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.
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.
Don't forget to check out the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features!