Game Sound of the early 1980s - 5 Powerful Lessons from the Classics

by Saul Edmonds
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The Games of the early 1980s were in many ways defined by sound Digital sound was revolutionising the new gameplay - with key characters being defined by sound and music elements alone.

These addictive and repetitive themes enhanced games in a way never experienced before, creating that compelling dramatic tension we have grown to love. Dedicated gamers have long known that great sound design is essential to a great gameplay experience.

Sound + Image = Definitive Moments in Play

(The Essential Keys)

The best games of the early 1980s all featured excellent sound design. Think Pac Man (1980), Donkey Kong (1981), Tetris (1985), Super Mario Bros. (1985) and Tempest - Atari’s first vector game in colour (1981).

All good. Really good. These games are still fun to play 25 years later.

The sound design presented within these early titles is the forefather of sound design today. There is much to be gained from past masters. So, what are the top 5 lessons that we can learn from a trip through time?

1. The Big Idea

Ideas are everything in the Game World. When beginning a new project carefully identify the central premise or core idea and diligently serve that concept throughout.

Example : Super Mario Bros.

In 1985 Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Composer Koji Kondom sets a new standard. The creative sound and music design is tightly integrated with the onscreen action and continues to develop throughout. Sound cues add layers of meaning to character status. This was innovation at its best - sound design moves beyond ‘cinematic conventions’ to realtime gameplay.

2. Simple is Best

‘Addictive’ does not mean ‘complicated’.  A simple puzzle can be best matched with simple sound.

Example : Tetris

1985 saw Tetris released upon the world. This puzzler’s puzzle met with immediate success. The simple yet compelling gameplay was matched by a memorable muzac score - the kind of muzac that gets in your head and stays there forever.

3. Patience in your Planning

Take time to develop ideas. Keep it clear, experiment, be methodical, review. Both gameplay and sound design have a lot in common.

Example : Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong was released in 1981. The success of the game owed much to this deceptively simple soundtrack. A well resolved solution which remains unforgettable to fans to this day.

4. The Devil in the Detail 

Detail can be a great thing, but never stray too far from ‘The Big Idea’. Each sound must have meaning and relate directly to the action taking place. Serve the message with the medium and put the story first at all times.

Example : Tempest - Sound and Fury

Atari’s first color vector game - Tempest - was unleased in 1981. True to the title, Tempest featured a big soundtrack with lots of power. A true tempest of noise n sound. Think big. (Interestingly, Tempest made use of Atari’s new ‘pokey’ chip - primarily designed to generate sound.)

5. Have Fun

Making a game ‘fun’ is takes a lot of hard work. But you must enjoy the process to get the best results. One thing we can definitely learn from the early 80s was that the sound designers were never afraid to experiment. Try vocoders, pitch shift, morphing sounds. Let go - you might be surprised at the result.

Example : Pac-Man

Catchy sounds, lots of elements, in yer brain ditties, the endless eating of dots and more than 100,000 sales in the US alone.

Need we say more? 

by Saul Edmonds