It's September, and the VGM Fest is coming to an end soon — but we still have time for a few more celebratory interviews and features before we put video game music back on the shelf for a while.
Today, we've got a chat with Richard Stokes, the lead at We Love Game Music, who tells us all about his favourite tracks, video game music on the radio, and why watching live music is a whole new way to experience your most beloved soundtracks...
Nintendo Life: What first got you interested in game music?
Richard Stokes: Growing up I was very much a Nintendo kid. I loved playing the classic Super Mario games on NES & SNES (my favourite game today is still Super Mario Bros. 3), and then the Zelda series once I got an N64 and Ocarina of Time, and one of my favourite parts of those games was Koji Kondo’s themes, which I would hum and whistle along to all the time.
At the time I had no way of being able to listen to the music outside of the games, but that all changed when the then Nintendo Official Magazine included promotional music CDs in 2 issues 2003 & 2004: The Legend Of Zelda: Melodies Of Time, which included tracks from The Legend of Zelda console releases up to The Wind Waker, and Super Smash Bros Melee: Smashing… Live!, a live recording of a concert by the New Japan Philharmonic in August 2002 dedicated to SSBM.
Another huge inspiration for me was The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony concert in October 2011. Fortunately myself and a friend managed to get tickets to see the concert at the Hammersmith Apollo, and we managed to get balcony seats, front row and centre.
Seeing and hearing the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play music from throughout the series, including the then new Ballad Of The Goddess theme from Skyward Sword, was just incredible, and I will admit to getting a bit emotional hearing my favourite theme, Hyrule Field from Ocarina Of Time.
It was a bonus to not only have Eiji Aonuma and Bill Trinen on stage talking to the audience about the series and the upcoming Skyward Sword release, but also to have Zelda Williams as the host, talking about why the series meant so much to her and her father, the late great Robin Williams.
But the icing on the Zelda cake came during the second half. All the lights went down, and all you could hear was someone playing Grandma’s Theme from The Wind Waker on the piano. The lights shortly grew brighter over the piano, and there sat Koji Kondo himself. The reaction from the crowd to this and the whole concert was amazing, and it will be a night that I will never forget.
Tell us about your work with We Love Game Music — what's your aim, and what have you achieved?
My aim with WeLoveGameMusic is to share anything and everything about the amazing music created for video games, to help promote VGM as a musical art from in its own right, and to hopefully help game soundtrack composers earn the recognition they deserve for their fantastic work.
Back in 2012 a friend in the industry, Mark Robins started a campaign to get video game music voted into the annual Classic FM Hall of Fame poll, and this campaign lead to Nobuo Uematsu’s wonderful music for the Final Fantasy series reaching number 3 in the 2013 poll ahead of many of the greats of classical and film music.
Final Fantasy has been ever present in the chart since then, and in recent years has been joined at times by The Legend of Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, and Grant Kirkhope’s soundtracks for Banjo-Kazooie and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle amongst others. This campaign, plus getting to know Mark and many other video game music fans, inspired me to get involved with promoting video game music, and a friend and I collaborated on WeLoveGameMusic in 2016.
You are involved with campaigning for greater recognition and appreciation of video game music. Why is that important?
The music we hear in video games helps us to connect emotionally to the adventures we experience and to the memories we create while playing. Hearing the music outside of the games can also enable us to relive those experiences. This is why it is important to me that video game music is respected by not only gamers and those in the games industry, but also those who appreciate other styles of music, and new audiences who may never have played a game or heard game music before.
As well as having amazing graphics, an engaging story or narrative, or fun gameplay elements, music and sound design also have an integral part to play in the overall experience of players. In my opinion the immersive experience of gaming wouldn’t be complete without the influence of sound and (in most but not all cases) music, and sometimes I think this gets overlooked when games are reviewed by media and by some content creators / social media influencers.
Back in the 1980s and 90s...music files created had to be heavily compressed in order to fit
Why have people historically not considered VGM to be "real music" or worth taking seriously?
I think the medium of video games itself is a standout reason why VGM has been ignored and derided by certain parts of the music listening public. Back in the 1980s and '90s, when music in games was in its infancy, music composers were very limited by the technology they had available at the time.
When Kondo-san created the iconic Mario and Zelda overworld themes, the sound chip used in the Famicom / NES at the time was very limited in what it could do, and the game cartridges only had a limited amount of memory, so often music files created had to be heavily compressed in order to fit.
As games technology has grown over the last 30+ years, the tech available to games composers has improved too. Koji Kondo and his contemporaries have always been inspired by orchestral, jazz, rock and other musical styles, but it is only within the last 20-25 years that they have had the means available to make the most of those influences.
