is no language translation necessary for music without lyrics. This affords game soundtracks a special place in entertainment.

The experience in the car that day drove home the importance of music in our favorite video games. I have since come to appreciate the efforts that go into game music. From Koji Kondo’s work on The Legend of Zelda to Manami Matsumae and Mega Man, there is no shortage of fantastic composition. Today, music for games is more involved than ever, and I am thrilled that we live in a world where video game concerts exist.

This post is not meant to be a commentary on video game music as a whole, but more a look at how it has affected me personally. Every person who grew up playing games identifies with their favorite titles differently, but we can all identify with great music. After that fateful drive, I have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into it, and the emotions that are associated.

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