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When Did Video Game Sound Become So Dull?

Illustration for article titled When Did Video Game Sound Become So Dull?

It's 1996. You're in an arcade. There's an N64 that costs $100,000 worth of tickets sitting in the prize area, and your inner thief takes note of three tickets left un-pulled from a Skee-Ball machine. These are all memories I have of the arcade - but one lasts with me better than others. I distinctly remember being surrounded by the concussive beat of explosions, gunfire and punches to the face.


There's something completely primal and amazing about these sounds that, for whatever reason, was never replicated with home consoles. Even with a big, booming sound system, those "crunchy" explosions of the arcade just can't be replicated in the games being made today. The sound almost feels too "smooth", it lacks the punch of the arcade days. Music in these arcade games used to have this tinny, high-fidelity sound to them, but now everything is smooth - and entirely too "perfect".

For the longest time, I thought this was a unique feature of arcade sound systems - that the cabinets were built with this sort of sound system that made them appealing and memorable. However, I recently purchased an arcade collection called Taito Legends 2 for the PS2 (which is an absolute must-own if you like arcade shmups at all, good gracious). It's packed full of games like Darius Gaiden, Liquid Kids, Bust-A-Move and RayStorm. These ports, somehow, perfectly replicate the sound of the arcade. The explosions make you fear for your life. The melodic J-Pop inspired tunes feel like strolling through an icy abyss. The sound is absolutely everything a video game should aspire to be, sonicly.

So where did gaming go so wrong? Moreover, what do arcade games do so right? I know nothing about sound design or mixing or any of that, so if anyone can explain the difference better than I, I'd greatly appreciate it. The fact of the matter is, Taito Legends 2 is one of the only games I've ever played where the sound absolutely hooks me and gets me engaged in the game. For the millions of dollars probably spent designing the sound of Uncharted or Gears or Demon's Souls, nothing about their sound design is impressive to me.

Make me wonder - perhaps it's time for gaming to take a time machine back 15 years, to see what making a great game looks like.

Illustration for article titled When Did Video Game Sound Become So Dull?

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