In 2006 at James Madison University in a concert hall, cellist Chad Schwartz decided that his string quartet would go ahead and play a piece from The Legend of Zelda for their encore.
It didn't take long for the quartet’s teacher to storm out of the hall, only to sermonise the future member of the Triforce Quartet later on for a good 20 minutes.
But why was he angry?
Well, maybe you guessed it: of course, because it comes from a video game.
It's not “real music”, Chad was told.
“I transcribed and arranged the original Zelda medley and played it as an encore to my senior recital [...]. I did my entire recital as planned but added the Zelda as a last minute fun encore.”
Although some extra bit of information can explain the teacher's anger:
“I asked him if we could play this piece for the encore six months before the concert. He refused categorically, but then I thought that he will probably forget about it.”
“That's an important detail I think Chad”, adds a chuckling Stanley Beckwith, the quartet's violist.
But he was punished for his passion for the music of the Nintendo franchise:
“I ended up getting docked a letter grade on my performance because it was unprofessional, made [the teacher] look bad, and wasn't 'approved' to be performed (even though other studios in the music school did this without any problems)”, Chad says.
Still, this is probably just the old guard of the music at work, say Emmanuel Lagumbay and Jordan Chin, co-producers of the tri-concept album LAUNCH: StarCraft Reimagined, released last May.
For them, it's only a matter of time before mere notes, rhythm and melodies will be universally recognised as such, regardless of their medium of birth.
In fact, Chad Schwartz performed on a cruise ship in 2010 before an older crowd, where the extra video games music (VGM) had a different reception.
“In addition to the typical 'ship' music, we played Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Mario.” And then some people would come at them and ask:
“This was interesting, I never heard that piece, what it is?”
“Oh, it's from Final Fantasy, it's a video game.”
Because yes, the art of video games remixing, rearranging or covering is a thing now more than ever, it sounds more professional, and you can appreciate the value of this music in making you more productive during work, your gym sessions, your studying, or other tasks of varying interestingness.
Science says that original video games' soundtracks can help you getting things done, because of their adventurous and motivating sounds. It's music that is meant to accompany and motivate you rather than distract you (so you can get past this dungeon or some annoying miniboss).
But maybe you'd rather listen to those melodies by considering your present-day tastes, whether you're into jazz, blues rock, ambient, dubstep, death metal, hip-hop... or bluegrass. Or anything else really.
“Oh yeah, I've got people telling me they work out on my music, especially video games remixes”, says a surprised and enthusiastic Jamel Whitaker, a.k.a. Voodoo Lion, who is creating hip-hop remixes of our 8- or 16-bit childhood.
He also adds that his listeners appreciate his mixes at the office.
But this use of remixed video games scores transcends music genres. This piece, but also the community itself, refers to “remixing” as in remixing, rearranging, covering, revisiting, or any creative act of taking a given track from a game and interpret a new version of it.
Hence, remixing here may either be in the form of heavy metal, jazz, dubstep, or in any other genre you can think of, like bluegrass.
“I get more than a few comments saying that they enjoy my music during workouts,as naturally, I'm making high energy hard rock...”, says Viking Guitar, or Erik Peabody, who is rather on the heavy metal side of remixing.
And creative tributes to video games and their pragmatic consumption also apply to bluegrass music.
“Some people have commented saying that they like it because it's instrumental music, so they can put it on while they are studying, while some other people like to listen to it actively, they'll sit down and listen to the album”, says Eli Bishop from The Hit Points, who released their debut album last June straight out of Nashville.
Even though it's EDM that is supposed to make you dance, such remixed games scores work well for getting things done for the fans of Jordan Aguirre, best known as bLiNd, whose sound heavily inspired the music of the GameChops label, and who is about to launch his new remixing platform HDVGM.
“Just yesterday, some said to me that he used to work out to video games playlists,and now he took remixes of all the same songs and put that has his new workout playlist, which included several of my songs.”
“It seems that people love working out to my music. If anything, I'd say [it's useful for] graphic design or workouts for sure.”
Jayson Napolitano also reports the same sort of use and appreciation, although in an even wider way.
“I do receive some comments from social media on the Prescription for Sleep series, [some] saying 'Hey, I love this series, I use to wind down after work, or while doing game development, studying, or whatever other tasks.'”
“Or for the heavy stuff, I hear 'Yo, I used it to get ramped up for the gym!'”
Prescription for Sleep is an unexpectedly successful series of albums that is generating a lot of streaming traffic. The first volume was even remastered recently.
But Napolitano, who "almost exclusively" listens to remixed game music, is also the founder of Scarlet Moon Productions, a record label, but also a PR firm and artists agency for video games music.
