My first exposure to game music must have happened in the mid-80s when my parents bought an Amstrad CPC 6128 computer. Back in those days if you were rich, white and privileged, your parents threw down a ton of money to buy a "microcomputer" for educational purposes and maybe some word processing. There were tons of different computer brands, and none were compatible with one another. No internet. No common media. No common protocols. All the hardware was different, all software had to be coded individually.
I never grew up with game consoles. I am not sure if it was because they weren't really a thing in Europe, or if it was because my parents only wanted to buy "educational" stuff for us as kids. We also didn't have any "mainstream" toys of the era like Transformers, GI Joes, Teddie Ruxpins etc. We got Lego and books and stuffed animals and a microcomputer.
Anyway, of course we only played games. The AY-3-8912 chip of the CPC was an American-made chip that probably no Americans know of unless they had an Atari ST. The big all-American home computer of the 8-bit era, the C64, featured the entirely different cult favorite - 6581 and 8580 SID chips. The AY chip was - in retrospect - perhaps less aesthetically pleasing than the SID chip. It was a cheap-ass digital synth chip that came out at the time that the most exciting professional digital synthesizer was the now laughably retro-sounding Yamaha DX7. If you can remember Phil Collins - One More Night or Chicago - Hard Habit To Break you know that one. The AY is a whole nother level of retro-sounding. It was all square waves and white noise. No real modulation. Straight up fucking dirty chip music. To fake out having some kind of timbral depth - like the analog synthesizers of the day (and the C64) could shit out by accident - programmers used very high frequency looped amplitude modulation envelopes. Well, and the old fashioned chip music technique of extremely fast looped arpeggios. It was a hack. But it was a hack that made those chips unique.
Of course i didn't understand any of that at the time. Back then i was a child, an army brat, dead scared of Soviet nukes and thoroughly excited to watch The A-Team and Top of the Pops each week. But what i did know was when we got our first computer i would sit and listen to certain game intros on loop over and over and over. I'm sure my parents thought i was crazy. They didn't realize that at the time i was a li'l raver-in-training. But listen i did. For hours.
I learned how to play guitar at some point as a kid. I wanted to play AC/DC and Guns'n'Roses, but i couldn't because i didn't have an electric. So i learned Satriani instead. A lot of his stuff worked on classical guitar. Plus, he sounded like a synthesizer. My mom was very confused when i loaded up a computer tracker program from a magazine cover tape and started transcribing Stairway to Heaven into it. For me it was a no-brainer. The computer sounded better - more perfect - playing Led Zeppelin on that shitty-ass AY chip with only three square waves than i did on my rather expensive classical guitar.
How did my parents not get it? Synthesizers are perfect. The sounds they make are just... God, i can't even explain. Synthesizers speak to my heart, they express my feelings and moods better than any traditional instrument could hope to. Don't believe me? J Dave Rogers. God of the AY.
I never even played this game, but i had a cracktro where some kids had ripped off this song to send greetz to their hacker friends. I just listened to the cracktro on loop for hours.
J Dave Rogers - Stormlord
This was a terrible game, but the intro music. Holy hell. Magic.
J Dave Rogers - Zynaps
Who am i kidding? They were all terrible games. Computer games have advanced by leaps and bounds since the 80s, and going back to play anything even 5 years old is an exercise in masochism. But the game music of the time still stands up. Working within extremely tight bounds these musicians and coders coaxed out the wickedest sounds.
But if you don't believe me, if those two tracks were too low-brow for you, how about one of the most proggy game intros of the 80s?
Richard Joseph - Sacred Armour of Antiriad
Later, after the 8-bit era, i got into Ad Lib music on the PC. There was a lot of pretty great music... And then there was Stéphane Picq's score for the game Dune. The Ad Lib soundcard was basically a cheap, cut-down consumer version of the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer from ~5 years earlier, but when you listen to what this guy did with a shitty computer chip versus the pop music of the era it's just phenomenal.
Stéphane Picq - Dune Soundtrack
I AM NOT WORTHY. This man is a god, and pretty much the main reason i got into making techno music. The Dune soundtrack was an amazing fusion of Toto, Deep Forest, Jean-Michel Jarre and every great chip musician that came before. The soundtrack album he put out with "pro" synthesizer reinterpretations of the score was the first CD i ever bought and remains probably my favorite album of all time. Years ago he gave up on the west and disappeared to Madagascar, never to be heard from again. Almost never. Now he is one of my Facebook friends. He'll probably never know how influential his music was for me.
Plenty of other games in the early 90s continued with Ad Lib music, because the once-famous (now forgotten) Sound Blaster sample playback card was not yet industry standard. But eventually the Sound Blaster and its clones got big, Amiga-style tracker music hit the PC, and everything changed. Tracker music was still creative for what the musicians managed to do with limited RAM, but it wasn't really synthesizer music any more. Hell, tracker music got me into composing, but i do think tracker music hitting gaming was the start of the inevitable slide into game music losing its soul. Nowadays game music is just another branch of film scoring, and sadly most film (and game) scorers are not John Carpenter. They still use synths because synths are cheaper than real musicians, but the synths today emulate real instruments flawlessly and no longer have a character of their own. It's a shame.
So, you know. Some of the best game music of the modern era doesn't have any synthesizers at all. Here is a track from Kentucky Route Zero - a somewhat pretentious yet unforgettable surreal journey through the rural south.
Ben Babbitt - Long Journey Home
Great song. I wish game scorers still loved synthesizers as much as i do, though.