Chiptunes bring it all back. Video game music from the 16-bit era – that’s the music of your childhood. Here are a few tunes that make me think of growing up a gamer – my Atari ST mixtape:
An earworm of a track, Taito’s arcade platform classic featured a repetitive, relentlessly upbeat tune that goes around and around and around. If we cover Bubble Bobble’s theme first, there’s a (slim) chance other soundtracks will push this one out of your head. Bubble Bobble – addictive gameplay bolstered by a maddeningly catchy tune.
The sequel to Bubble Bobble – equally cheery as Taito’s original, and in keeping with the game’s use of, er, rainbows as projectile weapons, the music was clearly inspired in part by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
A silly British spoof, James Pond is a send-up of 007 (of course), with the player cast as a tuxedo-clad fish, and featuring a tune that also parodies ‘60s spy themes.
A typical movie license, with Activision displaying none of the ambition of David Crane’s original Ghostbusters tie-in. The sequel consisted of only three levels – an intensely difficult intro with Ray rappelling to the river of slime in an abandoned subway station; an on-rails side-scrolling shooter with the player controlling the Statue of Liberty; and an awkward isometric battle that could only be beaten if you actually paid attention to how the Ghostbusters defeated Vigo the Carpathian in the movie.
The sampled Ray Parker, Jr. theme was the best bit, basically.
Let’s get something out of the way here about an age-old rivalry. Yes, I’ll admit it – the Amiga’s sound was superior to the Atari ST’s. Whatever the technical specs, Amiga game music sounds fuller to my ears, compared with the ST’s often tinny, ringing chiptunes. Lotus III was a high-speed race-’em-up, with a frenetic chip score to match – and while the Atari ST version might not hold up to the Amiga’s, it still sets a fair pace.
Call myself an ST fan, and create an Atari ST mixtape – then go on to praise the Amiga’s sound as superior! As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I have to admit that I can’t find the ST version of Dragon’s Breath on YouTube. So I’m relying on the Amiga’s excellent menu music here.
A turn-based game, Dragon’s Breath had you competing against two human or CPU-controlled players, raising dragons to conquer towns and villages. The key was in a complex spell-casting system, with the player having to weigh positive and negative effects of different potions, mixing methods, and heating and condensing. Unfortunately, chemistry was never my strong point – and Dragon’s Breath still has me beat years later.
Back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for ports of games to differ in presentation, frame rates, or soundtracks. And Psygnosis’ old-school, on-rails shoot-’em-up Blood Money is a perfect example.
While the Amiga version’s music is plodding and uninteresting, the ST’s Blood Money is dark and hypnotic, in keeping with this tough, surreal shooter.
Turrican was an attempt to “do a Metroid” on 16-bit home computers. And while Turrican was a solid run-and-gun effort, it was the blistering title track and excellent chiptunes that everyone remembers.
I once read that a retro gamer, having run out of patience with a noisy neighbor, hooked his computer up to loudspeakers and blasted Turrican through the wall. I’m sure that did the trick.
16-bit publisher Ocean was often known for middle-of-the-road movie licenses, but the British giant also took on more ambitious efforts, like Digital Image Design’s space combat sim Epic.
This one’s a bit of a cheat, soundtrack-wise: Epic features a sampled version of Holst’s The Planets – the first movement for Mars, the Bringer of War. Hollywood composers have ripped off this theme shamelessly – at least Epic has enough respect to use the orchestral suite in its original form.
Sensible Software’s ironic, anti-war game was defined by its sardonic intro song, “War Has Never Been So Much Fun”. Though controversy in many ways defined the game, at its core Cannon Fodder was a tricky blend of reflex-based action and tactical planning.