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Video Game Film Score PART 5: Game Music Analysis

In Part 5 of the video game film score blog series by your favorite inter-dimensional space blogger (you know… us), we’ll be doing some musical analysis of video game music. Like, we all know what video game music sounds like, but do we know how video game music is built? What structures are commonly found? Do those structures change over time? How? How many layers are there? What are common voicing techniques? Does any of this change with different videogame hardware?

We could go on and on with questions we have about video game music, but we think you get the gist. We’re gonna look at some videogame music in-depth. Fucking exciting, right?!

Just a moment of your time please…

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Scoping the “Musical Analysis”

Hey, since we’re total alien outer space nerds we’ve seen our fair share of musical analysis posts and videos out there on the internet. There are a number of things they cover depending on who’s writing them and many of them dive into topics we are simply not qualified to cover here. This article will likely be a bit high level; we will avoid deep discussion on musical theory.

Now, just in case you do like that sort of thing (music theory), we totally have recommendations that we’ve discovered doing our own research:

  • 8-bit Music Theory on YouTube – This is our favorite video game centric theory repository. If you ever wanted to know just how skilled game composers are, expect to be blown away.
  • RetroGameAudio on Soundcloud – These folks talk about specific games and the compositions contains within. They’ll often get into how the composers programmed the chips and other chiptune specific topics. This is a podcast, so soundcloud isn’t the only way to get the content if that’s what you’re into.

Of course, there are more resources out there. So yea, if you wanna get down and dirty with video game music… please do.

Video Game Music Analysis

Dungeon Explorer: Dungeon 2 – Turbo Grafx 16

When we were first faced with the idea of writing music for the fictional game Bubble Knight, our thoughts immediately went to the TurboGrafx 16 classic, Dungeon Explorer. Somewhat unique at the time, Dungeon Explorer, offers a gauntlet style dungeon romp while maintaining some rpg-like sensibilities (like leveling and a story, you know the little things). It is also 5 players, which was literally unheard of when it came out.

You, and up to four of your friends, should definitely check this game out, for the music (though it’s a great game if you like guantlet style romps). Dungeon Explorer leverages the TG16’s internal PSG (programmable sound generator). This particular chip is a wavetable synthesizer capable of six programmable channels of audio and defines the sound of the TG16 (and PC-Engine) card titles. The TG16 PSG has a very recognizable, grainy lo-fi sound unique to this console (at least we’ve never heard it in any other machines and we’ve heard a lot of machines).

For us, when we think of this particular console, the beloved Turbo, we like to classify it as “8bit++”. The Turbo, while marketed as a 16-bit console, was, in fact, not a 16 bit console; the TurboGrafx-16 was a very impressive 8 bit console. From a hardware (and timeline) perspective, this system existed in between the 8-bit NES/Sega Master System and the true 16 bit consoles namely the SNES and Genesis; truly the Turbo is not quite 8-bit, and not quite 16-bit. It just so happens that the TurboGrax was sold in the US to compete with the 16 bit consoles because in those days American releases were a bit behind the Japanese. The Turbo Grafx-16, or PC-Engine, had actually predated the 16-bit SNES and MegaDrive (sega genesis) quite a bit in Japan where it reigned supreme. So yea, that’s the story of the TurboGrafx-16 being 8 bit despite 16’s being written everywhere. (If you’re really curious how they justifiedd the ’16’, the TurboGrafx-16 has two 8 bit processors in it.)

While we felt this track clearly illustrates a chippie(++) sounding dungeon crawler, it is the unique sound of the Turbo that we felt would make this an interested and valuable addition to the list.

Dungeon Explorer Music Analysis

Okay so what’s the deal with the music? This loop is somewhat simple, maybe even of the simplest of all the loops we’ll look at in this article. While we won’t draw that many pretty pictures for you (they take a ton of time, sorry!), we will leverage years of ascii communication experience to tell you what we heard when we listened to this track.

This track has an intro that then goes into an infinite loop bouncing back and forth between a groove and epic. Let’s call the two main parts in the loop, part A and part B. Then the intro is made out of part A by introducing new instruments ever few bars to build tension, standard stuff, let’s call those A1 and A2. Therefore, the structure of this game track is:

A1 -> A2 -> A -> B -> A -> B -> ad infinitum

The use of A1 in this structure is to make it very clear to the listener what the basic theme of this song is. This makes everything else that happens in the song relative [emotionally] to that theme. After establishing the musical theme, the listener is gently introduced to chords and then melody when we enter the first part A.

