It's wonderful to see the love for video game music in our current Nintendo Life Video Game Music Festival; it'll rightly celebrate all sorts of audio and soundtracks across varied games and genres. When the right music combines with an outstanding game, there is arguably no more satisfying experience in entertainment; the fusion of storytelling, visuals, audio and player agency make gaming truly unique.
For this little article I'm focusing on one specific vibe and style, however — orchestral game music.
I'm rather biased in this case, with a history that prompts me to immediately swoon when I hear sweeping strings, depth from brass and woodwind, and driving rhythm from the percussion. Once upon a time, you see, I planned to be an orchestral musician, and was almost good enough on the French Horn to apply to colleges and pursue that dream; I ultimately opted instead for literature and writing, but it was a decision that could have gone either way.
When I was growing up, that sort of music and the unique sounds of a full orchestra working in perfect harmony didn't feature much in video games. This was primarily down to technological reasons, but even as CD-ROM technology began to emerge — that's in the '90s, for those doubting my advance towards middle-age — many game studios still weren't inclined to hire orchestral musicians and put that level of production and the associated financial investment into their game soundtracks. That is also fine — synthetic sounds, chiptune, etc., can sound amazing.
I distinctly remember, though, the moment I started playing Super Mario Galaxy on Wii and a live orchestral track kicked in. It was one of the first times I'd heard music with those sounds in a game. I know it was far from the first game to have orchestral music, it was just one of my first (and Mario's too, come to that). Yes, the game itself was — and still is — magical, innovative and brilliantly designed, but the music, like all good soundtracks, embedded itself in the experience. The grandeur and sheer exuberance of the gameplay was elevated by that powerful brass section blasting out a simple sequence. Playful violin sections gave Mario's hop, skip and jump a little extra vigour.
Skyward Sword's music is central to its appeal... that act of flying on a Loftwing is more magical given the dramatic orchestral tones that accompany it
Another unbelievably good soundtrack from Nintendo, which I've been getting re-acquainted with recently, is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It was a major anniversary release on Wii and Nintendo went all in with an orchestral soundtrack for the first time in that series, too, even making it a key part of its marketing at the time.
This was towards the end of a golden era in which Wii and DS systems flew off shelves, and Nintendo was also preparing the first of its 'Symphony of the Goddesses' music tours of Zelda music. By this point audio standards in games were going to a whole new level, and in some respects Nintendo was simply keeping up with other major publishers that were embracing bigger-budget music productions.
Skyward Sword's music is, in my opinion, central to its appeal. As you soar above the clouds the visuals and gameplay are enjoyable, of course, but that act of flying on a Loftwing is more magical given the dramatic orchestral tones that accompany it. My favourite music in the game is hardly used at all, but when I heard it playing through the HD re-release I immediately started to smile — a light sunbeam of a track that emphasizes the friendship shared by Link and Zelda.
What soundtracks like that also demonstrate to a wider audience is that, given a full orchestra and recording time, composers that have made their careers in gaming — people who have had to work with unique technical restrictions and requirements for decades — are every bit as creative and talented as those in film, television or indeed modern orchestral performance music.
No longer is game music unfairly considered to be a simplistic accompaniment to the action, it's now a fundamental part of the experience and more widely respected in popular culture
Many of us know this as fans of video games; most reading this will likely have special places in their hearts for specific game soundtracks, orchestral, chiptune, midi, or whatever. Yet we've gradually seen broader popular culture embrace and accept this, too. No longer is game music unfairly considered to be a simplistic accompaniment to the action, it's now a fundamental part of the experience and more widely respected in popular culture and other more niche groups. Classic FM, for example, has a section on its website dedicated to VGM and regularly plays music from games — much to the chagrin of classical 'purists', we're sure. Then again, crusty purists in any field of interest usually benefit from a kick in their complacency.
And no, I'm not for one moment advocating that orchestral soundtracks are better by virtue of their method of recording and sound, they're just one very welcome sound that we hear in modern gaming. For me on a personal level, though, as someone that once dedicated a lot of my life to live music, it's always a thrill to play a game with that distinct accompaniment. I think of the dozens of musicians, following their conductor and creating a special sound, all so that my in-game actions can feel that bit more impactful, dramatic or, perhaps, soulful.
So, whenever a game developer decides that the right sound for their experience is a live orchestra, it makes me smile.
Let us know your thoughts on orchestral VGM soundtracks below, and be sure check out the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features.