A Timeline of Videogame Music

December 9, 2005


As with film, television, and other primarily visual mediums, sound and music are often the forgotten elements in video game design. That may be because sound affects you with more subtly than do splashy visuals or hyperspeedy gameplay. In fact, oftentimes the mark of superior sound design is that you don’t consciously notice it at all. Instead, it goes to work on you subconsciously–heightening tension, manipulating the mood, and drawing you into the gameworld faintly but inexorably.Consider the ominous ambient sounds of Resident Evil, the effects of which compound the tension and horror as you happen upon those relentless zombies chewing up your Alpha Team comrades. Even early games like Space Invaders earned much of their addictive appeal by getting into your head with thumping, repetitive sound schemes. As the aliens got faster and closer, the music got faster and louder. Properly designed, sound and visual cues work together to produce an experience greater than the sum of their parts.

Dedicated gamers have come to appreciate just how integral good sound and music can be to the overall gameplay experience. Early arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Defender relied on superb digital sound schemes to provide us with ditties, melodies, beeps, and buzzes we’d never heard before. With the introduction of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras and with the expanded storage capabilities of CD-ROM, video game music moved into the realm of true composition. Video game soundtracks now constitute their own category in music outlets both online and off. Mainstream cross-pollination continues as well, from “Pac-Man Fever” to the recent phenomenon of techno and rock artists who contribute to game soundtracks.In 2000, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) decided to let interactive games compete in the annual Grammy awards. Individual proponents within the game music industry are lobbying for a video game-specific category in the future. So far, however, no organized lobbying group has come forward, according to a NARAS spokesperson. As it stands now, individual composers or record labels can submit video game soundtrack music independently in one of three general categories: Best Soundtrack Album; Best Song; or Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media.

As technology progresses and as overall game design continues to evolve, video game music promises to be a fertile area of development and growth.

The very first video games, alas, had no sound component whatsoever. In 1958, William Higinbotham, an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US nuclear research facility, fashioned a crude tennis-type game on an oscilloscope. Five years later, Spacewar–MIT student Steve Russell’s protogame–featured two dueling spaceships controlled by toggle switches. It was created on the hulking PDP-1 computer, a $120,000 mainframe the size of a Buick. Both, however, were silent.

Eventually, things started getting interesting. So join us now for a leisurely “scroll” down a Brief Timeline of Video Game Sound and Music.

Special thanks to Steven Kent, author of The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games and Donald A. Thomas, Webmaster of the online video game museum I.C. When (www.icwhen.com.)


Magnavox Odyssey Released
The first home video console, the Magnavox Odyssey, is released in the US. The fully analog system is fully silent as well.

Pong Heard ‘Round the World
Nolan Bushnell test-markets his protovideo game, Pong, at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. The arcade video game as we know it is born. The sonar-blip sound that’s generated as a digital ball is batted back and forth proves to be oddly compelling and kind of hypnotic.


Simon Says
Milton Bradley releases Simon, one of the most popular handheld games ever. Simon plays patterns using four separate tones and four different colored lights. You repeat the patterns; then a new note is added every go-around. In that sense, Simon was the first game to incorporate music as a game element–in a very loose, Zen-free jazz kind of way.


Shots Heard ‘Round the World
Midway Games imports Gunfight from the Japanese company Taito. Gunfight is the first game to use a microprocessor (instead of hardwired circuits). A one-channel amplifier provides mono gunshot sounds.


Atari Comes Home
The Atari Video Computer System (VCS) hits shelves in time for the Christmas holiday season. Nine game cartridges are available upon the system’s release, and the sounds of a generation are born. Scratchy and primitive sound effects on the VCS (later known as the 2600) are still unlike anything to ever come out of a TV set. Highlights: The rumbling tanks of Combat; the bleep-bloop-bleep rhythm of Breakout; the ominous silence of Adventure.


Space Invasion
Midway imports Space Invaders from Taito. A great example of simple, effective sound design, Space Invaders owes a large part of its appeal to its menacing, paranoia-inducing soundtrack. Not music per se, the thumping audio track actually accelerates in tempo as the enemy invaders draw nearer (and move faster). The effect: sweat, panic, and increased blood pressure in a generation of gamers.


