In the retro world, the first melody was the one that defined the tone of video games. We remember great startup topics
As a musician becomes a professional and the theory classes begin to get interesting, one of the most crucial notions in the history of music begins to show itself in all its various nuances. The concepts of musical form and genre are beginning to hover over our heads, and they won’t stop for a few years. If we reduce it to the absurd, the first would refer to the internal distribution of a musical work: melodies, themes, sections and how they are interrelated. On the other hand, the second is a much larger container that helps us to create higher categories, which in turn can contain those Russian dolls that everyone knows: chamber music, symphonic music, popular music or, why not, music composed for video games.
Admitting video game music as a musical genre, even within other more accepted categories such as music composed for audiovisual media, is being accepted as something natural among musicians. Different is the case of those matrioshkas in which we could decompose it if we wanted. When we fantasize, we could treat the music of the J-RPG as a subgenre, taking into account its own characteristics in terms of its relationship with the narrative of these games (a subject, by the way, that interests American ludomusicology a lot). Tuning a little more, we could also think about arcade music, composed knowing that it would not be heard well in the middle of the din in the halls (at least in noisy Europe). Finally, within the universe of retro music, we could also speak of a subgenre that has bequeathed us some of the most timeless melodies in the entire history of our medium: that of top-level music.
Looking for immediate impact.
Those who have more or less followed the evolution of the medium from some of the melodies that we are going to remember today, will know very well that the “level” or “screen” is a concept that is very little like what it was years ago. The genre of the first level had its best moment in a time of games of immediate enjoyment, but especially of short games. A world in which the first impact of a video game on the person in charge had to have a series of characteristics -intense, long-lasting and sufficiently varied in each game- that put the composer of his music above all a problem to when facing the matter. Thinking about it from this prism, anyone who examines his memories will realize that a significant part of our musical memories of old video games are of melodies that were placed right there: on the first level. As much as all this may have been diluted over time, it is a fact that a playlist with many of these melodies is something of enormous appeal for those who like video game music, whether or not it includes the greatest hits of this that today we we dare to call it musical genre.
Capcom: a master class
More than impossible, it would be pretentious to try to trace what was the first top-level music that impacted each of us. Many will focus on Koji Kondo with the Overworld from Super Mario Bros in 1985, but from that same year it is another classic that has also caused a trend, as we will see later. Established since 1988 on the CPS1 board from which it changed the course of video games, Capcom is possibly the first historical company that dealt with this issue in a conscious way, since it took care of it with a care rarely seen before and after. In any case, we must accept that his first great melody of this type came from before (it is the same that we heard in Ghosts’n Goblins in 1985), but the theme of the cemetery that the immortal Ghouls’n Ghosts opened is without a doubt one of the great moments in the middle. Never before had an orchestral introduction been so well suggested to us in which we could almost recognize the instruments that would sound in a real orchestra, but neither had everything that came after sounded so good until then, in one of those musical themes of which you never get tired.
Capcom never disappointed with the music of the first moments of the game in its arcades. Some have been remembered more and others less, but all have something that makes them reference pieces. For example, Magic Sword was the watchword of a heroism that its initial melody captured as very few times we have seen since then in a video game, although it is a subject that was harmed by its –relative– little success. Final Fight and Knights of the Round also deserve us to listen to their first chords again, one for how well it placed us in a lawless city that no longer believes in anything and the other for a low ostinato that carried us with great quality to its era of sword and witchcraft, both being two of the plot pretexts in which Capcom was simply unbeatable at the time (as we can also see in the first melody of The King of Dragons). It is difficult to highlight any other title, but it is because they all have melodies to remember, pieces in which names such as Yoko Shimomura or Manami Matsumae, began to forge their legend. Capcom later specialized in fighting games; in them, the music was – let’s say it in a way – much more layered, without focusing this urge to capture the listener in a single melody. But in the other Capcom arcades we enjoy today some fascinating themes to which only the excess of enthusiasm for percussion takes away, in our opinion, some prominence from some really beautiful melodies, which could perfectly have been used in any other medium. or in those great genres that we discussed at the beginning.
A musical world apart: the Shoot’em Up
If we think about the characteristics that we listed above, we will understand why shoot’em up is a different animal in the musical. Let’s think about what happened in a game of this type when this genre was in full swing: many of the first games could perfectly be experiences of a couple of minutes before losing all three lives. In this very brief period of time, there was a more than certain possibility that the player did not even get to the next level, so the music of the first phase was not only the melody that we had to get hooked on to the controls in a first approach, but rather it became the only one we would hear during many of those attempts of a couple of minutes of play. With this very delicate mission in mind, highly appreciated composers such as Michiru Yamane worked, whom we remember today for many other things, but also for the music of some rather monstrous titles of this genre. To talk about some examples, in 1985 we heard, as we mentioned before, another of those resounding themes that contributed to defining the sound of several generations of Konami games: that of the first level of Gradius, which later became a regular in the series and of one of its spin-offs. Although we would not consider it one of Konami’s most historic tunes, it does seem very defining of the tone that a company that strove to create masterpieces from its group of composers, the legendary Konami Koukeiha Club, would follow. From this group and our genre today we will highlight another composition to frame as Gift of the Wind, a song composed for the first bars of Detana! Twin Bee. In it, Michiru Yamane showed the best of his genius, achieving a masterpiece that follows the master strokes of his style: a more extended melody than usual in these cases, a secondary musical idea that is not so much and an arrangement that he made the best of the available hardware. A true musical marvel.