Part B compliments the theme by being fucking epic. The theme disappears. Instead there’s a busy bassline, somewhat epically written melody, and the second voice (doing chords in part A) holds this long high note which is a fun way of adding tension to the track (this is a dungeon, you should feel like a tense bad ass who’s about to save the fucking universe – something to keep in mind when we think about the composers state of mind). This resolves through some melodic and harmonic syncopation, and we go back to part A, ultimately reducing the tension and giving our mind just enough musical movement to keep focused on killing the bad guys.

Just to draw out the pattern for you, this one is:

A -> B -> A -> B -> ad infinitum

The drums are a single loop that remains the same regardless of what part of the song we’re in. It’s a fast hat pattern with sparse open hats, and a noisy snare sound keeping the backbeat. The tempo is 127 bpm.

And that’s it, kinda simple, right? Did you listen to this track? Do you hear what we heard?

Blaster Master: Prologue – NES

Blaster Master’s Prologue music is quite basic. This is a binary pattern (two parts), part A and part B. Each part is an appregiated chord over a drone bass part (a drone is a held note, you get these a lot in modal music). Basically part A offers a bass drone and one variation of the arp, whereas part B has a different base drone, and slightly different arp. That’s all backed by a noise hat pattern, that comes in after the first 4 bars.

The voicing is straight forward. The triangle wave is the drone bass. The arp is both PWM channels playing together to make the bigger sound and they’re both configured to sound like a square wave.

The track sits at a cool 75pm tempo. And that’s that, easy peasy.

Journey to Silius: Stage 3 – NES

Journey to Silius is a particularly interesting example on the list. We chose it because it’s has somewhat infamous sound, though many Sunsoft titles of the era share in this infamy. Sunsoft, among other techniques, would use samples for their basses. For Nintendo games this was unheard of as the sampling capability of the NES is extremely limited and was used mainly for drums/noise/percussion. To this date, we’re only aware of Sunsoft using this approach. Sunsoft’s use of sampled basses, in addition to excellent programming technique of the NES’s sound capabilities are what set many of their games apart for the era. Journey to Silius is a particularly good example of their technical and musical accomplishment.

Journey to Silius was originally supposed to be a Terminator franchise videogame. Sunsoft lost the rights, re-did some of the sprites and released it as Journey to Silius. It’s a standard run and gun. Honestly, we never played it back in the day, we’ve only come across it as musicians, though it is currently playable on the Nintendo Switch.

Journey To Silius Level 3 Track Analysis

Stage 3’s music in Journey to Silius consists of four 8 bar parts, each 8 bar part consists of two 4 bar phrases. Each part is fairly distinct, we shall call them A, B, C, and D. They loop every 50 seconds, here’s the structure diagram:

A -> B -> C -> D -> A -> B -> C -> D -> Ad infinitum

If you listen closely, the while the bass line repeats more or less the same pattern in time for each of the parts, each part has it’s own chord progression. These chord progressions, of course, support the melody lines that play from part’s B through D; likely a busy melody was left out of part A to both give this loop an ‘intro’ and to give the listener a break. Remember, whoever is listening to this is likely going to listen to this 50 second loop for as long as they have to to beat the level… this could be a while depending on the skill and determination of the player.

Remember that we just said part A has two jobs – it’s first job is to be the intro, it’s second job is to be this lull for the listener. As the intro, it’s job is to set the overall mood for the stage, introduce the instruments in the orchestra, and get you pumped to kill bad guys. Part A does just this, and it has a kind of interesting approach that shows off how skilled these programmers were.

First, you’ll probably notice the bass line and bass instrument – normally the bass instrument is a triangle wave (listen to like, any of the other tracks on this page), but this bass sounds like a full blown fancy-pants wavetable synthesizer. These don’t sound like the only use samples to us as it sounds like the sample channel occasionally plays a drum samples (yes, two instruments on a single channel!). The two saw channels of the NES then play these long attack chords that start quiet and get louder.

Part A plays, sets the stage or gives us a breather, and then Part B is where the melody comes in. Part B, much like part’s C and D, each offer a variation of the melodic theme. In each section, 4 bars represent the antecedent and the subsequent 4 bars are the consequent (the call and response phrasing of each section). Part B and Part C play similar roles with the melody where part B is like an ease into the melody and then Part C brings up the tension.

