Sunday, February 10, 2002

And now for something a little bit different...

To break away from the tedium of updates about my real-life escapades, and to reach a balance between my computer-related and music-related news items, I'm devoting this week's News page to the music of video games and computer games. I'll trace the evolution of game music from the Atari to today's common PC games, with more emphasis on highlights from my own gaming past.

A Giant supermarket in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania recently put up an advertisement reading, "In honor of Black History Month, we at Giant are offering a special savings on fried chicken" . There's nothing appropriately relevant in the month of February to game music, but it's a topic that I've been meaning to write about for quite a while.

The original video games of the arcade scene and the first home entertainment consoles didn't place a great deal of emphasis on music in games. In an age where the Atari 2600 had "adult-themed" games with Neo-Cubist pixular phalluses, it was a struggle enough to create recognizable graphics without worrying about music as well. Primitive sound effects were usually generated from simple wave generators, so the shooting gun of one game would be the barking dog in another.

The first gaming system in our household was a later model of the Atari, which had a numeric keypad on its controllers. By this point, games usually featured a catchy tune at its startup screen or when your character died or won. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Donkey Kong, composed the Donkey Kong theme on his own on an electronic keyboard. He would later become famous for the Mario and Zelda franchises which are still popular today.

PCs at this time were still monochromatic wonders in varying shades of ochre, magenta, and green-yellow. The most popular games were those that didn't require flashy media to enjoy, with Infocom's text adventures topping the list. Rather than try to convince players of an experience aurally and visually with such primitive tools, Infocom relied on what computers did easiest - text - and created compelling stories without mediums that would cause more hindrance than help. Those games that did use sound used the internal PC speaker for beeps, and music was still just a pipe dream.

There were musical innovations on minor platforms, like the Apple, Macintosh, and IBM PCjr, but I never had much interaction with those systems, so I can't pretend to know what they were. Know of anything I've missed here, or something you'd like reported on later in the week? Send me an e-mail with the icon on the upper right.

Tomorrow: Nintendo Entertainment System and Early PC Music

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