First Music: The Mystery of the First Video Game Soundtrack

Ever wonder what the first video game with music is? Well, wonder no more: It’s Gun Fight by Midway with an adaptation of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2! Or is it?

There is something strange about what should be an exceedingly straightforward fact which is the variety as to whether you get a yes or no answer depending on the source. The quickest way to get a sense of this is the simplest: Two Youtube videos, one of a surviving arcade cabinet and one of the MAME emulated version. In the former (above), you will hear the distinctive heady chunks when a player shoots or is shot but find no Fredric Chopin accompanying it.

In the MAME version, you will hear the sounds and the music, but keen listeners will note that these sounds have a dead reverberation to them. Comparing the arcade cabinet’s sounds, it does sound similar, but each sound feels almost truncated and feels almost like they were recorded separately by a handheld recorder rather than being generated by the machine. One can compare a pure emulation as in Space Invaders for a comparison of clarity.

There are several possibilities behind this discrepancy. One, that the music is a togglable feature and that MAME has it on by default. Many early arcade cabinets had settings which could be adjusted via the use of ‘dip switches’ on the board to change the pricing, the difficulty, and even certain features such a levels appearing in that version of the game. However, in looking at both service manuals for Gun Fight one will find that although the sound is noted any music functionality is not either for testing or special hardware.

So could it come from a consecutive game and was added to MAME improperly? Gun Fight did have a sequel, Boot Hill. In MAME, it plays the tune as well as a myriad of others. Two videos exist of the real arcade cabinet. One appears to showcase one consistent song which is not Chopin and the other (below) exhibits the behavior seen in the MAME version with alternating songs.

So what’s going on here? Was the sound functionality from Boot Hill transplanted into Gun Fight by accident? Only one song out of the two? At least one thing can be solved as an old post states that the sounds from the game are sampled from Gun Fight, though by all appearances they need not have been as the sounds themselves were digital. Tom McHugh spoke of this in an interview with me but he did seem a little perplexed about the topic of music, not seeming to remember if he had done it. He also stated that he did not program Boot Hill and was therefore unfamiliar with any changes that were made.

The current version of MAME as of this post has sound disabled for Gun Fight, possibly because of these issues and misinformation. This is not the only piece of inaccuracy when it comes to this game’s documentation either. Many sources claim that the board uses an early graphical chip from Fujitsu, but according to Ed Fries (currently in the process of repairing a Gun Fight machine) that chip is nowhere to be found on this game nor Space Invaders (it’s first reference appears in regards to Space Invaders Part II). As these games become scarcer, it will be necessary to re-evaluate these hardware parts for the purposes of emulation and preservation.

File:ManTT DiscreteLogic JP Flyer.pdf

So what was the first video game music track then? Taking that definition rather strictly, the answer may be Sega’s Man T.T. (AKA Moto-Cross, AKA Fonz). This game came equipped with an analog eight-track player – also used in Allied Leisure’s electro-mechanical Wild Cycle – to provide some tunes for the player to listen to whilst playing the game. It is also possible that an unpreserved TTL game had the first soundtrack and we aren’t aware of it, or even that there’s something wrong with the current Gun Fight unit we are able to listen to.

While Gun Fight was a game of many firsts, despite being an adaptation, it likely has to give up the moniker of ‘first music track’ unless otherwise proven. The mysteries hardly diminish the fun in searching for first though, and in setting the record straight.

13 thoughts on “First Music: The Mystery of the First Video Game Soundtrack

  1. I remember the days of Nintendo (NES) game soundtracks playing back at me from a small tube TV set in the 1990’s. It was magic to behold, the notion that an interactive media (such as video games) could be so entirely entertaining. These early video games were everything to me in my childhood. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that.


  2. Seems Atari’s October 1975 Steeplechase may be the first commercial videogame with music ( – video and manual evidence there of the “charge” tune).

    Seems Christopher Strachey’s Draughts is the first videogame with music from 1951:

    Click to access DavidLink_ProgrammingEnter_ComputerResurrection60_2012.pdf

    Unless something earlier turns up. Depends how you define videogame of course… but I’d count something with a proper video display capable of displaying animated images beyond a basic light bulb display. But that’s a battle of semantics.

    Anyway, keep up the great work trying to pin down all these firsts. Not easy!


