A Personal History of Video Game Music

To anyone who started playing video games in the last couple of decades the ideas of games without music must be as alien as the idea of silent movies, black and white TVs or software running on cassette tapes. Aware of them, yes, perhaps even exposed to them in a retro way, but as a technological limitation? Unlikely.

But it’s true that the earliest barely had sound – the single tone of Pong, the wakka-wakka of Pacman or the heartbeat of Space Invaders for example – and music was a later addition. This series of articles tracks the evolution of music in gaming from the earliest days of my youth to the AAA blockbusters of the current generations.

What follows is partly a piece of research but primarily an exercise in shameless nostalgia for the games of my youth, remembered through the filter of their music. This series of articles covers nearly three decades of video game history, tracking the evolution of music in games from the first machine I ever owned right through to the present day. It covers the composers, the techniques, the studios, the genres and the technologies involved.

I learned a lot while researching and writing it, and hopefully you might learn a thing or two as well. This series covers my own experiences video game music and as such makes no attempt at being comprehensive or definitive, and I’ll be impressed if it’s even mostly accurate. Feedback, corrections and additions are most welcome.


…in which I announce the series and the thinking behind it. You can probably skip this bit and get on with the main articles. It doesn’t even have any pictures.

Part 1 – The ZX Spectrum

My first computer (or at least the first one to feature music). Despite the hardware constraints video game music evolved noticeably over the short life of this wonderful, beeping machine.

Part 2 – The NES

Like so many families across the world the NES was my family’s first console and is home to some of the most iconic, memorable music ever created for games.

Part 3 – Dawn of the PC

The PC would eventually be home to some truly awesome audio hardware but in the early days the PC speaker and MIDI was the state of the art. Also Lemmings.

Part 4 – A Time of Transition

By the turn of the century sound cards and CD drives were mainstream, and both games and composers were taking advantage of the expanded possibilities they offered. This is probably my favourite era, thanks to the first generation Unreal Engine and MOD music.

Part 5 – Interludes and Anecdotes

The real world interrupted here and so this part was something of a link-dump of – to me – interesting anecdotes and great art.

Part 6 – A New Generation

Bringing us to the present day where game studios bring Oscar-winning composers to do their music and other studios are going full-retro. There really is something for everyone.

I’d like to thank Robert Ellis, Jimmy Hinson and Michiel van den Bos – three of my favourite composers. Their kind words meant a lot to me and were an inspiration to keep writing. I’d also like to thank Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer for his fascinating article on iMUSE and for his kind feedback on Part 3.

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