Music makes the games better … a little DOS story.

I was always fascinated, and still am, by sound in games. By sound, I don’t always mean the sound effects, but also the music score. You can compare it like a movie and it’s soundtrack; having that beautiful piece of artwork music breaks or makes the whole picture. I don’t want to say that this is a general rule, but having good sound with games helps …. a lot 😉

In this post I want to go back in time and let you feel the difference between MIDI music … and MIDI music ;-). As in many things, there has been an evolution over the years, and it is for those who have lived it, know how to appreciate it.

Today, every new PC that you buy, has a soundcard. People don’t stand still with the fact that this used to be a separate component. Everyone finds it normal  to start up his/her favorite MP3 player and start up their music they like. There was a time, not so long ago, that one bought a PC with no sound, except for the PC speaker ;-), but I don’t want to talk about that, except maybe to make fun of and have a really good laugh: HAHAHA …

You had to buy a separate card, install it, configure it to be able to have sound coming out of your speakers. Most of them were internal cards that you could plug in in one of your available ISA slots, which were rather ‘cheap’, or you could choose to have an external sound module, which had a sound card build inside a box, that you put aside your computer which made you open up your wallet to pay an extra more.

It was until 1988, that the first sound cards came onto the market. They were originally build to support musicians that used a computer to help them creating music. Later, that same hardware was going to be supported in games. They were created to support digital sound playback, music synthesis or both !

the Adlib Music Synthesizer card: example of a music synthesis internal card


the Soundblaster card: example of a card that supports both digital playback and music synthesis.


The Roland MT-32 & the Roland SC-55 are external sound modules that produce midi synthesis.

Roland MT-32
Roland SC-55

The big difference between the Adlib and the Roland cards is the way they produce music. The first one has 9 mono channels which could generate wave forms based on a difference in tone and length. The second one has built in wave samples stored in memory which were used per channel to produce sound, which makes it a much more realistic sound. By wave samples I mean pre-recorded instruments, sound effects that at runtime are being used and modified to produce sound.

While you just plug in the internal card inside an ISA slot in your computer, the external sound module is a whole other ballgame to hook up. There are 2 ways to connect your Roland MT-32 or SC-55 : the limited supported way (Midi UART Mode) for games & the full supported way (Midi Intelligent mode), meaning you can play the first ever supported Roland MT-32 game up until later released games that supported General Midi.

Historical grown, in the beginning around 1988 the games that supported Midi with the Roland external module devices were programmed in Intelligent mode. This mode supported more than just sending Midi messages back and forth from the PC to the Roland. With the computers becoming more powerful, the UART Mode, which only sends Midi messages, was becoming the standard. So, that means that games with Intelligent mode were not supported in UART mode !

  • the limited supported way (Midi UART Mode)

You need a soundcard with a gameport (joystick) & a gameport-to-midi cable.



  • full supported way (Midi Intelligent Mode)

Here you would require a separate ISA card that handles MIDI, which is called a MPU-401 compatible card. You have the original one from Roland itself, but there are many other compatible cards out there : Music Quest, Voyetra, Midiman MM-401. They often popup on eBay at a price of course.



Having explained a bit about my experiences with MIDI & old DOS games, it’s time for a demonstration. I have made a video compilation about some cool music in games, where I will switch from Adlib to the SC-55. Judge for yourself, what you prefer, but I think I already will know the answer 😉 The games being demonstrated are : Dark Forces, Legend of Kyrandia (Hand of Fate) & Descent. Note that i have left the soundeffects out on purpose, so you can focus on the music only.