VGM Entry 10: The RPG
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
The music of Super Mario Bros. was also somewhat unique in that it merged flawlessly with a game which had nothing to do with sports or space aliens. The electronic nature of early video game music generated futuristic sounds, and a whole ton of early games being space shooters, the music naturally lent itself to synthesis. Konami’s 1983 space shooter Gyruss is a perfect example of a harmonized audiovisual experience of this sort. But good synthesis also meant stylistic relativity. Not every game on the market involved shooting down space invaders, outrunning enemies through a maze, or bashing in faces with a pixilated club. Many innovative new ideas were in the works which would require a very different sort of soundtrack.
The style of most lasting consequence for video game music was the adventure/role playing game, and it has an extensive history. Link did not spring forth from the head of Shigeru Miyamoto clad in shining armor, and someone somewhere out there still goes around telling people that he was larping as Legolas years before this fancy shmancy new “Dungeons & Dragons” game came along. I think it correct to say that The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest, both released in 1986, were respectively the first adventure game and the first RPG to have massive market success, but both distinct styles emerged from long-standing traditions, and their music was a sort of natural consequence of the nature of the games, not a single individual’s revolutionary new idea.
All joking aside, if you want to go all the way back, you really do have to look at D&D. The first computer RPGs were under construction less than a year after the pen and paper game’s initial publication (TSR, 1974), and they were directly inspired by it and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. These were private affairs, designed by programmers in their spare time, and there were quite a few of them. Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood’s dnd, Rusty Rutherford’s pedit5, and Don Daglow’s Dungeon seem to be the most frequently cited surviving 1974-1976 creations, and there are plenty of rumors of slightly earlier lost works.
A lot of the features of “traditional” video RPGs are direct descendents of tabletop games. They evolved fairly linearly, reaching a proto-modern format by the time of Richard Garriott’s Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (California Pacific) and Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead’s Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Sir-tech Software), both released for the Apple II in 1981.
RPG-esque evolutions in Japan were far more diverse, but perhaps a bit less exciting. With no D&D tradition rendering particular game features canonical from the very beginning, developers were more experimental, merging all sorts of features from western RPGs, simulations, strategy games, and standard action types. The earliest examples are quite difficult to find samples of, perhaps in part because of the language barrier, but the tradition does appear to have begun a bit later than in the west. Koji Sumii’s Bokosuka Wars, released by ASCII for the Sharp X1 home computer in 1983, is an interesting example of a strategy game set in a Zelda-esque overworld of forests, mountains, and castle walls.
Yoshio Kiya’s Dragon Slayer, released for the PC-8801 by Nihon Falcom in 1984, is a more obvious inspiration for The Legend of Zelda, with its strong emphasis on puzzle solving, though the graphics are deplorable for its time and the sound a travesty. (Scott Joplin? Really?) But whatever their flaws, these games were the prototypes. They set the stage for great things to come. And at least in the west, RPG music would appear on the stage in fairly perfected form in the first instance.