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Collectors embrace video game soundtracks on vinyl

The Buggles once proclaimed that video killed the radio star. But video games are reviving vinyl records as a new generation of collectors embrace the allure of the LP.

By James B. Eldred

As younger generations seem to embrace vinyl at an ever-increasing rate, it makes sense that many of them would seek out records that are relevant to their other interests. For many under the age of 30, a predominant interest is video games. While some record collectors may not even know video game soundtracks exist, especially soundtracks on vinyl, new and rapidly increasing demand for them has turned many into valuable collector’s items.

Video games themselves have been around since the early 1970s, but music didn’t become a standard part of the gaming experience until the early 1980s, when technology finally made the inclusion of music possible. During the dawn of gaming music, many of these early soundtracks were nothing more than simple monophonic loops, created with the most basic of synthesized sounds.

But even with such constrictive limitations, many memorable compositions were created during this time. If you played games in the 1980s, you can probably remember the themes to classics like “Pac-Man” and “Dig Dug” almost instinctively. By 1984, game soundtracks were already seeing wide releases on vinyl in Japan, where many early video game companies, including Sega, Nintendo and Namco, were based. Since most early games only had a handful of songs at best, these LPs were compilations that typically collected several songs from a game company’s catalog of titles. Others would take the themes from games and expand upon them, either as remixes or as live recordings made with real instruments.

Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, game music became more complex and sophisticated, and with the rise of CD-ROM technology, the line between “game music” and “music” vanished. Today, game music can be anything from a retro-sounding synthesized soundtrack created to invoke the feel of classic video game music to a fully realized symphonic score or a collection of popular songs by well-established artists. By the late ’90s and early 2000s, video game companies were beginning to release soundtrack CDs to their games in America. And while not all games released today feature official soundtrack releases, their numbers appear to be growing every year, with an ever-increasing number embracing vinyl.

Sword & Sworcery videogame soundtrack

One such soundtrack is the score to “Sword & Sworcery EP.” Originally released in 2011 for the iPhone and iPad, the retro-style adventure game quickly earned high praise for its gameplay mechanics as well as its innovative and atmospheric score by composer Jim Guthrie. With such critical acclaim and attention behind him, Guthrie decided to release the score on vinyl, under the appropriate title “Sword & Sworcery LP.”

“It’s been amazing,” Guthrie said. “I did an initial pressing of 1,000, followed by another 500 and now a third pressing of 1,000.” 

Retro City Rampage soundtrack on vinyl

Another independent game soundtrack to find success as a vinyl release is the score to the game “Retro City Rampage,” which was released to a warm reception months before the game even came out. As the name of the game suggests, it is a nostalgia-fueled title, with ’80s style graphics and gameplay throwbacks to vintage games like “Super Mario Bros.” and “Metal Gear.” As such, much of the music in the game follows suit, sounding like music straight out of a 1980s video-game cartridge.

Leonard Paul was one of the soundtrack’s composers, as well as the coordinator for its vinyl release. While the nostalgic nature of the project was one of the reasons why he decided in favor of a vinyl pressing of the score, he also said that the nature of the game’s release also played a factor in his decision. Since many games made today, especially independent ones, like “Retro City Rampage,” only exist as digital products vs. physical discs or cartridges, a vinyl soundtrack is one of the few ways that fans of the game can hold something physical associated with it.

“People really do want to have a physical object sometimes when they buy something they really care about,” he said.

The soundtrack to Retro City Rampage is currently on its first pressing, which was limited to just 500 copies (300 black, 100 blue and 100 green). With such low print runs and colored variants, Paul acknowledged that the release probably attracts just as many collectors looking for an investment as it does genuine fans of the music. If Paul decides to do another pressing of the record, he plans to ensure that this first printing has something special and remains the only numbered edition.

“I want it to be rare,” he said.

If the soundtrack to “Retro City Rampage” becomes a collector’s item, it wouldn’t be the first video game soundtrack to do so. Most video game soundtrack LPs fall into one of three categories: a new release sold in extremely limited numbers; a promo release that was only made available at special events or as a bonus to customers who pre-ordered a game; or a vintage game soundtrack that was only released in Japan in the 1980s.

This means that most game soundtracks are painfully rare. Mike McCartney, a collector of both video games and game soundtracks, said that this can make collecting game soundtracks a difficult and costly hobby.

“A plethora of records I’d love to own originate from overseas, typically Japan,” he said. “They have a larger amount of vintage releases, but they are generally a lot more expensive, with some stuff selling in the hundreds.”

Video game soundtracks have become such a niche that there are multiple websites dedicated to discussing them. One is the Video Game Music Database, or VGMdb for short. It serves as a catalog and resource of all video game soundtracks released on any format. Carl Larson, a staff member for VGMdb who specializes in older releases, said that he believes that the American market for video game soundtracks has yet to stabilize.

“The market demand in the states [for soundtracks] is smaller than the market in Japan, but the lack of direct accessibility can lead to unpredictable spikes in pricing,” Larson said. “While vinyl values have remained relatively stable over the years in Japan, the price can swing dramatically in the U.S.”

LP releases have a lot of catching up to do if they’re going to reach the price levels of the CD counterparts, added Ken Moore, site leader for VGMdb.

“I suspect that some of the Mario or Zelda albums may have sold for a fair amount of money, but it’s nowhere near the price that some of the most sought-after CDs have commanded,” he said.

Zelda The Music

While Moore may be right in that the market for LP soundtracks is not as high as the CD market, the price gap between the two appears to be shrinking. A rare vinyl release of the “Final Fantasy XIII” soundtrack recently sold for more than $240 on eBay, while most CD releases of soundtracks in the game series go for half that. And then, there are the vinyl releases that have no CD counterpart. A 12-inch promotional single featuring music from Capcom’s “Street Fighter II Turbo” has sold for more than $100 online, as have promotional compilation LPs released by Sega.

For many collectors, such as McCartney, a CD release can’t hold a candle to an LP in terms of uniqueness and content.

“There are many soundtracks and remixes you will only find on records,” he said, referring to many of the Japan-only releases of the ’80s, “and I also find many of the large cover designs very appealing. I suppose it’s similar to how some people collect Laserdiscs rather than DVDs. They are just a lot more unique.”

CDs don’t seem to appeal to the people making the soundtracks, either. Neither “Retro City Rampage” nor “Sword & Sworcery” will see their soundtracks released on CD, with the creators of both citing a general lack of interest in the CD format as the reason.
One format that did spike Guthrie’s interest, however, was the cassette tape, which led him to have a small amount of cassette tape soundtracks made to sell on his website alongside the digital and LP versions.

“I have a super soft spot for cassettes ... I most did it for the people like myself, who are nostalgic for that time in their lives when it was all about mix tapes and high-speed dubs,” he said.

But make no mistake. For Guthrie, the preferred format for the “Sword & Sworcery” soundtrack, or any album for that matter, is the vinyl edition.

“Everything should be released on vinyl,” he said. “Vinyl makes everything magical.”