Experiencing Retro Games Music


Sound in video games is integral and a huge part of the experience as we all know. Sonic 'tagging' or branding such as the sound of finding a secret in Zelda games or collecting a ring in Sonic is so important to the in-game experience that even people who don’t play retro games can easily recognise these sounds.

Article - by Andrew Foster - Musician

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The music in games though runs deep and although (retro games especially) have no lyrics in them they still have a huge emotional value to the players. I am a musician now so I can’t help to now have an understanding and analytical approach to how it’s made. It’s interesting to look back on some of my favorite themes before I knew the musicality of them and briefly analyze why I love them with hindsight.

These are just a few of my favorites

Zombies Ate My Neighbors: Main theme: SNES/Megadrive:

A completely bonkers game needs a fitting soundtrack to accompany it and what makes this theme so perfect is that it draws its inspiration from the psychedelic surf/garage themes from the early 60's late 50's that go hand in hand with the B-Movie design throughout. Perfect audio design and a classic theme, for optimum listening quality though it must be listened to whilst wearing 3D shades.

Mr Nutz: Woody Land 3 & 4: SNES:

Mr Nutz although very successful cross various formats never really gets talked about anymore. It has some very high production values and it’s incredibly tough, maybe that’s why! The music is great throughout but this particular theme perfectly captures the autumnal 'mystical forest' feel that this level evokes. The SNES's midi sounds were more complex than the Megadrives harsh dirty sonic’s and none more highlighted than here. It has some odd scale choices using flat notes and slightly trippy pad sounds, the scale choices have definitely influenced my music. I tend to always have odd chords thrown into relatively standard chord progressions and this is possibly an example of why I do it.

Flimbo's Quest: C64:

Ah the Sid chip.. the lethal weapon of the C64 and those wobbly crunchy snares and basslines get the perfect outing on this cult C64 classic. Pick any tune in this game for a perfect example of the Sid in action. When someone asks for the perfect Vox amp chime I point them to early Beatles records, when someone wants to hear an example of Commodore's well-loved machine I would point them here. That level one music instantly brings me back to my youth. It’s playful, fun, cutesy and quite complex for back then.

Donkey Kong Country: Aquatic Ambience: SNES:

I could write a whole other article on Nintendo game music and intent to! I adore Sega but for me in-house made Nintendo games always have the most incredible music. Donkey Kong Country used silicon rendering, faux 3D and some incredible musical scores to create a new experience to rival the next gen wave coming in. The underwater level particularly gets talked about a lot with retro gamers and its ambient genius is still beautiful today. I wonder how many people let Kong or Diddy just stay idle on the sea bed because If you rushed through the level you would always miss the best bit in the musical score! Brian Eno would be proud!

Cyberdyne Warrior: Main Theme: C64:


Another Sid chip gem from Apex on the C64. I got this game off a powerpack from Commodore Format magazine and after loading it up left the opening screen idling because the music was so good! It has that perfect 80's drama that we came to expect from movie themes like Robocop and Terminator that the game definitely took elements from. I like the looping bassline with the chords changing over the top. It’s the perfect metallic arcade adventure theme that seems to be undiscovered.

Earthworm Jim: Barn Theme: N64:

As we got into the 64 bit era the CD based systems could hold recorded music and had game tie-in licenses like the Chemical Brothers in Wipeout. Orchestras were starting to be used to record game music but the N64 wasn’t known for its sonic capabilities. Nintendo’s most playable machine still sounded like Midi and sometimes even less impressive than the SNES because the N64 shared its load with the co-processor apparently! Quality isn’t always the top priority when it comes to music composition though...just ask Robert Johnson! Besides its shortcomings the N64 still made some of the best video game music in history. This redneck storming barn dance is just as whacky as the game.

Zen Intergalactic Ninja: Oil Area: Gameboy:

Arcade games need drama, Contra, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, even my favorite arcade musical passage Virtua Racing (I can’t include it here its 30 secs long!) has huge drama and exaggerated musical themes. I went for this relatively unknown platformer on the Gameboy, a game that had mixed reviews that I loved back then and this theme was the perfect arcade companion to the Oil level. Listening to it now it sounds incredibly like the Street fighter themes which as we all know are loved by everyone who owns a pad or joystick!

Mortal Kombat 2: Wastlend Theme: Megadrive:

Like I said before the SNES had a more complex sound processor but sometimes the Megadrive’s dirtier scuzzier sound processors made for a superior soundtrack. The SNES wasteland theme for my personal favorite Mortal Kombat 2 is far too clean and nice sounding. This was the version I had of the game and its aggressive, percussive call to arms is a perfect accompaniment to the violence! I love the Asian instruments making a nod to the martial arts and mystical feel the game design conjures up. Toasty!

Treasure Island Dizzy: In-game Theme: C64:

I know I have two examples of the SID chip already but if you’re ever feeling sad put this on YouTube, make a cup of tea, and pick up and put down items like you are Dizzy egg.


Andrew Foster 2015

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