VGM Entry 02: Early arcade music
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Few early games had music mainly because they were better off without it. The music of Rally-X was certainly an enhancement to the gameplay, but if it really showcases the best technology of the day then it’s easy to understand why most programmers didn’t bother. New technology came fast though, and Rally-X was hopelessly outdated in a matter of months. Carnival (Sega, 1980) is often credited as the first game to employ any of the new and improved sound chips for continuous music, but this claim amounts to little. All of the arcade developers took advantage of the advancements as quickly as they were able.
That’s why you get games like New Rally-X (Namco, February 1981), released less than a year after the original. Video game music immediately emerged in fully developed form the moment it became an option; it didn’t really take any market research to recognize that this would enhance the product.
From 1981 on, arcade music sounded pretty decent. Certainly a lot of games suffered from bad compositions, but many did try, and the work here becomes a simple matter of listening to everything and picking out the best. Arcade games had a unique advantage in this regard. Being self-contained systems, every new game had the opportunity to employ the newest technology on the market. This was seldom the case with computer games, and never the case on home consoles. A pretty massive disparity in sound quality would continue to distinguish arcade music from all of the competition up through the end of the 1980s, when the arcade began to die out as a viable source of revenue for game producers.
The indisputable king of arcade music was Taito. They backed up their claim to being the first, with Space Invaders in 1978, by maintaining a higher standard of quality than most of the competition. Jungle King (1982) is one of my favorite early examples. Here the music isn’t just a nice added feature; it’s the game’s entire selling point. The player feels compelled to keep moving, driven by a sense of urgency and adventure that would be completely absent otherwise. The sound effects make an effort to acknowledge the music’s dominance, seldom clashing and, with the hero’s footsteps on the rock-dodging stage, even roughly synching up to add another layer of depth to the music.
Jungle King has kind of a funny history. The form you are seeing here never made it far out the door before the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs won a lawsuit for copyright infringement on Tarzan. Having already tossed out a beta version called Jungle Boy, Taito recouped their losses by replacing the Tarzan character with a creepy explorer in a pith helmet and safari outfit and retitled the game Jungle Hunt. Never really satisfied with this conversion, they went back to the drawing board again after the release, replacing the explorer with a pirate. Pirate Pete became the forth and final installment of the game, featuring new graphics and a new soundtrack but the same old mechanics.
Konami may have been Taito’s driving force, persistently one-upping them. Gyruss (Konami, 1983) is a real audio masterpiece. Rally-X and Space Invaders both had tonal sound effects, and in the latter ‘sound effects’ and ‘music’ were one and the same entity. Gyruss might be seen as a sort of climax to this trend of music-sound effects-gameplay synthesis.
J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, might seem like an odd choice at first glance, but it had recently been converted into a rock and roll hit by the U.K. band Sky, so it certainly had some pop culture appeal. The significance here though is how well the game is paced to the music, or vice versa. Enemies appear almost on cue, and every sound effect is perfectly attuned to the background music. Really, to call it ‘background music’ at all does it a disservice. Gyruss has a very distinct song, but though the music and sound effects can be easily separated, in practice they are essentially indistinguishable.
What’s most impressive to me is that I really doubt the synthesis is programmed. It would become common enough in the future to sync up music to game events fluidly (consider the added music layer in Super Mario World when you mount Yoshi) and vice versa (the Guitar Hero series and many other games like it are based around the concept), but that’s all written into the code. In Gyruss the cues are apparent, not encoded reality. It tricks our senses, like a fine painting, and indeed it should be regarded as an interactive audiovisual work of art.