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Amateur game design for the technically impaired

The Supreme Importance of Music in Simple Games

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Mega Man 2All music links in this post, unless otherwise noted, link to, a large database of midis for classic games.

I have a very simple theory: that the success of most, if not every, popular 8-bit game was heavily dependent on the quality of its music. That is to say, dependent almost exclusively on the music. Mediocre games became great and good ones became legendary. I will support this theory, but also apply it to the development of independent games today.

I won’t drag this out with too many details, since my original theory isn’t so much the point as its application to the current indie industry (dare I say… indiestry?). Instead, I’ll appeal to your own personal experiences and ask you to participate in a small experiment. Play any of the following games with the sound off, then simply crank it up. Be amazed as the entertainment value increases a hundredfold.

Links are to sample songs:

Duck Tales

River City Ransom

Ninja Gaiden

Gradius (from Gradius 2)

Mega Man


What separates Duck Tales from all the other licensed platform games? Why is River City Ransom better than all the other beat ’em ups? Why do we put up with Punchout and Ninja Gaiden’s overt bullshit? The answer, my friends, is the fantastic music. Mega Man and the sequel truly were stand out titles on their own, but all fans would agree that the music survives as some of the best on the console and that that’s a major contributing factor regarding the continual survival of the series, which has been declining since the third title.

In constrast, try out Air Fortress. It’s a pretty decent game by NES standards, which switches between two genres half way through the level. Player performance in the first half determines the amount of resources (energy and bombs) available in the second. It isn’t entirely unknown, and those who know about it tend to appreciate it, but it is by no means Final Fantasy caliber. With better music, this could have been a survivor.

While at the time the games of the NES may have seemed like a step forward, we can look back now and see that simplicity of gameplay was a hallmark of the generation. Today, since independent and amateur developers are limited in the amount of resources and personnel they have, we see a similar trend; as such, the relative value of music is higher in this sector.

Petri Purho at Kloonigames, creator of Crayon Physics Deluxe and winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival, recognized this fact in his thanks, stating

_Ghost (Jarogniew Slotala), huge thanks for creating such an amazing piece of music and for allowing me and other people to use it. I think it’s hard for an outsider to understand how much his music changed the game, I wasn’t sure about the exact feeling I wanted the game to conceive and it wasn’t until I listened to his song I realized what I wanted.

I hope he shared some of the prize money.

For another modern example, check out String Theory. Play it first with the sound off, then eventually unmute it and see the effect that Devon Zachary’s “Otaku Dance Party” (packaged with and created for the game) has on the quality of play. The unique control scheme of the game may be enough to grab our attention, but can’t quite hang on. The music, on the other hand, keeps us interested while we do our thing.

The lesson is that great music isn’t the icing on the cake, as many believe. It is, in fact, a requirement for a quality simple game. There are many creative commons songs out there that you can use for free with credit, but I recommend you try to find a dedicated, talented composer who shares your vision, whatever it may be. You’d be surprised how often talented musicians need nothing more than a little motivation to get started.

Personally, I’m lucky enough to know Eric Harm, a musician who will occasionally drop in for some guest posts. An example of his work can be found here; a loopable midi intended for use in an RPG. Look forward to his contributions.


Written by justindopiriak

February 27, 2008 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Development Process, Opinion

Tagged with , , ,

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