Gaming may be a few decades old, having long ago ridden its light cycle out of the arcade, yet many still seem to think game music consists of bloops and bleeps.
It's an idea as outdated as disco. So it's fitting that Nile Rodgers -- the legendary producer and Chic member who best connects that era to this one thanks to his Daft Punk collab "Get Lucky" -- is the person most responsible for giving game music a proper hearing in North America.
Back in 1998, three years after the first PlayStation popularized CD technology in gaming -- dramatically increasing game music's complexity by allowing prerecorded streaming rather than just live sequencing -- Rodgers launched Sumthing Else Music and Sumthing Distribution to get game soundtracks off screen and into stores.
But this story really begins back in the late '70s, when Rodgers first became a gamer.
“When we first started making records, recording studios were not the sort of high-tech, inviting atmospheres they are now,” Rodgers recalls. “In the old days, studios were sort of dungeons with gear. They didn't want you to be aware of time because recording studios ran 24 hours a day. We just worked and worked and worked, and whenever we'd find ourselves mentally and artistically exhausted, we would go to the video game arcade.”
So the Chic crew would play "Pac-Man" and "Asteroids" and when they walked the few blocks back to the studio, they'd find themselves singing those old 8-bit melodies. Once consoles came out, Rodgers would buy all of them, from landmarks like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System, to forgotten platforms like the Phillips CD-i. But as much as he loved the games, it was the tunes that truly stuck with him.
"We'd write lyrics to them," he laughs. "A lesson I learned when I first started making records was that the most powerful tool when it comes to marketing music is repetition -- and what's more repetitious than video game music? You just hear that stuff, and you can't get it out of your head."
Rodgers began developing a great respect for composers like Koji Kondo, who scored "The Legend of Zelda" and "Super Mario Bros." series. “I just liked it because it was cool compositions, it moved the action along, and as the platforms became more sophisticated, the composers had greater ability and greater access to instruments, be they digital or analog,” he says. “And I thought ‘man, I’d like to give these people a larger platform for their music.’”
Initially, Rodgers’ label was intended for more traditional music – one of the first records he released was an indie solo album from David Lee Roth's DLR Band -- but then he was approached to release a "Resident Evil" soundtrack. He found that both releases had a built-in niche fanbase, but there was one big difference between rock musicians and game musicians.
“I didn't have to worry about bailing the video game soundtrack composers out of prison 'cause they were busted for smoking pot in Washington Square Park. Video game soundtracks and video games, they come out on time. Rock and roll, the business that I come from, can be somewhat undisciplined, especially in the '80s and the '90s -- we were really a bit out of control."
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Link's quest to unite the Triforce, save Princess Zelda and slay evil Ganon has required a constantly evolving soundtracks over the past 25 years. As well, aside from <em>Final Fantasy</em>, no other game can boast a North American orchestra tour.
FIFA 98 to 2013 (multi-platform)
There was nothing like dodging, dribbling and firing the ball through the goalkeeper along to Blur's "Song 2" and then getting knocked down again to Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" in FIFA 98. The soccer series was one of the first to pair remixes and electronic music with gameplay and has maintained that long tradition ever since. Sports games and music licensing have never been the same since.
Final Fantasy (multi-platform)
With all the extra time you spend levelling up your characters in the Final Fantasy series, epic music is key. Nobuo Uematsu must have known this when he composed the music for the first title, because they had him back for eight more. The Final Fantasy series has spawned 24 albums and nine singles in various global markets, and the soundtracks are even available as sheet music. SEPHIROTH!
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
<em>Grand Theft Auto: Vice City</em> had a significant Miami-themed soundtrack, but the<em> San Andreas</em> iteration integrated music like never before with six 1992-era L.A.-centric radio stations, all while loosely basing the game around the life of gangster rap icon, Eazy-E. A six CD box set of the soundtrack was also released through Interscope Records.
Halo Series (XBox)
From the somber Gregorian-chanting monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz to the warbling London Bulgarian Choir, the composers of Halo’s soundtracks (Michael Salvator, Steve Vai, Marty O’Donnell and currently Neil Davidge of Massive Attack) have consistently delivered stern, awe-inspiring soundscapes that keep gamers alert and cringing at the thought of yet another headshot.
The tinny trills of <em>Megaman</em>’s soundtrack brought both chills of excitement and tears of agony to young gamers. When levels got a little hairy, it was sometimes helpful to flat-out mute the music to focus on gameplay.
Parappa The Rapper (multi-platform)
American-made hip-hop interpreted for the Japanese gaming market gave life to cut-out style animations of Parappa, the hip-hop dog, feeding the rhythm-based gaming craze. Millions “Kick, Chop, Punch”-ed their tears away with Master Onion!
Sonic The Hedgehog (Sega Genesis)
The skateboarding islander Alex Kid just wasn't cutting it as Sega’s mascot and so Sonic the ring-hoarding Hedgehog was born. The team knocked it out of the park with a soundtrack as memorable as the game itself. For the hardcore fan, <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7WGxPM8FXw">check out</a> the obscure Sonic related J-Pop tune remixed by Akon titled "Sweet Sweet Sweet Akon Mix 06."
Super Mario World (SNES)
Freed from the fetters of clunky 8-bit pixels, a smooth-edged Mario burst to life with a quirky soundtrack punctuated by springy sound effects and platform-hopping bliss.
Tetris?! Yes, Tetris. Tetris makes the list for being what is probably the most recognizable game soundtrack ever created. The game had such a wide audience at its peak in 1988 that you could probably ask your grandpa Yevgeni to hum music option A (Russian folk song, the Korobeiniki), and he’d pull it off with a smile.
Eager to give his life more order, Rodgers went all in with game soundtracks and his label and distro company became the genre's ground zero. From the first few "Halo" soundtracks, the latter two of which Rodgers produced, to pretty much every major release nowadays. In the last year alone, they've licensed and distributed soundtracks to "Resident Evil 6," "Borderlands 2," "Darksiders II," "Gears of War: Judgment," "Jet Set Radio," "Metal Gear Rising: Revengence," "Saints Row: The Third," "Tomb Raider," and more.
Full orchestras have recently taken to touring classic game scores in North America, but they have yet to see the massive mainstream successes they enjoy in Japan. Still, Rodgers believes it's just a matter of time.
"I would love to have some of those great composers reap those kinds of rewards, of people knowing their music even if they're not gamers. That would be amazing. Some of my friends who are big composers in Japan, they sell out stadiums. You can hear them playing game music, and it’s like going to see a rock band here. That's not the quite the same in America."
But times are changing. Earlier this year, Rodgers' release of the soundtrack for Journey, composed by Austin Wintory, even nabbed a Grammy nomination, the first-ever for a game soundtrack.
"That's a huge, huge, huge milestone. Whenever a video game soundtrack finally wins a Grammy, everybody's gonna say 'I owe this to 'Journey,'" Rodgers says of the first soundtrack to blip onto Grammy's radar.
Why this matters is because Grammy recognition also puts game music on the public's radar, and helps them realize that it’s more than blips. Rodgers says that the genre has grown so diverse now that there is no definitive sound it.
"And that's what I love about it, because it, like life, is evolving and changing and morphing and getting better. So to have a definitive example of it means that, on some level, it stopped,” he says. "Man, I wouldn't be involved in it if I could actually define it. I certainly wouldn't wanna distribute it or put it out, that's for sure. I just look at it as music. Period. End of story."