Jukebox Heroes: MMO tunes from the 1990s

    
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I’ll admit that I have a particular fondness for older video game music. I still scour the archives of NES and Genesis libraries for catchy tracks, listen through Amiga and Commodore 64 playlists, and seek out MIDI tunes that trigger memories of great PC adventures. There’s a charm in the simplicity and cruder sound hardware that is, for me, a welcome change of pace from the modern pitch-perfect orchestral scores.

Today we’re going to hop into a musical time machine and travel back to the 1990s to listen to what MMORPGs sounded like back then. The soundtracks, when present, weren’t as pervasive or as (ahem) instrumental to setting the mood, but even back then you could see some passion and skill being poured into the occasional score.

Maybe these won’t all be masterpieces to your ear, but they should provide some insight into what gamers back then heard as they were exploring these magical new MMOs for the first time.

“Bard’s Guild” from EverQuest

EverQuest has a surprisingly good soundtrack, and the only shame of it is that a lot of it hasn’t been released to the public or yanked out of the game files to share with fellow VGM fans. As flat and artificial as MIDI tracks can sound to the ears, I kind of like them for the sheer enthusiasm that’s trying to compensate for a lack of quality.

Bard’s Guild is one of many EQ tunes that I find myself whistling from time to time. I haven’t heard an updated version, if there is one, but I don’t think I’d want to.

“Character Menu” from The Realm Online

I only recently discovered The Realm’s OST and was pleasantly surprised that it’s quite enjoyable. The character menu is a good example of much of the soundtrack, with a heavy emphasis on a lute/guitar and a high fantasy court sound. It might even be cliché, but once again our good friend Mr. Earnestness saves the day. Can’t fault a game for being true to itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEx6azrfEow

“Excalibur” from Asheron’s Call

Apart from its theme, Asheron’s Call doesn’t really have a musical soundtrack to speak of. Considering how good Excalibur is, I find this a real doggone shame. This track holds nothing back, pushing sweeping fantasy to the limits as we go on a journey from exciting to soaring.

“Tavern” from Ultima Online

The maker of this track went all-out to recreate how the game sounded to players back in the 1990s, using much of the same hardware that the community had at the time. While Ultima Online has overhauled its soundtrack since then, I actually kind of prefer the older versions of these classic tracks.

“Main Theme” from Dark Sun Online

An early (and short-lived) MMORPG that few gamers remember, Dark Sun Online actually had a rather atmospheric and well-done theme. It’s forbearing and exotic, but I think it sets the tone perfectly for this Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting.

“Main Theme” from Meridian 59

MIDI music files were heavily used during the 1990s for space-saving reasons: The footprint of such a file was much, much smaller than a .wav or .mp3, and considering the limitations of physical storage media back then, that was an important consideration.

Meridian 59’s score was primarily MIDI, but if players had the game CD in the drive, it would play select tracks with a much richer synth.

“Main Theme” from Neverwinter Nights (AOL)

Oh, how very, very far we’ve come. This is just painful to hear — and I grew up listening to such music tracks on the PC in my childhood.

MMOs are meant to be heard as well as seen, and chances are that music ties your memories to these games more than you might realize. Every two weeks Jukebox Heroes listens through a game soundtrack and picks out the highlights to share and discuss. And if you like this column, then don’t miss the author’s MMO music podcast, Battle Bards!