Do you think appreciation for VGM has improved over the years? If so, what are the reasons for that?
Absolutely! VGM has always had a great following in Japan, but before the internet age that wasn’t really the case in North America, here in the UK or in Europe. Video game music fans and creators can now connect so much easier, and the arrival of YouTube, social media sites and music streaming / downloading services have improved things further still.
The growth in the number and quality of VGM composers, remixers and cover artists / bands has been phenomenal, and we also have dedicated video game music orchestras forming all over the world including three in the UK: The London Video Game Orchestra, the Manchester Video Game Orchestra, and the National Video Game Orchestra Of Wales.
The campaign to get video game music into the annual Classic FM Hall Of Fame poll has been fantastic in showcasing wonderful orchestral VGM to a mainly classical audience, and that is now being noticed by other UK national radio stations. Classic FM started airing the occasional video game music special as part of their weekly Saturday Night At The Movies slot, and thanks to the popularity of those specials in 2017 they introduced High Score, the first dedicated VGM series on UK radio.
High Score is currently on hiatus, but both the BBC and new-ish station Scala Radio have their own video game music shows too.
What work is still left to do when it comes to advocating for video game music?
Many who listen almost purely to classical music and particular stations dedicated to it, will still insult orchestral video game music and consider it inferior because it is not “classical”, and some still treat film music in the same manner too. We’re not asking people to like video game music in whatever form it takes, all we ask is that people respect that the music has an audience who enjoy it.
What's your personal favourite video game soundtrack?
While themes for the main Super Mario and Zelda games are my favourites to listen to, if I had to choose just one soundtrack it would have to be Koji Kondo’s masterpiece for The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I have so many wonderful memories playing OoT for the first time, and the music was pivotal in creating those memories. My standout theme is for Hyrule Field; walking out onto the field for the first time and hearing those opening bars is an experience that I hope will stay with me for a long time to come.
There are a huge number of incredibly creative and inventive soundtracks for games by small and independent developers which I think deserve far more love than they currently receive.
What's an underrated soundtrack you think needs more love?
There are also a huge number of incredibly creative and inventive soundtracks for games by small and independent developers which I think deserve far more love than they currently receive. My recent favourites (all available on the eShop) have been Forgotton Anne (Peter Due), the Ori soundtracks (Gareth Coker), Cuphead (Kristofer Maddigan) and A Monster’s Expedition (Eli Rainsberry).
What are you most proud of with WLGM?
I couldn’t honestly pinpoint one specific thing. Campaigning and advocating for video game music is a team effort, and WeLoveGameMusic is just a small part of a worldwide community of VGM fans and creators. Without the support of this awesome community, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today. This community has become a big part of my life and I will always be grateful for that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Thanks to Richard Stokes for chatting with us about the importance of video game music — you can follow him on Twitter, as well as the We Love Game Music account that he runs.
Don't forget to check out the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features!
Every "take video game music seriously!" plea has been unsuccessful because the examples people are using are songs from games they like and not songs that stand on their own. The best songs in gaming tend to come from failed mascots, poor licensed games, and consoles that have fallen out of modern retro conversation. Mumbo's Mountain or N. Sanity Beach ain't gonna cut it, put on some Follin or Hubbard and outsiders will know where you're coming from
I really do wish there was some video game music on the radio, the entire thing is pretty much pointless to me since video game music is the only kind I like.
I still know alot of non gamers or just casuals who don't consider videogame music to be "real music" Same with anything by weird Al yankovick sadly. If I turned on the radio and heard Midna's lament from Zelda Twilight princess or something I'd be grinning from ear to ear!
Videogame music is far better than anything I've heard on the radio in the last several years that's for sure! I'd totally tune in for that!
We Love Game Music out here doing damn good, important work. A lot of video game music gets swept away when games don't get re-released to modern audiences. But it's a history that's worth holding onto. Without music, a game doesn't feel as special!
@Noid This message comes to you directly from the Bubsy Propaganda Society
Heck I even liked game music when it was just bleeps and boops. I always loved a good boss theme! Like the one from turtles in time! What would those battles be without that killer beat?!
There’s a really good Australian one called ‘Game Show’ every Friday on our ABC Classic FM. The host Meena Shamaly goes really deep in his picks.
My mother listens to it, and she only listens to classical stuff.
"When Kondo-san created the iconic Mario and Zelda overworld themes, the sound chip used in the Famicom / NES at the time was very limited in what it could do, and the game cartridges only had a limited amount of memory, so often music files created had to be heavily compressed in order to fit."
