Cuphead. Persona 5. Undertale. Sunset Riders. The Legend of Zelda. Fans know these titles first and foremost as video games, but they all have something else in common, too: each of them has inspired a vinyl record that has charted on the Billboard 200.
iam8bit, the first label dedicated predominantly to vinyl video game soundtracks, told me that they’ve sold 200,000 albums to date, a number that includes six Billboard chart-toppers (the titles above plus a record based on the animated show Steven Universe).
“When we first started minting vinyl in 2010, iam8bit was the only label dedicated to producing videogame soundtracks on wax,” co-owners Jon M. Gibson and Amanda White told me in an email interview. “Vinyl was something that was trending upwards in the music industry, but still it took a beat to recognize that this would become a major thing for videogame soundtracks.”
“There’s definitely been an upsurge of interest, and we are proud to have been on the ground floor,” Gibson and White added.
Video Games And The Vinyl Revival
This coincided with the early history of video games: the widely-popular Atari 2600 was first released in 1977, followed by the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System first released in 1983. So it’s no surprise that when every other type of music was recorded on vinyl, video game soundtracks were, too.
According to fan resource VGMdb [Video Game Music Database], one of the first available examples of video game music on vinyl was recorded in 1978. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s self-titled record included remixes from arcade games Space Invaders and Circus. Into the ‘80s, remixes gave way to licensed music from video game creators themselves, including Donkey Kong in ‘83 and the Super Mario Bros. Original Soundtrack in ‘86.
According to Jayson Napolitano at Destructoid, there were roughly 119 video game soundtracks released on vinyl in the ‘80s. But this dramatic number gave way to just over 40 in the ‘90s. What happened? By 1988, vinyl was on the outs in exchange for a portable new format called the compact disc, which itself was soon eclipsed by an even more accessible format—online file-sharing and mp3s in the late ‘90s. For a while, convenience was king, but by 2010, audiophiles began to return to the uniquely rich, retro appeal of vinyl records.
“Vinyl is a medium that causes you to slow down, be in the moment, and pay attention to what you’re doing,” Gibson and White told me. “You can’t drop a record on the floor without consequences. You can’t just push a button and make it play. You have to exhibit both sensitivity and care in order to have vinyl populate your ears with the lushness of its analog sound.”
With more than 100 video game soundtracks released since 2010, it’s safe to say both supply and demand have returned to those ‘80s numbers. Today, the vinyl revival is in full swing.
Video Game Vinyl Today
For video game fans, newer doesn’t always mean better. Far from it: even with access to today’s best graphics, older games are lauded as “retro” and still get lots of love. So perhaps it’s no wonder that gamers are some of the most fervent new adopters of classic vinyl technology.
Thousands of collectors gather on forums like Reddit’s VGMvinyl and Facebook’s Video Game Vinyl Collectors repeating the same refrains in praise of analog formats. Connoisseurs point to not just better music quality but—thanks to albums’ enlarged real estate for illustrative covers and graphic design—increased collectability as their reason for the hobby.
Noah Lane, the Director of Licensing with video game merchandise company Fangamer, said visuals are a major focus whenever Fangamer decides to release a new album.
“We focus heavily on art and design,” said Lane. “We’ll typically consider what artistic style or approach would best evoke the game and then choose an artist to bring that vision to life… Artists also love working with vinyl because it’s essentially a blank canvas with very few of the limitations that come with other products.”
Lane said that, while mastering and audio quality remain top priorities, Fangamer designs vinyl with the consideration that fans may choose to use the albums as artistic collectibles only.
“We recognize that many soundtracks will remain unopened, so we strive to create a product that’s worthy of being displayed in someone’s home,” Lane told me. “A good example is our most recent release of Delatarune Chapter 1, designed by Ade. They made tons of gorgeous new art just for the vinyl, with lots of fun references to the game all throughout. It is absolutely worthy of framing and hanging on a wall.”
iam8bit’s strategy reflects this sentiment as well, treating video game vinyl as a highly collectible item. Some of their pressings remain limited edition, like the 1,000-copy runs of some titles including Florence and Sunset Riders, plus a focus on brightly colored vinyl and custom-illustrated art throughout the album cover and interior. It’s not altogether different from the way video games themselves are sold today—just look at the multiple pricey limited-edition collectibles for upcoming titles like the re-release of Final Fantasy VII.
See also: ‘Final Fantasy VII Remake’ Gets A New Trailer And Shows Off Its Various Limited Editions
Are video games art? The thriving resurgence of video game vinyl is just another data point in favor. Video game music is proving itself to be just as collectible as video games themselves, and it indicates fans’ value of games and their attributes for their artistic merits.
“[Vinyl is] an area where we expend a great deal of time and care. We’re collectors ourselves, and we want nothing more than to make the musicians, game developers, and fans happy,” said Lane.