In 1996, avid gamer Andy Hofle purchased a copy of Williams Arcade Classics, a PC emulator featuring an anthology of beloved 1980’s arcade games. There was Joust, Defender I & II, Robotron: 2084, Sinistar, and Bubbles. The emulator opened with the virtual recreation of the exterior of an arcade, and, as the digital door swung open, the player would be swept inside, treated to the 8-bit equivalent of the sights and sounds of a bustling, early-’80s arcade midway.
Hofle loved the program’s attempt to recreate as much of the arcade experience as possible, but recognized the execution fell short of the concept’s potential. For one thing, the sounds of only a few games were used, and played over each other in a recognizably short and tedious loop. Secondly, the background arcade noise would halt as soon as a game was selected, ending the player’s brief moment of aural virtual reality. Hofle felt he could –he must— improve upon the Williams program’s start screen audio track. And thus began a decade-long passion known as the Arcade Ambience Project.
The Arcade Ambience Project is a collection of four soundtracks, each time-warping back to a specific year in the arcade. The first revisits “1981“, and features the electric buzz of classics like Asteroids, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, Galaxian, Gorf, Missile Command, Ms Pacman, and, Space Invaders, among many others. The second track brings you to the distinctly different cacophony of only a couple years later, “1983”, and builds on the first with additions like Burgertime, Dig Dug, Joust, Mario Bros, Robotron, Star Trek, Time Pilot, and Tron. The third installment gets even busier with games from or before “1986“, like Commando, Indiana Jones, Paperboy, Punch Out, Rampage, Star Wars, etc. The fourth and final track leaps forward to “1992“, and features the more complex sounds of games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter 2, , Tetris, TMNT, while still keeping timeless classics Galaga in the mix.
Hofle composed the tracks by recording himself playing each game to completion, then piecing together the individual files using a sequencing program that would randomize volumes and left/right stereo panning. To complete the illusion of a real arcade, he recorded and mixed in samples of coin changers, bells and random crowd noise. The complete, non-looping, hour-long tracks are available to download from the project website, as well as free to stream on YouTube.
I first learned about the Arcade Ambience Project when reading Ernest Cline’s nostalgia-porn novel, Ready Player One. A game-designer friend passed along the tracks to help create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for my reading. Now, as Nerdist’s Book Club gets nice and cozy with Cline’s novel, what better time to pass along the pro-tip? The Arcade Ambience Project soundtracks set the mood particularly well in chapter 22, when Parzival visits Happytime Pizza in the bowels of planet Archaide. Don’t worry; that’s not a spoiler. Be like the Son of Flynn, and let these soundtracks be your passport to another time and reality. Then come back and let us know what you think in the comments below!