Some of the most memorable music out there is on this baby.
When people think about video games often times the first thought that comes to mind is graphics and for good reason. It’s the first impression that we all get from the box/case art or reviews (prior to online video reviews, of course). The audio factor – sound effects, ambient themes, and background music – isn’t really considered until after you rent or purchase the game and can then realize if you care for it or not. A huge point to consider, however, is that good or bad audio can absolutely make or break a game. Any gamer will be able to tell you, one can definitely tell which publishers care about game music and/or sounds and which ones don’t really seem to think it’s that important.
It has to be said, though, that to a certain degree modern game designers have it easier than in generations past. Current generation systems have incredible sound hardware that can support the capability to use full orchestras and have it be of CD quality or better. Games became more realistic, immersive, and expansive, reeling the player in and even going so far as to have the soundtracks be considered for awards - The PlayStation 3 game Journey, for example, was nominated for a Grammy in 2013.
Yellow shirt kid looks so happy with his controller...Too bad that anyone who was "player 2" back in the day likely never got a turn. Also, anyone else notice that the system isn't even turned on and the game cartridge is lying next to it? What kind of evil sorcery is this?!
Back in the NES times, publishers had a daunting task. Due to hardware limitations, game sound designers had much less to work with and because of which, it became that much more important to create solid, captivating music for the games as well as good graphics, tight controls, and fun gameplay in order to get and keep the player hooked. Now, I’m fully aware that not everyone was as big on the music and sound effects as I was. For me if the game looked pretty but sounded like crap, it wasn’t worth my time. Personally, I don’t feel I should have to mute my television to make it fun or bearable. I guess I was just that picky back in the day.
Now, I know the first thing that some readers are going to think when they see this title is “What the hell?? You suck and your article is going to suck by not including Mario or Zelda! That’s the best music on the Nintendo!” Well, haters, here’s my reasoning: Due to the incredible amount of exemplary NES music out there, I had to trim in a few areas. Mario and Zelda were cut immediately because unless you live under a rock, you already know how epic and memorable their music is. I’m also going to exclude versions of licensed songs such as the themes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones. I’ve also decided to omit copyrighted pieces that games used such as Tetris using Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” as ‘Type A’ Music. Even with these cut out, there’s still a staggering amount of music out there so I’m sure some people will be disappointed. Oh well. If you find yourself not liking my selections, you can leave a comment or even take it the next step and write your own article.
Many of these games and/or publishers have become known for including excellent music throughout so choosing just one piece from a game was tough. I’ll do my best to give accolades where due.
DuckTales (1989) - Moon Theme
Capcom took the beloved Disney Afternoon animated series and turned it into a memorable platformer in this title. As Scrooge McDuck, you visit areas across the world in order to collect treasure, hijinks ensuing along the way. Each different area is accompanied by its own theme and while all are good, none had me humming along more so than the Moon Theme. This theme definitely evokes a feeling of being in outer space, tangling with aliens. It’s upbeat, fun, and arguably one of the best pieces released for this game. Heck, I’m humming it again even as I write this. Final Note: DuckTales was introduced to a new generation in 2013 with DuckTales: Remastered. The gameplay remained largely unchanged but it was updated with new graphics and, much to my delight, remastered level themes. As a nice little bonus, after you make it through the first time, you can choose if you want to listen to 8-bit or remastered music. If you enjoyed the original music, you owe it to yourself to try out the new reboot.
Mega Man 2 (1989) - Dr. Wily Level 1
Capcom did it again with this Blue Bomber platformer. Like DuckTales, you have multiple areas to go to in order to complete the game. Each area is ruled by a different robot master and has accompanying music based on the type of stage you’re in. Metal Man has music that gives off a factory vibe while Wood Man bounds along with a jungle style beat. When you defeat all the masters, you get to go after the big bad guy Dr. Wily and his additional robots/traps and that’s where my favorite tune shows up. The first stage of Dr. Wily’s castle has a fast paced, rather rousing piece of music in it that gives a mindset of a desperate race to the end. For me it was a piece that I enjoyed so much that I could pause the game just to listen to the tune go on and on. Final note: Capcom created a fighting game with Mega Man characters called Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters (sequel to Mega Man: The Power Battles) and in which they remastered many of the themes from multiple 8-bit Mega Man games. The Dr. Wily theme I so enjoyed was included under the name Mecha Dragon. Faster and stronger, it definitely upgrades the song. I liked it so much I purchased the out of print Japanese soundtrack CD online for much more than I should have spent…but I digress.
