I’m a big nerd so I’m at Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. For those who don’t know, E3 is this huge conference that focuses on video games and the stuff people need to play them. I bet you’re thinking that it sounds stupid, and you have no clue why you’re reading this in a music column. Actually, video games have a rich musical history, as evidenced by these musically memorable moments in video game history.
• Who among us can forget the moment we flipped on the old NES to the dulcet tones of the Super Mario Bros. theme? In those days, the technology was pretty rudimentary, so composers (yes, they had composers) were forced to work within the field of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). It used to be that most electronic music equipment wasn’t necessarily compatible. MIDI made it possible for drum machines and synths to work together for one cohesive song. Suddenly, a single keyboard could emulate thousands of sounds. Unfortunately, the memory on early video game cartridges was small—so even though the music from Super Mario Bros. was actually quite complicated, it had that funny, super-condensed blip/bloop sound.
• The transition of games from cartridge to disc in the mid-’90s opened up an entirely new world for video game soundtrack composers. I, and hopefully at least a few people reading this, totally freaked the first time I heard an orchestrated score on a Final Fantasy game. To this day, game composers like Japan’s Nobuo Uematsu hold big-deal concerts at which ensembles like The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra perform the scores to games. Since America loves to hate on just about everything, I doubt we will see anything like this here soon.
• I’m going to admit to enjoying System of a Down here. I know, I know…I just can’t help it. Anyway, whether or not you think the band sucks (which you almost certainly should), it was still pretty neat when vocalist Serj Tankian wrote up words for the theme from The Legend of Zelda and the band covered the tune. With lyrics like, “Link, save up your hearts so you can shoot your sword with power,” video game nerds suddenly felt like they were maybe a little cooler than their jock tormentors made them feel.
• The Tony Hawk series of games did wonders for the world of video game/music relations. The first time I heard the incredible, and sadly now deceased, hip-hop emcee Eyedea was during a marathon session of Tony Hawk. Punk bands like Bad Religion, Public Enemy, The Sex Pistols and Millencolin suddenly became household names. Hip-hop artists like Jeru the Damaja and Bus Driver found their way into the series before exploding as big-deal names. I like to think that, with a little luck, a lot of kids were introduced to music beyond what the radio told them to buy.
• Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band totally ruined musicianship. Instead of working hard to shred on actual instruments, kids worked hard to master those four stupid buttons on the miniature, fake guitar. If people had spent a fraction of the time on a legitimate guitar, there would have been an entire generation of incredible guitarists playing real music out there. Developer Ubisoft (What’s up Assassin’s Creed?!) plans to change this with the introduction of Rocksmith (which is among the thousands of games at E3), a music-based game that—gasp!—actually teaches people to play the guitar. While this glorified instructional DVD is certainly a step in the right direction, the days of sitting in a filthy apartment across from a grizzled guitar teacher who simply won’t let Eric Clapton fade from his consciousness appear to be long-gone. And that’s just sad.
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