As video game technology has evolved, graphics have been the measuring stick by which to chart its growth. Better graphics generally mean better processing power, which means, we would hope, a better console. Not so much with sound, on the other hand. While the graphics race has pretty much spiraled downward into contest to see who can put the most sparkly bloom over their grey-brown military shooter, sound quality peaked pretty early on in the videogame timeline. And this means that video game sound design has always been a realm for the artist rather than a popularity contest.
And sound is a big category too. Sometimes the simplest grunt of pain can make you feel more than the most complicated symphonic orchestra piece. Over the years, we have seen many brilliant examples of audio in video games. Here are some of the high points.
Original NES Sound Effects
When video game sound design was still in its infancy, sound designers needed to be creative with the very few tools at their disposal. As a result, sound effects from early games were minimalistic, only consisting of a few beeps or other arranged tones that only slightly approximated the actual sound effect they were representing. However, the NES era left such a strong legacy, and these simple sound effects were so powerful in their ability to add to an 8-bit game's atmosphere that we remember them more fondly than the complex sound effects of today.
Can you remember what shooting any random gun in Call of Duty sounds like? Perhaps. Can you remember what shooting the gun in Duck Hunt sounded like? Definitely. After all, you would constantly fire it at that laughing dog. (Incidentally, that dog is another great example of minimalistic sound design that sticks with you.) Can you remember what it sounds like to die in Devil May Cry? No? Well I'm sure you can remember what it sounds like to die in Pac-Man or the original Super Mario Brothers. You may not remember what picking up orbs in God of War sounds like, but you probably remember the sound of picking up coins or rings or rupees or even the notorious 1-up mushroom. And the item acquisition melodies from Zelda and Metroid probably stick out in your mind to this day.
In the world of sound effects, less is often more. As time went on, newer games started creating more complex sounds that became less and less memorable. Perhaps the last real memorable sound, in my opinion, was the alert sound from the original Metal Gear Solid. If you can think of a truly iconic sound that was created after that, please let us know in the comments.
PSOne Era JRPG Scores
There were two great eras for video game music. One we will talk about later, but the other accompanied the advent of the CD and the high-quality sound file. Originally, video game sound designers were limited by the sounds that particular consoles were able to synthesize, but with the shift to disc-based media and the ability of consoles to play WAV and MP3 files, sound designers could record any musical piece they could perform in real life and add it to a game.
As a result, sound designers became incredibly creative. While many early PSOne games still sounded much like their 16-bit SNES counterparts (see Final Fantasy VII), later games would push the limits of the PSOne's hardware.
No genre did this better than the JRPG. The JRPGs of the PSOne era gave us some of the first fully orchestral soundtracks of our time. When the orchestra became commonplace, sound designers would begin to mix new instruments into their compositions and eventually would end up breaking off into totally new music genres. Some RPGs had folk music soundtracks (Xenogears), while others had a more Chinese feel (Suikoden), and still others had a sort of modern techno vibe (Parasite Eve.)
Even if the games weren't that good, their soundtracks were amazing. Look at Chrono Cross. It paled in comparison to Chrono Trigger, but its intro theme is one of the most beautiful pieces of video game audio ever made. The instrumental pieces of the PSOne era JRPG were masterpieces of musical experimentation. From Star Ocean 2 to Final Fantasy Tactics to Grandia, each JRPG had a unique sound all its own that could be listened to even when you weren't playing the game.