Part D, which wraps everything up. It’s job is to be the most intense of the four sections and, by comparison, part A will feel like like a bit of relief. Part D brings the tension of our theme up a notch and introduces a new part. This new part is a chord stab that plays opposite of the melodic line in this section. This chord stab sounds completely different from the sound used for our lead and offers nice contrast to the lead lines that came before it, adding to intensity while actually kind of giving our ear a break (i mean, could you imagine if all 4 bars had a lead line that played without ever stopping? oof).

While yes, the back and forth between the chord stabs and the leads sounds really nice, composing in this way was probably also in part due to technical limitations of the system. At least one saw is used for the main melody (I suspect two though, to give it a little echo/delay feel). That means that the NES only has a triangle wave available and that chord stab definitely is not playable by the triangle channel (go listen to a triangle wave if you don’t believe us). Instead, the two saw waves are reconfigured mid-song to sound completely different, and then configured back to the lead sound you’re used to hearing. This is a technique you’ll see often on chip sounds btw – to get more instruments a voice will change between notes and then change back.

Interesting compositional choices for sure and the technical prowess of the Sunsoft team is clear using techniques like voice switching and sampled basses mixed with sampled drums. Nice job Sunsoft, sounds like you let your musicians work with the engineers and it shows.

Of course there’s more to this track – all kinds of theory and stuff. Like how the melodic line will build up (or down) to introduce the next… more tense… section. We’re not going to get into that because scoping but we invite you to listen for yourself to see what the composer did to connect each of the sections and manipulate the player’s emotions through sound.

Balloon Fight: Bonus Round

Balloon fight, from 1984 is old, really old. Like the beginning of the NES old. This was well before people were using fancy chips in NES games. Samples, if used at all, would just be for drums and nothing fancy like you would find in Journey to Silius. The NES at it’s most basic and honestly, a sound very identifiable with video games.

Also, a fun, relaxing, and chipper game. We chose the bonus round music to examine because well, our director chose the bonus round music to include in their reels. Yep, this one was used to provide us with a specific idea for music for a scene that’s fun and silly, and so here we are. Let’s take a look.

Balloon Fight Bonus Round Analysis

This is likely the most authentic NES sound there is. The voice arrangement used in this track i found in many other games. The triangle wave is the bass, the saw is the lead, the noise is used for a little hi hat pattern, and it sounds like the DPCM channel (aka samples) is also used to facilitate the drum beat.

They definitely kept it simple here. Not a lot of technical wizardry manipulating the different sound channels to do weird things, just straight forward basic NES music. Even the lead is just a single channel, no layering for chords or anything like that.

The structure of this one is kinda fun. It starts with a 4 bar intro, then 8 bars with the main melody and bassline, then 8 bars of a sort of bass solo, then the same 8 bars main melody/bass section, and then a 4 bar outro that goes back to the intro. We’ll have part’s A be the main melody, part B be the bass solo. So the structure is like this:

Intro (4 bars) -> A (8 bars) -> B(8) bars -> A(8 bars) -> Outro(4 bars) -> repeat

In general this music is supposed to be uplifting and fun. Balloon fight, if you’ve ever played it, is a pretty chill game where you puff a little guy around on balloons; it plays a little like Joust on the Atari back in the day. This track keeps is up tempo and uses a 4 on the floor pattern (like your house music) to keep it feeling fun, like you wanna dance. The hats do this fun shuffle and then the noise channel is used to do crash cymbals from time to time.

Part B is a bit of the genius of this piece of music. Remember when we were discussing Journey to Silius – we talked about the fact that a gamer is going to play a game for potentially a long time, listening to the same loop of music over and over. Melodies are funny in that they can drain us if they don’t breath, many listeners get tired quickly if their ears are bombarded with too much stuff.

Balloon Fight’s composer understands this well but also knew that the main melody riff was probably good enough most of the time – so what did they do? They just took the melody out for 8 bars and made the bass line a little more exciting (literally adding a few notes to what was already there). This allows the composer to get more out of their carefully crafted part A.

What’s also interesting to note is that there were technical incentives to re-using a piece of music. For example, it meant the game could run with less memory, or rather, the music would use less of the memory. In the old NES games, they didn’t have Mapper chips yet, memory was extremely limited – it’s entirely possible that the composer was asked to write simple music just so there could be an extra tile or sprite animation. Hard to say, but I definitely think the severe limitations of the early NES games was a factor in how the bonus music for Balloon Fight was ultimately written.

