VGM Entry 01: Proto-game music
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
I woke up one morning in June with a fairly innocent idea in mind. I thought I’d write up a short series on my favorite video game soundtracks. It would be a simple enough venture. I’d give a background post on the pre-Nintendo era, then do a little recap of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, all that jazz, and then before I know it be firmly rooted in my SNES/Playstation-era comfort zone, free to recap the two dozen or so games I like best without much interference.
It was a really terrible plan. The shear quantity of material I found myself obligated to cover to even reach my timeframe of interest was daunting, and even then, what could I really say about it? Video game music isn’t some even playing field with linear stylistic evolutions, where everything possesses an equal opportunity for aesthetic value and accessible histories lend themselves to easy commentary. First of all, video game music is a business in which artists can’t simply extend their deadlines until they’re fully satisfied with the end product, and second of all, technology is so intrinsic and varied that comparison becomes hopelessly arbitrary.
But good music is good unconditionally. Technological limitations can do nothing to compromise that; uncertainty obscures only the factors which lead to its creation. With that in mind, I will proceed with my little project here. I intend to listen to quite a lot of video game music attentively and share with you that which appeals to me most. I will provide what little history I can along the way, riddled with inaccuracies and technical fumblings, but in the ends it’s just an excuse to indulge my senses.
So, the first place to start is with that predictably loaded question “what was the first video game with music?” Since there exists no agreement on the definition of music, this question cannot be answered, but we can look at the potential candidates.
Gun Fight (Taito, 1975) had music in a very indisputable sense. I only hesitate to call it the first of its kind because the common consensus fails to confirm it as such; I find it frequently referenced as “one of” the earliest examples, but the sources are never sufficiently decisive. This vague conditional might indicate that no one has really thoroughly investigated the matter, or it might be a consequence of contextual displacement ported to Wikipedia and thence diffused. The latter holds quite a bit of weight; Gun Fight is the earliest game I have personally stumbled upon containing indisputable music, granted some questionable claims to the throne precede it.
But let’s carry on with the indisputables first.
Rally-X (Namco, 1980) was the first game with continuous music which we can indisputably regard as such. You’ll note that the music, whatever you may think of it, is clearly distinguished from the sound effects. The hum of the motor in the background is a distinct entity. Rally-X certainly did not inspire background music in video games–it is not historically significant in that sense–but it was the first game to employ it in such a way that no acceptable definition of music could deny its existence as such.
What’s more significant for my interests is the sound effects. The engine audio is interactive, such that the pitch changes depending on the direction in which the player steers the vehicle. This often clashes with the music, but it possesses the capacity to become a part of the music; one could imagine the player making rhythmic turns in pre-determined directions to harmonize the sound effects with the established musical track, or even producing such an outcome by chance for short periods of time. If we factor into our definition of music a performer’s intent then we are treading very thin ice, and if we do not then we may argue that the familiar blips of Pong (Atari, 1972) possess a musical capacity.
Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) is often distinguished from Rally-X. Wikipedia for instance employs the cop-out of describing the former as the first game with a continuous soundtrack and the latter as the first with continuous background music. This makes sense in so far as the music of Rally-X is distinct from its sound effects and the ‘music’ of Space Invaders is not, but it ignores the complication which the latter brings to light. I mean, it’s really the choice of notes that jeopardizes the classification of Space Invader‘s sound effects as music; it just doesn’t illicit much of an emotional response in the listener–or at least in me. If Tomohiro Nishikado had shamelessly replicated John Williams’ Jaws in this manner I might never have questioned its musical legitimacy even with half as many notes (and even had I never heard the original). When we begin to define music based strictly on aesthetic value, we again tread on thin ice, but perhaps we venture closer to the truth of the matter.
I’m not trying to beat around the bush here; I’m just humoring myself. I can state in plain terms that Gun Fight is the earliest game I know of that included music, Space Invaders took the first step towards incorporating music continuously into gameplay by giving its sound effects distinctly musical properties, and Rally-X made the final step into video game music as we commonly think of it. These ‘firsts’ aren’t that important anyway, as they were dictated by technological developments rather than artistic innovations.
I just find the whole early development of game sound fascinating in its implications for how music ought to be understood. Computer Space (Nutting Associates, 1971), created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and released a year before Pong, was the first coin-op video game designed for mass distribution, and its sounds possess substantially greater aesthetic value than the earliest attempts at video game music. No no, I’m not going to make some silly argument that it constitutes music, but just how important is ‘music’ anyway? Sound is the stimulus. It would take some time for ‘composer’ and ‘sound programmer’ to become two distinct jobs within the video game industry, and the difference between them is not so obvious as one might initially think.