Video game music has now reached the point where it rivals the best of film scores. Modern releases over the last decade host within them grandiose orchestral scores that provide a sense of environment and depth to the game that creates a clear departure from what we had previously come to expect in video game soundtracks. Early video games had simple music or no music at all, usually due to memory limitations that barely made room for sounds at all. The first game that really stands out with an attempt to create a film-esque score is Castlevania.
At the time of its release in September 1986, Castlevania was among the best of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the greats of the arcade, and was of course about a decade out from likes of the Atari 2600 and just a few years after the video game crash of the early 1980s where most game music was as previously mentioned: simple or nonexistent. Arcade releases typically played music during the attract mode while a video of gameplay looped for those passing by, but once you dropped quarters into the machine and began playing, the music ceased and was replaced with sound effects in most cases. Nintendo provided some early examples of adding memorable but simple music to the arcade gameplay experience.
Nintendo employee Yukio Kaneoka created a simple soundtrack for the arcade release of Donkey Kong. You can hear in “Jumpman Theme 1” a basic melody that loops as you climb the tower toward the eponymous Donkey Kong. This melody serves as an example of what we had come to expect during this era of video games.
It was again Nintendo who in 1985 would add the next layer onto video game music and provide us with a soundtrack that varies between stages and remains clearly identifiable over thirty years later. Super Mario Bros. brought the sounds of Koji Kondo to life and not only became one of the most memorable soundtracks in gaming history but one of the first that held depth in its score. Thanks to the five different sound channels on the NES, Super Mario Bros. is able to do more than a simple sound loop and Kondo could begin to simulate the orchestra sound we would come to know in most video games today.
The main theme of Super Mario Bros. not only carries a catchy melody, but with it comes a backing track that provides movement and elevation to the sound and a percussion track that keeps the beat and pace of the sound and to an extent the play of the game. Going into an underground area of Super Mario Bros. or an underwater area gives you a different track with an equal amount of depth to its sound. You could close your eyes and know exactly where you were based on the sound and what trouble potentially lied ahead of you.
As impressive and varied as the score was, a year later, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka would challenge what we would expect from video game soundtracks with the release of Metroid. Providing a more film-like sound to its score, Metroid featured a variety of sounds that too signified player location in the game and with it helped to establish a mood and tone that separated it from other video games. The score to Metroid is quite experimental however, and while it challenged what a good score can sound like for a game, its subtlety did little at the time to separate it from the simple sounds that we expected at the time.
Then, less than two months after Metroid, Castlevania entered the scene with six distinct tracks across each of the game’s stages. Every stage was uniquely designed as a maze filled with different enemies and scenes, and the music matched each one. As you climb higher through Dracula’s castle and take on tougher enemies, the music climbs with you to carry your momentum and push you further.
Like Super Mario Bros. before it, Castlevania takes advantage of the varied sound channels of the NES, and later games in the series would really push the console limits in terms of sound, adding the signature Konami drums that provided an explosive quality to the games. Here, in the first entry, Castlevania sounds equally epic and horrifying. The first track, “Vampire Killer,” begins with a simple melody that seems like a light bounce. It continues and grows into a scattered assortment of sounds that dance wildly like the ghosts that haunt the castle. There are several complex movements within this short cycle of a song that all work together to build one of the most iconic sounds in the series.
There are other sounds and songs within Castlevania, but these six in combination create the first real score to a video game. The game score was written by Kinuya Yamashita and Satoe Terashima, two employees at Konami. Terashima is a difficult individual to assign credit to, due to the fact that Konami rarely assigned credit to her at all. We know that Terashima would later work on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, along with Konami classics like Lifeforce, but little else is available of her history. Yamashita however, would later leave Konami and develop music for games as an independent contractor. Still, when interviewed, she has never been able to fully disclose her involvement with a lot of Konami projects and appropriate credit has never been assigned for her work during the early days of Castlevania and Konami.
What we do know is that both women together helped to develop the sounds of Castlevania and create what we now know and recognize as the music of Castlevania. Its film-like score can be attributed to these two women, Yamashita specifically who had no prior background in music. Yamashita entered Konami with a degree in electrical engineering and nothing more than some piano lessons from childhood.
Composer Michiru Yamane would later redefine what we would expect of the sounds of Castlevania with her score to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This game included new and different versions of the classic sounds we had already become accustomed to hearing, but added new flavor to what a Castlevania game could sound like. This soundtrack contained elements of metal and arena rock combined with opera and jazz. Arrangement on the score varied from simple piano to full orchestra and electric instruments. The sounds of Yamane would carry into subsequent Castlevania games, specifically those under the helm of Koji Igarashi, but it all began with the work that Yamashita and Terashima had began on Castlevania in 1986.