Thexder in game music

Welcome to Thexder. This was a game we owned on pc (a single 5 inch floppy we believe) back in the 80s. This particular rendition of the in-game music is from the MSX. We chose this as it illustrates the music on the early 80’s microcomputers. Of course there were varoious chips, though the MSX uses the AY3 that we’ve been talking about in this blog series.

With Thexder, we wanted to represent the standard usage of a chip like the AY3 back in the day. The AY3 has 3 PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) channels and when you listen to Thexder this is very clear. Not often these days will you hear music composed of practically the same instrument, just in different pitches (i mean, unless you like piano, but for synths this is pretty rare these days). It sounds like there’s a square bass, a square melody, a square counter melody. And, there are no drums either. Yep, this sounds like a classic AY3.

Fwiw, this is extremely similar to the kind of music you might hear on the Sega Master System or the Sega Game Gear. They use a variant of this chip – so it’s a bunch of pulse waves that you can stack in various ways. Very different from our Twisted Electrons AY3 synth, truly.

Thexder In-game music Analysis

Before anything, we’d like to point out that in this game… this is pretty much the only music you get to hear. Times were different back in the day, maybe you had in-game music and that was it (no title music… maybe you couldn’t even beat the game). That said, some of the principles we’ve already noted in other tracks still apply here. Keep in mind though, we haven’t looked at a microcomputer like the MSX yet – they were designed differently. (Fun anecdote is that these old microcomputers could have enhancement chips in the game, for example there’s a famous Atari title from Lucas Arts that has a second sound chip in the cart! Anyways, this game was on a disk so no funny business…)

The structure of this song is pretty basic. There’s a part A which is part A1 and part A2 where this is a 16 bar call and response, the call being the first 8 bars and the second 8 bars being the response. This is the main melodic theme and really the only difference between the two 8 bars are the notes leading out of the phrase and into the subsequent sections of the song.

After part A there’s a 2 bar bridge and then another 16 bar section, much like Part A. It’s much like the first, though it’s a new melody that’s a bit more epic, and one of the voices has been used for this background tingle-bell sounding thing (of course this new instrument is added to add some tension). So here’s the Breakdown:

A1 (8 bars) -> A2 (8 bars)-> 2 bar bridge -> B1 -> B2 -> A1 -> A2 … ad infinitum

As we’ve stated, Part B is much like Part A. There are two 8 bar sections that extend the main melody. Like part A, B1 and B2 pretty much start out the same, and differ more toward the end. The other thing to point out is that part B uses some different chords, probably to add to the epicness (you’re flying a transforming spaceship, the point is to make you feel like a hero, after all).

And that’s it, actually. 1m 6s loop that repeats until you’re tired of playing the game. No fancy voice programming or anything, just bleeps and bloops… just the way video games used to sound.

Wrap Up

If you saw our playlist post from part 4 you’re well aware our reference playlist is larger than the songs we’ve presented here. We don’t go and analyze all of them, well, unless something really inspires us too. Many of them are sonic references, we listen and mentally process them. However it’s always worth going deep with a few tracks to see some of the techniques employed.

There’s quite a bit that’s subject to the hardware, though that’s no surprise (it also happens to be one thing we think is so fun about classic game music). We can see in many cases how the hardware limited (or was abused) to present the music. Very different than having any instrument you want and just recording it – with these old consoles you almost have to be an expert engineer to reach the true creative potential of the system.

Well, we’re sure there are a lot of people who are glad things aren’t this way anymore, but in the spirit of authenticity, these limitations are all things we can keep in mind as we compose. We can replicate these limitations (or abuses) to add authenticity to our soundtrack… or we can artistically go around them. The point is, now we know and knowing gives us a choice instead of hoping we stumble upon something amazing. Though, we do sorta still hope we stumble upon something amazing; research only takes you so far 🙂

Alright, that’s part 5. Part 6 is coming… soon. We’ve actually been writing music for a different part of the film most recently which is the sad part. For the sad part, we’re not doing video game music, actually; it’s the only part of the film that we’re not. We’ll post stories from that aspect of the creation process as an aside from this blog series… so yea, look out for that. And as for part 6… well… we have some composing to do and some approvals to get. We’ll share that as it happens, but it might be later this summer.

Yea… these things take a while. If you want email when part 6 comes out – sign up for our newsletter. Time for us to get on our spaceship and get the fuck outta here, bye for now.