Bonus! Mecha Dragon:
Journey to Silius (1990) - Level 1
Sunsoft is well known to gamers for putting out quality games. Most of them come with excellent gameplay, great music, and punishing difficulty. Many speculate the Sunsoft family of games to be contributors to where the difficulty term “Nintendo Hard” originated. It’s almost as if their thought was “The players may be mercilessly destroyed and demoralized but hey, at least the games will be pretty and sound good while doing so, right?” This still didn’t keep gamers from flocking to classics such as Platoon, Batman, *ugh* Fester’s Quest, and my choice Journey to Silius. Journey to Silius was originally intended to be based on The Terminator before Sunsoft lost the rights so it would only seem natural that included music was appropriately techie and styled for a run-and-gun adventure. The themes range from the upbeat starting level music to a deep and brooding, almost hopeless music style in later levels. All are pretty entertaining to listen to but I still always come back to level one. Final note: The soundtracks for all of the games mentioned above were done by the same composer, Naoki Kodaka, who gained fame not only for having exceptional music for NES games he worked on but also for using the NES sound chip in revolutionary ways to produce sounds that no one had made before or thought possible.
Ninja Gaiden (1988) - Level 1
Tecmo really didn’t release a ton of games on the NES. They dabbled in game styles across the board but are most well-known for their sports outings, most notably Tecmo Bowl. There are people that to this day hold TB tournaments using emulators and homemade ROMs with updated rosters. I, personally, didn’t really get into the sports games. Action and adventure were more my speed which is why when I got the chance to play Ninja Gaiden I loved it. Ninja Gaiden was an arcade port where you got to be a ninja and fight bad guys. What more did a kid need? The game used mid-level cut-scenes to help tell the story and the game’s music and sounds just seemed to fit. The sad opening “death duel” music, the fast paced “running” music, and even the mystical boss stages later on being creepy and foreboding… it all just…worked. While Level 1 is my favorite, a few of the tunes from later stages came close to being chosen. I think part of why Level 1 stuck with me is that it was easily accessible and always able to be heard no matter how good or bad you were at the game whereas to get to hear those later stage themes you had to be pretty good because Ninja Gaiden was not easy. Not quite impossible (or as difficult as the next gen iterations) but it definitely made you work for the right to hear it. Thinking back, I’ve heard Level 1 over and over and I still like how it sounds as it doesn’t seem as dated as some NES music has become. And get this! As I was such a fan of the all of the level themes, I’m sure you can imagine my glee when the issue of Nintendo Power came out with the “sound test” cheat in it. Whoa buddy! Now if only at that time there were better ways to record than using cassette tapes…Final note: Also, Even though it was a well received and selling game, no one really knew the correct way to pronounce the title. Was it Ninja Gay-den? Was it Ninja Guy-den? It didn’t really matter as long as you could get your hands on it, you were golden.
Bionic Commando (1988) - Area 2
Capcom is back again with its classic Bionic Commando. You play as an enhanced soldier out to gather intel, save Super Joe (the main character from the game Commando), and defeat the Empire’s forces thus preventing them from activating a secret project called “Albatros” and resurrecting a long dead major bad guy who strongly resembles an evil former world leader. Along the way you pick up new weapons and gadgets and visit battle zones as well as neutral areas where if you even shoot your weapon to defend yourself, everyone in the whole damn town will attack you until you’re dead or you leave. The music for this game is pretty standard fare for Capcom: moving music that makes you feel like you are where your character is on screen. Climbing in Area 5 features a tension building theme. Being in a dark, spike lined cave in Area 4 includes a bewildering song. Later on levels did repeat the music themes, which I have to take points away from BC for but overall it’s enjoyable. For me, Area 2’s Sewer theme resonates on all points for me. You’re stuck in a (presumably, at least) smelly sewer area with globs of slime that flow freely and, if you’re not careful, will drag you to your death in a pit. All the while you have to make well timed swings and avoid the Empire soldiers. The music here makes me think of what it would be to be walking or adventuring in an underground tunnel, which is exactly what the sound designers were going for. Final Note: Bionic Commando was rebooted in 2008 with updated graphics and arranged versions of the original themes by Simon Viklund. His arrangements were nostalgically great and the new pieces were pretty good as well. What was the reboot called? Bionic Commando Rearmed… ha, ha, get it? Rearmed. The controls weren’t quite as tight as the original but it was still pretty decent and a good shout out to the fans of the NES version. Then they had to go piss all of that away by releasing that garbage 3D version in 2009. Fans of the game, such as myself, just pretended that it never happened.
