On The Synthwave Genre and Video Games

I remember the one year where I had PlayStation Plus. I had enough money for a year-long subscription and decided to see what it was about, and I found myself loving all the free games that came with it, letting me catch up on a bunch of mainstream and indie titles that I had to pass on because of financial reasons. I remember one title which greatly held my attention for quite some time as I was playing it, that of course being the 2012 indie hit Hotline Miami.

How could I not be addicted to this game? Everything about its gameplay and aesthetic felt like they were specifically aimed at me: top-down action with bloody violence all around, an engaging surreal storyline that stuck with me long after finishing it, and fantastic graphic design that perfectly echoed the stereotypical ‘80s Miami aesthetic of Miami Vice, a staple in my household growing up. However, of all the things that stuck with me during the game and long after completing it was the soundtrack. I was no stranger to electronic music (hell, in my hometown, it’s as common as white rice and meth addicts), but the soundtrack was mind-blowing to me, as I was never used to hearing electronic music as elaborate, theatrical, and in-your-face as that.

After looking into the soundtrack, I quickly found myself enamored with this style of retro ’80s electronic music, more properly known as synthwave. Since then, I’ve become more acclimated to it, seeking out as much within the genre as I can, including any other projects that utilize this style for their soundtracks, whether it be films and long-form shows like Drive, Kung Fury, and Stranger Things, or even other video games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Furi, Hotline Miami 2, and Chrome Death, amongst others. It’s the usage of this music in video games that I always find the most exciting and appealing, as I think the genre is an inherently natural fit for the medium of gaming.

If there’s a particular idea which drives this feeling, it all comes down to one key aspect: grittiness. It’s often been stated that synthwave is “the most metal of all electronic genres,” and this is quite as accurate as many artists within the genre (GosT, Reznyck, and Perturbator, just to name a few) often gear their sounds towards pulse-pounding beats with dark undertones reminiscent of horror, dystopian sci-fi, and oddly enough a great deal of soundtracks for classic Sega Genesis titles, such as the Streets of Rage series or Vectorman.

The comparison to the music produced by Sega’s defining console is a deliberate one I’m making because of how the game soundtracks, by necessity, had to be written. As anyone gaming during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s can attest, the Genesis’ sound quality was…objectively trash. Well okay, relatively trash, at least in comparison to the Super Nintendo. Despite this, the console’s library still produced some pretty stellar soundtracks (my personal favorite being the original Vectorman). Composers for Genesis games used the sound quality to their advantage by writing soundtracks of a grittier hard-edged quality, stylistically speaking, so that they would still sound good despite the meager Genesis hardware.

When you look at the aesthetics of games released within the past few years that take incorporate synthwave soundtracks, many of them share creative sensibilities on par with classic Genesis games. In a way, this helps position the genre as sort of an antithesis to the electronic sub-genre known as chiptune music, which gained its greatest exposure thanks to Anamanaguchi’s soundtrack to the video game adaptation of the Scott Pilgrim series. Chiptune’s stylistic tendencies are modeled not just by the audio/visual aesthetics of Super Nintendo games, but also by the more eccentric off-beat nature of many Super Nintendo soundtracks. Meanwhile, synthwave music and Genesis video games are more or less the opposite, delivering edgier and more gritty games/compositions. This helped with Sega’s big marketing push during this era, as it positioned itself as the cool and contemporary “with the times” alternative to Nintendo’s own happy-go-lucky corporate branding. In a way, it’s like Sega vs. Nintendo never really went away; it just changed battlefields.

Synthwave as a genre may have only existed in its current state for about seven years now, but its push to more mainstream recognition by way of ‘90s-inspired video games and ‘80s-inspired film and television projects has my optimistic about its future. Hopefully more gaming projects take advantage of the dynamic cinematic sound that the genre has to offer to take their experiences to new heights. And one more thing:

Hotline Miami 3 when? …Please?

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