I've always felt that MIDI tunes were to computers what chiptunes were to 8-bit and 16-bit consoles. Before storage media expanded and technology increased to the level of using regular instruments, practically every PC game had a MIDI soundtrack at its back (as did quite a few early and misguided websites). MIDI wasn't a file format that stored recorded music; instead, it was a file full of instructions for your computer to assemble a tune on its end.
I never really liked MIDI songs the way that I enjoyed old console soundtracks. Songs done in MIDI have a distinct and somewhat unpleasant, flat tone to them, although sometimes composers were able to finagle toe-tapping tunes with it. It certainly is nostalgic to hear, however, to those of us who played games in this era.
Before MIDI faded out at the end of the 90s, some of the earliest MMOs released with their scores done in this format. Ultima Online (which we'll get to later on) and EverQuest were two such titles, and today we're going to listen to what EverQuest sounded like back in 1999. The original score was composed by Jay Barbeau, who has since released a remastered soundtrack called The Original, Opus I. But we're not going to go for that remastered stuff; let's listen to the sounds of the past, shall we?
1. Main Theme
It's amusing to me how some folks genuinely prefer this MIDI song over the reworked version that would come later (or the orchestral EverQuest II theme, for that matter). I can understand it, though. Imagine that you're a gamer whose first MMO is EverQuest -- and this is the song that you hear upon starting it up every session. Imagine that this is the game that you cut your teeth on, and it's not hard to understand why a goofy MIDI tune would have a special place in your heart.
The EverQuest theme is a great one, no matter the version. It's catchy and buoyantly cheerful. I do like how the various "instruments" are dancing all around each other in the second half of the song, too.
It took me a couple minutes to try to pin down what this song sounds like, but when I got it, it made sense. Listen to this track and tell me that it doesn't sound like it's the theme to an infomercial or diet video that's trying to sell you a better life. If EverQuest's theme is cheerful, this is so pumped full of Prozac that it's shooting rainbows out of every note. Triple rainbows, even.
"Are you looking for a way out of your routine? Do you look at your life and say to yourself, 'I could be so much more'? Then you're going to want to harness the incredible power of EverQuest, with its amazing DullBuster(TM) technology! Just look at what it's done for all of these people!"
3. Combat Themes
Here's a selection of EverQuest's combat music, which is pretty peppy for an activity that was as glacial as a DMV line. Perhaps it was the music's responsibility to trick the player into thinking that he or she was in a life-or-death situation that required constant monitoring instead of a six-minute fight that involved sandwich-making.
All of these are actually pretty good, although my preference is for the middle one. At points, these songs are close -- but not identical -- to the type of combat music that we were hearing in 16-bit RPGs like Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger.
4. Shopping Merchant
Here we have a very short piece, although I'm told it holds much nostalgia value for original EQ players. Once again, it sounds like something right out of a 16-bit console fantasy title, perhaps a continue screen or whatnot. What's certain is that it's downright tranquil, with happy little notes painting happy little trees in our happy little minds.
5. Freeport West
I think this track gets my vote for the best out of all of the original songs. I can't listen to it without whistling the melody afterward, and that's the sign of a catchy tune. It's a little more serene than Freeport East, but more regal as well. This song would fit in so well with practically any fantasy RPG from the 1990s. The MIDI translation emulates a harp and organ reasonably well (at least it's identifiable), which adds to the atmosphere of royalty.
Apart from the title theme, Kelethin is the EQ track I've had in my video game music folder for the longest. Even with MIDI's handicaps, it's still a hauntingly beautiful song.
I've noticed that many of the songs I listened to on this soundtrack aren't of the pulse-pounding variety, but instead make a genuine effort to create a musical story for the zone or city. Not having played EverQuest back in the day, Kelethin as a place means nothing to me, but I can see myself wanting to visit there -- if only to drink in more of this music.
That's only scraping the surface of this soundtrack (not to mention the expansions!). For you EverQuest vets out there, which songs are your favorites?
MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!