Asteroids Arrives
Atari’s Asteroids hits arcades, and like Space Invaders, it employs a thumping, repetitive rhythm that speeds up as gameplay intensifies. The piercing laser shots, exploding asteroids, and high-pitched squall of enemy UFOs adds to the sonic tension. Another great, early sound design.

Baseball Gets a Word In
The first talking game to appear in the home console arena, Major League Baseball for the Intellivision system, featured a computer-generated voice with a woefully limited vocabulary: “strike,” “ball,” “out,” and so forth. Talking commentary would go on to become a de rigueur element of sports games.


Taunting Berzerkers
Manufacturer Stern introduces the innovative shooter Berzerk, which features the most recognizable voice synthesizer module of the early arcade era: “Get the humanoid!” “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” “The humanoid must not escape!” “Chicken! Fight like a robot!” Inexplicably, players seem to enjoy being mocked and taunted by a machine and continue to feed it money. The market for Microsoft operating systems is born.

Pac-Man Descends
The most popular video game of all time (in terms of pure pop-culture consciousness) makes its debut, with more than 100,000 units shipped to the US alone. The game boasts many memorable sound and music elements. The opening ditty is one of just a few video game melodies to seriously penetrate the pop-culture superconscious. Consider Pac-Man’s voracious, insatiable eating of dots–is this the sound of consumerism run amok? Also consider the sound of Pac-Man dying (blinking out), which has become a universally accepted “defeat” sound.

Pac-Man Fever
Video game music hits the pop charts: Atlanta musicians Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia spoof Ted Nugent’s song “Cat Scratch Fever” with “Pac-Man Fever.” Sample lyric: “I’ve gotta callus on my finger/And my shoulder’s hurtin’ too/I’m gonna eat ’em all up/Just as soon as they turn blue.” The song goes to number nine on the US singles charts. A follow-up album features additional songs dedicated to Frogger, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Defender, Mousetrap, and Berzerk. Buckner and Garcia rerelease the Pac-Man Fever soundtrack on CD in 1999.

Defender Arrives
A side-scrolling space shoot-’em-up from Williams, Defender rivals Pac-Man for the most popular arcade game of its time, with more than 55,000 units sold worldwide. Despite being limited by the standard single-channel mono amp, Defender features a busy, chaotic sound design. The game’s constant thrusting and shooting, with subsequent exploding aliens, creates a wall-of-noise effect that adds greatly to the game’s dynamic intensity.


Donkey Kong Ditty
Nintendo’s blockbuster arcade game features another winning sound design. Shigeru Miyamoto created the music himself on a small electronic keyboard.

Tempest: Sound and Fury
Atari’s first color vector game, Tempest, hits arcades, and true to its name, the relentless sound schematic rivals Defender for sheer wall-of-noise power. Tempest was one of the first machines to use Atari’s POKEY chip, the primary function of which is to generate sound. The chip has four separate channels, and the pitch, volume, and distortion values of each can be controlled individually. Tempest uses two chips, for a total of eight “voices” arranged in endless combinations. Atari releases a separate soundtrack for the game, identified by the online video game museum I.C. When (www.icwhen.com) as the first stand-alone audio soundtrack in the video game industry.

Atari 5200 Arrives
Atari’s 5200 system incorporates the four-track POKEY chip. The 5200 is essentially a console version of the Atari 8-bit computers (400/800, XL, XE, XEGS). Several arcade favorites migrate and benefit from the home console’s improved technology–think Vanguard, Robotron: 2084, Joust, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Pole Position, and Centipede.

Q*bert Hops Along
Meanwhile, back in the arcade, cult favorite Q*bert incorporates some innovative sound elements. As author Steven Kent points out in his book, The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games, Sound Engineer David Thiel programmed random numbers into the speech chip that generated Q*bert’s “voice.” The result: Whenever Q*bert died, he muttered angry gibberish that sounded like speech (but wasn’t). At the same time, a word balloon appeared over his head with messages like “@!#@!”–the first alien swear words. Q*bert also used mechanical pinball hardware to generate the “thunk” you hear when Q*bert falls off the pyramid.