Bonus! Area 1 for nostalgia:
Castlevania (1986) - Wicked Child
Konami and the NES was a match made in heaven. This well-known publisher brought many, many fantastic titles to the system ranging from sports titles like Blades of Steel and Double Dribble to space shooters like Gradius and Life Force. Sure it had a few duds… *cough, cough* Adventures of Bayou Billy… but overall their track record was pretty dang stellar. One of the most popular series of games that were released was the Dracula vs Vampire Hunter story, Castlevania. You take up the whip as a member of the vampire hunting Belmont clan to defeat Dracula and his cast of undead minions including Medusa, the Mummy, and the Grim Reaper. For the 8-bit era, I have to say most of the music in this game was nearly perfect. From the opening scene walking through the entry way of the castle to Dracula’s chamber, none of the music lets you down. My personal favorite was from Level 3. This music’s fast paced, urgent beat made me want to get through the level just that much faster, which of course, led to making mistakes and dying. Those goddamn jumping humpers and Medusa heads!! Gah!! *ahem* Needless to say, I heard this music a lot. All three Castlevania games on the NES showcased some great music. While arguments could be made for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest featuring Dwelling of Doom (Mansion Theme), Monster Dance (Night Forest Theme), or Bloody Tears or for Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse featuring Beginning (First Theme), my personal feelings are that the original Castlevania still featured the best and most memorable music. Final Note: Many of the themes in this series are remastered for future games and typically end up sounding way better. Super Castlevania IV for the SNES took three classic themes: Vampire Killer from Castlevania, Beginning from Castlevania III and perhaps the most well-known theme of them all - Bloody Tears from Castlevania II – and gave them a 16-bit upgrade. They all sound great and Bloody Tears sounds absolutely amazing. It’s definitely worth the Import CD soundtrack price.
Bonus! Bloody Tears from Castlevania IV:
Tetris (1984) - Type C
This Nintendo released gem needs no introduction. An addictive and ‘easy to learn, impossible to master’ puzzle game, the goal is to clear lines with four squared blocks called “tetronimoes” or “tetrads”. The blocks fall from the top at increasing speed as you progress in levels. Getting a Tetris - four lines cleared at once - is key to helping quickly clear the screen and getting tons of points. Once your blocks reach the top of the screen, the game is over. Tetris came with two modes: Type A has the player starting with an open canvas to try to get as far as you can and is aka Marathon Mode. Type B had you to trying to complete a set number of lines as quick as possible and is aka Sprint Mode. As mentioned before, I’m excluding Type A music as it’s simply an 8-bit version of a piece of classical music even though it holds sentimental reasons for me. While playing one day, my Grandma came in and asked me “did you know that’s Tchaikovsky?” and of course I did not. I, in my childish mind, thought Grandma was cool because she knew about video games and she was thrilled that I liked classical music. This became a bond between her and I: learning about classical tunes and composers. Anywho...Type B music sounded like what one would expect a Russian folk dance to sound like while Type C just seemed kind of whimsy and dreamy. I can’t say why but it seemed more fun to me to play the game with that kind of music going in the background. Final Note: Tetris came out both on the NES towards the end of its life and as a pack-in game for brand new handheld Game Boy in 1989. Both games featured different music for Type A. The Game Boy version of Type A music is likely the most widely recognized Tetris music there is. It’s an arrangement of a Russian folk tune named, “Korobeiniki” that was brought back for the SNES combo cart, Tetris & Dr. Mario.
Bonus! Type A from Tetris & Dr. Mario:
Blaster Master (1988) - Stage 1
Sunsoft returns with Blaster Master: an exploration platformer where you control the tank Sofia the 3rd and her driver Jason, who are on a quest to recover Jason’s pet frog, Fred, fighting mutants along the way. Gameplay alternated between side view platforming and a 3rd person overhead, angled view. Unlike many platformer games of its time, Blaster Master was not linear. Much like Metroid, you had to go through certain areas to get power-ups for Jason or Sofia in order to reach different areas of places you’ve already explored. As with most other Sunsoft games this one was pretty tough and coupled with the lack of any kind of password system or save points, it made it so that you were in it for the long haul. And wouldn’t you know it would always happen that when you were on a tear that someone else wanted to watch TV or find some task for you to do to pull you away from the game. All of the sudden ‘oops, I must have bumped it’ happens and just like that your progress was gone. There was no greater frustration as a young gamer. I liked the Stage 1 music best because it really seems to get things going for the game in a positive way. The theme begins with a quick moving crescendo building up to an explosion of 8-bit goodness that just worked in the background for driving what looked like a toy tank. Final Note: In 2010, a 're-imagining' of the original game was released and titled Blaster Master: Overdrive on the Nintendo Wii.
