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Sources seem to vary on which video game was the first to use an actual orchestra to perform its soundtrack. Some sources say that it was Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness marked another change in game music history, being the first game ever to contain original music scored by an actual orchestra.

- A Video Game Odyssey - an introduction to video game music. mfiles

The above article and other sources claim that Heart of Darkness, released in 1998, was the first video game to have music performed by an actual orchestra. However, this is apparently untrue since Total Annihilation, released in 1997, also had a soundtrack performed by an orchestra (link to YouTube video of the Total Annihilation soundtrack playlist).

The game has an original orchestral soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule and performed by the 95-piece Northwest Sinfonia orchestra.

- Total Annihilation. Wikipedia

Then there's Dark Wizard, released in 1993 for the Sega CD (link to YouTube playlist, and YouTube video of the Dark Wizard soundtrack).

The game was notable for being one of the first console games to use a fully orchestrated soundtrack.

- Dark Wizard. Wikipedia

Composer: Dark-Wizard Sound Team
Conductor & Arranger: Toru Akasaka
Performer: Tokyo Sonic Orchestra

- Dark Wizard's soundtrack credits. VGMdb

I’m not sure if the above Wikipedia article implies that the soundtrack of Dark Wizard was performed by an actual orchestra*, but the VGMdb credits suggest that it was, as it lists the "Tokyo Sonic Orchestra" as the performing group. The soundtrack sounds electronic to me, but this may be due to audio compression or because I am only listening to the electronic parts of the soundtrack, and there are other parts performed by an actual orchestra.

* To address a comment that was made regarding the definition of "orchestrate", according to Oxford Languages via Google, "orchestrate" means “arrange or score (music) for orchestral performance” (emphasis mine). According to Cambridge Dictionary, it means “to arrange or write a piece of music so that it can be played by an orchestra” (emphasis mine).

Note that I’m only interested in the earliest example of a game soundtrack that was performed by an actual orchestra, not synthesized or electronic music.

What was the first video game to have a soundtrack performed by an actual orchestra?

The name of the orchestra that performed the soundtrack would also be helpful.

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I don't know that an IMDB bio counts as a great source, but:

Dragon's Lair (1983)

Claim: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006306/bio

He was the creator of the world's first orchestral score for a video game, "Dragon's Lair," which is preserved in the Smithsonian Institute.

This, at least, meshes with my personal recollection of Dragon's Lair having a very impressive sounding score in the arcade. There could probably be some argument because it's not so much a "background soundtrack" (as in Total Annihilation) but it is music, in a video game, composed, and performed by an orchestra.

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  • Interesting. That's a good find. This answer would be even better if it had some additional information, such as the orchestra that performed the music. May 5, 2023 at 2:28
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    @galacticninja Yep, to be honest, it's hard to find info on this, partially because looking it up ends up yielding results from the movie, or related games. Chris Stone himself definitely did the composing for the 1983 game, and he is a well known composer, but it's not clear how it was recorded. Wikipedia seems to imply it was all performed by Chris Stone, using electronic keyboards, but there is no citation supporting that statement. (I have my doubts. 1983 keyboards did not sound that good to my recollection.)
    – JamieB
    May 5, 2023 at 16:48

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