When it comes to video games, CDs were a god damn revelation back in the day. Before then, people were developing games on cartridges that barely held a few megabytes. CDs, on the other hand, held up to a much bigger size of 700MB, and as a result, developers found out they could use that extra size for things they couldn’t have before on cartridges. This had the side effect of giving us 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 — the sound chips for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo, respectively. 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. This was known as the Red Book CD audio standard. Introduced in 1980, it set the standard for audio in video games throughout most of the 1990s.
Not only could you hear the awesome music in game, you could listen to it outside of the game. In most cases, you could put the game CD in a CD player and start listening to the music without having to play the game itself. To me, this is what made CD audio awesome: Being able to listen to the 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 media players that could support MIDI or MOD Tracker files. The Red Book audio standard changed that to something more simple: putting in the CD in a CD-ROM drive and pressing play. Be careful though, since Red Book audio CDs are mixed mode CDs, you need to tune to track 2 to hear the game music, unless you want to hear a lot of unlistenable static that could damage your speakers or the disc itself.
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. Quake, Shadow Warrior, Blood, Half-Life and Starsiege: Tribes were among many of the examples I remember back in the day. Install the game and rock out to the CD tunes while in game. The best part about the CD audio in PC games was in the days before disc protection software like SecuROM, they didn’t require the CD to run.
As a bonus side effect, this meant 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 the other way around when you play Quake II‘s soundtrack in Quake!
It’s best if you try this experiment 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.
The only downside of the modern digital distribution of gaming is that often these CD tracks are left out because there’s no easy way to get the audio tracks to play on modern systems. In some rare cases they’ll update the game by porting the game’s soundtrack over the MP3 and having the engine play that track back instead, like in Half-Life‘s case, but for older games you’re often out of luck, leaving you outright musicless.
Sometimes there’s hacky ways to make it work by making a fake CD through software like DAEMON Tools, or just burning the music to a CD to simulate the experience. Thankfully modern source ports for PC games have gotten around these by supporting MP3 and OGG formats as a more compact and reliable standard, though they’re not gonna stop you from putting in any music CD.
Even in the Quake example video I made above, CD tracks no longer loop, only playing once before silence and the next track plays. So while it’s not a perfect recreation, you get the gist of what I was trying to accomplish.
By the 2000s, Red Book CD audio was being slowly phased out by better technology, such as the more compact and reliable MP3 and Ogg Vorbis standards, with it officially ending around the mid-2000s when DVD-ROMs became the standard for most games.
It was inevitable because of the rapid rise of technology, but the legacy still lives on in all the console and PC CD games that had this awesome CD audio format. If you ever get the chance, experiment by playing games like Half-Life with a custom CD. You may be surprised at some of the results within.
CD image courtesy of Wikipedia. Sonic CD screenshot courtesy of Mobygames.
Updated 7/16/2020 to adjust paragraphs and add a single image, and to change the title to the greatest and best CD audio technology in the world.