So, I’m trying something a little different, I would like to start doing multi-part lists periodically and I wanted to open this with a subject I really enjoy: Video game music. I have been a fan of game music since the 80’s and I am starting a top 20 here for my favorite soundtracks on the NES. There are a few things I wanted to take into account when selecting and sorting these entries. First, the soundtracks are judged on their proportion of good songs to bad or mediocre ones. Secondly, the more original tunes that are featured on the album that are good the better, so NES classics with 4 or 5 tracks total are going to face an uphill battle. Lastly, nostalgia is a large factor for me here and this list is in no way definitive. This is a subjective retrospective on the game soundtracks that have stuck with me through the years.
You will see a lot of soundtracks from a few series and from a number of recurring developers. This is largely the result of the sound teams on staff and their skill level and even the particular chipset the companies used to enhance the sound of their games, thereby affecting the quality and potential of the music. Some development teams were better at harnessing the power of the NES than others, but having the best tools doesn’t hurt. That said, it will ultimately come down to the quality and variety on the soundtracks featured. So, without further ado, here are the first five of my 20 favorite NES soundtracks:
20. Bucky O’Hare (Konami; 1992)
Composer: Tomoko Sumiyama
The video game adaptation of this largely-forgotten 90’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knockoff cartoon is actually (and surprisingly) one of the best games on the NES. Due to poor sales at the time, Bucky O’Hare has become a collector’s item, with prices hovering over $100 and climbing due to the game never seeing another official release after its brief 8-bit run. Now, the soundtrack is an essential part of the experience for this game as it enhances the already tight gameplay and compliments the level design and aesthetic well. This is an important and often-underrated aspect of game music because it is not supposed to be something the player outright notices as the music is usually meant to complement and support the action, not overpower it. The music in many games fails to resonate because it seems out-of-place or too imposing compared to the events unfolding as you play. A skilled sound team can enhance the experience of playing the game with a well-thought-out soundtrack designed to match the pace and feel of the action. The music is fast and very high-quality for the NES, showing the true capabilities of the very well and, with a little help from Konami’s VRC series sound chip, it is fuller and more vibrant than most game soundtracks on the platform.
19. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Konami; 1987)
Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata
While this is one of the shorter soundtracks on this list, it is also one of the most unforgettable. Simon’s Quest gave us the series staple theme “Bloody Tears” and while it had a tough act to follow after the masterpiece that was the first Castlevania, it successfully provided a nice tone to the intense action and pace of a game that has had somewhat of a mixed reception by fans but for which I am an admitted apologist. The music can get repetitive after tireless backtracking but it does drive the game really well, and remembering the first time I entered the woods from town to hear Bloody Tears’ intense introduction just kicks my nostalgia gears into overdrive. To this day, Castlevania II remains a staple choice for metal guitar covers online and if you want a hardcore rock anthem, it’s definitely worth a listen.
18. Double Dragon (Midway/Tradewest; 1987)
Composer: Kazunaka Yamane
The grungy, violent street action thrillers of the 80’s took a while to get their own game but in Double Dragon, they found a fitting albeit loose adaptation. I honestly feel this to be a somewhat faithful 8-bit recreation of a sleazy crime brawler movie from the period and the soundtrack fits it. The 8-bit metal anthems are absolutely legendary and show a great deal of sophistication for their time, surpassing many of its well-known contemporaries’ musical achievements by a significant margin. Each of the level themes are well made to fit the attitude of the game and the setting and definitely reflect the period in which it was released. Also, it was almost unheard of to hear a guitar solo in an NES theme. That was just nuts!
17. Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo; 1988)
Composers: Keiji Yamagishi, Ryuchi Nitta
Now, I know this is going to be a controversial thing to say, but Ninja Gaiden is hard; Very, very hard. As a kid I was unable to beat this game legitimately so I often found myself using my trusted Game Genie to burn through it. I’m glad I did too, because this soundtrack is awesome! While its ties to the setting are questionable, the beat and mood of the music definitely fits the game’s fast and often chaotic pacing. This was released in a time before video game music was readily available to listen to online and even before video game Options screens let you leisurely cycle through the various music tracks in the game, so getting all the way through to listen to this soundtrack in full was quite a task.
16. Metroid (Nintendo; 1986)
Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka
One of the earliest entries in this list, Metroid is a classic action title from Nintendo. At this point I assume it’s safe to say that just about everyone knows about this series, Samus Aran and “Justin Bailey”. This iconic first entry in the franchise set the standard for an entire genre of action platformer and, while it does show its age, is still a fun game on the whole. As for the soundtrack, the themes definitely conjure up the feeling of exploring an unknown planet with songs that range from unsettling to heroic. The best I can do to explain Metroid’s position on this list is just how much it adds to the tone of the game. If it weren’t for this soundtrack, Metroid would simply not be the same. It is one of the rare instances where I would say playing this game with the volume turned up is almost a requirement to fully appreciate the experience. It’s also interesting to note that composer “Hip” Tanaka’s other credits would include Super Mario Land on the Game Boy, Mother on the Famicom and Mother 2 or, as it’s know in North America: Earthbound.
Part II, coming very soon, will feature 5 diverse entries with unique sounds including one game that saved a legendary brand and kicked off a franchise for which the masterful music has been performed in concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra!