Cultural Osmosis: The Ubiquity of Video Game Music

Well this week I decided to take a break and rather than do something which required a whole lot of research, I’d rather just spew my opinion at you for a few hundred words.  Except I’m calling it an “Editorial” to give it a vague sense of authority.  After all if you say “I read some dude word vomit his opinion online” it sounds like you wasted your time, but if you say “I read this fascinating Editorial” it sounds like you’re an intellectual and discerning person who drinks the finest coffee and is a delight at parties.  But of course, as you’re on this site, we already know you have good taste!  So what is my Editorial about? Well it’s part of a potentially recurring series of Editorials I’d like to do examining how certain music has become part of our culture.  Music (and perhaps some comics) that have become a staple of our human existence.

And as a treat to myself, this week I’m looking at how certain video game music has become a part of our society. 

Stop, stop, come back.  I know that doesn’t sound like a super exciting topic on which I can offer a great deal of insight.  But it’s worth remembering that the “Generation of Gamers” are now in their 30s and 40s.  We are becoming the new old people and there is a generation of younger gamers behind us that have never played on an NES.  That have never lived in an age without the internet where they could search up answers on a dime.  There’s a generation of gamers that never played on a SEGA console. And what about our parents who, if they played video games at all, would have done so back in its infancy – before games really had much in the way of music?  The Atari 2600 and the Vic-20 weren’t exactly blasting out rocking tunes.

In these times of transition, it’s always instructive, I think, to look at where we as a culture have found ourselves.  But this isn’t called MusicAndComicsAndVideogames (Oh My), this is called MusicAndComics. But, it’s time to put on my Morpheus shades and ask you this simple question: What if I were to tell you that video game music has become an intrinsic part of our society?

Exhibit A:  Overworld Theme (Super Mario Bros)

If you are like me, then Super Mario Brothers was one of your first video game experiences on a console.  The beautiful gray box offering us hours of fun, so long as our homework was completed.  Your truly was rocking the Super Mario / Duck Hunt combo pack, and for what it’s worth the sound of that dog laughing is probably worthy of an entry on this list as well.  But from his humble beginnings Mario has become and remains to this day the face of video games as a whole.  You want ubiquity? Remember how any given “adult” in our life would refer to any given console as a “Nintendo”?  Nintendo was basically the “Xerox” or “Kleenex” of the gaming world – equal parts and interchangeably a corporate logo and generic term.

Any gamer of any generation of gamers has heard this song before, and recognizes it as an anthem of sorts, even those who have never picked up the original game. And even people who have never played a video game have probably heard this theme or countless variations of it, because it basically embodies the very spirit of videogames.   And this is pretty fascinating because while it has been remixed several times and appears in other Mario games, it hasn’t been the main overworld theme of a Mario game since the original.  In fact the underworld theme (which actually got its start in the original Mario Brothers arcade game) has been reused more often than the main overworld theme.  Maybe it’s because it was the first official theme of Mario, or maybe just because it’s been heard in countless living rooms across the world since the 1980s, but this theme has permeated our very soul.

Exhibit B:   Victory Fanfare (Final Fantasy)

Now I know avid Final Fantasy players like myself will protest at me not mentioning The Prelude and the Final Fantasy Anthem (even though I am doing so right now, but that’s the internet for you).  These themes are both iconic in their own right, but I would argue that even more so the “Victory Fanfare” of Final Fantasy has reached a certain level of musical meme-ry.  Remember in the early 2000s when you would have to download ringtones from shady websites for your Motorola RAZR?  What was the first ringtone they always sent to test it out? Yep.  A chiptune version of this bad boy.

I also have to share a bit of anecdotal evidence in support of my point here.  The source is my old man who to be fair did play a bit of Atari in his days (and some Pirates! for the NES.  Anybody? Nobody?  Okay…).  He has never played a Final Fantasy game in his life, and will never do so.  He’s not onboard with the story-based gaming experience, being very much a man of the old school.  But I and my siblings left our mark on him nonetheless.  One day while playing some digital card game he let out a cheer and then hummed the victory fanfare to announce his success.  In a surreal moment my father then had to ask aloud “Wait, what is that?” After a few moments he realized that it was the victory fanfare from that silly video game his kids played.  Being old must be fun.  But there you have it, another example.

Exhibit C:  Korobeiniki (Tetris)


This one is probably cheating a little bit as the “Tetris Theme” is actually a Russian folk song called Korobeiniki.  But to those of us who do not hail from Moscow, it is the sound of falling blocks and crushed dreams as we wait for a line piece that never comes.  And of my three examples I would say this is the most self-evident one for a simple reason:  everybody has played Tetris.

Seriously, whether you identify as a “gamer” or not, everybody has played this classic puzzle game.  You know how even your grandparents are able to sit around with you and play Wii Sports Bowling? Well before we had the Wii we had Tetris.  After the Wii, we still have Tetris.  When the world ends and all traces of humanity are wiped from the face of the cosmos as the universe collapses in upon itself, somehow, someway there will still be one game of Tetris going and the player will STILL be waiting for that damned line piece.  Both the game and the song are constantly referenced throughout film and TV, my personal favorite example being from The Simpsons.

So there’s probably a dozen other examples that you might think of that fit this criteria, from The Legend of Zelda fairy fountain (which appeared in the excellent Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World film), to the DK Island Swing, to the Pokemon opening theme.  Music that has crossed cultural and generational gaps and just become an accepted part of our collective identity.

So what is the point? Well, I am of the belief that the music of video games as a genre will one day be truly recognized as a genre worthy of its own place in history and its own critical analysis.  As we judge film score today, we will one day judge the music of video games.  That’s already starting to happen, especially with video games now reaching the age where we can recreate entire orchestral scores rather than simple chip tunes.  But critical acceptance and acceptance by the masses are two separate things.  That is why these early signs of cultural osmosis are so important.  They are a gateway into the larger world of video game music because they are so recognizable and so widely used.  Representative of the whole?  Probably not.  But to truly appreciate something you have to first get your foot in the door, and that is the part I believe these songs play.

Interested in continuing the conversation about your favorite video game songs? Join our Forums where we have an entire section devoted to video game soundtracks!  I also have begun weekly Top 10 lists breaking down the entire genre into various categories for your enjoyment / ripping apart and mocking me for my stupid opinions.  This week we looked at my Top Ten Nostalgic Video Game Soundtracks.  Is one of your favorite games on the list?

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