Into the Dragon’s Lair
Cinematronics releases Dragon’s Lair in 1983, which was the first arcade game to feature laser-disc technology. As such, the game was also one of the first to incorporate stereo sound and actual human voices. The animation staff–former Disney artists–use their own voices for the characters.

Spy Hunter in Stereo
Another of the first stereo sound games, Spy Hunter has one channel dedicated solely to the familiar Peter Gunn spy caper theme and the other to activated game sounds–machine guns, helicopter blades, and other in-game action noises. A classic game, Spy Hunter’s reputation is marred only by the fact that it produced– in the words of the Simpsons’ comic book store guy–the “worst sequel ever.”


The Dawn of the NES
Nintendo test-markets its soon-to-be dominant Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in New York. The 8-bit system uses a powerful Motorola 6502 processor.
The Tetris Syndrome
Russian programmer Alex Pajitnov inflicts the ridiculously addictive Tetris upon the world. The infectious soundtrack adds greatly to the puzzle game’s enduring appeal. Subsequently, millions of glassy-eyed players endure endless loops of vaguely martial Russian Muzak playing in their heads.
Super Mario Bros. Arrives
Nintendo releases Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Considered by many to be composer Shigeru Miyamoto’s first true masterpiece, the music and sound design of Super Mario Bros. sets a new high-water mark. Constantly shifting tone to match the action onscreen, Miyamoto’s sound design achieves a new kind of synthesis with the gameplay. Try playing the game with the sound off, and you’ll quickly miss those music and sound cues–for example, the exact timing of your immunity power-up wearing off. With the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack, video game sound design begins to move in a new direction, away from cinematic conventions and toward something altogether new.


Sega, Atari React
Sega releases its 8-bit Sega Master System (SMS) in the US. The system features four dedicated sound channels–three for music, one for noise. Atari releases the 8-bit 7800 game console, which has built-in backward compatibility for 2600 games.

The Disk Era Begins
Nintendo releases a peripheral for the Famicom (the Japanese NES)–a $150 disk drive called the Famicom Disk System. The device never makes it to the US market, but it signals the beginning of the shift from cartridges to digital discs.


Enter the Legend of Zelda
Shigeru Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda comes to the NES, pioneering a key Nintendo franchise in 1987 in the US. The game’s music won many fans and can still be found reproduced in MIDI and MP3 format all over the Web.

Final Fantasy Debuts
In 1987, Square releases Final Fantasy for the NES in Japan. A franchise is born, and it will generate what is considered by fans and historians to be the best video game music ever made. Composer Nobuo Uematsu breaks entirely new ground with his sweeping and cinematic musical scores and continues to work his magic in sequels to this day.


Introducing the Game Boy
Nintendo’s handheld phenomenon, the Game Boy, is released, featuring four channels for sound–each of which can be mapped to the left, to the right, or to both speakers.

NEC releases the TurboGrafx-16 in the US (only the graphics processor is true 16-bit.) NEC also releases a $400 portable CD player attachment, which plays games that are stored on compact discs.

Sega Genesis
Sega responds to the TurboGrafx-16 with its 16-bit Genesis system, which features six-channel stereo sound.

Moonwalking With Michael
Sega launches a huge campaign to promote its title for the Genesis system, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk–seemingly the ultimate meeting of video games and pop music. The game, which features synthesized versions of MJ hits, such as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” is deeply weird. Jackson contributed to the creative development of the game, which follows the superstar as he shimmies through graveyards and pool halls, looking for kidnapped children.


Super Famicom Hits Japan
Nintendo of Japan unveils its Super Famicom, a 16-bit system with better audio and 3D graphics than those of the Genesis and TurboGrafx-16.

SNK Neo-Geo Makes the Scene
SNK releases the $399 24-bit Neo-Geo in arcade and home formats. The home system’s dedicated 8-bit sound processor provides 15 separate channels.


Super Famicom Arrives in US
Nintendo releases the 16-bit Super Famicom in America and calls the $249.95 console the Super NES (SNES). The system uses a dedicated 8-bit Sony SPC700 sound chip with eight separate channels.

