Nobody buys a video game for its soundtrack, but, as the Game Boy’s Robocop made achingly clear, sometimes that soundtrack ends up being the most memorable part of the game. The rush of nostalgia that accompanies the pixelated tunes playing beneath The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. is enough to summon any number of bygone gaming sessions, halcyon eras where we were more in awe of video games than we were concerned with the next evolution.
Those simple pleasures are on display in the above video essay from 8-bit Music Theory, which explores what makes the main themes of games like Zelda, Halo, Skyrim, and the many Mario titles so memorable. The host credits not the song itself, per se, but rather the “iconic opening interval,” which functions similarly to the first sentence of a book.
Drawing upon music theory, the essay breaks down how that isolated interval comes to inform both the ensuing melody, and the ways in which it can evolve based on the game’s shifts in tone. Some of it is almost hilariously simple, with the trick of leaping up through octaves adding weight and drama to even the most basic of melodies. But there’s nuances to the process, which is where all that music theory comes in.
You won’t find any Sega soundtracks in the essay, unfortunately, but rest assured: They’re on Spotify.
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