The music of the 8bit era of gaming was amazing. Dominated almost entirely by short looping themes, the various songs were practically unforgettable, burying themselves deep in your brain and never letting go. Go into a crowded room and start humming the Snake Man theme from Mega Man 3 and just see how many people join in. You’d be surprised. For added effect, do it in an elevator at a comic book or anime convention.
Despite this, it wasn’t the kind of music you could listen to outside of the game. Sure, you could hunt down the files online and burn a CD or saddle your old school Talkboy up to the TV and record the music (sound effects included of course) on a cassette, but even then the themes were so short and repetitive you’d drive yourself mad after a few moments (True story: I once left the Heat Man music on loop on my headphones while I left for the weekend and nearly drove my dorm-mate to suicide…or so he later said.)
The 16bit era made strides towards legitimacy, with the epic Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger soundtracks extending the songs past a minute and some change while attempting to add some seriousness to them. Versions recorded with actual orchestras playing the songs started making their way into the hands of fans, providing an opportunity to really enjoy the music as it was intended, unhindered by the limitations of the software. Yet still, the crude synths couldn’t quite ensnare the definition of “music” outside of the gaming world.
Then came the Sony Playstation and with it a chance at true CD quality audio. Unfettered by having to program music using a limited set of basic samples, composers were finally able to create the music they heard in their head. The days of short themes ended, replaced by sweeping epics and thumping beats. Video game music had finally entered into its adulthood.
Ask most people what the first video game soundtrack to get them to feel a true sense of emotion is and the vast majority will reference one of the Final Fantasy games, most likely 6 or 7. For an entire generation of gamers, the themes of Final Fantasy 7 represent the first time they had heard music in a video game that attempted to do something other than simply enhance the on-screen action. On the earlier side of the new technology, it still relied on a relatively small range of instruments, making all the music sound somewhat similar despite a wide range of melodies.
The system grew though, and with it the complexity of the music. There was no better example of this than one of the most beloved games of the PSX era – the fittingly named Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Coming out a scant few months after FF7, it took the musical capabilities of the fledging system to their early zenith, bringing fully orchestrated music and vocals to a classic series already known for its catchy tunes.
Right from the start you know the game has changed. Actual vocals were unheard of at this point in the PSX’s lifespan, let alone a full-on chorus. Not only did it represent a shift in quality but also in tone, as having a low impact song without any actual instruments as the menu theme for an action game? Not a common occurrence. Instead of pumping you up it simply set the stage for what would become one of the most atmospheric games of the entire generation.
It doesn’t take long for the composers to clue you in on their manic taste though, as immediately upon beginning the game launches into a high energy remix of a classic song, preparing you for the twitchy platforming to come. It’s the first of many radical mood shifts in a soundtrack that ranges from downtempo classical to rock ballads to vocal driven jazz. Below, I’m going to discuss a few tracks and their associated levels in particular. I recommend you queue up the song and give it a listen as you read!
As a 2D game in the era where 3D and low-poly models were the norm, the art team for the game was afforded the opportunity to create a beautifully living and detailed world that was unachievable with static pre-rendered backgrounds or blocky 3D worlds. Instead of simply having a cave level, there was a sprawling series of half-submerged caverns with dripping stalagmites and a surly ferryman. The accompanying song mirrored the faint echo that one might hear in such a cave, a cool blue tune named Crystal Teardrops.
Another standout level and song were the intricately detailed Library and its theme – Wood Carving Partita. Harkening back to a time of powdered wigs and frilly shirts, the level is filled with enemies that thrust and jab or dart and weave, each having a fluidity to its movement that almost seems like a dance. From the dashing stabs of the headless swordsmen to the swooping strikes of the various possessed books, you find yourself exchanging blows like a dance partner would at some massive ball where the theme for the area might be played.
Contrasting the Baroque atmosphere of the Library is the always moving industrial nightmare of the Clock Tower. Those familiar with the series know and dread the inevitable level full of moving gears and flying medusa heads, and Symphony of the Night is no exception to this. The Clock Tower stands against the rest of the game as a symbol of technology and advancement in a game dominated by medieval or renaissance imagery, so it’s fitting that the theme for the level is led by wicked electric guitar riffs and a high tempo beat. Like the tower itself, The Tragic Prince never seems to slow down, only increasing in intensity as it goes.
One of the most recognizable songs from the entire soundtrack, The Tower of Mist plays in the mist shrouded tower (creative name I know) that runs along the eastern side of Dracula’s castle. Your main access point for many of the early zones in the game, it’s your first exposure to how big the game actually is, the playful combination of strings and brass building to crescendos as tall as the tower itself. Just as the tower itself provides support for the entire castle, so does this song exist as a backbone for the more experimental musical choices of the game. This song is Castlevania to the core.
These are just four choices from a soundtrack that represented a paradigm shift in video game music. For the first time, video game music had become far more than just a series of enjoyably arranged samples; it was something with a true depth of tone and genre. Things would never be the same again.
If it isn’t obvious from this, Symphony of the Night was the first game to make my ears stand up and pay attention. What game made you being to appreciate video game music outside of the game itself? Leave me a comment and educate me, there are many games I haven’t played and would love to be educated!