Introducing Play-by-Play
Joe Montana Sportstalk Football II for Sega Genesis debuts, marking the first time a sports game employs continuous play-by-play commentary. Previous games had featured the occasional shout-out, but Sportstalk was the first game to feature an announcer describing the action on the field as it happened. The Madden football franchise would go on to dominate the field, so to speak, upping the commentary ante with each release. Whether or not this is progress depends greatly on your opinion of John Madden.

The Mean Streets of Rage
Sega releases Streets of Rage for the Genesis system. A classic side-scrolling beat-’em-up, the game’s techno soundtrack takes full advantage of the Genesis system’s advanced sound hardware. The songs include rumbling drum samples, sticky melodies, and innovative use of stereo effects.


Sega CD Released
Sega releases the $299 Sega CD system, as the migration toward superior CD-based storage continues.


3DO Console Arrives
Panasonic releases the 32-bit 3DO console system to rave reviews. The system uses a custom 16-bit processor with 17 separate channels to and from system memory, taking maximum advantage of the CD-ROM format. The $700 price tag cools sales.

Jaguar Pounces
Atari leaps over its competition by introducing the 64-bit Jaguar Atari, bypassing the 32-bit arena altogether. It’s actually two 32-bit coprocessors, affectionately named “Tom” and “Jerry.” Jerry, a 32-bit digital signal processor, handles sound duties and is able to produce CD-quality sound with full stereo effects.


Final Fantasy’s Apex
Square’s wildly popular Final Fantasy series hits a new high with Final Fantasy VI (III in the US in 1999) for the NES. A great example of Uematsu’s brilliance, this soundtrack demonstrates the increasing sophistication of video game music. Character-specific leitmotivs recur throughout gameplay, and the sheer variety of styles employed is audacious. Uematsu is deservedly compared to film composer John Williams. (The game’s soundtrack would ultimately place first in GameSpot’s Readers’ Choice of the all-time greatest video game soundtracks.)

Sega 32X
Sega releases its 32-bit console peripheral, the 32X, which enables the Genesis to run a new set of 32-bit cartridge games. The 32X adds two more sound channels with its built-in PCM stereo sound chip.


Sega releases its 32-bit, $399 Saturn in the US in May. The system employs two sound processors–a Yamaha FH1 24-bit digital signal processor and a 22.6MHz Motorola 68EC000 sound processor.

Sony PlayStation Arrives
Sony releases the 32-bit PlayStation in the US in September at a price of $299. The 24-channel sound chip provides CD-quality stereo sound and has built-in support for digital effects such as reverb and looping.


Nintendo 64
Nintendo launches its Nintendo 64 in the US. The beefed-up, cartridge-based 64-bit system breaks tradition by relying on its exceptionally powerful CPU to handle much of the task of creating music and playing back sound effects.

Creepfest Resident Evil
The release of Capcom’s Resident Evil for the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and PC marks the creation of a new genre: survival-horror. The game borrows from the more exceptional horror films and raises ambient sound to a new level of spookiness–from the gristly crunch of a skull-gnawing zombie to the creepy ticking of a grandfather clock. Rumors about a planned Resident Evil movie continue to circulate.

Techno Meets WipeOut XL
Psygnosis unveils WipeOut XL for the PlayStation. The kicking techno soundtrack includes contributions from marquee names such as The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, and Future Sound of London. You can even choose the track you want to listen to as you race, which truly makes the music seem more important to gameplay.


Enter PaRappa the Rapper
A top-selling hit in Japan, SCEA’s PaRappa the Rapper hits the US. The bizarre premise and gameplay strikes a chord with gamers thirsting for originality. As the insecure puppy PaRappa, you must master various styles of rap and hip-hop “singing” to impress the girl puppy you have a crush on. The music is both funky and funny, and the 2D painted paper-doll animation is distinctive. The soundtrack placed in GameSpot’s Top 10 Video Game Soundtracks feature and appeared in the Readers’ Choice vote as well.

King of the Castlevania
Konami’s superior 2D action title, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, brings a slick and menacing new vibe to the soundtrack arena. Themes range from sinister heavy-metal riffs to grand, Gothic classical tracks. Mixing classical and hard-rock compositions with the overarching Gothic theme makes for a bloody good soundtrack. The voice acting is superior as well. The game disc holds a secret music track.