Kid Icarus (1986) - Stage 1
Nintendo shows up again with this fantasy platformer. You play as a young angel named Pit, armed with a bow and arrow, whose responsibility it is to rescue the Queen of Light Palutena and defeat the Queen of Darkness Medusa before she can take over the world with her monsters. The game was a pretty basic difficult platformer… shoot bad guys, jump to another platform while avoiding other bad guys, rinse and repeat. My first exposure to Kid Icarus was at our local Sears: it was one of the 12 games in the Nintendo “Trial” Kiosks where you could play something for like 20 seconds and then it’d go back to a title screen. Back then it was akin to being given your first sample of an illegal substance: you were immediately addicted. If you were like me, you played that same 20 seconds over and over again. You begged and pleaded and begged some more for your parents to get you one for being a good kid/getting good grades/doing your chores/(insert personal reason). I have to say this theme is 100% nostalgia for me. I remember being there for Dad to look at tools or Mom to look at whatever Moms looked at while at Sears and since there really wasn’t a toy department (theirs and JcPenney’s Christmas catalogs kicked all sorts of ass though) that’s straight where I went. I don’t think I’ve really even gone any further than the first stage. Perhaps I’ll have to dig out the old NES or emulator to try it. Final Note: Kid Icarus got a sequel on the Gameboy in 1991 that was just as tough as the original and then just disappeared. Pit didn’t reappear until being cast as that cheap bastard with the annoying voice in Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii in 2008.
Bonus! The NES Kiosks looked JUST like this:
1943 (1987) - Stage 1
Capcom originally released this WWII shooter game in the arcade and ported it home for the NES. You’re the pilot of a P-38 Lightning out to destroy key naval and aerial targets to help swing the tide of the war. Your plane is initially equipped with limited, refillable fuel and with a dual machine gun. Throughout the campaign you can upgrade your weapons to make you more deadly to your foes, which is necessary as there will be an insane amount of enemies around you trying to blow you up. The game makes use of 4 different themes that go in sequence every 4 levels. I didn’t choose the Stage 1 music because it’s the best music I’ve heard on the NES because, quite frankly, it isn’t even close. However, it’s a favorite because it fits the game so perfectly. The music moves about in a frantic pace just like the player’s plane while trying to avoid the other planes and projectiles. Final Note: The NES version differed from the arcade in two key ways: first, they took away the 2-player component due to hardware limitations and secondly, you could permanently upgrade your plane based on your performance during the levels.
Battletoads (1991) - Pause Music
Rare developed and Tradewest published this beat-em-up game. You play as either Rash or Zits (much to the chagrin of acne-affected teenagers everywhere) on a mission to save your brother Pimple and Princess Angelica from the Dark Queen. Your quest spans across multiple stages in which you fight against rats, robots, and all sorts of other anthropomorphic critters as well as descent in a tunnel and race on speeder bikes in one of the most difficult stages of any game released for the NES. The “Turbo Tunnel” stage has resulted in many a thrown and broken controller back in the day. I remember borrowing the game from a friend and when I needed to get something to eat, pausing it to hear the repetitive, catchy beat go on and on while not even playing. At first I thought something was wrong with my NES but come to find out it was done intentionally. This was the first game I had ever played with pause music and I loved it. Of course, it got old if you left the game paused too long but that’s what the off or mute buttons were for, right? Final Note: In a rare move (pun intended), Battletoads was released in the arcade in 1994 - several years after being released at home. Battletoads Arcade, as it came to be known as, featured better graphics and sound while increasing the violence and bloodshed/gore from its prior iteration. The goal was to try to make a more adult game that could cash in on the TMNT popularity and take some of the crowd away from the Turtles. It was widely considered a letdown as an arcade game however many who have played it via Rare Replay on Xbox One consider it to be one the best games on the collection.
