There are moments I stop playing video games.
I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.
Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.
It was never clear what triggered this.
Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.
Junior year and something shifted.
I turned to music.
I explored vinyl records.
I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.
I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.
Sound became important.
The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.
Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.
I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.
When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.
I knew what I wanted to hear.
Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.
I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.
I listened to it everyday driving home from school.
I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.
Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.
My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.
I revisited games from my past.
I experimented through them all.
I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.
I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.
When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.
The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.
With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.
I wasn’t looking forward to that.
Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.
With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.
Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.
Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.
I cannot recall a single FFX theme.
When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.
It has no force.
The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.
Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.
As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.
By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.
Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.
The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.
I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.
I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.
It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.
I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.
Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.
It was the perfect evolution of sound.
The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.
Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.
The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.
I needed to hear what was going on.
In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.
It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.
The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.
The music was light, crisp, and warm.
The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.
The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.
More than any other element, the sound design stuck.
Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.
I bought a Wii U not long after launch.
I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.
Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.
Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.
The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.
Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.
Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.
While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.
They understand how to build games.
They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.
They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.
Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.
Soulful and considered.
Grinning and whispered.