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Nintendo Entertainment System: Release Date- 1985. Game Boy: Release Date – 1989
The NES made history in the video game music world. The original console was released in Japan back in 1983 under the name Famicom which was short for family computer. A few years after that, Nintendo modified the Famicom to make it focus only on video games. This modified console was then re-released worldwide and called the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. Nintendo were actually in plans to team up with Atari to release the Famicom in the US under the name of the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System. Quite a mouthful to say. This all fell through when Atari found out that its competitor Coleco was demoing their new computer using Donkey Kong which violated Atari’s exclusivity licence with Nintendo.
When it came time to release the NES, Nintendo implemented some very strict and clever protocols which the current company still seems to follow today. They had a strict product approval and licencing policy and created a lockout chip to stop people from copying their games. Even now, you’ll see Nintendo go after emulator websites and get them taken down. I have a RetroPie that I play games on so I’m not the biggest fan of having sites taken down but I understand why they’re doing it. I just wish they didn’t expect you to go out and purchase multiple mini consoles or pay lots of money per game to play 30-year-old classics that the RetroPie can do better and for free. The thing that Nintendo did back then and still does now is they create exceptionally high-quality games. You can pick Zelda or Mario on any Nintendo console and know that you’re going to be in for a fun experience.
The NES had 5 channels of audio which was amazing for its time. 5 was still a little bit limiting but compared to what had come before, it was a big improvement. There are modern tracks written with only a few channels. Take a look at the artist Russ and watch this clip of how he produced his track with chords, lead, bass and drums. The Game Boy, which came out 4 years later in 1989, only had 4 audio channels but was basically the same thing except you could carry it around with you and play games on long car journeys as long as you had enough batteries and enough light. Waiting for that next street lamp to come around is something I’m glad we don’t have to do with our current backlit hardware. Another difference between the NES and Game Boy was that the NES actually only output audio in mono while the Game Boy had glorious stereo sound.
So let’s explore the 5 channels of the NES. The first 2 channels produced pulse waves. This is usually where the melody and harmony of a track go as it lets us write in high frequencies to cut through the rest of the audio. This is especially important when the music is coming out of a Game Boy speaker. The sound of a pulse wave can be adjusted by changing the duty cycle which is generally shown as a percentage and refers to the amount of time the waveform is above the centerline. For example, a 50% duty cycle would have the upper and lower portions as an equal width which would give us a square wave. A 75% duty cycle would have the waveform above the centreline 3/4 of the time. If you want to have a play with a pulse wave, you can download Super Audio Boy by Impact Soundworks. It’s a free VST that allows you to create authentic-sounding Game Boy and NES chiptune music. You can download Super Audio Boy here.
On channel 3 we get a triangle wave. The difference between this and a pulse wave is the shape. A pulse wave has flat on top as it’s derived from a square wave whereas a triangle wave is obviously in the shape of a triangle. The triangle wave can only be on or off so you’re not able to play around with the volume of the track. This makes it a little more limiting than a pulse wave where you can create crescendos and fade in and out, helping to make the track more emotive. Channel 3 is very good at creating smooth bass tones for your chiptune tracks.
Channel number 4 is our noise channel. A noise channel is just different pitches of white noise. If you hold it down, it can be used for a number of sound effects such as wind or waves or anything of that nature. In video game music, it’s often used as a snare drum by making the sounds very short. In Super Audio Boy there are 2 sets of noise sounds, each with 12 pitches. The second set isn’t used as much because it’s a lot more tinny sounding but it was prominent in the Quick Man’s Stage in Mega Man 2 for the NES. Here’s an example:
The 5th channel on the NES is the sample channel and is the only one that’s missing from the Game Boy. You can use pretty much any sample you want so you could record a live snare drum or bass guitar and use that in the track you’re writing. The limitation here is that you need to crush the audio all the way down to 1 bit! The sample channel was really special at the time because the composer could now add their own unique flavour and style into the game soundtrack.
If you’re used to writing in a DAW then using Super Audio Boy might be the way to go but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, you can get a really authentic sound writing in a tracker instead. My tracker of choice is Deflemask because it’s free and has super accurate sounds for your chiptune track. Writing music in a tracker is more like writing code and so might make you compose music differently. If you’re a guitarist, you might have come across this when you change tuning. Writing in an unfamiliar tuning breaks the muscle memory and habits you’ve built up and forces you really think about every note and chord you make. The same goes for writing in a tracker. Once you come out of the DAW that you’re probably fairly comfortable with, your brain is forced to think of new ways to create the sounds that you want.
Here’s a short clip of a track I composed for the NES while writing this blog post. It’s got a melody pulse wave on channel 1, a quieter pulse wave on channel 2 creating some harmony, a simple bass line using the triangle wave on channel 3, a high-hat sound created using noise on channel 4 and a snare drum sample on channel 5. If I wanted to export this track for the Game Boy, all I’d have to do is remove channel 5 with the snare sample on and then create a stereo mix of the track.
I hope you enjoyed this post about the history of video game music. We’ll be working our way up and covering more modern systems in the near future. Question of the day – what is your favourite NES or Game Boy soundtrack?