IN THE BEGINNING, my exposure to music in general was through my mother who listened to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and other 1960′s icons that had survived into the 1980′s. She also had classical music records which she would blast, which I thought was very powerful. Other influences were TV theme songs, commercial jingles, pro wrestling music, cartoons, and movie scores. I was always behind contemporary music, although I listened to the radio (and enjoyed oldies and pop music) and early music videos on U-68 in New York.
One thing I noticed: Generally speaking, I enjoyed the actual music more than the lyrics. Case in point:
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world
And the seven seas
Every body’s looking for something.
~versus the actual music. I mean WTF? The video has a cow in it, too. I’ll take instrumentals only anytime (see Midnight Express). Some people are tone deaf; I’m kinda lyrics death.
Anyway, when I first got my ATARI 2600, I wasn’t expecting music and I really didn’t get any. I felt honored to get some beeping sounds, and the occasional 3-second burst of “music”. But there was something about those beeping sounds that sparked my imagination.
I recall a trip to a pizza parlor arcade and I played a car game called Spy Hunter, and was blown away by the music, which can be heard right here (open a new tab) spyhunter.wav. I’m pretty sure this was an innovation at the time.
Before 1985, I had heard some great Apple II, Commodore, and ColecoVision themes, and even heard some nifty grooves on hand-held (pre-Gameboy) stand alone travel games. I didn’t realize it yet, but my perception of the quality of these songs was totally different than “regular people”. Adults thought the music was totally crap, and wouldn’t even define it as “music”. Most of my classmates and friends would rather listen to Michael Jackson. Teens would listen to that cool Satan music genre: heavy metal. Of course, considering that the computer programmers and game makers were just manipulating beeps, I don’t blame them. But to me…it was beautiful.
And then came the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and a new generation was born. Not only did my dream come true, but I could come out of hiding and not feel embarrassed anymore- my friends really dug the NES songs, and thanks to sharing games and Captain Video rentals (Blockbuster who?) all of my little buds in school, day camp, and neighborhood knew all of the titles, and noticed how levels had different background music (BGM). It was “mainstream” in the schoolyard sense, which was good enough for me. Little did I know decades in the future, it would have influenced dance and techno music, and video game music would actually evolve into a genre. And I sure couldn’t have predicted that every video game theme that ever existed could could be heard INSTANTLY by ANYONE ANYWHERE. That’s what happens when kids become the future workers of the world.
As a kid, I kept rankings of video game songs, based on Game and Level, and gave out yearly awards based on Video Game Soundtrack- I was copying the Billboard. I had also used my tape recorder to compile the best NES video game music. NES games were generally challenging, so when you experienced a level there was no telling how long it would take to experience it again. Without the Internet, I couldn’t go to Youtube or some site and listen or download the themes, either. Everything was a personal subjective experience that was shared only through word of mouth. Although I don’t have my scribbles anymore, here’s a list of some memorable NES BGM:
Mega Man 2: Although by 1989, I had been exposed to the Sega Master System (OutRun, Phantasy Star) and Turbo Grafix 16- systems with better technology than the 8-bit NES, the MM2 soundtrack was my drug of choice. I had rented it for 6 days in 1989, and fell in love with Quickman’s theme. Other great Mega Man BGM stages included Bubble Man and Flash Man, with some great Boss Stage themes. I wound up getting MM2 for Christmas right when my grandfather died, so it has some emotional attachments, too.
Mega Man 3-6: Continued the tradition, with A+ Boss Music and even the stage select themes were top-notch. Had some remixes in there, too. Mega Man 5: Thought I was in heaven with Star Man’s theme. Mega Man games were JAM-PACKED with great tunes.
CastleVania 1-3: Featured some dark Gothic tunes, and Simon’s CV2 theme gets covered by rock bands a lot. CastleVania 3 had a SOUND TEST which allowed to you play all of the songs. ’nuff said.
Dragon Warrior 1-3: Each version got better, and DW3 was a total mind orgasm.
Ninja Gaiden 1-3: NG1 had some great themes, especially Ninja Gaiden Stage 2-2. NG2 and Ng3 really took it to the next hardcore level.
Double Dragon 1-3: Although DD lost its fan base with DD3, the music was…whooooo!! Japan stage was better than lines of coke.
Final Fantasy: Very addictive tunes that get stuck in your head. The start of something very special.
Shadowgate: Haunting 8-bit music- very scary!
Zelda 2- The Adventure of Link: The palaces and final palace are some of the best ever.
Faxanadu: Underrated game score, with a great Overworld theme.
Super Mario Bros. 3: Arguably the best side-scrolling game ever, the songs here are better than SM1 and SM2.
Mike Tyson’s Punch Out: Not really mentioned in video game music discussions, but each boxer’s theme song rocked, especially Piston Honda’s.
Wizards and Warriors: Super theme and some great BGM levels.
Ghosts N Goblins: Pretty much one theme over and over again, but, boy was it a great one!
Silver Surfer: So good that it became a real live techno remix in 2003!
Life Force: Underrated Konami soundtrack, similar to Contra and others from that era.