VGM Entry 04: The dark ages
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner
One of the final systems to be categorized as “second generation” was Coleco’s ColecoVision, released in 1982. It also happens to be the only second generation system for which I have found an example of good music.
I don’t believe that any music actually appears in the original arcade version of SubRoc-3D (Sega, 1982), but the following year’s ColecoVision port features a wild avant-garde pause screen tune that I really think captures the best second gen technology had to offer. Certainly the ColecoVision had better audio than the Atari 2600 to begin with, but it’s a little easier to imagine a piece like this on other platforms. Who needs a coherent melody anyway? On more advanced systems like the Nintendo, game audio is plagued by attempts to capture musical styles beyond the system’s means. Nobuo Uematsu for instance may be found guilty on such charges, and the scores for the first three Final Fantasy titles really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. What you get with SubRoc-3D is a pretty early example of a sound programmer adapting musical style to the needs of the machine.
But the third generation and its partners in crime did not rise up from the dust and ashes in 1985. The mediums through which the first really great video game music would take shape often originated years before developers, and specifically sound programmers, took notice of them. Just as the Atari 2600, a pop culture icon of the early 80s, was actually released in 1977, gaming as it came to be redefined around 1985 often took place on early 1980s systems. The gap between system release and major game development would not really disappear until the fourth generation. If you look for music in the earliest years of the Commodore 64 for instance, the best you’re going to find–or at least the best I could find–are tunes like that of 3D Skramble (Anirog, 1983). Given what Commodore 64 music would soon become without any improvements in technology, it’s reasonable to wonder whether a few solid early 80s works have been forgotten over time.
A lot of the early to mid-80s systems which would resuscitate the video game industry are a bit obscure. Different systems thrived in different markets, and the North American gamer is not likely to have ever heard of say, the PC-8801 or the MSX, despite their significance in Japan. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the names that will be reoccurring throughout this series of articles. I’m not going to pretend I know much about them, but at least some name recognition will help clarify future events.
The one overwhelming exception to the rule of ho-hum early 80s home gaming music is Ultima III: Exodus, composed by Kenneth W. Arnold and released across a large variety of systems (and thus a large variety of audio formats). I will be returning to it later, but I thought it might provide a nice background piece for the moment.
1977 – Apple II
The Apple II was a home computer designed by Steve Wozniak and released in 1977. (Steve Jobs was little more than a shady businessman exploiting his success as far as I’m concerned, though I don’t know whether Wozniak would agree). As with any system of that era, its sound capacity was very limited, but upgrades were developed over the following years. Sweet Microsystems released their first Apple II soundcard, Sound I, in 1981, and at some point in time between then and 1983 this was upgraded into the Mockingboard A, which used the General Instrument AY-3-8910 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). Game audio as it actually sounded through the Mockingboard is a little hard to come by these days, but the most important music to utilize the Mockingboard, that of the Ultima series, has been faithfully reconstructed.
1981 – PC-8801
NEC Corporation’s PC-8801 was a computer only released in Japan, and judging by the shear quantity of material created for it I have to imagine it became Japan’s most dominant gaming system. As a musical entity the PC-8801 came to life in 1985, when new models began to incorporate the Yamaha YM2203 FM synthesis chip.
1982 – ZX Spectrum
Britian’s Sinclair Research Ltd. released the ZX Spectrum home computer in April 1982. Musically, the ZX Spectrum would always take second stage to the Commodore 64, but it was sufficiently capable for some significant names in sound programming to work their magic on it. Later ZX Spectrum models would employ the General Instrument AY-3-8910 PSG.
1982 – Commodore 64
Commodore International was founded in Toronto and headquartered in Pennsylvania, but their Commodore 64 found the bulk of its success in Europe. Released in August 1982, it would become the quintessential medium for chiptunes. Its SID chip (Sound Interface Device) continues to define the genre today, and the most famous European sound programmers of the 1980s all had a go at it. Through the SID such figures as Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Martin Galway, Chris Hülsbeck, Jeroen Tel, and Neil Baldwin would revolutionize game music.
1982 – FM-7
The FM-7, or Fujitsu Micro 7, was a Japanese home computer equipped with the AY-3-8910 for which little original game material has been brought to my attention. Occasional game port projects for the FM-7 may make for some interesting comparisons.
1983 – MSX
The AY-3-8910 was a prolifically distributed chip, and it found its way into the MSX as well. The MSX was an industry standardization project headed by Kazuhiko Nishi, vice-president of Microsoft’s Japanese branch and director of ASCII. The MSX model found a lot of success outside of the United States, and many early computer games were designed for it. This was followed by the MSX2 in 1985, which switched the audio chip to a Yamaha YM2149 PSG. I am not sure that this should be considered an upgrade though. As I understand it the YM2149 was a replica of the AY-3-8910, produced by Yamaha under license from General Instrument. At any rate, games like Vampire Killer (Konami, 1986) and Final Fantasy (Square, 1987, ported in 1989) would feature it.
1983 – Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The NES requires little introduction, but it is certainly worth reiterating the fact that it was released in 1983. Super Mario Bros. was not actually a launch title (though it would be in the United States), and it would take two years, and arguably the brilliance of Koji Kondo, to really get the Nintendo game music revolution under way. NES hardware included its own audio design.
1984 – Amstrad CPC
Amstrad was yet another British company to employ the AY-3-8910. Amstrad would go on to purchase the rights to the ZX Spectrum in 1986 and develop new models of that system, so the CPC and later versions of the Spectrum would have a lot of technological overlap.
1985 – Sega Master System (SMS)
Sega showed up late on the scene with their Master System, in part because it was a recovery from the relative failure of the SG-1000, released in 1983. The Master System faired only slightly better. It used the Texas Instruments SN76489A–the same PSG chip appearing in the ColecoVision sampled above.
1985 – Amiga
The Amiga was Commodore’s next generation of home computers, with the original Amiga 1000 designed to be a major upgrade over the Commodore 64 (which dated back to 1982). But much like the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 came into its prime a few years after its release, and consumers weren’t quite ready to upgrade in 1985. It would be the Amiga 500 version, released in 1987, that became the C64’s rightful heir. Like the C64, the Amiga had its own unique sound chip, called Paula.