Video Game Audio 108. Rise of 16-bit machines in the 1990s


As I wrote in my last article, the Commodore 64 home computer, and the Nintendo NES/Famicon home gaming console have become massive hits worldwide.

The C64 had sold over 12.5 million units. The Nintendo NES sold over 60 million units worldwide.

This meant that the market for video games had matured and became big business as we entered the 1990s.

Massive competition and cracking of games

It also meant that the competition was fierce among video game publishers, and a video game usually only sold for three months before the consumers wanted something new.

I reckon some of this also had to do with the massive amount of illegal copying of games – especially on home computers – which was very easy, not least thanks to many cracker groups at the time.

The cracker groups liked to crack and distribute the games with their own intros (cracktros), and some of this led to the evolution of a separate demo scene and LAN parties.

I’ll get back to the demo scene further down in the section about the Amiga.

16-bit machines at home and the slow death of the Arcade

In the 1990s, Nintendo drastically reduced the production of arcade machines and instead focused on making home consoles.

This was a sign that the age of the arcade was soon to be over – at least in the West.

There were still some major arcade hits in the 1990s, though.

Titles such as NBA Jam (1993), Alien vs. Predator (1994), SoulCalibur (1998), Tekken (1994), Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of the Super Heroes (1998), and various Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat titles became major hits. Many of these game series still have life on PC and consoles today.

Titles such as Alien vs. Predator, Marvel vs. Capcom, and The Simpsons (1991) indicated that video games were now considered mature and cross-fertilization between the movie industry, music business, and comic book publishing industry could occur.

This cross-fertilization could be seen in home video games.

And, like it or not, times were changing.

The 1990s saw home gaming on consoles and computers explode, while at the same time, arcades continuously began to experience a dwindling number of visitors.

One of the reasons was that with the 16-bit machines, computer graphics, and sound had become so good that the arcade machines had little to offer.

You can read more about bits and how it’s related to sound here.

Where 8-bit ports of arcade hits were often inferior versions with worse graphics and sound, the 16-bit home consoles and computers could easily compete – or even create a superior version.

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And why would you spend a hard-earned coin to play a game a single time in a noisy arcade when you could play a sometimes superior version at home and play it as many times as you wanted?

The sound of 16-bit machines

With the 16-bit machines technologies like Frequency Modulation, aka. FM-synthesis and Wavetable synthesis was introduced.

With FM-synthesis, you can create much more realistic sounds because you usually have 4-6 oscillators to shape the sounds.

As Karen Collins points out in her book Game Sound (2008:38) (link to Amazon), this meant that sounds that had previously been hard to replicate could now be used in video game music.

These sounds included organs, electric pianos, plucked string instruments, and acoustic guitars.

The introduction of wavetable synthesis made it possible to use digital samples from real instruments.

However, samples use up a lot of memory, as anyone who has ever composed music in sequencers, such as SoundTracker for the Amiga, knows. – I’ll get back to the introduction of music software in a minute.

Music structures continue

The 16-bit machines had more realistic sounds, but the way the music was created was similar to how it was created on 8-bit machines, meaning it was still mostly loop-based.

Koji Kondo’s sonic worlds in 2D side-scrolling games (Overworld, Underworld, and Boss-battle music) continued in the 16-bit era.

One of my favorite examples of this is Shadow of the Beast (1989) by Psygnosis. This was the game that convinced me to buy an Amiga 500.

The gameplay, story, and overall mood in the game were great. But the graphics and sounds were amazing!

The graphics had beautiful colors, and the game used parallax side-scrolling in several layers to give the illusion of 3D with background, middle ground, and foreground.

The sound blew me away. The evocative synths set the mood from the beginning when the game loads.

And you can hear how the more upbeat and lighter overworld theme contrasts the darker and more dramatic underworld music.

And at the end, the music changes to the most hectic, percussive yet.

And once again, you hear the longer loops in the overworld and underworld and shorter loops in the boss battle.

It’s a good example of Kondos’s ideas from Super Mario Bros. continuing in 16-bit era music.

I’ll get back to the Amiga 500 later in this article.

For now, though, let’s turn our eyes towards the rise of the 16-bit home consoles in the 1990s and look at the two most prominent ones from SEGA and Nintendo.

The SEGA Genesis

The SEGA Genesis was released in Japan in 1988, the US in 1989, and Europe in 1990. Outside of North America, it’s known as the SEGA MegaDrive.

It saw huge success because SEGA ported its arcade hits to the platform. And because it was a 16-bit machine, gamers could enjoy almost the same quality at home.

The SEGA Genesis was superior to the 8-bit Nintendo NES in every way and quickly found an audience hungry for better graphics and sound at home.

The success was only boosted with the release of Sonic The Hedgehog (1991), which became a massive hit.