    1. Hey man, I’m actually making a youtube video about this topic and saw your comment. Do you have any idea what song is playing as the opening melody on Steeplechase?


      1. Hello Fin!

        The music is a modified version of what in horse racing is known as ‘Call to the Post’, also known in military circles as ‘First Call’. It’s not exactly the same but a pretty clear derivation.

        A couple of people have pointed out to me that they believe Christopher Strachey’s Draughts game ‘had’ music but I’m skeptical of this. The comment that it did is second hand based on oral histories and I have a contemporary newspaper account on the program from 1954 that does not mention any music. My speculation is that they were two distinct programs, never integrated. So while Strachey is responsible for what’s considered the first computer music, he likely didn’t get the title for game music.

        I plan to look at this more closely in the future. Suffice to say, for now, I’d say Steeplechase is a very likely candidate for first. It’s such a strange and unique game and we don’t even really know who made it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. From experience, newspaper articles are often far from comprhensive. I also can’t imagine why Strachy’s Draughts wouldn’t have made use of the “God Save the King” music routine that we have audio proof of existing. It would be a very strange thing for someone to just make up in this comprehensive and seemilgly very well researched article:

        Click to access DavidLink_ProgrammingEnter_ComputerResurrection60_2012.pdf

        So, unless you can prove otherwise, I’d say there’s little good reason to doubt it. I’d also say that Steeplechase is also highly unlikely to be the first videogame / computergame with music…. but the earliest we’ve found so far with video footage of the music and game all in one. People had been making computers play short tunes for a long time prior to 1975. Interesting topic though.


      3. I did not say that it was a lie, it’s about examination here.

        The claim from the paper is a narrative based on oral histories, which means that it wasn’t first hand. There are multiple ways that these two things could have been strung together as a single program when you’re talking about delineated accounts.

        However, there’s no point in arguing on that basis. The reconstruction itself contains absolutely no indication that the music was integrated into the program. Remember the argument is that this is “game music” therefore it has to actually be triggered by events within the program itself. The entirety of the reconstruction contains no such trigger or mention of it.

        You are correct that newspapers are not often comprehensive, but when you’re talking about something that novel I see absolutely no reason why it would be omitted. It’s The Guardian from October 20th, 1954 which covers the draughts program and the Love Letters program along with detailed play instructions. It’s one heck of an omission for people who are marveled that a computer can type out something.

        Like I said, it’s not that I think Campbell-Kelly was lying or that he may not even have received a story like this from somebody who was there at Manchester. You have to take the digital archeology into account here though. These two programs existed simultaneously so they were likely shown off in close proximity to each other. Pegging it as “game music” is a stretch based on a single source, contradicted by the actual code examination which lacks any direct analog.


  3. “It’s one heck of an omission for people who are marveled that a computer can type out something”.

    Well, it’s quite possible they didn’t play the game to completion. Draughts can be quite a long game. And it’s possible that if the computer beat you, it didn’t play “God Save the King”.

    I personally find this quite compelling, in the context of all the rest of the investigation:

    The Ferranti Mark I was the industrial version of the Manchester Mark I, whose
    prototype, the Manchester “Baby” (SSEM), performed its first calculation on 21st
    June 1948. The algorithm here described was one of the earliest complex
    applications authored on the pioneer computer that did not only serve system
    testing purposes. Christopher Strachey, an outsider to the Manchester computer
    laboratory and a school teacher, had developed the software in his spare time.
    Martin Campbell-Kelly writes, relying on the oral histories from lab personnel:
    “Strachey sent his programme [draughts] for punching beforehand. The
    programme was about 20 pages long (over a thousand instructions), and the
    naiveté of a first-time user attempting a programme of such length caused not a
    little amusement among the programmers in the laboratory. Anyway, the day
    came and Strachey loaded his programme into the Mark I. After a couple of
    errors were fixed, the programme ran straight through and finished by playing
    God Save the King on the hooter (loudspeaker). On that day Strachey acquired a
    formidable reputation as a programmer that he never lost.”

    Have you had a chance to speak to Dave Link? Might be a way to pin it down further.

    Click to access DavidLink_ProgrammingEnter_ComputerResurrection60_2012.pdf


  4. I have access to Boot Hill and Steeplechase unmodified arcade uprights. If I can be of aid in posting video demonstrating the sounds these machines make, please let me know. Happy to assist.


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