Video game music first emerged in the late ’70s. These early compositions were made using simple, synthetic chips, and were aptly named “chiptunes.” Monophonic, looped scores, they accompanied arcade games and their console counterparts, replacing either the silence or simple beeps that had come before.
Fast forward forty years, we are a far cry from these early compositions. With constant technological advances, the world of video game music has morphed alongside the changing tools that facilitate it.
Yet, those early tunes still remain in our collective memory, and in the gaming world, there’s both nostalgia for those golden days of video games, as well as a palpable excitement for what’s to come. Let’s take a look at some of the most significant composers, back then and now.
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From the 1970s to now, here is a list of some of the most notable names in the immersive world of video game composition.
Japan has always been a prolific source of video game composers – perhaps because it’s the birthplace of some of the biggest game developers, like Nintendo and Sega.
Nobuo Uematsu is one of the most well-known video game composers in both Japan and the entire world. Sometimes referred to as the Beethoven of video games, Uematsu is best known for his work on the Final Fantasy series by Square Enix, one of the most influential role-playing games on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
A self-taught musician, Uematsu is unique in that he draws influence from Western sources like Elton John and The Beatles. He began working at Square after he was approached by a company employee whilst working at a music rental shop in Tokyo.
His Final Fantasy compositions have been praised for their ability to encapsulate emotion, and he is known for his utilisation of a diverse range of styles from classical to contemporary jazz and techno.
Another renowned Japanese composer, Koji Kondo is the man behind what is perhaps the most well-known theme in video game history – the Overworld Theme from Super Mario Bros.
Growing up in Nagoya, Japan, Kondo began learning the organ from the age of five, simultaneously developing a love of arcade games like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Whilst at university he came across a job at Nintendo on the school’s placement board and applied. After working on the sound design for the arcade game Punch Out!!, Kondo was hired by Nintendo in 1984.
Trained by one of the earliest Nintendo sound designers, Yukio Kaneoka, Kondo worked under general manager, Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the most iconic designers of video game designers of all time.
In 1985, he was assigned the sound design for the game Super Mario Bros., where he composed the Overworld Theme, along with five other pieces making up the soundtrack. The following year he went onto work on the Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises.
David Wise is an English video game composer with a massive cult following, particularly for his work on the Nintendo series, Donkey Kong Country. Working at the British game developer Rare from 1985 to 2009, his career has spanned over four decades, and his compositions have adapted with the ever-changing technology.
Known for his atmospheric style of music, he often mixes natural environmental sounds in with his scores. Donkey Kong Country was known for having a wide range of musical styles that were reflective of the various environments the characters appeared in, most notably that of ambient jungle influences. His composition, Aquatic Ambience, regularly appears in compilations of the greatest video game pieces.
“We were pioneers at the time,” Wise described of the gaming era of the ’80s and ’90s in an interview with iNews. “[Those games] made a lasting impression…I still get messages from people saying I was the soundtrack to their childhoods.”
Whilst it’s an industry that has been historically dominated by males, there have been some incredible female composers, past and present. Commended as a “rising star in the soundtrack world” by Game Informer, Sarah Schachner is an American composer and multi-instrumentalist at the forefront of contemporary video game music.
Most noted for her work on Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed – the latter earned her a nomination for Best Original Video Score by the International Film Music Critics Association. The score was widely praised, combining the classical/Baroque mood of the French Revolution setting of the game with sci-fi, analog sounds.
As a violinist, violist, cellist, and more, Schachner is unique because she plays many of her compositions herself. But with her background, she’s also able to work comfortably in a space which melds sounds of the past with sounds of the future. In many ways, Schachner represents an exciting new generation, and what’s to come in the world of video game music.
By no means a comprehensive list of composers in this medium, these artists represent milestones in video game music – the confluence of story, technology and musical ambition. The scope of video games has expanded wildly since the days of pong and if it continues on this trajectory, this list of video game music greats is sure to get longer.