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A quick look at commercial music in early video games


While the gap between commercial and video game music has about never been as narrow as it is now, the former has been used in video games for a long time already. Here's a small sample of such pieces and games from the earlier days. Comprehensiveness isn't my goal.

Of the games discussed in this blog, Sonic 3 and Ghostbusters are the only ones I've played enough to warrant a mention.

Hyper Olympic (Track & Field) (Konami, 1983)

 Screenshots from the MSX home port

1981 saw the release of a song that is tightly coupled with the Olympic Games in the minds of people: Chariots of Fire. It certainly helped to have the song performed in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012... and it had also been used in conjunction with several Olympic Games before that. Never mind that it played when Steve Jobs unveiled Macintosh in 1984.

Chariots of Fire was originally by the Greek musician Vangelis. You may recall his music also from 1982's movie Blade Runner... and a few others.

The theme is actually a part of the score of a movie by that name... and was given the movie's name only after it started rising on the charts. That movie is about two British runners preparing for the 1924 Olympic games. The movie was very well-received. For what it is worth, it also got four Academy Awards, including one for the best original score.

So what is this game, then? The original arcade game from 1983 is sports game with track & field events. It's a simple one by today's standards, but worked well in its time. As the events come to an end and the player takes the top spot on the podium, the game will play out a piece of Chariots of Fire. The NES, C64 and MSX home versions have it as well.

Interesting enough, the movie itself was ranked in 1999 by BFI in the top-20 of British films, yet the title visuals of this game, at least when called Track & Field instead of the Japanese title Hyper Olympic, are very much American (except for the MSX port).

I don't know how much luck, keen eye, information and skill there was at play, but for a sports title to use this song at that time feels like a masterstroke. The first Olympic Games after the movie's premiere were in 1984. From what Wikipedia says, BBC used this song in their coverage then, but this game came out before that in 1983. How well was the theme associated with sports before that -- or perhaps even the opposite: how well were sports associated with the theme?

Daley Thompson's Decathlon (Ocean, 1984) - C64 (+ ZX Spectrum, at least)

 Screenshots of Daley Thompson's Decathlon on ZX Spectrum.

Yellow Magic Orchestra was a highly important Japanese music group from 1978 to 1984. I'm ignoring their later active years now for convenience. The members made a bunch of impressive stuff on their own afterwards, including earning a part of an Academy Award and releasing one of the earliest if not the earliest video game music records (Haruomi Hosono: Video Game Music, 1984).

Of particular note of YMO's music pieces is "Rydeen". If you've watched episode 5 of Sound! Euphonium, you've heard a part of it. If you've played Sega's Super Locomotive (unlikely), you've heard it.

And if you've played Daley Thompson's Decathlon on C64, you've heard it.

So who is Daley Thompson? He's the winner of the olympic gold medal in decathlon in 1980 and 1984. Ocean took a gamble on getting the rights to use his name before the 1984 Olympic games, and as it turned, it paid out well (see Kim Justice's video on Ocean, part 2, 10:10 onwards). For a look at the game on ZX Spectrum, Nostalgia Nerd made video on the game. Yes, that is Chariots of Fire. Again.

But it's the C64 version's loading screen that was of interest this time. That's Rydeen.

Xenon 2 Megablast (Bitmap Brothers/Assembly Line/Image Works, 1989)

Xenon 2 Megablast is not a game that has aged well. Its big claim to fame is, beside being made by Bitmap Brothers, the title song, which is a reasonable reproduction of a song Megablast (Hiphop on Precinct 13) by Bomb the Bass. That song was released in 1988.

The story how this collaboration came to be is something I'd like to include, but given how the source I have is a newsletter my friend got and I can't find the story on the WWW... I really can't do that.

Note that the above applies for the Amiga version and the Atari ST one as well. The later Megadrive version had a very lackluster version of the titular music.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega, 1994)

You may have heard the claim that Michael Jackson worked with Sega on the soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. True or not, that's actually not the point this time.

One of the pieces I remember best from the game is the music for Ice Cap Zone -- maybe in part because how the level started with a set piece: snowboarding down a steep slope.

Sonic 3 got a PC release, and for one reason or the other, the music was replaced with something very different

One very possible reason is a then-unreleased song by Jetzons, a band that had disbanded by the time Sonic 3 was released. Big shoutout to Fuzunga for pointing out this song to me: Jetzons - Hard Times.

For more, you can check this USgamer article by Nadia Oxford from 2016.

Blade Runner (CRL, 1985)

And now we're moving towards actual licensed games based on movies. We're not quite there with this game, though. While Blade Runner is a 1982 movie directed by Ridley Scott and has the very well-known end theme composed by Vangelis, this game doesn't have the movie license... but it is licensed.

 Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.

Instead of the movie, CRL licensed the soundtrack. Instead of replicants, the game has replidroids. The player still shoots them in the back like Deckard did to Zhora... and that's actually most of the game.

With the game being based on a licensed soundtrack, you can expect to hear the song. And at this age, you'd hear it constantly. And you do (except not on ZX Spectrum). Just like you would've done with Xenon 2 a few years later.

Here's a warning, though. I may find listening to modem dial-up tones soothing, but the ZX Spectrum port of the game made my ears hurt. C64 and Amstrad versions are better, but not by that much.

Kotaku has an article by Peter Tieryas about both this and the later Westwood title, if you want to read more.

To finish...

One of the most memorable tunes from 1980s movies is Danny Elfman's theme music to Batman. Yet the games based on that movie don't appear to use it, not on C64 or Amiga. Sunsoft's NES Batman game, even though it only somewhat used the movie as its foundation, didn't use the theme either. Why was that, I don't know. Maybe the music wasn't included in the deal, maybe the music couldn't have been recreated well enough.

The C64 Transformers game definitely had a bit of the theme music. So did He-Man. And Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And it wasn't necessarily a good thing.

And as a final note...

While there's little reason to question if David Crane's Ghostbusters (Activision, 1984) game had a right to use the movie theme, the way they included the vocal track was clever enough. From what I've seen the NES version, it wasn't present there, but at least the C64, MSX, Amstrad CPC, Apple IIe and Sega Master System versions did: sing-along lyrics.

EDIT: Added screenshots of some of the games.

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.