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17 videogame soundtracks ahead of their time

Collected here are 16 of the most progressive game soundtracks. They refused to accept the moniker of “background noise” and pushed the medium in ways no one else was at the time. This isn’t just a list of great game soundtracks (that’s a far larger list, obviously) – it’s recognizing the games that furthered the very idea of what game music could be. Granted, a lot of the early stuff will still sound harsh to virgin ears, but anyone who admires composition and technological ingenuity can appreciate what’s been done here.

Various Atari consoles, notably the 2600 and 5200

Sample song: The one song it plays

Why it’s ahead of its time
Prior to Pitfall II’s incessantly looping ditty, videogame soundtracks were practically unheard of. According to era-expert Dan Amrich (of OXM and TalkRadar fame), Pitfall II was the first Atari 2600 game with four audio tracks running at once.

Above: Born after 1990? Then this looks stupid

Think back to other Atari 2600 games, with their minimal (or total lack of) music, and compare them to the song above. It was a technical marvel for the time, and more than stands up to the first wave of NES tunes that would arrive in 1985.

Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, among others

Sample song: Main Tune

Why it was ahead of its time
This bizarrely named action-puzzler stands heads and shoulders above other titles of the day thanks to one prolific composer – Rob Hubbard. He birthed several knockout tunes back in the day, but in our eyes nothing flexed the C64’s musical muscles like One Man and His Droid. The song continually builds upon itself, reflecting the strained reflexes of a gamer stifled by yet another seemingly impossible puzzle. It’s the antithesis to Tetris’s sleepy, laid back tunes, and light years ahead of what was happening on Atari and the NES.

Above: The C64 Symphony performing One Man and His Droid tunes

Other C64 tunes of note are the above Skate or Die, Green Beret and The Last Ninja 2. Want even more? Checkthis repositoryfor all things C64. Modern groups like 8-bit Weapon routinely use C64-level technology to crank out legit music, so if that’s not proof of endurance, we don’t know what is.

Arcade, popular on Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Sample song: Magical Sound Shower

Why it’s ahead of its time
The previous two entries are wonderful examples of musicians pushing the tech to new heights, but the songs are admittedly abrasive to people not accustomed to the aural delights of electronic music. Out Run, on the other hand, contained tracks clearly inspired by popular sounds of the day, plus let you choose which track you’d hear while playing. So, not only could you compete with other players for a better time, you could pick “your” music and only race to “your” beat.

Above: The alleged inspiration behind Out Run’s jazzy synth sound

The songs in question were amazing, of course. They sounded like videogame interpretations of real-world music, hinting that this medium could indeed evolve beyond bleeps and blorps, even if at the time it still sounded like a keyboard demo.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Bomb Man Theme

Why it was ahead of its time
Consider the games that were popular when the first Mega Man was released. Mario and Zelda were tops, their themes now as memorable and iconic as game music can ever hope to be - but they’re not exactly complex. They, like most games of the day, had a shockingly small number of basic tracks, usually reusing the same songs over and over throughout the game.

Not the case with Mega Man.

Above: Cut Man’s theme, another long-lived favorite

There were six bosses to fight, each with a memorable tune, plus songs for level select, Dr. Wily’s castle at the end, the final battle and the ending. Simply put, there were more songs than your typical 1987 game, and each helped lend a sense of uniqueness to each area you played. Zelda’s overworld theme, while recognized the world over, plays for hours on end no matter where you are. Mega Man’s songs change per area, strictly identifying the song with a particular place and an enemy.

This of course led to Mega Man 2, which is to this day considered one of the best games of all time, as well as one of themost remixedsoundtracks in all of gaming. Street Fighter II popularized the idea even more, forever tying characters like Ryu, Ken and Chun Li to a specific theme.