Some of the sharpest memories I have of my childhood gaming are actually sounds, not visions.
From the famous Super Mario Bros theme to the title screen of Ocarina of Time, I grew up in the golden era of gaming melodies. An era that many won’t get to experience.
At the same time as consoles, we still had a burgeoning arcade scene. Games like PAC-MAN and Donkey Kong would introduce the start of a new game with a booming, upbeat melody.
Donkey Kong in particular had a rhythm to it. The sound would go:
“Ker-chunk! Ker-chunk!” – the coins.
“Dooooo do-do do diddly-diddly-dee.” There were of course other melodies within the game, but this was the most distinct. Oddly, it was also used in a creepier manner for Wizard of Wor.
So what happened to the gaming melody? Did it die? Or did it lay dormant for a period of time?
When answering these questions, we first must understand what a melody is.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a melody is:
a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune:
Therefore, in my opinion, a good gaming melody is one that elicits a mental itch that needs immediate scratching.
This mental scratching if only possible if you walk around humming or whistling the melody, which is immediately recognised by friends and family members. I’m convinced that they then begin to itch, too.
So, maybe a good gaming melody is really gaming’s version of an STI – maybe herpes?
There are many games whose melodies deserve a mention, but as this is a personal piece, I’m going to share a couple of my favourites: Tetris and Tennis, both on the original GameBoy.
Tetris – well, we all know how that went. Two game types, two different melodies. And because everyone played it, everyone knew it.
As for Tennis, I rocked that cartridge until I outgrew my GameBoy. I rediscovered the game on the 3DS as a digital download, and both the melody and the sounds still resonate with me. I was lucky to have a great childhood, and I can remember playing Tennis on long car rides to visit the grandparents.
More recently, the last good and true gaming melody I heard was the Uncharted theme. Although it sounds orchestral, the main title of the game has a surprisingly good melody.
The bulk of the Uncharted soundtrack, while pleasant, is forgettable. It’s simply that main theme that will become glued to your brain.
Major franchises still seem to contain the odd melody. Prior to Uncharted, the best melody of the 2000s in my opinion was the Halo theme. Distinctly memorable, it was the perfect melody for a new era: it moved away from simple sound bites to an orchestral, movie-grade theme, but still focussed on being catchy.
Like a ‘stinger’ in TV productions, the theme would kick in during dramatic moments of gameplay, which placed Halo well ahead of its time in terms of its soundtrack. In many ways, although it had a melody, it’s highly probable that Halo’s successful soundtrack paved the way for more complex soundtracks in games.
And I can’t ignore the Battlefield theme song, either. When Battlefield erupted onto the gaming scene, it featured a powerful melody which has stayed with the series and looks set to continue that way.
From thereon it’s a blur. There was certainly a time when games took themselves too seriously. And that wasn’t a bad thing. I can recall playing the original Splinter Cell in surround sound. The effect was amazing, and I was able to use the directional sound to detect threats.
Also, like many other gamers of the original Xbox era, I began to wear a headset thanks to the introduction of Xbox Live. I stopped listening to the game so I could hear the monotonous voices of my mates.
It’s fair to say that we all tuned out. Screens got bigger, graphics better, social gaming more common.
But gaming melodies did make a return to the limelight thanks to two phenomenons: mobile gaming and chip-tuning.
Like the arcade and underpowered consoles of the 80s and 90s, mobile gaming was about shorter experiences on hardware with limited resources. Short, simple melodies suited the gameplay of earlier mobile games.
Add to this that mobile app stores have also attracted a lot of indie developers, and there is a recurring ‘retro’ theme in quite a few indie titles, and it’s no surprise that we can talk about the gaming melody as though we’ve just rediscovered a once-though extinct species of bird or lizard.
Arguably the greatest mobile gaming melody thus far would be the Angry Birds theme. And what a tune it is. After millions of downloads, it rarely gets old. It is immediately recognisable, and has been remixed for the many Angry Birds titles available.
Second to Angry Birds is my personal favourite: Plants vs Zombies. It sounds eerie at first, but really it’s quite clever (just like the game) and once you discover the game’s humour the tune takes on a different meaning.
Chip-tuning is where some pretty talented musicians utilise the actual sound chips from old consoles and program modern music using those old sounds. Part of the thrill of listening to a chip-tune song is that it elicits gaming memories from those (myself included) who grew up playing on 8 and 16-bit consoles.
So what do you think? What are your favourite gaming melodies, and what was the last truly great one you recall hearing?