I first fell in love with music by playing video games.
When I was around three years old, as I was learning to cite common nursery rhymes such as “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “Knick-Knack Paddy-Whack” with practiced bravado, I would also hum the Super Mario Bros. “Overworld Theme” with even greater precision than I could speak my native tongue. Koji Kondo’s timeless soundtrack to Nintendo’s revolutionary platformer imprinted on me a joy for music, even if I didn’t know it at the time. My mom would try to sing along with me, making audible “do-do-doos” to the melody of the classic game, and I can remember angrily correcting her each time she missed a note in the way toddlers always do. I was passionate about my video game music.
It wouldn’t be long before I would fall in love with another of Kondo’s masterpieces–the “Title Theme” for The Legend of Zelda (NES). Unlike the carefree simplicity of the Super Mario tune, Zelda’s title theme borrowed heavily from classical music, invoking an orchestral sound even in its original 8-bit state. It prepared the gamer for an epic journey, an adventure through large labyrinths underneath a sprawling landscape. Memories of rescuing the Princess from the vile Ganon aren’t complete without remembering that glorious signature song.
As I grew, so did the repertoire of video game songs and their composers that entered my list of personal favorites: Tommy Tallerico showcasing his mastery of the Sega Genesis sound card with Earthworm Jim; Nobuo Uematsu weaving timeless tales with his work on Final Fantasy; Jesper Kyd and his powerful Hitman soundtracks; Akira Yamaoka crafting fear and exhilaration with Silent Hill. As I discovered these artists and their handiwork, I treasured them in the same way many preteen girls prized the Backstreet Boys. These were the songs of my youth.
In the fifth grade, I joined the school band. I learned to play those same common songs that I had recited when I was first learning to speak; “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” I think is as essential to music as the “ABCs” are to writing. By year’s end though, I longed to produce sounds from my trombone that were closer to my geeky heart, and I pestered the band director for us to play video game music. He eventually caved in, though it took awhile. I will never forget warming up the fans during timeouts at a football game with the songs from Tetris.
Video game music remains a passion of mine. I see no difference between these songs and acclaimed scores for motion pictures. John Williams became a household name with his work on Star Wars, E.T., and Jurassic Park; there’s no reason why Koji Kondo shouldn’t be praised in a similar regard. I am also not alone in how video game music has influenced my life. Acclaimed musician John Baptiste, band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and winner of a 2021 Oscar for the film Soul, says that his passion for music was highly affected by playing games as a youth. Just as he was learning to mimic the jazz sounds of old New Orleans, he too learned to perform the songs from Street Fighter II and Sonic the Hedgehog. To him, both were equally important. Their sounds enhanced our lives, could make us feel joy, experience sorrow, or bring our blood to a boil.
Unfortunately, video game music doesn’t often get recognition outside of the gaming community. While the Grammys gives awards to video games in the “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media,” it shares the category with film and television shows, and only one game has ever been nominated: the soundtrack for the 2012 PlayStation 3 title Journey by composer Austin Wintory. In 2011, the song “Baba Yetu,” composed by Christopher Tin for the remarkable game Civilization IV did win in the category of “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)”, although this was in recognition of its re-release for Tin’s album Calling All Dawns, five years after it debuted in the game; it’s connection to video games was all but absent at the Grammys.
Has video game music had a meaningful impact on your life? What soundtracks do you cherish as much as you do from more “standard” musicians? What would you like to see done to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of video game music by those outside of the industry? I’d love to know what songs and artists have touched your heart.
Source for header image: Super Mario Galaxy 2 Original Soundtrack