Even though we now live in an age where ringtones outstrip them with actual sampled sounds, I’ve always thought the bite-sized video game music cues of yesteryear were really catchy in their own hypnotic way. Granted, they weren’t exactly great music in cases, and some of them weren’t even particularly complex – but with repeat exposure, they had a way of lodging themsselves in my brain all the same.
Namco Video Game Music is a CD that gives you a chance to hear those sounds away from the games that inspired them. In come cases, that’s brilliant, while in others, it comes across as little more than a sound effects disc for serious retrogaming enthusiasts. It’s hard to take it to task too much, however, for this is a CD pressing of one of the very earliest releases of video game music in the world, having originally appeared on vinyl in Japan around 1986.
There’s a decent balance struck here between popular games whose sounds everybody will recognize, and obscure, less obvious titles. Phozon and Libble Rabble never even made it to North American arcades, but they each boast some outstanding pieces of intricate music. On the other hand, as familiar and popular as Pac-Man is, it really only has a couple of pieces of music; much of its track is taken up by the sound of the game being played. You could hook up any machine running Namco Museum to your stereo and get much the same effect.
Other games have great music that are a little bit buried behind sound effects. When the Pole Position track finally got to the end of its “sound effects” section and started playing the game’s numerous post-game ditties in a row, I found that I remembered each one of them well (and while I’m sure some would say “well, that’s because you’ve been playing it nonstop for 24 years!”, I don’t really go reaching for a Pole Position fix that often – the music is, in fact, that catchy).
The first and final tracks, however, are the real bonus fruit at the end of the round. The track devoted to Xevious kicks off with a wonderfully authentic arcade soundscape, with the sound of that game front and center in the mix. Gradually, though, it segues into something else: the repetitive Xevious background tune becomes the backdrop for an Art Of Noise-esque collage of samples from the game, carefully arranged to provide their own beat. Given the original release date of this album, and the fact that Art Of Noise was only just catching on at the time in its original form, this means Namco Video Game Music was way ahead of its time.
The final track kicks off with what sounds like a Galaga audio chip test, cycling through all of the possible sounds and musical interludes that the game contains, until it settles upon the almost hypnotic post-game tune that accompanies your final score and hit ratio statistics. Again, new instrumentation is gradually added to the mix, with not-quite-lounge-style organs expanding on and developing that tune until it’s actually upbeat and relaxing. Given the way that the sparse music from these two games is developed into music that stands on its own, it’s really a shame that the rest of the album wasn’t along the same lines.