Activision's "Sphere": The Most-Used Unusable Piece of Video Game Music Ever

In the middle 1980s, my brother and I both had Commodore 64s. Our next-door neighbor was the electronics buyer for a catalog showroom—a breed of variety store brought to its knees by Walmart before Best Buy and e-commerce finished the job. Our neighbor was in charge of buying computer hardware, and software.

That meant we got lots of free games, in addition to deals on returned hardware that people claimed was defective but actually wasn't (or could, with a little lead solder, be made effective.) Activision's lineup from 1984 to 1986—including Alcazar, The Great American Cross-Country Road Race, and the haunting, poignant Alter Ego were all gifts from our neighbor during our birthdays and Christmas.


So was Garry Kitchen's GameMaker—an extraordinarily open-ended piece of software meant to help people create their own video games on the 64, Apple ][, and IBM PC. It comprised four suites—SceneMaker (for the background art), SpriteMaker (for objects in play), SoundMaker (the game's sound effects) and MusicMaker.

MusicMaker came with several programmed tracks—The Blue Danube opened the game's title screen, which itself was a "game" programmed within the GameMaker Editor, using biplane sprites from Activision's Barnstorming, among other features. The delightful theme from Pressure Cooker was also included on the disc.

Here, however, is one we never heard in any other Activision game from the era: "Sphere," a futuristic, almost threatening piece that could only have been composed in the halcyon days of the synthesizer.

My brother and I used "Sphere" in every abortive attempt we made at creating a video game. There was Saigon, in which Fletch put a jet plane over the Pitfall! background, flying screen-to-screen, not truly sidescrolling. It was the music during Earthfall, which was basically a Megamania clone. And I used it during my homage to Pressure Cooker, turning that from a whimsical food-preparation comedy into a science-fiction struggle of life and death.


"Sphere" is memorable—I could hum it to a stranger on a second's notice. But it is not perfect or even, really, good game music. Its biggest problem is that it does not know how to end. It just sort of cops out with a trilling synthesizer finale that stops dead in its tracks.

But the bass line and the siren-like horn, for me, will always bring to mind fighter jets soaring through the jungle, space ships blasting descending invaders and, uh, yeah, cooks flipping hamburgers.

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