Video Game Music that Shatters the Mold of Radio Rock

Although musical genres proliferate, radio sounds more formulaic than ever. Many bands compose relatively simple, repetitive songs. Most are 3 to 5 minutes long, have 150 words, and follow a verse-chorus format. If you are Celine Dion, you always include a key change after the 3rd verse. If you are Radiohead, you break every other rule with incredibly creative results, but still not these rules, if it is one of the tracks earmarked for a radio release.

What has been missing are rich, extended melodies shared among all the instruments and that defy the “hum-able” requirement introduced into popular music around the 1940s in order to sell more records. For me, old Metallica (And Justice for All, Master of Puppets) and old Phish (Junta) exemplify this break-out pattern, which has much in common with classical music, and much to my surprise, some Video game music.

Video Game Music is seldom noteworthy as an art form, but I believe certain arcade classics deserve attention. The limitations of the original 1980s PC speaker and the 8-bit hardware of the Nintendo Entertainment system (the original NES) prevented composition of such complex musical elements as chords and harmony. Instead, melody was paramount.

The inability to play more than one note at a time forced music in new directions. As a kid, I remember my buddy Brian Dean (now a computer science professor at Clemson) programming music for his own game, Robot. He emulated chords by modulating two sounds rapidly, and by playing rapid arpeggios or octaves to give notes a fuller sound.

The Bard’s Tale added vibrato (slight tone oscillations), but still only had a single-note melody. These limits forced ingenuity, exemplified by the music of several classic Nintendo games. The theme song from Super Mario Bros (author: Koji Kundo) is a perfect example of smooth synthesis of two melodies where no notes actually overlap in time. To keep these themes interesting, repetition was kept to a minimum and melody was everything. The PC speaker had no “timbre” and tones were harsh sounding, so to produce anything resembling music was quite a feat.

The best game music has been covered by many rock bands today. Super Mario Bros Theme is a standard of Mr. Bungle (

). The Mario Castle Theme is popular with at least one death metal band:

The Tetris theme (there are 3 actually) have been covered live by a variety or people, including Powerglove:


But I believe the best music of all comes from Metroid. To quote Wikipedia, Metroid is noted for “its nonlinear gameplay” and “decidedly darker atmosphere” compared with most games of the time period. The actual game play combines the platforming of Super Mario Bros with the exploration aspect of The Legend of Zelda.

The immensity of the metroid universe required a dozen themes for the different caverns that conveyed both mystery and danger or excitement. Recently, a band from Asheville, NC named Metroid Metal has released a heavy metal rendition of all the music from metroid on The style is like old-school metallica and features extended instrumentals with multiple melodic dueling electric guitars, poly-rhythms, and epic crescendos. I’ve added it to my running music mix, and I highly recommend them.
It’s free to listen, to download:

Do you have another recommendation?

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