© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From 'Super Mario' to 'Final Fantasy,' MSU celebrates the music of video games

A concert
Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey
An MSU College of Music Student Ensemble plays a piece from C.A.R.DWARE, developed by students through the school's video game design program.

Video games have set a soundtrack to many of our lives, from the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme to the sound of Pac-Man gobbling up ghosts. Last month, Michigan State University paid tribute to those melodies when it hosted the 11th annual North American Conference on Video Game Music.

A photo of Ryan Thompson in front of a Michigan State University sign.
Ryan Thompson teaches video game music and audio production at Michigan State University.

For Ryan Thompson, the organizer behind this year’s conference, the conference was a chance to return to his roots.

Growing up, Thompson took piano lessons and became a practicing church musician. But some of his most memorable experiences with music came through playing video games in the 1980s and '90s, in the era of 8-bit and 16-bit classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man.

"It had really unique timbres, really unique sounds," Thompson told WKAR. "The chiptune sound of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the 1985 original Nintendo as it were, is a fully functional electronic instrument unto itself."

Thompson teaches video game music and audio production as a professor at MSU. That gives him insight into how video game music is produced and what role game soundtracks hold for players.

He said making music for early games was a highly technical process. Composers could use game hardware to program sounds imitating other instruments.

Thompson said the creators of Mega Man used the NES to create an energetic rock ensemble to score their series about a blue robot fighting against an evil doctor and his creations.

A screenshot of Mega Man 2 jumping through a level and avoiding obstacles.
Image captured by Ryan Thompson
Mega Man 2 features a soundtrack that uses the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to program sounds and instruments mirroring a rock ensemble.

“That triangle wave baseline becomes a combination of bass and drums when they sweep the channel — dooh, dooh — we get like a tom sound," he explained, imitating an instrument from the games.

"In the pulse wave channel, we are emulating the electric guitar complete with soloing and virtuosic play that is just about at the upper limits of what humans can do.”

But Thompson notes video game music needs to do more than just have satisfying instruments that play in the background. Unlike a film score, which curates a sequence of visuals and audio together, game soundtracks need to guide and react to a player as they make decisions in real-time.

“In games, music is used to communicate information in different ways such that we are often meant to listen to the music first, and only later let it recede into the background once we've processed the information about a given space that the music is conveying,” he said.

Thompson said composers oftentimes make their pieces dynamic to help keep players immersed in the experience. Music will smoothly transition as a player encounters different scenarios.

The Super Mario games make abundant use of these subtle musical transitions. Many tracks in the games transform when the titular Italian plumber goes from stomping on Goombas on land to diving underwater.

Thompson said this pulls players into the world of the Mushroom Kingdom.

"It's an absolutely encapturing effect on the player that makes you feel like you are in that space," he said. "You no longer think about the critical distance between you, the body sitting in a chair, holding a controller. You just imagine yourself as Mario in the water at that point.”

Mario swims underwater on an aquatic planet, uncovering fish and coins to collect.
Image captured by Ryan Thompson
The creators of Super Mario Galaxy have soundtracks that react to the player's actions. Music has more of a reverb effect and instruments change when the Italian plumber dives underwater.

Game sound effects can also warn players when danger lies ahead.

In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, players explore the kingdom of Hyrule as an adventurer named Link. On his journey, he sometimes encounters imposing robotic Guardians that might find him before he’s realized it.

A traveler stands in tall grass and holds a shield as a four-legged robot approaches, preparing to shoot a laser.
Image captured by Ryan Thompson
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a suspenseful soundtrack plays when Link encounters Guardians, warning players of the danger.

Thompson said the composers play a suspenseful tune when he's been spotted.

"That music in particular will immediately put you in not necessarily a panic if you know how to respond, but it is absolutely time to respond when that cue enters," he said.

These unique sound elements are the focus of the North American Conference for Video Game Music. As the expert on audio in games, Thompson helped bring the conference to MSU and put together a concert featuring adaptations from different video games across history.

One of those arrangements was from the role-playing game Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. A violinist and marimba percussionist create a tense atmosphere for a boss fight track from the game.

Another piece in the concert comes from the action-adventure game Ico. A pianist and singer present a more wistful theme that appears at the end of the game.

At the NACVGM concert, vocalist Laura Intravia sings "You Were There" from the action-adventure game Ico.
Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey
At the NACVGM concert, vocalist Laura Intravia sings "You Were There" from the action-adventure game Ico.

And at one point, a band plays "A Medley of Chiptune Rock" featuring retro game themes. At the end of their performance, the group combines the winning themes from Super Mario and Final Fantasy that signify players have beaten a level or overcome a great challenge.

Thompson said he was excited to bring the conference to MSU to highlight the artistry in games for fans. He said he enjoys teaching his students about the industry, so that they can learn to make soundtracks for their own games.

"It's absolutely been the right fit for me to become some combination of music historian, music critic and music examiner for both European classical music and mixing in my original specialty and desires to be a video game developer."

It also means he gets to keep playing the games from his childhood that he still loves to this day.

Ryan Thompson and Murray State University professor Matthew Ferrandino provided audio for this story.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!