The growth of indie game development sees coders steering away from full-orchestra anthems and speed-metal soundtracks to the cheery era of chip-generated tunes. Here are some of the finest you should enjoy, whether you play classic or modern games or simply admire the audio artform.
There are three types of game on PC and console these days. So-called “AAA” titles take years to develop with teams of hundreds of coders and artists, and generally use full orchestras to create the anthemic music that plays a key part of storytelling.
Most smaller “AA” developers, even for professional publishing houses, can’t afford such luxury and lean towards synthesized soundtracks from a professional musician or borrowing tracks from unsigned artists or bands.
Down at the bottom of the heap are small publishing teams and indie solo artists whose games usually borrow from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras where chiptunes, aka synthesized electronic music created by a programmable sound generator chip. These were seen in mostly 8-bit systems like the Nintendo NES, Commodore 64 and so on.
Chiptunes are often short and simple melodies repeating or progressing, and helped inspire lots of dance musicians. They are easy to create with modern tools, but still require a musician’s touch to create memorable and engaging music.
Enter the chiptune
Any old gamer probably has a list of favourite chiptunes, most of the soundtracks were preserved for posterity and make great playlists on Spotify or as emulated playthrough videos on YouTube. Nostalgia for old games lives on even though the game may be consigned to history, or revamped with updated tunes.
One of the early favorites is the Sega’s Wonder Boy series. While it never hit the popularity of Nintendo’s Mario games, it was considered cutting edge at the time and has endured with a recent revamp that maintained Shinichi Sakamoto’s original audio style.
Here’s the original and the remake, all paying careful homage to what remains a timeless classic.
Another all-time classic is Sega’s Out Run the Ferrari road racer across America that was soundtracked by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, using the newer FM synthesis chips. In this clip you can hear the differences between the various home console and computer versions of the timeless Magical Sound Shower track.
Back to the future with chiptunes
The comeback thanks to indie games is part necessity due to a lack of resources, and in part to keep the overall style of the retro games that people are playing today. Most of them simply wouldn’t sound right with some bass-laden eurodance or industrial grime soundtrack.
There are a huge number of indie games with some 30 released every day on Steam, so finding the audio diamonds in the rough can be hard. The more popular a game is, the more likely its soundtrack will reach classic status.
That’s certainly worthy with titles like Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, which has a great collection of in-game audio tracks and has built up a huge following as it gets released on pretty much every platform including PS Vita and Nintendo Switch.
Perhaps less well known to gamers, but still packing an awesome soundtrack is Xenon Valkyrie from Diabolical Mind. This soundtrack hits all the right spots with a variety of instruments and beats chiming in as the tiny pixel characters roam about causing destruction across an alien landscape.
And, at the cutting edge of chiptune comes Xeno Crisis from Bitmap Bureau. An Alien-inspired shooter being developed for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and Dreamcast (with a Switch version to follow), it represents the best of retro on the actual platform but using every bit of the available technology . Composed by Savaged Regime, check out a preview of the soundtrack on Soundcloud.
Do let us know what your favorite chiptune games, both modern and original, are.