So not only are video games remixing the object of officially licensed and registered record labels, but there is also an agency specialised in promoting video games music, original or remixed.
Although there were many bands into the interpretative covers of game music, now the music sounds great much more often. It's not just something fun and brief to look at on YouTube anymore.
“10 years ago, there were good bands already, Metroid Metal came out, there was the Minibosses, nice bands of talent, but if you want to take a step back further it's the internet that made it possible”, says Viking Guitar.
And to appreciate this ever-blossoming trend entirely, you'll have to take a path outside the messy YouTube forest. And Spotify too, sometimes.
The first few places where there were some early acts of video games remixing were places not specifically dedicated to that, but on which remixers decided that they’d put it up there.
They were Napster, mp3.com, but also forums like Newgrounds, a colourful and geeky digital agora where people can share their fan work, among other things.
But the obvious all-console first stop for video games music remixing with quality control is probably more OverCloked Remix, a website that has been around since 2000. They've got full concept albums and individual tracks.
For virtually any specific game or franchise your mind can think about, even really obscure ones, it’s quite easy to look up for its available remixes, or just browse through their huge collection.
Strangely, in the beginning, some unexpected games were more covered than others, says founder dj pretzel, or David Lloyd.
“There's been different periods, like when we first started the site, for whatever reason Bubble Bobble was very popular.”
“For the first couple of years, certain games just got remixed all the time, we had a lot of Bubble Bobble remixes for a while, and now we haven’t seen any in years.”
Almost all the 14,368 remixes you can find and download on OverClocked for free went through a judging process.
“Generally speaking, we have standards, we think they're a good thing. We favour arrangements that are a little bit more creative and interpretative”, explains Lloyd.
Almost all the 14,368 remixes you can find and download on OverClocked for free went through a judging process.
“Some people like covers that are just the same tempo and genre and everything is the source song but with different instruments. We wouldn't allow that. We require that it be a least a little interpretive.”
dj pretzel, OverClocked's founder
dj pretzel also highlights what has changed for the better in video games remixing in the last couple of years:
“In general, recently, things have got better [in video games remixing]. The production quality nowadays is significantly above what we would have seen from early 2000 to the late 2000's”, although he also highlights the increasing commercialisation of the genre, on which he has mixed views.
The first influential licensed VGM record label is probably GameChops, which was founded by Chris Davidson, better known as Dj Cutman, who is remixing game scores into hip-hop, chiptune and dance beats. This label is more on the electronic side of VGM.
Most of their licensed albums are paid, but they release free titles periodically.
“While it's very cool that we can license music and it can be available on stores, it’s important for me as a musician and also as a member of the VGM community to also make sure there are projects that you can get for free and enjoy.”
“Not everybody has money to spend on music, and I think it’s important to stick to the roots of the VGM scene, which is just fans making new versions of the songs that they like.”
They do put their mostly electronic music on streaming services and their YouTube channel.
bLiNd is also part of the early remixers of GameChops. He covers many video games titles, but which track will hit most the listeners’ nostalgia is anyone’s guess, as experience has taught him.
“The reason why it happens is the nostalgia factor, like [listeners] all have different feelings attached to different songs, so when you touch on it, you are touching their childhood at the same time, so I think this is part of the reason why a connection happen.”
GameChops’ first licensed album was The Triforce of Bass, a chiptune / moombahcore / dubstep Zelda remixed album that grows in madness as the playback progresses. It generated quite a buzz when it came out in 2012, hitting #1 on Bandcamp for almost two full weeks.
This was when Dj Cutman had confirmation that there is a demand for such music.
“Ok, so there is an interest, there is a demand for video games music on a real platform like Bandcamp. I wanted to use this attention to open up a new part of the video games music scene and try to license this stuff, so we can get it on iTunes, and you can hear it on Spotify, so we don't have to worry about getting a take down, because sometimes it happens to fan projects.”
Indeed. An important album that went under legal assault is Balance and Ruin from OverCloked Remix artists, a massive 5-disc remixed tribute to Final Fantasy VI.
Square Enix, the owner of the franchise, went ballistic when they heard about this crowdfunding project. In fact, they did shut down the project once.
Luckily, dj pretzel is married to a lawyer and is the brother of another one. They reached out to the company’s legal department and managed to legally assure them that there won’t make any money off this, as with all the music posted on ocremix.org.
It would have been a great shame if it stayed shut down because the album contains what is probably the most unbelievable and epic VGM cover to date.
“The Impresario” is the Bohemian Rhapsody of the trend. Not only because it takes direct inspiration from Queen’s mythical hit, but also because it probably had and still has the same effect on the listeners.
