Once Donkey Kong (or whoever) had shown the way, video game music exploded — sometimes literally. When Tempest brought eight channels worth of sound onto the scene, it was a watershed moment for the industry. Honestly, I don’t know how many arcade-goers really noticed — the 80s weren’t exactly about subtlety…
Still, Tempest gave us the very first video game soundtrack. It had little competition from the newly-engorged home video game systems, headed up by the woefully under-endowed Atari 2600. Far too many of the console’s game had nothing more than a handful of disappointing sound effects — and no music at all, ever. Still, an extremely careful, creative, and motivated programmer could coax both audio ‘channels’ to life; games like Mountain King and Pressure Cooker could make a serious musical impression on all who played (for better or worse…).
On the other hand, some of the overcompensating competitors featured relatively sophisticated chips from General Instruments and Texas Instruments; these babies could kick out three simultaneous ‘musical’ tones plus an extra channel just for noise (an essential feature for gunshots, explosions, and classic drum machine sounds).
The Colecovision went one further, of course, to provide four channels — and you could even make music of your own with it if you were one of the few who opted for the Adam system. Still, surprisingly few of the many Atari clones and competitors offered up memorable soundtracks for their games.
For game fans willing to take the plunge into ‘real’ computing in the early 1980s, the legendary Commodore 64 offered astounding musical capabilities; just check out the music from the C64 port of Arkanoid or Last Ninja. The musical capabilities of this humble machine were so in demand that a synth module using the chip was re-released for professional musicians almost two decades later (the SIDstation). Of course, Commodore’s flagship Amiga line quickly became the computer musician’s dream machine (only rivaled by the re-designed Atari ST line at the end of the 1980s), but we’re focusing on video game music here!
But it wasn’t the C64 that became the next great gaming machine; the NES was the console of choice for the next generation of players, who were treated to a sizable boost in both technology and talent. Five channels, including sample playback, gave plenty of tools to the composers of classics such as Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Zelda. By the end of the decade, video game music had ceased to be a disposable extra, and became a significant (and expected) part of the whole gaming experience.
It was a real transformation from beginning to end and to watch it, even be a part of it, was an amazingly unforgettable thing. If you were there, you know.