To this day, I am an advocate that MS-DOS games produced some of the best music in video game industry. A head scratcher of a statement mostly from younger games who never got to experience gaming before the year 2000.
But when those smooth, midi sounds are compared to game scores of today, you'll find a glaring difference (aside from the 16bit sound)--one that may not be obvious at first, and that's theme. Game soundtracks today sound awfully familiar to movie soundtracks. That's not necessarily a problem, but most movie soundtracks aren't personal. Nine times out of 10, a movie's soundtrack won't be remembered unless it plays a heavy role in the movie itself.
Movie soundtracks are about adding a layer of emotion, simulating feels and setting a mood. Today's gaming soundtracks are now about atmosphere and simulation of pivotal moments in games that are meant to strike a chord in the player. It's something we can all get around, sure. But are they memorable? Often times not.
Other vital missing components are style and dare it be said, substance. It's the equivalent of recognizing the Star Wars theme when you randomly hear it. The Harry Potter theme is another. If you're into MMOs, you will undoubtedly have the World of Warcraft theme memorized. These are sounds easily distinguishable. But if one were to pull music out of a random game created in the last few years, how many would recognize it? How many games nowadays produce something "hummable?" Not many. They've followed the Hollywood format--make them sound like a "blockbuster."
That can't be said about old school MS DOS games. For those of us who played in that era, if Total Carnage played, you'd know it. Or at least search your brain with effort trying to wonder why that sounds familiar. MS-DOS game music was memorable. How about Rayman? Veil of Darkness? Prince of Persia? Super Street Fighter II Turbo? Duke Nukem or Doom II? And why is that? How can something of lower sound quality stand the test of time?
In fact, id's 2016 release of the latest in their Doom franchise was heavily applauded for its soundtrack. No, the latest Doom game isn't midi music. However, it aimed to capture the feel of the original soundtrack, a choice loved by fans all over. Thinking about this and listening to the original Doom II soundtrack, it made me quite nostalgic for some old MOS-DOS midi music.
So, in an effort to relive the old days and listen to some of my favorite old school MS-DOS tunes, I went through an interesting process that took some time, but was ultimately worth it.
I recently attempted to nab arguably one of the best MS-DOS game soundtracks ever. And to do that was a technical feat on its own. First, it takes a computer able to run MS-DOS, which means acquiring an old computer. Not the hardest thing in the world, unless you're wanting to acquire one that actually works. The reason is because it's not a simple matter of just using a desktop recording program like Audacity and hooking up a mic. The problem lies in mics recording everything; all the space around you, the sounds outside your house. With a mic too powerful, it can pick up even the lightest noise. All we want is the music itself.
It's a bit of a convoluted process, true. But while this sounds like it requires technical prowess, the hardest part is obtaining the equipment. If that's not doable, one can be built on the cheap.
What was used was a Sound Blaster 16 sound card, a very old card from 1992. It was placed inside an old MS-DOS appropriate computer. In this case the Pentium MMX. Another great choice would be the Sound Blaster AWE32 CT2760 model. That gem is loaded with features perfect for midis. That was then hooked up straight to a VHS VCR Panasonic NV-HD100. It's hard to find, and once it's found it's pricey. But it can easily fit itself into the music quality sounds of today, even if there isn't a general use for it. It's also great for recording things like vinyl or producing analog sound. Once it was recorded, it was all transferred to a modern computer through a VHS/DVD converter.
It was an absolute blast to go through MS-DOS game music. For those of you who miss that refreshing midi music, try it. Nothing beats playing old school game music on your smartphone.
Jessica Kane is a writer for SoundStage Direct, the number one online source for the best vinyl records and turntables.