Gauntlet (1987) - Title
Atari came out with this arcade quarter/token hog that got ported home to the NES in 1987 by both Tengen (unlicensed) and Nintendo (licensed). You get to play as one of four characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: Thor is the strong but slow moving Warrior, Thyra is the well-armored but overall meh Valkyre, Questor is the super-fast but weakly hitting Elf, and lastly Merlin the Magical has great magic (duh) but is horribly low-armored. This version, unlike the arcade, actually had a bit of a plot. Morak, a hooded devil-like creature, stole the Sacred Orb that protects the lands. He hides it and all of his other stolen treasures in Gauntlet – a large maze filled by evil creatures. Inside there are all sorts of goodies: potions to heal/hurt you, food, keys, etc. Very standard Dungeons and Dragons fare. The game really doesn’t have very memorable music aside from the Title. After playing this in the arcade and then at home, it was burned into my mind just about as deeply as the computer synth voice and its ‘helpful’ tips such as ‘don’t shoot food’ or ‘red warrior is about to die’. Final Note: Gauntlet, in one way or another, has been released multiple times over multiple platforms since its inception. The arcade games featured more of a 3/4 overhead view rather than the straight up overhead along with larger sprites, better sounds, and music. The Nintendo 64 version includes a remixed version of the Gauntlet theme in the “Desecrated Temple” level and it rocks.
Bonus! Desecrated Temple (starts around 40 seconds):
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Rad Racer II (1990) - Gumball Crash
Square, yes the same Square that gave us Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger and a little game called Final Fantasy, gave NES owners this racing game sequel. Like the first game, you pilot a red sports car battling against the clock to reach checkpoints on different twisting and turning tracks. Aside from the clock, hairpin turns and crazy computer drivers also try to prevent you from reaching your next checkpoint. Rad Racer was unique as it was one of the few games that let you coast after you ran out of fuel/time so if you were super close, you could possibly hit the checkpoint and keep going by the skin of your teeth. I didn’t really play Rad Racer as much as I played the sequel. For whatever reason, number 1 was always rented out yet people never had any love for number 2, which is a crime. The tracks were better, the music was superior and selectable, and the game had tighter controls. The graphics…well, those were basically the same as before. When I play a racing game, I want…nay, expect… the music get my adrenaline pumping. That’s why I chose Gumball Crash. The opening few seconds rev up, giving an impression of a motor pumping up the RPMs for green flag racin’. The piece then breaks into a nice little number with a good beat. It’s a nice piece of music to drive to in the game if you want to have the music help convey speed. For a more relaxing drive, if one is into that kind of thing, the other good piece of music you can choose is Coast to Coast. Final Note: anyone who has seen “The Wizard” has seen gameplay of the first Rad Racer. Jimmy’s nemesis, Lucas, plays it with the Power Glove while trying to exhibit his dominance at video games to intimidate Jimmy. After the race ends, he spouts one of the most cringeworthy yet hilarious lines: “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” I don’t think he really knew how right he was.
Bonus! Coast to Coast:
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We can’t have the good without the bad so here are a few Dishonorable Mentions for you. I personally hated these music selections and it really killed the game experience for me. You can judge for yourself.
Friday the 13th by LJN (1989) – The game is a very difficult movie tie in that has bad controls, ridiculous graphics, and is lauded as one of the worst NES games of all time. And for the music? It’s the same 18 notes repeated over and over again. It’s just awful.
Adventures of Rad Gravity by Activision (1990) – The opening sounds like someone let a pet walk all over a keyboard.
Wayne’s World by THQ (1993) – The game was boring and so was the music. It just repeatedly droned on and on with an even fewer number of notes than Friday the 13th.
So those are my favorites. I realized just now that many of the pieces of music that I’ve chosen are Level 1 themes. While I’m not a world record gamer, I can hold my own so it doesn’t have to do with not being good at video games. Also, I don’t just play level 1 and then turn it off… I’m not quite that ADD. The only thing I can surmise would be that most game publishers decide to use some of their best music for the first or second levels in order to get players hooked on the game. Take a moment and think about it. When you first got your NES and popped in Super Mario Bros, those first 6 notes were all it took for most people – I was more of a fan of Level 2 Underground music but whatever – and along with the awesomeness of the game itself, you wanted nothing more than to keep going until you saved the princess.
In conclusion, music in video games on the whole has only gotten better as the consoles have pushed the envelope further and further. The modern game scores can be as breathtaking as those heard in Hollywood movies. Game music has come to a point where it’s enjoyable enough and, dare I say mainstream enough, that nowadays you don’t even need to go and import a game soundtrack, it’s on iTunes or Amazon for purchase meaning that now you don’t have to be THAT guy who secretly listens to “video game music” as it’s there for everyone to listen to and love. And that’s a good thing.