It is a cover of a sequence of Final Fantasy VI in which the player oddly finds himself into some opera play with lyrics your character must perform. For some players, this part was mostly an eccentric annoyance.
Larry Oji, or Liontamer, was a judge for this album.
“I remember first hearing [The Impresario] before the album came out, we were like [laughs heavily] OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL! This is godly stuff! Really, it's a thrill ride, it’s pretty epic.”
As the community manager, he closely follows what people are saying about the website.
“I follow up when people are saying props to us, and I look at the conversations, and The Impresario is the remix that I just see anecdotally passed on the most.”
“I think these people are just in absolute shock at what they heard, and we still have got people to this day, even though it came out five years ago, who get introduced to it, and you just have a new fan immediately.”
Another major label in the VGM landscape is Materia Collective.
Recently released albums include bluegrass band The Hit Points’ debut album, a StarCraft 3-concept album, a Mega Man heavy metal/rock fusion album, as well as other tributes to Chrono Trigger, a few Legend of Zelda titles, Cuphead, Undertale and a Music Box series.
"I feel like the next big thing has been Materia Collective, and it's been the quantity of stuff that they have been putting out on a regular basis, like an album a week kind of stuff, it has been impressive. So, I think that's where a lot of people have been looking now for remixes", says Jayson Napolitano, whose Scarlet Moon Productions work with Materia Collective but also has own record label.
They are also publishing original soundtracks from recent or indie games, so if you’re looking for remixes, you must distinguish them from the former (OSTs are usually explicitly presented as such).
One important artist that has worked with Materia is String Player Gamer (Diwa de Leon), a string instruments remixer who first got famous as a YouTuber but has increasingly been releasing licensed albums.
Mixing visual entertainment with his covers, sometimes in a humoristic but professional fashion, he offers tributes to your childhood and current games in classical, orchestral, folk, rock, a cappella and fusion genres.
As a full-time musician and YouTuber, SPG doesn’t have much opportunity to listen to VGM while working as his occupation consist of doing just that.
But now that we speak of it, he does feel like he’s more fluid with his non-audio tasks when he put some rearranged scores:
“When I am doing video editing, I sometimes put the Lord of the Ring soundtrack, or even the Harry Potter soundtrack. It does make me feel a bit more productive, because I can feel like 'I’m Harry Potter!', 'I’m Luke Skywalker!’, it pushes you forward to feel good about yourself, […] in the end I feel good about my work.”
“I think it is a great time to be a remixer, it has some traction now,we’ve got real labels like Materia Collective backing us now!”
He covers a broad range of older of recent games, lots of Nintendo and Square Enix titles, but as with many remixers I have found, like Viking Guitar and Mykah for instance, he only does songs with which he has any personal connection or experience. This either means songs from games he enjoyed himself or games that someone pointed out to him and that he liked.
👆 An indie phenomenon, for both the game itself and its music
String Player Gamer, like numerous remixers, has also covered two recent games which received critical acclaim and went through hundreds of remixes, Undertale and Cuphead.
Undertale is a very indie game. But it was a massive success. Its developer, publisher, writer, and composer, Toby Fox, did everything on his own.
The game was a success for its innovative RPG-style gameplay, but also within the VGM community:
“Usually, when someone does everything in an indie game, that gives ‘ok’ music, but this time is an exception. […] Undertale musically was just phenomenal”, explains dj pretzel.
Chances are you stumbled across it if you already started navigating through any VGM repertoire. It has been remixed a lot.
“Undertale has very memorable, catchy melodies”, says Mykah, a quite productive remixer that is releasing around one track per week or so now, including Undertale.
“I think there are people who have made their living off of remixing Undertale [laughs] on YouTube, you know,cashing in on that”, adds dj pretzel.
Bluegrass and light bulbs
On their side, The Hit Points, whose Nashville-based members label their music as “video games music played by bluegrass instruments”, released a debut album in May, covering multiple games like Castlevania, Sonic, Street Fighter, Chrono Trigger, Skyrim and the usual Nintendo suspects.
The band once opened for another band in a gig, even though the following band wasn’t into video games music at all.
“We saw a lot of light bulbs turn on in their eyes when they heard these themes and there were like "Oh, I actually know that song!", and they were really responsive to it”, says Matt Menefee.
So, the way I understand it, it seems that they didn't expect to hear this music from video games?
“They did not expect to hear video games music from banjos and fiddles”, replies a chuckling Eli Bishop.
“Some people chuckled when they heard [what we were going to play], but [in the end] they definitely enjoyed it”, says Matt.
As we saw it with the Triforce Quartet, it seems that people may be timid, reluctant, or else, hostile to this idea of listening to music that originates from a video game.
Thennecan, the producer of the Mega Man cover album C-Busters, says that coverage and reception from specialised media were great and positive, appreciating its mixed style of rock, heavy metal and Latin American fusion.
But the more mainstream outlets did not cover it as it was “not original music”.
“Lots of people also don’t understand how rearranging or remixing video games scores can be a profession, a vocation”, says the Lima-based guitarist, also known as Felipe Salinas.
But London-based Mykah also perceives that it is more a thing now than ever:
“I think it was kind of niche before that, but now it's got to the point where there’s actually events where they have whole festivals where these kinds of remixes get played, for example, the MAGFest in Washington, DC. It's a huge festival, they have GameChops running one of the stages, and they have thousands of attendees that are into video games music [at this event].”
As Emmanuel Lagumbay and Jordan Chin explained above, this can also be a generational thing.
“The older generation doesn't consider much of [this music] until they hear it, but to get them to hear it can be tough because they think they are already predisposed to think they're not going to like it”, says Eli from The Hit Points.
Viking Guitar also agrees, and says that, basically, societal change merely takes time, some things of which will resist longer than others:
“You know, there's still racism in America, very serious racism, and in theory, it's been addressed for hundreds of years now. So I don't expect society to be fully accepting VGM in 18 years if they still can’t get used to the fact that some people have different skin colours after two hundred years.”
“But I think it's headed in the right direction, but time will tell”, says Viking Guitar
Supercuts and chiptune
Viking Guitar did share a tiny example of what may be an encouraging indication:
“I was the other time at some regular place, like Supercuts or something, some place where normal people go, and there was a song playing on the radio, and I heard chiptune elements in there, and you know that’s a sign: once you hear chiptune in a Supercuts, you know that it’s more accepted.”
But this isn’t something that has to do with the people that haven’t grown up with video games only.
In the case of hip-hop video games remixes, the stigma will either come from other hip-hop artists or gamers.
“There’s a lot of machismo in the hip-hop scene. You don’t want to be the nerd in the corner with his video games”, says an assumed and chuckling Voodoo Lion.
He also adds that, as with the Triforce Quartet experience, other artists aren’t seeing the “real beats” here.
“A daily struggle”, says of the same scene Mega Ran, who, by some accounts, may be the first artist to have crossed the mainstream with VGM remixes, chiptune and nerdcore sounds.
The former teacher is now a well-known rapper entirely assuming his love for video games of his childhood, and holding a Guinness World Record of having the most songs (134) to reference a video game franchise – Mega Man.
Hip-hop also isn’t the most appreciated genre to be mixed with one’s gaming childhood it seems.
“Some commenter on YouTube said from one of my Final Fantasy VII remixes that I literally took his best childhood melody and took a dump on it”, says while laughing Mega Ran.
The Phoenix-based rapper perceives that fans of hip-hop and those of video games don’t overlap much.
Liontamer and dj pretzel from OverClocked Remix also observe that hip-hop receives less love from fans, as well as dubstep, death metal and songs with vocals.
The result is that many remixes one will find will be, as the term“remix” suggests, electronic music.
"You know, the electronic music makers all grew up playing computer games, so it's the music people would make if they grew up playing computer games for a lot of them, that is why there are a lot of similar themes in electronic music and computer games music", says Mykah.
Finally, I asked interviewees what songs they prefer to remix or cover themselves, and what are the games for which people are submitting the most requests for a remix.
... but don’t bother sending special requests yourselves, as there’s no point to do so in many cases.
Scarlet Moon Productions’ Jayson Napolitano comments on the most submitted requests for remixes:
“I’d say mostly the Nintendo stuff, because it’s so popular, it has many franchises… but also others like the Final Fantasy titles, and Undertale”, says Scarlet Moon Productions’ Jayson Napolitano.
String Player Gamer also agrees with the Nintendo titles and Undertale but adds that he received requests for Touhou Project, a game he has never heard of before.
The Triforce Quartet members seem to be receptive to requests, as they hold a long list of requests at work already, mostly filled by Skyrim, Kirby, Castlevania, Fortnite,as well as the expected Legend of Zelda and Pokémon.
The Hit Points also welcome them. “Yes, fans do submit requests through blogs and articles that are talking about us, games […] like Octopath Traveler and Splatoon, people do submit them for our next record or even live”, says Eli.
“Well, everyone likes Chrono Trigger. Generally, some genres are more popular than others, something like ambient or experimental probably won’t get as much attention”, says dj pretzel.
“In general, most people seem to like the more cinematic or orchestral stuff. I find that increasingly jazz is a lot more popular, in the earlier days jazz wasn’t popular but we released Chronology (from Chrono Trigger), our first jazz album."
Other remixers do receive requests but strongly insisted on doing covers from Video Games tracks they enjoy themselves.
“I do receive special requests through those comments [on my YouTube channel], but I'd say I like to remix video games that I actually played”, says Mykah.
bLiNd seems mixed about it, but he appreciates the interaction with the community:
“My die-hard fans, they're even willing to paying me money to remix songs, and I have done commissions for people, ranging from something obscure to something very popular, just depends on the person.”
“And that's the thing I discovered about most of my fans is they all have different favourites. Even on my albums, I'll think 'Oh, this is definitely or probably the strongest track", and not one person will think so, one person will say, or this [other] one is my favourite track, another will say of another, 'oh, that one is my favourite track'", so yes, everybody has his one.”
But among my interviewees, Viking Guitar is probably the least into covering fan requests:
“It's one of two things. It’s either people recommending stuff for which there are already millions of covers, like, I still got some people saying ‘Oh do some music from Mega Man 2', and I loved Mega Man 2, I loved the music and I might cover that someday, but if you go on YouTube and search ‘mega man 2 guitar cover’, you could watch videos for two years and not see the same one twice.”
“The other things are...obscure-to-me titles that are somehow connected to some of the songs I’ve done. Like I've done a couple of songs from adventures and RPG games, and it seems that frequently I’ll get suggestions to do battle scenes or overworld or something, from RPGs I’ve never heard of whose title I can’t pronounce.”
“That’s fine, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that but there are so much music video games out there, and I only got so much time…”
But there’s still a case for submitting a request to a remixer, provided it has some originality.
“I think it’s important to be listening to that kind of thing, but that does not mean you should accept everything - I only work on things I really want to make”, says Dj Cutman.
One morning, he hadn’t much to do, and then on Twitter, someone suggested to remix something specific. It felt ‘ok’ at first, but he told himself “Ok, let’s give it a try, it can be funny”, and it became his top song for a while on Spotify.
bLiNd has had a quite similar experience:
“It really matters a lot what song you're going remix, like I did 'Rainbow Road' from Super Mario Kart, and that has tens of thousands of plays, but the most popular remix I have done on Spotify is the Super Smash Bros main theme,and it's not even my best remix, but because of the source, it's really popular.”
It seems that it really is related to which games you actually played and enjoyed, then.
If you remember playing Bubble Bobble and a bit of its main theme, meet the only song you'll ever need to start off your day on a good mood from now on - by dj pretzel. 👇
So now that you know what to listen and where to find it... 🤔
Go get things done!
Or just enjoy the music!
👇 Here are below a few more great remixes: 👇
☝️ "Aquatic Ambience" ☝️
from Donkey Kong Country
Probably one of the most remixed and appreciated pieces of VGM - Just on SoundCloud, there are over 800 remixes of it.
☝️ "No Yoshin' Around" ☝️
from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island
Contrary to many hip-hop video games remixes, this one is rappin' on the whole track rather than sampling a small bit of it - by Kevin Villecco and Mega Ran.
☝️ "I'm Dracula" ☝️
EDM track by bLiNd from the most famous vampire slayer of the first few generations of consoles
☝️ "Sweden" ☝️
Very smooth and pleasant ride taken from the very successful building game - a remix of Smooth McGroove own's remix of the game. McGroove is a YouTuber into a cappella video games remixes
☝️ "Mecheye" ☝️
from Kirby Super Star
Quite a furious trap / dubstep / drum n' bass ride taken from an otherwise very friendly game
☝️ "In Fire"☝️
from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
A tempo-mad thrash metal cover of the boss from the Fire Temple
☝️ "Death Egg Zone (Broken Dreams Mix)" ☝️
from Sonic The Hedgehog 3 / Sonic & Knuckles
Another furious electronic / industrial remix, this take taken from the Sonic universe
☝️ "Find the Red Coin" ☝️
from Super Mario 64
An ambient / electronic / jazzy take on the cave dungeon level of the game
☝️ "Crash Bandicoot Dubstep" ☝️
from Crash Bandicoot
The track title says it really
☝️ "Go Straight" ☝️
from Streets of Rage
GameChops' Doni remixes one of the most memorable and bad ass games of the Sega Genesis
Recap: where to look 👇
OverCloked Remix (general)
GameChops (mostly electronic, dubstep, EDM)
Materia Collective (classical, rock, metal, electronic)
Tiny Waves (electronic)
Scarlet Moon (smoother music)
Remix 64 (Commodore64)
Remix Kwed (Commodore64)
C64 audio (Commodore64)