Video Game Audio 105. Gaming at Home in the 1980s.


In the last article, I covered how sound and melodies became important in arcade video games in the 1980s.

In this article, I’ll cover the simultaneous evolution of sound and music in home gaming consoles of the 1980s.

And as I’ve already briefly mentioned, home consoles had a tough start.

The rough beginnings of home consoles

Not everyone enjoys the cacophonic chaos of the penny arcades. Some want to play video games in the comfort of their own home.

Video game companies were quick to realize this and developed home consoles. But the home console market had a rough start.

The first home consoles only had one game each, which was tied to the hardware in the machine. Later consoles had more games stored, which could be activated using different cards, i.e., circuit boards.

But then ROM cartridges were developed, which made it possible to store a different game on each cartridge, which could then be swapped in the machine.

Some of the first consoles with swappable ROM cartridges include Channel F by Fairchild (1976) and Studio II by RCA 1977.

None of these became a huge success. And the same is true for many of the other consoles on the market then.

One major reason for this is that there was a lot of hardware but not many games.

This would change over the next couple of years – at least for one company: Atari.

ATARI 2600 – The first home console success

In 1977 Atari released the ATARI 2600 home gaming console. At first, it looked like it was doomed to the same fate as the competition. But in a few years, it proved to be a major success.

The ATARI 2600 beat the competition for a couple of reasons.

First, because it had superior graphics and sound.

The second reason is that ATARI did the smart thing and licensed Space Invaders so that people could play it at home.

Space Invaders commercial for the ATARI 2600 (1980).

The licensing of Space Invaders helped boost sales tremendously.

The third reason was that Atari kept releasing good games for the console.

The ATARI 2600 was sold in over 25 million units, and over 120 million cartridges were sold.

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Here’s a video showing Space Invaders on the ATARI 2600. Notice that the four-note melody loop is reduced to percussive noise sounds.

The melody loop from the arcade version was too much to handle for the home console version, even though the ATARI had an excellent sound chip compared to the competition:

Atari itself produced the sound chip in the ATARI 2600. It is known as the TIA (Television Interface Adapter) chip, and it handled both graphics and sound.

It could play two voices simultaneously on two separate channels. One channel had a slightly different tuning than the other.

This meant that bass sounds weren’t in tune with treble sounds. There could be up to a whole semitone apart.

Also, the frequency difference between the two tones wasn’t consistent. That meant that the intervals constantly changed between two notes.

Add to this that the European version, which used the PAL standard, sounded different from the US version, which used the NTSC standard.

This meant that only some musical intervals sounded good, which created a limited number of unusual scales the composers could work with.

The quirks of the ATARI 2600 chip led to melodies with a lot of semitones (like the minor second interval between E and F on the piano).

Naturally, this led to some funny-sounding tunes, and it’s another good example of technological determinism in early video game sound.

In Game Sound (Amazon link) (2008, p. 24), Karen Collins mentions the game Up ‘n Down, released by SEGA in 1983, as a good example.

Here’s first the arcade version:

Now listen to the “same” tune on the Atari 2600:

And compare it to a later port from 1984 on the Commodore 64, which had the great SID sound chip:

Love it or hate it, it is clear that the sound chip of the ATARI 2600 was something special.

Why did the frog cross the road? The first multi-melody games

One thing all the games I’ve mentioned until now had in common: the background music was loop-based.

The game only had one tune and was repeatedly played during gameplay.

That wouldn’t until 1981 with the release of FROGGER.

Frogger was developed by the Japanese company Konami and published by Gremlin/SEGA in the US.

The game is about a frog trying to cross a road and river and get to safety in one of five safe houses.

Frogger had eleven musical themes used for background music during gameplay and included start and game-over themes.

This was possible because each gameplay session only took 30 seconds. Within those 30 seconds, you either completed a stage or died due to the time limit.

The game starts with the main theme. When your frog got to safety, the music changed to a new song each time.

If your frog got run over – or you were too slow – the music changed back to the main theme.

Dynamic audio = interactive + adaptive audio

Frogger is a good example of what video game sound researcher Karen Collins calls dynamic audio.

Collins (Ibid: 4) defines dynamic audio as a combination of interactive and adaptive audio.

Interactive audio is when the player does something specific to make the game change audio.

An example of interactive music could be setting off a car alarm in L4D2 and releasing a horde of zombies, which triggers a piece of hectic, stressful music.

In Frogger, this could be when you make a wrong decision and dies.

Adaptive audio is when the game changes the audio without the player’s influence but instead reacts to different game states or parameters.

A good example of this could be the daytime and nighttime cycle in the game world, where the music changes every time the sun goes up or down.

In Frogger, this could be when the time runs out, and it goes back to the main theme.

While interactive and adaptive audio is helpful for analysis in many cases, they also have shortcomings. Fx, when it’s unclear why the music changed, i.e., was it due to player interaction or a game state?

In that case, we have to default to being less specific and use dynamic audio.

Collins’s definition of dynamic audio is a good starting point when it comes to analyzing video game music, but, of course, when we need to get more specific, we need to draw on other practices as well, which I’ll get back to in later articles.

Second-generation home consoles

Now, let’s look at the 2nd generation of home consoles

In 1979, US company Mattel released IntelliVision, an abbreviation of Intelligent Television.

IntelliVision had an integrated sound chip, also used in arcade machines. Later, they also made it possible to connect a Midi-keyboard.

This made it possible to include music that sounded like the melodies you knew already.

Collins mentions the game Buzz Bombers (1983), which used the tune “Flight of the Bumblebee” (1900) by Russian composer Nikolaj Rimskij-Korsakov.

Like Carnival before it, Buzz Bombers became one of many games to use classical tunes.

The reasons for this were:

  • most programmers weren’t musicians. So using known music was easier and faster.
  • using old classical tunes didn’t give any copyright issues (although copyright wasn’t exactly a lot of concern in the early days of video games, which was like the Wild West).

A favorite game of mine, which also used a classical tune, is the space-sim trader-game Elite (1984) by Firebird, which I’ve played on the Commodore 64 and the Amiga 500.

Elite uses The Blue Danube (1867) by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II – as both the music in the intro and for docking sequences.

I still play the newest iteration of the game on my current PC, i.e., Elite Dangerous (Frontier Developments 2014).

So if you’ve ever wondered where Elite Dangerous, Star Citizen, EVE Online, Starfield, or No Man’s Sky got their inspiration, this is it!

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the home consoles.

Another important console of the 2nd generation was the ColecoVision, released by Coleco in the US in 1982.

The ColecoVision also used a sound chip from arcade games, which made the music recognizable.

Like Atari had done with Space Invaders, ColecoVision made the wise decision to license and port the popular arcade hit Donkey Kong (1981) by Nintendo, which helped boost the sale of the console.

But not only that. Coleco had the exclusive rights to port the game to all major consoles, and they made sure to make the versions for their competitors really bad in comparison.

Also, they made sure to exclude a port for the Atari 5200. I wonder why. Maybe because it was a superior machine?

Here’s first a video where you can see (and hear) the original Donkey Kong arcade game:

And here’s a video example of Donkey Kong on the ColecoVision:

And here’s a nice video about the history of the ColecoVision by Newsmaker game for those interested in learning more about the console:

In closing

These were just a small pick of some of the many early home gaming consoles. Writing about them all would take too much space.

I’ve chosen these few, along with a few noticeable games, because they were important milestones in the early history of video game sound and music.

In the next article, I’ll explore the era of 8-bit consoles like the Nintendo NES.

Until next time, happy gaming!

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

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