Ah, the Red Book CD audio standard. Introduced in 1980, it set the standard for audio for the next three and a half decades. But this time, we’re looking at a small portion of that audio standard.
When it comes to video games, CDs were a god damn revelation back in the day. Before then, people were working on cartridges that barely held a few megabytes. CDs held up to 700MB, and developers found out they could use that extra size for things they couldn’t have before on cartridges. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of crappy full motion video games around the mid-’90s, but they also brought us something amazing: CD quality audio.
No longer were developers constrained by the YM2612 and SPC700 sound chips, musicians could now make the music as it was intended to be heard: with live instrumentation (or a close approximation). A fair share of CD-based systems like the Sega CD, the Turbografx-CD, the PlayStation, and Sega Saturn had CD audio support. While playing these games, the rich CD audio played through your television, giving you music that you’d never heard before in video games. Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch these days, but it was a god damn revelation if you were around back then.
Not only could you hear the awesome music in game, you could listen to it outside of the game. You could put the game CD in a CD player or a computer and start listening to the music without having to play the game. This is what made CD audio awesome, being able to listen to the awesome soundtrack outside of the game. Previously, if you wanted to listen to the game music, you had to hope for a soundtrack CD, or in the case of PC gaming, dig through files and play them on special media players. Now with that CD audio standard, it’s just as simple as putting in the CD and pressing play. Though be warned: since these were mixed mode CDs, you need to tune to track 2 to hear the music, unless you want to hear a lot of unlistenable static through your speakers.
Not everybody used the CD audio tracks for music, though. Some developers opted to put hidden tracks instead. Pick up any game by Digital Pictures — like Night Trap or Double Switch — and you’ll be serenaded by the production staff giving their rousing rendition of The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” – backwards. One of the most famous is the hidden track in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where after being told not to play track one, it segues into a remix of the Dracula’s Castle theme, which sounds pretty awesome.
Of course, PC games also used CD audio heavily. Some examples included Quake, Shadow Warrior (pictured), Blood, Half-Life and Starsiege: Tribes, among many others. Install the game and rock out to the CD tunes while in game. The best part about the CD audio in PC games was how they didn’t require the CD to run. Since this was before CD copy protection was a standard, you could put any music CD in and frag dudes while listening to your favorite bands in game. The game didn’t care about what CD was in, as long as it was a CD with music tracks, it didn’t give a damn and played them anyway, sometimes leading to amazing results. Try playing Quake II with Quake‘s soundtrack — makes Quake II a little more unsettling. Even works when you play Quake II‘s soundtrack in Quake!
It’s best if you try playing these games with something goofy like a “Weird Al” Yankovic CD or a New Kids on the Block CD. In my case, when I first experienced Quake in 1999, I was fragging fiends and shamblers to the dulcet tones of Roland Gift and the Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw & the Cooked. This was so god damn ridiculous that I had to make a video recreation of this for you guys, just because it’s funny to frag enemies while “Don’t Look Back” blares on in the background. See for yourself:
Alas, CD audio started being slowly phased out by better technology, such as the more compact and reliable MP3 and Ogg Vorbis standards, and CD audio officially died around the early 2000s when DVD-ROMs became standard. It was inevitable, but the legacy still lives on in all the console and PC CD games that had this awesome CD audio format. So pop in those old game CDs into your computer, and see what awesome tunes you could hear outside the game, what secret tracks you may find, or do what I did and find what CDs work well with some of the PC games. It’s endless entertainment!