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Music in Gaming: why 16 bits sound just fine to me
by Andrew Testerman

Music is a generally-overlooked component of videogames, at least from the player's perspective, some background to the main product that (often) many don't notice. However, creative decisions about videogame music can be essential to creating memorable videogames, argues Andrew Testerman.

This past Tuesday, Nintendo released a new 3DS port of one of its most beloved games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game has drawn a slew of positive reviews, but one review I came across brought up an interesting point I hadn’t considered. The reviewer was disappointed that Nintendo hadn’t done anything with the music, and that Ocarina of Time '3D' contains the exact same MIDI compositions as its N64 predecessor.

This isn’t the first time criticism has been levied at Nintendo for clinging to its aged music system. Nearly five years ago, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was called out for doing exactly the same thing. Nintendo has been quick to rebuff these criticisms, though, saying that they can change the music to suit the gameplay more easily with MIDI than pre-recorded symphonic tunes.

I’ll go one step further than that, though. I think it sounds better.

I’m not trying to levy that MIDI recordings sound better than real, live instruments. Far from it; games with stirring, epic scores, like Mass Effect, Modern Warfare 2 or Assassin’s Creed, would suffer greatly from losing their orchestrated soundtracks, and the switch from synthesised instruments to actual musicians has contributed to gaming’s stature as an accepted part of mainstream media.

Despite this, I just don’t think every game needs a symphony. Many games benefit from a large scale, orchestral approach, but the best soundtracks are the ones that best suit the game, and to preclude using MIDI compositions simply because they’re old would be a mistake. I’m not saying that the Zelda franchise shouldn’t have orchestral music, but I also don’t think MIDI compositions are 'wrong' for the series either, especially for a release predicated on building nostalgia for an older title.

Moreover, I think the creative challenges associated with working only with MIDI have resulted in some of the most memorable soundtracks in gaming. Game composers had less sound channels to work with on older consoles, and simple, memorable melodies were imperative to get the soundtrack to stand out. Listen to some of the songs from Mega Man II, or even Super Mario Bros. - would those melodies still be around today if their respected composers hadn’t been so focussed on creating such basic, catchy songs? For another take, look at Final Fantasy XIII. FFXIII had access to every amenity that modern consoles provide for sound, but arguably the only memorable track is the battle theme. They say that limitations spark creativity, and who knows if today’s most popular gaming melodies would even be around if it weren’t for talented composers working within the confines of the technology of the time.

It really boils down to what the developers hope to accomplish. Titles like Modern Warfare hope to replicate huge, movie-like experiences, and they’re the ones that need Hans Zimmer. A smaller, quirky title - like Raskulls, which uses graphical simplicity and quirky writing to fuel much of its charm - might feel overly busy with a soundtrack full of rich, deep orchestral tunes. In fact, the same issue was raised when Super Mario Galaxy 2 was released last May. Some reviewers complained that the new fully-symphonic soundtrack sounded much too grand and sweeping; despite the conceptually-better soundtrack, it didn’t sound like a Mario game.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter whether the soundtrack is MIDI, fully orchestral, or even licensed music. It’s about the quality of the songs themselves. I merely hope that developers don’t shirk the idea of working with one over the other, simply because it isn't the 'in' thing to do. Play to the strengths of the game at hand, and the result will be memorable every time.

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- Andrew Testerman

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