The Legend of Zelda Returns
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time debuts on the Nintendo 64. Besides boasting an amazing soundtrack, it’s the first contemporary nondance title to feature music-making as part of its gameplay. In the game, you use the ocarina, a kind of flute, to teleport, open portals, or summon allies. There’s also a musical puzzle in which you must follow the bass line of a song to make it through the Lost Woods.

Let’s Dance
Konami releases Dance Dance Revolution, probably the best known of the various “Benami” music games to hit arcades in Japan. It’s safe to say that Dance Dance Revolution employs a novel form of player interface: As songs are played, the screen scrolls a pattern of arrows, which float to the top of the screen. When the arrows hit the action bar, you must step on corresponding arrows on the dance pad peripheral. The closer you are to the beat, the more points you score. Other Benami games include Guitar Freaks (play a guitar to music), DrumMania (play a drum kit peripheral), and Hip Hop Mania (scratch turntables to music).


Enter the Dreamcast
The highly anticipated Dreamcast hits stores with its powerful 128-bit central processor and superintelligent sound processor, which has a 32-bit RISC CPU

Skate Punks Unite!
Rockstar Games ups the ante in the licensed soundtrack department with the release of Thrasher: Skate and Destroy for the PlayStation. The old-school hip-hop lineup includes licensed favorites from Run DMC (“King of Rock”), Public Enemy (“Rebel Without a Pause”), Sugarhill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight”), Grandmaster Flash (“White Lines”), Afrika Bambaataa (“Planet Rock”), and Eric B. and Rakim (“I Know You Got Soul”). The competing title, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, goes alt-punk instead, with songs by the Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, and Primus.


The PlayStation 2 Hits Stores
Sony’s much anticipated PlayStation 2 finally gets a limited US release on October 26, 2000. Along with the 128-bit Emotion Engine CPU, the system boasts 48 channels of sound plus 2MB of dedicated sound memory.

The Art of Conversation: Seaman
Sega’s virtual-pet simulation for the Dreamcast, SeaMan, invites you to actually converse with onscreen characters rather than simply yell at them (“Dammit, Lara, flip sideways–then shoot!”). The game employs sophisticated voice-recognition technology, which lets you gradually hold adult conversations with the little aqua critters on everything from politics to baseball.

Talk With the Pokémon, Walk With the Pokémon…
Nintendo releases a surprisingly fun entry into the voice-recognition arena with Hey You, Pikachu! for the Nintendo 64. The game is aimed squarely at the younger crowd but is endless fun for anyone with a short attention span. Using the included microphone and voice-recognition pad, you converse with and guide Pikachu through a literally endless series of miniquests by issuing voice commands.

The DIY Soundtrack
Released in Japan and the UK only, the truly strange Vib-Ribbon takes the relationship of music and gameplay in an entirely different direction. Playing the rabbitlike creature Vibri, you must navigate levels that are themselves determined by the music track that’s playing. Moody mope-rock equals slow and steady; frantic techno equals fast and furious. The kicker is that you can pop your own audio CDs into the PlayStation to generate entirely new levels based on the tempo of the music. A cult classic.

Game Boy Gets Funky
Nintendo releases a new adapter for the Game Boy Color, and it turns the handheld system into a portable MP3 player. The $80 unit, called the SongBoy, attaches to the top of the Game Boy and equips the system with 16MB of memory (expandable to 32MB) for playing MP3 music files.

3 Responses to “A Timeline of Videogame Music”

  1. I am glad that I observed this blog , precisely the right information that I was searching for! .

  2. Zain Says:

    Hi, Glenn, I’m a 1st year Game Programming student. I’m doing a presentation on Music in Video Games, and I wanted to thank you for writing such a detailed article on the topic. No other article on the web helped me as much as yours did. You helped me out a lot, thanks. 🙂

  3. smithee Says:

    fantastic article.

    i cant help but think silent hill need a mention in there. i mean resident evil is a movie score. silent hill is just disturbing. a blend of noise and music that merge seamlessly.

    perhaps the most recent is custom soundtracks, the dynamic soundtrack in ssx (changes depending on what you do), or the recent pop stars appearing in final fantasy.

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