A couple of years later, SEGA released a version with a CD add-on (the MEGA CD) since the CD had gained traction as media for storage.

The introduction of the CD meant you could now use video in the games, include bonus content, and re-release cartridge-based games with high-fidelity audio tracks.

However, CD add-ons for consoles at this time only saw limited success, partly due to the high price tag and also because of a minimal number of games that weren’t even good.

SEGA Genesis sounds

The SEGA Genesis sound chip allowed it to generate superior sounds to 8-bit consoles and include new effects like phasing and flanging.

However, sounds were difficult to create for the SEGA Genesis. Because of this, you could hear the same sounds in several games.

Collins mentions how the organ sound found in Fatal Rewind (Psygnosis 1991) was also used in Shadow of the Beast II (Psygnosis 1992) (ibid:40).

Here is Fatal Rewind:

And here’s Shadow of the Beast II:

I loved the introduction to SOTB II when I first played it on the Amiga 500. Unfortunately, it isn’t included in the SEGA version.

For those interested, you can watch it and compare the music and graphics here:

The SEGA Genesis sound chip sounded best when it generated sounds similar to those of progressive rock, e.g., using an organ instead of a guitar for the lead melody.

Progressive rock includes bands like Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP).

These bands often used themes inspired by science-fiction and fantasy, which fit well to the over- and underworld in video games (ibid:43).

Even though SEGA, in the long run, could compete with new consoles from Sony (PlayStation) and Microsoft (Xbox), you can still hear the arcade-style rock riffs in SEGA games today – fx in Sonic Racing.

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

Nintendo quickly realized that SEGA had overtaken them and that their 8-bit NES was no match for the powerful Genisis/Megadrive. So they had to respond quickly.

The successor to the popular NES was the SNES. In Japan, it was called the Super Famicon. It was released in Japan in 1990, the US in 1991, and Europe in 1992.

It was released as a response to the popular 16-bit SEGA Genesis.

Nintendo continued its video game strategy from the NES, with happy emotional awarding “cathing” sounds and upbeat chiptune-sounding music.

In terms of genre, Nintendo drew inspiration from dance, hip-hop, and hard rock.

SEGA had begun using music from popular artists – fx in the game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (SEGA 1991).

Nintendo responded by getting the Eurodance band 2 Unlimited to make the soundtrack for Biometal (Activision 1993) (ibid: 47).

SEGA continues this aesthetic to this day. Somehow they’ve managed to keep their games family-friendly, reflected in the funny and happy-sounding soundscapes.

Thus you’re never in doubt when you play a Nintendo game, whether on the Wii or one of the many iterations of the Gameboy or Switch.

And that aesthetic and branding go back to the one established with the 8-bit NES.

The Commodore Amiga

Commodore also saw a market for 16-bit home computers and released the Commodore Amiga 500 in 1987 as a successor to the C64 and C128.

As with the shift from 8-bit to 16-bit home consoles, the Amiga 500 was far superior in graphics and sounds to its 8-bit ancestors.

The sound chip in the Amiga 500 is called Paula. It could output sounds in 14-bit by mixing two channels of 8-bit sounds each.

Here’s a nice video with Glenn Keller, who designed the Paula sound chip:

The Paula could create complex waveforms within a frequency range of 20Hz to 29kHz. It could also modulate the sound and create effects like tremolo and vibrato.

Besides this, it was possible to sample real instruments and sounds and play them back on the computer. However, as I mentioned earlier, this took up a lot of memory, so it had to be used sparingly.

The Amiga 500 was marketed as a video game computer, whereas its bigger brother, the Amiga 2000, was marketed toward businesses as a direct competitor to Apple and IBM.

However, the Amiga 500 also found success in areas such as word processing (WordPerfect), video editing (Video Toaster), graphics manipulation (Deluxe Paint), and music (Ultimate SoundTracker).

SoundTracker was a vertical scrolling sequencer (as opposed to the horizontal ones like Cubase we use today) that, among other things, could pitch, time stretch, and playback samples.

SoundTracker used the MOD format, which contained information about notes, patterns, and instruments in one file.

Here’s a video showing the song Axel F. by German musician Harold Faltermeyer (1984) for the movie Beverly Hills Cop, recreated in ProTracker.

Most music for video games on the Amiga 500 was created using the MOD format.

Because you could use digital samples, you knew that the sound was always the same and didn’t change due to computer configuration changes.

Fx, using a midi module on the Amiga was possible, which would have changed the sound depending on which module you had.

Samples, however, never changed.

The rise of the demo scene and LAN parties

Because the Amiga 500 had so many tools, the cracking and demo scene that had begun with the Commodore 64 continued on the Amiga.

Cracker groups still enjoyed creating cool-looking intros (cracktros) whenever they had removed the copyright protection on a game.

