From Mega Man To Final Fantasy, Live Video Game Music

Originally published on January 18, 2012 9:03 am

Every year, thousands of video-game fans flock to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area for a unique music festival called MAGFest. It's short for "Music and Gaming Festival," and it's designed to celebrate the music of video games.

As video-game technology keeps improving, the graphics become crisper, the action faster, and the sound quality richer. But for many gamers, the music from video games was best in the earlier days of low-tech 8-bit and 16-bit game systems.

Beyond The Limits Of Technology

In 1995, the fantasy time-travel adventure game Chrono Trigger was released to widespread critical acclaim. The music from the game was a big part of its success, even though it came from the simple sound chip of a Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Armcannon, a progressive metal band that performs TV and video-game music covers, brings the music of those old games to life when it performs them live. Daniel Behrens, one of Armcannon's guitarists, says the musicians who perform at MAGFest have a high degree of skill, because it's a challenge to take a song that was designed to be computerized and arrange it into a version that mere humans can perform.

"There are virtuoso people everywhere you look," Behrens says. "And that is one of the things that really made me fall in love with MAGFest and the video-game music scene."

Behrens says classic game music is composed of catchy melodies, rather than the kind of atmospheric pieces one might hear in an orchestra.

Amanda Lepre, who plays guitar for the band Descendants of Erdrick, says those unique 8-bit tunes had melodies that are memorable years later. There's no better example than the theme from Super Mario Bros.

"Just because it was in one of the most popular games of all time, that's not the only reason why people remember the song," Lepre says. "It's a catchy song. It's got a good melody."

A Master Video-Game Composer

Many bands at MAGFest play video-game covers, but the group that generated the most excitement was Earthbound Papas, a band made up of video-game composers.

Hailing from Japan, the best-known member of the band is its leader and keyboardist, Nobuo Uematsu. He composed most of the soundtracks from the Final Fantasy series, one of the best-selling game franchises of all time. Like other musicians at MAGFest, Uematsu says a talent for melody is at the core of great video-game music.

"It's pretty easy for me to come up with the melodies," Uematsu says. "It's in my head all the time, and I struggle to pick which ones to use."

Even though his music has been performed in concert halls by orchestras around the world, Uematsu says he still loves to perform at rock festivals like MAGFest. He explains that video-game music fans have a special connection with one another.

"Perhaps video games are minor things still," he says. "Because of that, there's a strong bond within the community."

If attendance at MAGFest is any indication, that community is growing. Last year, more than 3,000 fans came to the festival. This year, attendance nearly doubled.

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Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry. And today, many of the bestselling games have blockbuster budgets, which you can see on the screen and often hear in the music.


INSKEEP: There's the grand orchestral theme from the bestselling game "Halo." But for many gamers, the best soundtracks recall a low-tech era. And every year they celebrate those soundtracks at a video game music festival.

NPR's Lindsay Totty has more.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: Earlier this month, thousands of gamers congregated at a hotel outside Washington, D.C., to spend a weekend playing and listening to classic video games like this one.


TOTTY: This is music from a 1995 video game called "Chrono Trigger," an epic time-travel adventure. The technology used to make this digital sound is pretty old-school, but the music has a whole new life when you hear it live.


TOTTY: Welcome to MAGFest. It stands for Music and Gaming Festival. Notice that music first.

Daniel Behrens plays guitar for the band Armcannon. They perform rock tributes to music from old video games like what we just heard. He says it takes real skill to perform video game music because a game system can make sounds that human fingers can't.

DANIEL BEHRENS: There are virtuoso people everywhere you look. And that is one of the things that really made me fall in love with MAGFest and the video game music scene.


TOTTY: Behrens adds that classic game music is about melodies rather than atmosphere. In the past, you couldn't fit a whole orchestra on those small game cartridges.

Amanda LePre is a guitarist with the band Descendants of Erdrick. She says it's those unique melodies that make old 8-bit tunes memorable years later.

AMANDA LEPRE: Even "Super Mario Brothers..."


LEPRE: You know, it's got this beat to it. It's catchy.


LEPRE: Just because it was in one of the most popular games of all time, that's not the only reason people remember the song. 'Cause it's a catchy song, it's got a good melody.

TOTTY: And to show that good melodies can come from anywhere, her band performed a medley from a lesser known game called "Journey to Silius."


TOTTY: But the most anticipated performance came from a rock band made up of actual video game music composers. Earthbound Papas came all the way from Japan. The band's leader and keyboardist is Nobuo Uematsu. He's the primary composer for the "Final Fantasy" series, which is one of the bestselling game franchises of all time.


TOTTY: Uematsu echoes the thought that it's melody that makes for great game music.

NOBUO UEMATSU: (Through Translator) It's pretty easy for me to come up with melodies. Twenty-four hours a day, it's in my head all the time. And I struggle to choose which ones to use.

TOTTY: The music from "Final Fantasy" has been performed by orchestras around the world. But Uematsu says the fans at MAGFest are special.

UEMATSU: (Through Translator) Perhaps games are kind of minor things still, so because of that there's a strong bond within the community.

TOTTY: But that community is growing. Over 6,000 people came to this year's festival, almost double the attendance from last year.

Lindsay Totty, NPR News, Washington.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.