When it comes to iconic game sounds, the passage of time hasn't stopped some of Nintendo's earliest efforts — particularly those made famous in games such Super Mario Bros. — being immediately familiar to the general public. In fact we use the coin collecting sound in the two second intro to videos on our YouTube channel, as it's so quintessentially 'Nintendo'.
In a short but interesting article for Gamasutra, game sound professional Damian Kastbauer talks about the development of iconic sound designs in the modern age, but highlights that the era of limited resources and bit-based systems brought us many sounds that are indelibly linked to pop-culture. Maybe it's nostalgia talking to an extent, but Kastbauer highlights how even everyday events can be shaken up with familiar sound loops.
If you were there back then, these sounds speak to you even today. It was clear that the sound of Super Mario Bros. had reached icon status when I heard it at a basketball game; a free throw never meant as much to me until I heard it coupled with the coin-collect sound from my childhood Mario. Those sounds don't just serve as positive feedback; they have gone on to transcend the living rooms and bowling alleys we grew up in and continue to define our modern lives.
One challenge is to continue creating iconic sounds in an era where games strive for greater realism, though in the case of Nintendo that's perhaps less of an issue. Realism still isn't a focus with most Nintendo IPs, nor is extensive voice acting or 'heavy' sound production. A recent example is maybe found in Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, where the hero's voice is used sparingly to hum the game's music, scream — in his own unique way — when scared or, perhaps most memorably, to hesitantly go through a door saying "hello" in a comically concerned manner. Another recent example that springs to mind, once again in a game not exactly striving for realism, is the "alert" noise in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate when a monster spots you, a simple orchestral blast that's hard to forget.
Perhaps we don't always think about how good sound design enhances an experience and makes it more memorable; perhaps we should do that more.
We are swiftly approaching an age where audio will be freed from the current file size and quality restrictions, much to the delight of game audiophiles everywhere. With this increase in space and quality, players will expect more diversity in the sounds we use to represent the worlds we create. As sound designers, we'll have to balance the use of sound as a mirror for reality, and the use of sound as a tool to get the player to pay attention to something specific.
Looking at historical examples of iconic sounds in games, and otherwise, is a good template for what has captured the ear of our culture. In the never-ending quest to leave the player with a lasting impression of their experience, we could do worse than to create memorable, iconic sounds that convey character, while still being varied enough to immerse the player in the world.
"Communication is never simple, especially when it's you that's on the receiving end." - Little Boots