Is that why some NES songs, particularly from some games that the AVGN has shown, are just 5-10 second loop? Or in the case of Wayne's World NES, 2 second loop?
EDIT: Here in my city a radio station used to play the jingle that plays in Wario: Master of Disguise when you solve a puzzle. Additionally, a news radio progam used a song from Naruto: Ninja Council 2 as background music when the presenter was talking.
I honestly think some of the examples used in this article kind of inadvertently highlight why there are casual music enthusiasts who don't consider video game music "real music" per se
Nobody who isn't a diehard fan of something like Final Fantasy for example, is going to really recognize the Prelude track. I'd honestly argue it doesn't really feel like music fit for the casual listening experience compared to songs you actually hear on mainstream radio or even see in other people's Spotify for the most part. Same with the Hyrule Field theme
I ain't saying it's worse than mainstream radio because I generally turn to Spotify and my own album list for listening instead of radio tracks, but there is a reason why VGM just hasn't really broken out of that particular niche. I have a lot of VGM on Spotify but it's not really something I turn on casually. I'm way more likely to put on stuff like To Pimp a Butterfly, or 808 & Heartbreaks, or Rage Against the Machine or System of a Down, before "Mumbo's Mountain" or "Vega Stage"
@TheFrenchiestFry You’re right about casual enthusiasts and more hardcore music enthusiasts absolutely don’t discount VGM at all, same as they don’t discount movie and TV soundtracks. It’s usually the ones based in actual real life music that are appreciated though, like Persona 5, Silent Hill, Katamari Damacy etc. Hell, the highest rated ambient albums on Rate Your Music are Silent Hill 2 and Minecraft: Volume Alpha, ahead of Aphex Twin, Stars of the Lid or Tim Hecker. It’s more the average casual listener that doesn’t engage with VGM and then that could be applied to basically all instrumental or soundtrack based music.
From 2004 - 2008 I used to do a two hour video game music radio show in my town. It was funny because back then if I told people that's what I was doing, I'd get the classic, "How do you just play bleeps and bloops on the radio?" Today, I feel like the concept would be way more understandable as I think VGM has really moved a lot closer to the mainstream (i.e. people know that VGM is not just random sound effects but actually music).
Around the same time I was once so (mock) offended at a friend who made a distinction between video game music and "real" music that I created a whole series of albums/playlists where I'd compile VGM and non-VGM music together on a CD and she had to sit there and guess which ones she thought were from a video game and which ones weren't. She didn't do so well, which is why the series ended up being called "Clarissa gets an F"
@nessisonett I think those are examples of music that can actually go well with the mainstream listener considering they directly pull elements from popular music or genres in of themselves, especially in the cases of stuff like Persona due to that series' emphasis on vocal tracks, or stuff like God of War or Last of Us which are very cinematic and can even be compared to stuff like movie soundtracks
It's the fact that people pushing for VGM to be more widely appreciated are using examples that only really fit the mood of the game but aren't as applicable anywhere else, like stage music in a platformer or fighting game music and stuff like that. It's very situational and not something that helps that subsection of music break out of the niche it's perceived to be in
Believe it or not, one of my local radio station (Radio Mercury) have ever (or still using) played Final Fantasy VIII battle theme as a News jingle before the radio announcer deliver the news.
Some peoples around the world from Para Para Dance community still adore Super Eurobeat songs from DDR or Initial D or Anime or anything until today.
They have their Para Para Dance routine while the Eurobeat songs being played.
This is one example of Japanese peoples using Eurobeat version of Gloria Estefan song Turn The Beat Around with Para Para Dance moves.
@TheFrenchiestFry It blatantly fails to stay in touch with the reasons why you don’t hear video game music on the radio. It’s all very ‘no it’s the children who are wrong’ but let’s face it, you’re just as unlikely to hear Beethoven on non-specialised radio as you are Bob-omb Battlefield.
I listen to Cinemix sometimes when I'm working, which mostly plays movie soundtracks, although they will sometimes play video game music. Oddly enough though its mostly tracks from Metal Gear Solid 2, and Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny.
Classic FM is my radio station of choice. I do like it when I hear a Zelda, Final Fantasy or other video game music piece. They certainly don’t sound out of place with all the other classic or film music pieces they play.
I hear about these VGM radio shows on the likes of Classic FM, BBC and so on, but they’re so badly advertised I always hear about them after they’ve happened, sometimes months or years afterwards! I’d love to be able to replay them all now, but from what I can tell none are available any more. It’s a shame.
A lot of this music isn't available on Spotify, and it's usually removed if it is. Quite frustrating. Even the linked playlist has some removed tracks already!
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