The magic behind video game music.
Quick, hum as much of the Super Mario Bros. level music as you can in your head.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Even if you don’t consider yourself a gamer, you can probably hum a decent chunk of that song on command. And on top of that, you probably don’t load up the Super Mario Bros. music every day on your phone either. There’s a sticking power to video game music, and trust me, that’s no accident.
Video game music has become a glorified art form in the modern era. What was once a series of beeps and boops has inspired mega successful bands like Anamanaguchi, and concert halls literally fill for performances of music from Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. What is it about video game music that attracts even the most casual gamers? We can boil it down to these five reasons:
1: Limitations lead to brilliance.
Many iconic songs were born in the 1980s on the limited Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. Yet memorable tunes like the Legend of Zelda theme and almost anything from Mega Man are still celebrated today. But we’re not just talking about video game music lasting the test of time – these great songs set the tone for video game soundtracks as we know them.
With limited memory and sound channels to work with, early classic tunes needed to get players’ attention quick. While the average pop song takes about a minute to get to the catchy part, early video game composers needed to cut that build up almost completely. This is why it’s surprising to find that music that feels sweeping and epic like The Legend of Zelda Overworld Theme is not even 40 seconds long. These songs cut as much fat as possible and establish catchy hooks to stick with players despite their limitations.
This trend of quick and catchy hooks is still popular in game music today. Even with a full orchestra and the talent of the band that brought you the Attack on Titan openings, Bravely Default’s battle theme kicks off with a mere three seconds of build-up. Even if many video games break from this tradition, it does show why video game music in general feels so catchy when even compared to modern pop music.
2: We associate songs with memories.
We all know what it’s like to attach a song with our past. According to neuroscience, “music engages brain regions linked to motor actions, emotions, and creativity.” So if a song on the radio can remind you of summertime when you were a teenager, it’s only natural that we’d associate video game songs with our first time playing these games.
This is why music from early Pokémon games gets a strong reaction out of practically anyone. Anyone caught in Pokémania as a kid has good memories battling and trading with friends, and hearing those familiar tunes brings us right back to that time period. For me, the Azalea Town music from the Gen 2 Pokémon games always gets me a little wispy feeling when I hear it. Same with basically every song from Chrono Trigger, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
3: Music immerses us into the game.
Even as the capacity for video game music became more complex, games were still at a disadvantage when creating deep atmosphere or telling complex stories. How were the likes of Final Fantasy IV going to tell epic, character-driven tales when the characters themselves are barely 16 X 16 pixels? Without cutting edge visuals to rely on, many video games instead relied on clever gameplay mechanics and music to convey emotion that they were incapable of otherwise doing.
This is tactic that many smaller studios and independent developers rely on to this day. Undertale, possibly the most critically acclaimed indie game ever made, features lackluster graphics but an ambitious soundtrack that breathes unique life into every encounter. Falcom, a studio that’s given us niche RPG classics like Ys and Zwei, also funds an in-house band to help its games stand out against big budget contemporaries. Video games are an interactive medium, and many developers realize that creating robust, epic soundtracks are the best way for us to feel like we’re the heroes of these stories.
4: Great game soundtracks are like musicals.
Video games and musicals have more in common than you might realize. But the most obvious parallel between these two forms of media is the music itself.
Video game soundtracks are often rich with leitmotifs, or recurring phrases or themes of music that reappear throughout the course of a soundtrack. Musicals use leitmotifs as a storytelling tactic, since the audience will associate select songs with their corresponding characters or situations as the show goes. This is why you’ll often hear a “reprise” in a musical, or a song from earlier that is repeated in a new context. Great video game soundtracks use all these tools to immerse us too, which is expertly demonstrated by one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time: Chrono Trigger.
Crono’s heroic theme song from the title is a legendary piece by itself. But many of Chrono Trigger‘s tunes refer back to this piece. The world map theme for Crono’s original time period is a particularly obvious and poignant use of this, as it creates an emotional connection that informs the player that this place is home and worth protecting. This builds up to “World Revolution,” one of the game’s final boss themes. By juxtaposing Crono’s theme to the chaotic theme of the villain Lavos, the player feels a strong sense of nostalgia for simpler times while reminding the player just how far from home they’ve come.
Chrono Trigger isn’t the only game to use these techniques, but it’s a great illustration of how music can tell a story. Even Sonic games are great at building hype for their final encounters with epic orchestral versions of their main theme songs. And judging from the millions of hits these songs get on YouTube, it’s clear fans love these musical moments too.
5: Good music is good music.
Is there a stigma against people who like “video game music?” Sure, depending on who you ask. But video game music has come a long way, and no one can deny that some tracks are just so dang good.
Yes, the deeper meanings of music theory can help explain why video game soundtracks are technically great. But on the other hand, tracks like “Dash!” from Final Fantasy XIII-2 are straight-up fantastic pieces that you could see a proper jazz-rock band playing live. “Vacant Interference” from Ys Seven is straight out of a metal album, complete with a guitar solo that leads into its epic final verse. Even Dragalia Lost, a free-to-play mobile game, heavily utilizes J-pop star DAOKO (best known in the West for Me!Me!Me!) for the majority of its boss themes.
Sometimes, a good song is just a dang good song, regardless of the context for which it was created. And there’s nothing wrong for appreciating that. While even the earliest composers of video game music were using advanced techniques to create memorable and complex music, sometimes it all comes down to hearing a song with your ears and knowing right off the bat that it’s a bop. And if that’s how you enjoy your music, you keep doing you. Like many things here on Gemr, we’re all about you doing things that make you happy.
So the next time someone asks you why you love video game music, feel free to refer to the reasons listed here. But at the end of the day, there’s no wrong reason why you should like video game music to begin with. Alternatively, you can just show your friends Tim Follin’s work and save yourself the argument.