Everyone knows the Mario theme tune. Most know the Zelda theme, and even a fair few know the one for Tetris. Now hum the tune to Metal Gear. Ok, maybe you know it, but it’s definitely less widely known, if there’s even an identifiable theme at all. Kingdom Hearts? Great music, but not much you can really sing. Halo?
Sound technology in games has improved exponentially over the past few decades. We’ve got from the days of 8-bit gaming with only a handful of available tones to live recorded orchestral scores. And yet while the quality of the sound we hear has increased so much, the music has not become any more memorable, if not becoming less so. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I really like the Kingdom Hearts music. Video Games Live is an incredible series of concerts playing all sorts of gaming music, and they certainly don’t play music only from older games. If you go to one of their concerts though, and I’ve been to two, it is unmistakeable that the biggest cheers and the loudest roars are for the great melodies of the classics. At the last concert I went to the entire audience was calling for the orchestra to play Chrono Trigger, not Halo.
Link for those who are interested (i.e. all of you): http://www.videogameslive.com/index.php?s=home
At that concert, I got to hear a talk by the head composer for Blizzard, which was really cool. He talked about how in the past, when technology was limited, the composers were forced to stick to one solid, strong melody with only light harmonization because that was all that they could manage. This meant that tunes were catchy and easy to remember. Now that more complicated arrangements are possible, composers are free to go as big as they like, and while this means that music is more varied, there aren’t as many solid melodies to hang on to, and we forget more of it.
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Perhaps Ocarina of Time is the balance point here. The songs that Link plays on his ocarina are simple, and those are the ones we love, and have become incredibly iconic. Yet the background music, as it was just on the stage where music was becoming more complex, isn’t worth remembering at all.
In my 30 Days of Gaming Challenge, I put Syberia down as having the best soundtrack. This is because it is one of the exceptions to the rule. It has strong, beautiful Russian melodies with a full orchestral score. The designers probably had to make sure that the music was pleasant and enjoyable to listen to as there is so little action or dialogue in the game (it’s a mystery game). VGL plays a lot of modern music, certainly. I have a CD with Halo, Medal of Honour, and God of War on it. They’re pleasant to listen to, stunning even. But you can’t hum it, and I can’t remember them. Medal of Honour has a decent trumpet part, but meh.
I’d like to see more games with a melodious soundtrack. If they need to strip away the fancy technology of the composers to do it, I’m fine with that. I listened to a whole concert of World of Warcraft music, and you know what? I was bored. In the meantime, here are a few of my favourites.
Super Mario Sunshine Bonus Stage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw-udW34t1o
Civilization 4, Baba Yetu: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tmut6FBx4xk&feature=related
Sonic 2, Mystic Cave Zone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVEyGntyOZQ
Sonic 2, Metropolis Zone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRuJfhEeCe8