5 Weirdly Memorable Sounds from Classic Arcade Games

5 Weirdly Memorable Sounds from Classic Arcade Games
Benjamin Leatherman

Classic arcade games didn't really have music. Unless it merited a spot on Buckner & Garcia's Pac-Man Fever, the best a machine before the videogame crash of 1983 could hope for was two or three measures that would stick in your brain long after you'd committed every last beep to one hateful memory.

They had sounds, though -- sounds memorable enough that they were the default we're-in-an-arcade-now cue deep into the '90s. This weekend ZapCon will actually sound like one of those sound cues; here are five effects to look out for while you indulge your inner Brian Eno.

5. GORFAtmosphere: Ozymandias-Creepy

Classic arcade games are creepy in the way ancient ruins are creepy -- our mind fills in what's missing from all the simple, blocky pieces we can see, and it almost always does a bad or unnerving job.

GORF, which is otherwise a simple clone of two or three early shoot-'em-ups at the same time, uses a primitive voice synthesizer to taunt you. It is very bad at taunting you as such; it can't say much, and its voice is goofy when it's even intelligible.

But -- its voice is barely intelligible, and it can't say much. And 30 years after the fact, it will still shout "LONG LIVE GORF" as loudly as its strangled speakers will let it. SURVIVAL IS IMPOSSIBLE, SPACE CADET.  

4. TempestAtmosphere: KKKKKHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Tempest played a supporting role in Night of the Comet, which is itself a reasonable claim on creepiness; it's a creepy game, too, in which even-more-abstract-than-GORF vector monsters crawl unnervingly smoothly toward your ship, which is pointed straight down into the hell mouth.   ("[Creator Dave] Theurer says that the design came from a dream where monsters crawled out of a hole in the ground.")

The vector display means it looks almost nothing like its early-'80s peers, or anything else you've played. (Okay, except Asteroids.) It doesn't sound much like it, either; in lieu of the usual bleeps and bloops there's just a ceaseless, angry white noise. Blasting off from one stage straight down into the next sounds a little more like a vacuum cleaner than a spaceship. But a hellish vacuum cleaner.

The attached video provides the other part of any good arcade soundtrack: an expert player hitting the controls over and over until they break.


3. Smash TVAtmosphere: Pretending to have never heard of The Running Man

It's fitting that Williams, longtime pinball heroes, published Smash TV -- it feels more like a classic pinball machine, flashy and a little trashy, than a classic arcade game. It's -- well, it's basically The Running Man, in which a morally depraved society circa 1999 slavers over a gameshow in which contestants murder each other in studios for fun and prizes (and trips to The Pleasure Dome).

The sound effects, by 1990, are far beyond what our friends in the Gorfian Empire could produce -- there's an actual voice shouting its catchphrases, which are a poorly compressed but solid foray into over-enthusiastic-game-show-announcer territory. (The sound effects are borrowed, too -- the "I'd buy that for a dollar!" line is reminiscent of the original 1987 Robocop -- starting a proud tradition of wholesale theft from the movies that would be continued in Duke Nukem.)


2. SinistarAtmosphere: Sini-sinister

Before the Internet, video games developed reputations that you, The Viewer, had no immediate way of verifying. Long before I was able to see a Sinistar cabinet for myself, I was told that it was The Creepiest Thing Ever, in which you're a lone spaceship attempting to stop the construction of the deadly, talking Sinistar.

Once the enemy workers build him, Sinistar talks: "I HUNGER, COWARD. RUN! RUN!"

Which all sounds well and creepy, admittedly. The sounds come from the back of the sit-down cabinet, and the scream Sinistar makes after you destroy him is still as creepy as it ever was.

The talking -- well, the talking shows its age. But inside a dark arcade, in a cramped but immersive cabinet, the goofy lip-synching is more easily overcome -- if never quite as easily overcome as it would have been in the '80s, when there was no telling the next time you or your friend-of-a-friend would see one.  

1. Pac-ManAtmosphere: Trying to fool you into believing it's cutePac-Man

is a self-consciously cute game, with ghosts that look like colorful fitted sheets and a hero that looks like a pizza and a maze that looks like the inside of an '80s pizza parlor.

It's also secretly terrifying. The ghosts are actually monsters, who just happen to look like cute ghosts. The hero withers and vanishes into nothingness every time they touch him. And beneath the sound of his constant, ceaseless eating there's an unending, woozy siren that goes on even after your death. (When you're powered up, the siren just gets louder, and weirder.)

I don't know what the siren is supposed to be -- the ghosts, maybe? -- and I don't want to know. But when I imagine it ringing through Pac-Man's neon-blue grave for all eternity, it is not especially surprising to me that the mid-'90s attempt to recreate it in virtual reality was a creepy failure.

Zapcon takes place Saturday, April 12, and Sunday, April 13, at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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