Cracktros can be viewed as a sort of digital graffiti.

And since the “market” for cracked games where huge, their work got widely distributed.

However, cracktros began to take on a life of their own and soon sparked a whole subculture of creatives who enjoyed (and enjoy!) pushing the Amiga 500 to the limits.

Here’s one of my favorite demos from the 1990s – Enigma by Phenomena (released in 1991).

Instead of sending demos to each other, people began organizing and creating demo parties where they compete to create the coolest-looking demo over a couple of days and drink cola – LOTs of cola.

This eventually led to LAN parties, where gamers competed against each other and copied many games. The huge eSports scene we see today spawned from these early LAN parties.

Often you’d set several limits for each demo – fx how many kilobytes you’re allowed to use.

Here’s a demo made using only 4kB, which a good friend of mine made together with the Danish demo group Fnuque. It’s made using real hardware and not an emulator:

The demoscene is still alive and well today – as the above demo from 2022 is proof of.

But since the hardware is getting old, many use emulators instead, which has increased the need for setting artificial limits “to keep it real.”

Some demo groups would go on to create video games themselves. One example is Danish company IO Interactive, behind the successful video game franchise Hitman.

The composer in the demo group and the early days of IO Interactive was Jesper Kyd, who has since moved to the US and now creates music for big game franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands, and Warhammer.

Soundcards in PCs: the Sound Blaster

The early 1990s saw the introduction of dedicated sound cards to otherwise business-oriented PCs.

This meant that PCs from companies such as IBM and Apple could suddenly start competing with home consoles and Commodore in gaming and music production.

This, mixed with bad business decisions at Commodore, ultimately led to the demise of the Amiga computer.

In 1986, Canadian company Ad Lib, Inc. released the Ad Lib soundcard aimed at musicians.

However, due to lacking features, it was soon overtaken by another company that was to become the market leader, and Ad Lib had to file for bankruptcy in 1992.

In 1990, Singaporean manufacturer Creative Technology launched the Sound Blaster sound card.

The Sound Blaster became the de facto standard in PC, and by 1995 the many different iterations had sold over 15 million units worldwide.

I’ve had many of these cards on various PC, including the Sound Blaster Pro, the Sound Blaster 16, the Sound Balster 32, and the Sound Blaster Live! before I transitioned into external sound cards for professional music and video production.

Even though motherboards now feature onboard soundcards, serious gamers still prefer a dedicated sound card, just like we prefer a dedicated graphics card.

I remember you could use the joystick port as a midi port in the early Sound Blaster card. That way, it was possible to use an external midi keyboard to compose music.

But one thing is hardware. You also had to have good software. Especially if you had to take game sound to the next

LucasArts’ iMuse

In the article, The legacy of iMuse: Interactive video game music in the 1990s, in Music and Game. Perspectives on a Popular Alliance (2013) (link to Amazon), Willem Strank writes about how iMuse made it possible to have more interactive music in video games.

iMUSE (short for Interactive Music Streaming Engine) was developed by LucasArts in the early 1990s. Thus iMUSE can be seen as the early ancestor of today’s video game sound engines, such as Wwise by AudioKinetic and FMOD.

With iMUSE, the composer could now test out music in the games without relying on the programmers all the time.

Earlier, the composer sometimes composed the music outside the game, and a programmer had to translate it and program the notes.

With iMUSE, the composer could test how the music sounded and how the music transitioned from one piece to the next when something happened in the game.

iMUSE used the MIDI protocol to achieve this.

Probably the most famous example is the point-and-click adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island II: LeChuck’s Revenge (LucasArts 1991).

The game has been applauded for its dynamic soundscape and music, and the series has since achieved cult status among dedicated fans.

In Closing

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the home video game market mature.

A lot of what we’ve come to expect from video game culture today, including (but not limited to) dynamic music in games, chipmusic, LAN parties, and eSports, were seeded in this period.

Likewise, the computer as a digital multimedia production tool for music and video editing became possible with the introduction of 16-bit and later 32-bit processors and storage media such as the CD and later DVD and BluRay disc.

Another important development was the hard disk.

Whereas the Nintendo and SEGA relied on cartridges and the Amiga on a 3.5″ Floppy Disk Drive to load software into the RAM, the gradually increased sized and lower cost of hard drives made it possible to make bigger games without having to swap between discs all the time.

The next decade saw the rise of Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox, which became the dominant players in the home console market.

With the demise of Commodore, SEGA, and (to some extent) Nintendo, and Apple focusing on the creative market, the video gaming machines of the 2000s became the PC, the Xbox, and the PlayStation.

In the next article, I move the focus away from this historical crash course to video game sound. Instead, we shall look at ways and theoretical tools to analyze music and soundscapes in video games.

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.

Read more on the About Page.