The Atari VCS was not known for its audio capabilities, yet it had a distinctive sound all its own, thanks to the chip known as the TIA, or Television Interface Adaptor. The sounds it was capable of making were pretty primitive, and mostly harsh. Buzzes, rumbles, and static dominate its sound palette, adequate for crudely simulating the sound of explosions, gunshots, running machinery, and things like wind and crashing waves. It was capable of making some bleeps and pew-pew laser sounds, too.
The majority of the games released for the Atari 2600 did not have proper background music. BGM didn’t come into its own until Nintendo released the NES in the US, about 8 years later. Most games were so limited in their ROM size that they simply could not include proper background music, although many games included at least a short looping audio background, or introductory music. Later cartridges sometimes overcame these limitations by including additional sound chips, such as the POKEY sound chip.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Perhaps the best audio of any Atari 2600 game, and certainly the best at the time of its release. Pitfall II contained a full soundtrack, with dynamic changes to the background music, which changed in response to in-game events such as finding a treasure or touching an enemy. This was a true innovation and seemed years ahead of its time.
Music is a key mechanic in this early platform adventure game. During the search for the Flame Spirit — a mostly-invisible, flickering entity that you must find in order to appease the Skull Spirit who guards the Crown that is the object of your quest — a musical score plays, and its volume is a key to finding the Flame Spirit. The song gets louder as you get closer to it.
Later, when you obtain the crown, a chiptune arrangement of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King plays, which creates tension and excitement as you now have to race to the top of the mountain with the Crown.
Moon Patrol featured a full background music track, one of the earliest games to do so.
Has a background music track.
Contained a musical interlude between levels that was based on the bass line from the band’s hit single, Don’t Stop Believing.
Features musical interludes between levels and during certain game events. The musical pieces are digital arrangements of classical music pieces.
Another game which had one of the earliest background music tracks. The music responds to the events in-game, in a few ways: if you stop moving, the music will sortof pause and play a somewhat annoying tone that is intended to get you to move again; if you die, the music interrupts and plays a death music; when the level is down to the last enemy, the music speeds up. The Atari 2600 port does a reasonably good job of re-creating the music on the Atari’s much more limited audio hardware.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Adapted the theme music by John Williams from the movie.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
The title screen features a tune adapted from the movie theme.
The song Popeye the Sailor Man is played when you grab the spinach power-up, and signifies the length of time that the power-up is in effect, giving you the strength to beat Bluto.
JS Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor made this arcade tunnel shooter especially memorable. The Atari 2600 port adapts this music for the more-limited console hardware, but does a surprisingly good job with it, considering these limitations.
A musical introduction kicks off the game.
An adaptation of the Kingsmen’s Louie, Louie is featured on the title screen and throughout the game.
Frogger uses 3 or 4 different tunes for its background music, and they are catchy.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
If you avoid getting hit for a length of time, the Star Wars theme music plays, signifying that the Force is with you, and that you are temporarily invulnerable.
Stargate uses audio for cues to alert the player of off-screen actions. When a Lander (enemy) captures a human, a “yelping” sound is heard to alert the player that they are in need of rescue. The player can use the radar scope at the top of the screen to spot the Lander who has a human, and fly to their location to attempt the rescue. If the player is nearby the Stargate and flies into it, they will be teleported to the location of a human in danger, if there is one.
Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator
ST:SOS plays a few notes that will be familiar to viewers of the TV series.
Yar’s Revenge doesn’t feature a background music track, but does have a throbbing, pulsating hum, and a great explosion sound effect, both of which contribute significantly to the mood.
Features a full chip tune for the title screen.
Star Castle Arcade
Features a full chip tune for the title screen.