Apart from the Konami titles, which took care of it to the extreme, it is obvious that all companies knew what they were playing with music in this genre of navecitas, so there are many entry-level songs that we would recommend listening to. to whoever wants to check it out: Eco Fighters, Salamander 2, Blazing Star, R-Type Delta, Ikaruga, the true musical madness that is Darius Gaiden… it is impossible to just keep a couple of them. Everything is really exuberant, although in the case of shoot’em up there are sagas like R-Type that made their own tradition of second level music as well. More leisurely pieces that seem like a reward for having survived the first stake of the game, which would also give to talk at length.
Some examples on consoles
It might seem, speaking of all this, that the first moments are more important the shorter the playable experience that we are going to live at the controls, but the truth is that this was a half truth. Although the limitation was no longer measured by the coins that we carried in our pocket, the tradition of great initial melodies can also be followed on classic consoles, to such an extent that some of these songs have passed into the more mainstream heritage of popular music. And we’re not just talking about that Overworld by Koji Kondo that we referred to earlier, a composition that practically everyone knows, whether they play video games or not.
A title born by and for consoles with impressive music in its first moments is undoubtedly Streets of Rage 2. Now that the fourth installment is having a major success in sales, there are many who think that the old Yuzo Koshiro melodies for Mega Drive they are listened to with more pleasure than a new soundtrack that is not bad either. We more or less like techno, Go Straight! It is a composition that has become a reference in this world, and the fourth part has done nothing but remind us of it. We could dedicate similar words to Jungle Hijinxs, a three-minute piece in which David Wise demonstrated that music had also just entered another dimension in 1994, with Donkey Kong Country. It is almost impossible to mention all the superb themes that sounded in the first level of console games, but of course we could say something about them: there are so many that they are enough by themselves to close the question that we asked at the beginning about whether they we could consider a genre of its own. Here are a few more for those who want to dig deeper: Sonic 2, Sparkster, Hagane, everything that has been written for the Mario saga …
What happens today
After these times of retro, video games advanced a lot in the musical, growing along (more and more music), across (more and more moments of the game). The development of the music of a game was directed towards much less pre-established beginnings, which would progressively turn into something less important – although never absolutely essential – that first musical impact in which the composers taught their best letters. The fact is that it is still possible to find many moments in which the composers clearly put all the meat on the spit in the first level of more recent games. Let’s look at some examples.
Hitoshi Sakimoto is one of the great Japanese composers who have failed to achieve the recognition that other more popular composers are enjoying today. His work, on the other hand, has an impressive average level of quality, with moments that are at the height of the best. Two of his first-level songs seem to us material enough to remember him today by his name and surname. The first is that of Soukyugurentai, a shoot’em up for Saturn that also nailed that tendency to thematically relate melodies from all levels of the game to each other, an idea that was fashionable for a time in this genre. But the most impressive is surely that of Muramasa The Demon Blade. The entire soundtrack of this game is a videogame music masterpiece, but what interests us is a starting theme, Losing Consciousness, which achieves several goals admirably: on the one hand, it is concrete enough that that first contact with the game also stands out for the music; on the other, it links with equal reliability with the tone of the game, its folkloric instrumentation and its typically Japanese melodies.
Something similar, but much deeper in its own way, is what Lena Raine achieves with First Steps, the theme that accompanies us during the first jumps in the sensational Celeste. Aware that we are in a game with ancient aesthetics, the music incorporates certain chiptune sounds that it treats more like notes of color, without endowing them with excessive prominence. The singing voice, on the other hand, is carried by a melody that perfectly reflects that duality of the game. A music that oscillates between the commitment to hardcore platforms and that much slower argument that wants to tell us a story that we would never expect from a game like this. Our pulse does not tremble when we say that it is one of the best examples of the evolution of this musical genre of the first levels, which treats with admirable respect and success.
Placing a message. Defining the tone
Listening to the playlist that we propose today, we can get an idea – approximate, of course – of what that moment of starting a new game in a video game from years ago meant on a musical level. Although the role of music in video games has become something much more multifaceted, the musical heritage of the first generations is something that would last for many hours of listening, and these pieces that we remember today are practically unavoidable in this sense. Authors of yesterday and today such as the ones we have already mentioned, but also others like Jake Kaufmann in almost all of their two-dimensional games, have maintained this tradition of starting the game with a melody that we will forever associate with the game. An association that will remain in our minds even decades later, because that is the power of good musical works.