Video Game Music – The Evolution of a Classic

With the growing popularity of video games as a financial alternative, their soundtracks have played a major part in that popularity.

super mario

Super Mario, still the industry standard © Nintendo

The world is still reeling from the financial events of the past few years that have had a resounding effect on the music industry. However, as is often the case, many other industries have thrived in the face of adversity, most notably the video game and home entertainment industries. It is therefore only fitting to look at the effects and evolution of the video game soundtrack, from its humble MIDI format tunes to the ever evolving, vastly improved and almost limitless choice of modern video gaming soundtracks.

Often underappreciated but never overlooked, the soundtrack and music behind every video game has been a constant, almost genre defining aspect of the industry. Starting relatively early when home entertainment was beginning to take off during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, music within video games was initially limited and very, very basic, much like the games themselves. With the advent of the Commodore Amiga and the rival console Atari ST becoming major selling tools in the mid 1980s, it was only natural that the music of the games would utilise the inclining abilities of the graphics and general size of the games themselves. Sampling with MIDI format, it was not an unknown fact for professional musicians to use the Atari ST as a MIDI formatting tool rather than an actual gaming console.

It would be this format that perhaps the most famous video game music would be utilised to its whole extent, when in 1985 the world was introduced to a short, fat plumber from Brooklyn who had been sucked down a drain into the Mushroom Kingdom. He was, of course Super Mario and his signature theme song could be heard throughout the planet resonating from children’s, both young and old, bedrooms. Composed by Koji Kondo, “The Super Mario Bro. Theme” would be one of six total themes the composer would create for the initial game released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Often citing the music as the longest and hardest of the six themes to create, Kondo was initially given a blank arena with the eponymous character running around within its limitless walls. As the game developed, so did the theme, upping its tempo and becoming the now trans-generational classic that is adored the world over. Indeed back in the early days of the game’s development very few could believe what a piece of history was within their midst.

Crediting Latin rhythms and couplets for his inspiration, Koji Kondo cites the theme as having a positive, increased interactivity between the gamer and the events unfolding on the screen. Indeed not only was the theme complimentary of the game but it would become the unofficial anthem for gamers, genre and the industry as a whole.

As the streamlined, silvery veneered 80s rolled into the baggy trousers of the 90s, the evolution of the video game continued to come on in giant leaps and bounds. Gone was the humble 16-Bit side scrolling classics that the generation before had worshiped and in came the much broader, graphic intense games and consoles. With the new found ability to create much vaster games by utilizing CDs as opposed to cartridges, PCs had been doing this for years of course, the step in content and sheer mass of music that could be pumped into games was also increased greatly. It would be the Playstation and N64 generation of consoles where the video game soundtrack would be properly born and given its own plinth on which to display. Games such as the Final Fantasy Series, Metal Gear Solid, Road Rash series and the ever controversial Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series created worlds that were large enough to immerse the user and therefore required a soundtrack to match this magnitude. The GTA series alone boasted one of the broadest spectrum of choice when it came to soundtracks, their Vice City installment having eight “radio stations” that covered broad music tastes from hard rock classics like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon” and David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose”. Compared to the more grating warbling of Bryan Adams’ “Run to You” and even “Ghetto Life” by Rick James. These stations were even large enough to be mass marketed as a CD box set, which of course had fans drooling and clamoring for upon release.

The future looks as bright as it ever does for the video game industry and it would appear that the music scene is not far behind in realizing the fantastic potential and gap in the market. With the Playstation 3’s recent release of their Final Fantasy XIII title, it is important to note that Leona Lewis received a hefty pay packet for her song “My Hands” from her second studio album to appear in the game. To be more precise the track was chosen to replace the traditional theme of the franchise, a gesture that merely supports and solidifies the strong position and money making that video games and their soundtracks will continue into the coming decades.

Jonathan Whitelaw

All of the featured video game franchises can be found at their respective websites:,,,

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