Before encroaching any further on murky waters, one thing must be acknowledged. Of all the game soundtracks in the world, few come less appreciated than the Pac-Man soundtrack. The game itself may have revolutionized the arcade game world in the 1980s, yet many would cringe at the thought of calling Toshio Kai’s masterpiece ‘music.’
Pac-Man arrived at a time when the market was swamped with space-shooter after space-shooter after space-shooter. As you can imagine the sounds in the games were largely monotonic, in part due to the stone-age technology and also due to the lack of innovative composers. To match its vibrant personality and new direction, Pac-Man needed equally fruity sounds. It needed new textures that could match the colourful inhabitants of the game, and needed it to come out of a pitiful 3-channel mono speaker.
The mind boggles when thinking about how far the gaming industry has come since the days of Pac-Man, from 3-channel mono speakers and 4-direction controllers to Dolby Digital 7.1 and dedicated physics processing chips. As such it would be painfully unfair to compare the music of Pac-Man with the latest Nobuo Uematsu
composed soundtrack or the latest Tony Hawk game soundtrack. As brilliant as Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2’s soundtrack was, it cannot touch Pac-Man for influence. Yes, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 may also be infinitely more enjoyable, but the one sound that will be remembered far beyond the two games lifetimes will be “waaka waaka.”
It may be less than one second in length, yet that “waaka waaka” sound is easily one of the most common and recognizable sounds from the game. Eating
is up there as one of the most recognizable sounds from pre-stereo game music, along with the Super Mario Bros theme. Yet even Mario cannot compete with the minimalist masterpiece that is Eating
, a tune that Brian Eno
would be proud to put his name behind. Every sound in the Pac-Man soundtrack feels very digital and one-dimensional, yet when combined together, it creates an onslaught of sound, music. Mick Harris, former drummer of Napalm Death
composed an album with 99 different moments of sound, ranging from 2 minutes 42 seconds in length to 5 seconds long. The concept of this album, titled Moments
was that it would provide unlimited listening experiences when put on shuffle. Whilst perhaps unintentional, the Pac-Man Soundtrack provides an equally enlightening experience when put on shuffle. With each song lasting only a few seconds, the patterns formed when put on shuffle are highly absorbing. The music twists and turns, stopping and starting, pushing forward then coming to a halt. It may not be recognized by music intellectuals, yet Pac-Man offers an unintentionally unique experience.
The Pac-Man soundtrack can still act as guidance for modern game soundtrack composers. In recent years, a shift towards complex and highly bombastic compositions has been seen. Gaming soundtracks have borrowed from their movie brethren, with games such as Halo 2 and Final Fantasy XII borrowing heavily from the compositions of John Williams
and Hans Zimmer. As epic as they are, with games these over-grandiose soundtracks often fail to capture the spirit of the game: Whereas the Pac-Man soundtrack in its simplicity captures the spirit of the game. As each dot gets eaten up the frantic pulsing continues to raise the heart rate of the gamer. The sirens of the Ghosts further add to the sense of urgency, with gamers frantically avoiding them in their pursuit of the dots. As much as they raise the heart-rate of gamers, never do they lose their sense of fun. The tones are colourful and vibrant, they bounce along together as gamers fall victim to the evil Ghosts known as Blinky (red), Pinky (pink), Inky (Cyan) and Clyde (orange).
Pac-Man was a phenomenon in its day, the highly addictive concept brought about massive changes in the arcade gaming world. Likewise it brought about a new era of gaming music. No longer were generic jingles acceptable, to truly enhance the experience music had to match the game itself. Pac-Man brought with it a soundtrack high in colour and flavour. The one-dimensional sounds, when combined, create a unique and tense atmosphere as gamers push themselves to escape the ghosts. Yet despite this, the music in Pac-Man has never been given the respect that its minimalist genius deserves. Toshio Kai might not have had any intention to create a minimalist masterpiece, yet with Pac-Man he has done so. Much like other cultural fads such as the Spice Girls and Pokemon, we find it far too easy to laugh them off; clearly disregarding the genius that engrossed the world in its day. Whether listened to in-game, or put on shuffle and repeat then let loose; the Pac-Man soundtrack absorbs the listener. Despite its simple, unmatched charm, the Pac-Man soundtrack has become the most misunderstood masterpiece in gaming music history. And whilst we may enjoy the highfalutin music of modern video games, we must not forget the genres minimalist origins. The Pac-Man has earned a spot amongst the video game music hall of fame; an accolade that even Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde can’t take away.