Friday, April 26, 2013

My Gaming Audio History: Kaboom (1981)

Kaboom! is an Activision game for the Atari that, like Combat, has no continuous music, just sound effects.  One of the things I remember most is that you played with this paddle controller that I absolutely sucked at using.

Who created the audio?  Larry Kaplan, who was the game designer.  Here's a link to a Digital Press interview with Larry Kaplan where he recounts creating the game.  He doesn't really discuss the audio creation, but does mention an awards ceremony where Kaboom! won best audio.  Wow, we've come a long way!

What's the audio experience?  There's the sound of the bombs being lit, the sound of them going into your water, the sound of them exploding, and a celebratory sound when you reach thresholds of points/bombs (1000, 2000, 3000, etc-- I never heard this sound when I played).  The sound as you extinguish the bombs has a musical pitch that rises in a somewhat chromatic scale fashion similar to the sound of your bouncing shot in Combat Pong.  I really quite like the 1000 point sound-- the way it glisses up from low to high definitely feels like a huge accomplishment!

How does the audio draw the player more deeply into the game?  The sound of the lit fuse is one that I think simply we grow up hearing when we use sparklers, hear bombs on cartoons, etc, and simply know and react to with urgency and care.  Also, the raising in pitch when you catch more of the bombs mirrors the Mad Bomber's increased speed and undoubtedly raises the intensity the player feels.

It's been interesting for me to hear how these Atari sound effects aren't really in tune as we would consider the modern musical scale.  I've read about the Atari tuning problems in books, but it's very interesting to actually hear it as I listen to these sound effects.

If you're feeling retro, I've also been checking out how these games were marketed.  Here's a link to a TV commercial for Kaboom!

While it's not a game we owned or I really played, I've got to mention that between Combat and Kaboom! came one of the most famous game audio sounds of all time: Space Invaders.  I've featured the four note pattern that speeds up with the alien ships earlier in the blog.  It seems that different versions of the game played these notes in different ways and the Atari 2600 version sounds so percussive, it's hard for me to hear a descending pitch with the thumping, not even really sounding much like the arcade game.  Compared with Combat and Kaboom!, I can see what made Space Invaders audio groundbreaking...  first, it does have sound going on continuously during gameplay, and even more importantly, the sound is tied so perfectly and emotionally into the visual experience.  It just hadn't been done before!  Still, though, I've yet to hear something on the Atari that is really what I think of as game music, but it's cool as I work on this to hear the beginnings and understand where we've come from.