Saturday, June 15, 2013

8-bit Chip Music vs. Game Music

I love video game music, but I love it in the manner in which it is intended to be enjoyed, playing a video game.  As any regular reader of this blog knows (is there anyone out there), I also love retro consoles like the NES and the SNES.  The NES was the first console to truly give music an important role in home video games.  Before the NES, many video games like those found on the Atari 2600 or the Colecovision relied primarily on sound effects or very short and simple tunes in the systems' games.  The sound functionality in the 2600 was not very musical, but the Intellivision, Colecovision, 5200 and Vetrex all had sound chips with basic musical functionality using square waves and noise to produce sound.  Like consoles, most home computers released in the USA prior to 1985 had fairly primitive sound hardware like the speaker for the Apple II, TRS-80 and IBM PC or the primitive DACs for the TRS-80 CoCo and early Macintoshes.  Other home computers, including the Atari 8-bits, the VIC-20, the TI-994A, the Mockingboard sound cards for the Apple II and IBM PCjr./Tandy 1000 had similar musical chips to those included in the pre-crash consoles.

However, the Commodore 64 showed the world it was possible to put an advanced synthesizer chip inside the machine to make music.  In fact it was designed to address, in the opinion of its designer, the unmusicality of its home computer predecessors.  Thus the famous SID chip was born with its three channels, each of which can have a square, triangle, sawtooth or noise waevform selected, ASDR envelopes, high, low and bandpass filters, ring modulation, etc.

At the time of the video game crash, video game music was splitting into three separate ideologies.  First there was the American ideology of jingles and sound effects.  Arcade games, from which this concept arose, needed little else.  Since the consoles were considered dying and computers did not have exceptional sound capabilities across the board, little attention was given to music, except in certain instances.  Richard Garriott and Origin Systems, beginning with Ultima III, supported full music scores, but this was an unusual idea, especially for role playing games.  On the Apple II, you needed a special card called the Mockingboard to hear the music, and the board was not especially popular.  Phillip Price's Alternate Reality series had a very elaborate musical intro for its time, especially considering it was developed for the Atari 8-bit series.  Even with title music, most of these games were played in silence.  Pitfall II : Lost Caverms was a rare exception for the 2600, but that required a complex and unique chip to help it play music.

The second method of music was the Japanese approach.  This was focused around the Famicom (NES), the Sega Mark III (Master System) and the 8/16-bit Japanese computers of the time.  More and more, the concept of music always was in force.  Konami's Gyruss (1983) and Gradius (1985) are good examples of early arcade games where there real music tracks playing throughout.  While the Mark III had relatively anemic built-in sound hardware, it could be upgraded with an FM Synthesizer Module.  The NEC PC-8801 and 9801 had Yamaha FM chips, the MSX had sound add-on upgrades, and the Famicom could support external audio chips in cartridges, and its built-in sound was put through its paces.  Composers like Yuzo Koshiro and Koji Kondo became internationally famous, or at least their music did.

The third method was the European method.  Unlike their American and Japanese counterparts, who enjoyed cartridge and floppy disk games, European gamers generally played their games off cassette tapes until the Amiga and ST became popular.  Cassette tapes take exponentially longer to load than floppy disks but the C64 Datasette was far cheaper than the disk drive in Europe.  To compare, the Commodore 64 could store 170KB on each side of a formatted floppy disk.  While a 90-minute cassette can store more data per side, the system can only handle a 64KB load at a time.  Loading a game could be very slow, up to ten minute load times were not unheard of.  Someone had the bright idea of having the computer do something while a game loaded, and the concept of the chiptune was born.  While the tape was turning, a special piece of music would play on the computer.  Soon these pieces would become complex and push the limits of the SID's capabilities.  Tunes were also made, on a much lesser scale, for the European Atari 8-bit machine, the ZX Spectrum 128 and Amstrad CPC machines.  The actual in-game music was generally much less impressive, due in part because the audio no longer had the primary attention of the 1MHz 6510 of the C64.

Since the American game developers were comparatively muted, Japanese games began defining the music for two-thirds of the gaming world.  Super Mario Bros., the game that firmly established the NES as giving people a reason to buy consoles again, has music for virtually every portion of the game except the title screen.  The game's classic tunes accompany Mario as he proceeds across the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Toadstool (later Peach).  There are not one but four major pieces of music depending on the level you are in.  This music plays non-stop until you complete the level.  The main theme (da-da-da da-da da)is even today almost instantly recognizable, even by people who have never played the game.  Series like Castlevania and Mega Man, both of which began on the NES, were famous for the quality of their soundtracks.  Even RPGs like Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy and the ports of the Ultima games to the NES had full sountracks and were rarely silent.

One comparison I can make is between Super Mario Bros and its C64 clone, Great Gianna Sisters.  GGS slavishly copied the gameplay of SMB while adding very little.  The C64 had the capabilities to make a very decent port of SMB, and GGS is something like a decent port.  One area the developers failed to take inspiration is in GGS's music.  While the game is never silent, containing title screen music and in-game music, the in-game music leaves something to be desired.  Unlike SMB, the overworld music is also used for the underworld, so the only time the actual music changes is in the castles. In SMB, in addition to the underground, there are also water levels with music, music when you get an invincibility star and the castle music.

The most important distinction, however, between Kondo's music in SMB and Huelsbeck's in GGS is that Kondo's music effortlessly flows with the game.  It makes you want to keep going and complements the level.  The underground has spooky music, the water worlds have slower paced music and the castle levels sound harsh.  Its catchy stuff.  Huelsbeck's in-game music tries to capture that same "traveling along" spirit but it just does not work nearly as well.  The music in GGS calls too much attention to itself compared with what is happening on the screen.  The main theme is full of odd notes and sound effects, and the castle theme is discordant.  The music is also somewhat at odds with the whimsical and cute nature of the game.

The chief difference between chip music and game music thus is that chip music is any music composed with a computer or console sound chip.  On the Commodore 64, the European composers went wild with chip music.  However, the chip shows its greatest potential when the system does not have to keep track of input, scrolling or sprites, in other words when the game is not actually being played.  An excellent case in point is the music for Mayhem in Monsterland.  This late C64 from the UK is quite an achievement considering the limitations of the C64, the gameplay is smooth and the graphics are extremely detailed and colorful for the system.  However, the in-music is extremely simple, repetitive and monotonous.  The port of R-Type to the system kept the original arcade music intact and the results are very impressive.  The gameplay, however, is less impressive compared to other ports of the game.

The NES showed that you can have good music and good gameplay.  Mega Man 2 is one of the best examples of this.  The level designs are not always perfect, but the quality of the music just makes you want to keep playing.  Also, Mega Man 2 had some stunning large enemy graphics and animated backgrounds for the time.  However, as much as I love the music to games, I do not have stored in my smartphone or listen to them in the car.  The music is best experienced, by far, when  you are actually playing the game.

This bring me to an ideological issue I have with C64 chip tunes.  You are hearing that music while the game's cassette tape is loading.  You are not playing during that time.  NES and other console games do not have loading times.  I am listening and playing.  With the C64, you listen, then you play but rarely both at the same time.  In my opinion, the first five to ten minutes waiting for your game to load is to listen to some musician trying to demonstrate how well he can program the SID chip.  I can find better ways to spend my time, thanks.

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