Once upon a time, blips, bleeps, bwumps, and boings ruled the world of video game soundtracks, the soundtrack of our lives. It was, indeed, a simpler time. Who doesn’t remember Zelda’s overworld theme? Dragon Warrior’s battle music? Mario’s theme song as he trekked toward his first princessless castle? These tunes are now memories ingrained in supplement to the experiences they shrouded.
When the 16-bit era dawned, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario, and hundreds of other mascots were graced with stereo sound and additional channels for their music to evolve. And evolve they did. The golden age of video game music will forever be associated with the early 90s and catchy tunes that were brought to life in that decade. Back then, game music was still an afterthought but legions of gamers have downloaded their soundtracks or remixed their melodies since. Those are the songs that have stayed with us through the years, silently carrying a tune in our heads through the tedium of our jobs or downtime.
Nobuo Uematsu is probably the world’s most renowned game music composer. He was Final Fantasy’s only arranger up to FFIX and starting with FFX his composition role began to diminish, contributing to Masashi Hamauzu and Yasunori Mitsuda’s work from then on until his complete absence from FFXIII. Throughout his contributions to game music, his melodies capture the mind like no other.
While Final Fantasy XIII has a gorgeous soundtrack, only a few are “humworthy” and set my bumps to goosing. Masashi Hamauzu, the game’s composer, has a style much more like a movie score than the old school Uematsu classic melodies. This is unfortunate since SOME of his tracks can be fantastic to listen to and are quite memorable but this pales in comparison to the rarely boring music of generations past.
Fire up Killzone 3 sometime and listen to the songs it boasts. Quite often, I’ll play a few online matches because while the multiplayer is one of the better FPS experiences I’ve ever tried, the main title theme is brilliantly melodic and since I listen to the theme, I may as well play for awhile. My surround sound gets its money’s worth on a weekly basis for that song alone, annoyed neighbors be damned. Joris de Man is the one that is responsible for the melodies throughout the Killzone series. He’s one artist that should be heard from more often yet has very few sound credits outside of Guerilla Games’ FPS staple. As a matter of fact, he is rumored to NOT be working on Killzone: Mercenary or Killzone: Shadowfall, another sign that melodic music is dying in games.
The games from the 80s and 90s boasted great soundtracks despite severe technical and technological limitations. Many game systems back then and even PCs could only use a few channels to produce audio in their games and most of those channels were reserved for sound effects. Nowadays, audio channels are plentiful and with digital audio tracks, few channels are required for music while the others can be utilized for other sound. So why is the melody fading from our games?
The only answer that comes to mind relates to games that are now trying to copy the movie industry far too much. This type of adaptation is generally a good thing. For example, set-pieces are a brilliant addition to modern gaming. Lighting and other effects too. But music that used to envelop the player and draw them deeper into the game is now replaced by orchestral accompaniment intended to affect your mood. Music itself is defaulted to a quieter setting, further pushing it into the background of the gaming experience.
While this musical score approach might not be a severe detriment, it certainly leaves something to be desired. Final Fantasy XV is rumored to have Uematsu returning to compose its soundtrack. This is a desire fulfilled. His own approach to composing has evolved into a more dramatic, classical vibe but games like The Last Odyssey and Blue Dragon prove that he still has melody coursing through his veins. Gaming needs more composers who can burn a song’s image into our mind like this and I fear those gems will become more rare as we enter the next generation.
As music in gaming continues to devolve into nothing more than a score, all hope is not lost. Uematsu hasn’t retired, De Man will likely land another gig for a future game and melody will still grace our ears from time to time. Even some current-gen composers such as Uncharted’s Gred Edmonson shows promise with some of his work featuring quality melodies. Unfortunately, finding these gems is no longer as simple as turning on a random video game. You have to know where to look and perhaps that will keep the songs of old that much more valuable and the great, melodic songs to come on a pedestal above the rest.