This week we kick of the top ten. I want to honestly say that this list has not been easy to make and choosing the top ten was simply a task, especially for this segment of the list. So, without further ado…
10. Mega Man IV (Capcom; 1991)
Composer: Minae Fujii
Spanning the six Mega Man games on the NES one is bound to hear some of the absolute best music in video game history. The classic soundtracks have a sound distinctly their own and despite having different composers throughout the years, have consistently maintained a unique tone and sound, especially in the 80’s into the mid-90’s. Mega Man IV’s soundtrack is a far cry from its predecessors’ in many ways. The sounds are more distinct and clear, with less distorted effects, and the quality is enhanced thanks to an improvement of the way Capcom used the NES’s sound hardware despite not implementing any proprietary sound chips in their cartridge. Tonally the music is actually surprisingly soft for a Mega Man title, arguable smoother and more melodic than any game in the series released before Mega Man VII on the Super Nintendo. For this you get to hear the sounds of the franchise written with a more pop feel that sounds less (for lack for a better word) “robotic”.
9. Mr. Gimmick (Sunsoft; 1992)
Composer: Masashi Kageyama
The rare and sought-after Mr. Gimmick (or just “Gimmick” as it’s known in Japan) is Sunsoft’s greatest achievement from a technical perspective. The use of their own sound chip expansion on the ROM board called the Sunsoft 5B allowed for what could be the clearest, most full background music on the NES. The problem with developing chiptune music for any analog game is the extremely limited number of channels that were shared by both music and sound effects. Did you ever notice how sometimes the music would sort of cut or fade out when certain sound effects played? It’s because that channel was being used up. The benefit to expansion audio is it allowed channels to be layered in such a way that they “trick” the console’s internal hardware into thinking just one channel was being read from the ROM board. The few games that used expansion audio showed their composers’ acumen sublimely. Mr. Gimmick is one such example. The lush, warm soundtrack is arguably the single greatest underrated original soundtrack on the NES. Sharing the whimsical tone of platforming contemporaries such as Super Mario and the Adventure Island series, Mr. Gimmick is an expressive and moving soundtrack with songs that range from smile-inducing melodies to energetic, poppy grooves.
8. Contra (Konami; 1987)
Composers: Hidenori Maezawa, Kiyohiro Sada
Before leading the sound team in the production of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Hidenori Maezawa produced the great soundtrack for Konami’s co-op classic Contra. The music in this excellent run-n-gunner is a combination of metal and 80’s-action-movie-shtick and it is 100% perfect for the game it is featured in. Contra is over-the-top, fast, and absurd and the soundtrack creates an exciting counterpoint to its attitude. The steroid-induced madness needed music that drove players, pushed them and created urgency. Aside from a few lazily-reused tracks, this is a standout NES soundtrack.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (Konami; 1990)
Composers: Kozo Nakamura, Yasuhiko Manno (Based on the Arcade Soundtrack by Miki Higashino)
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Turtlemania was at its peak. We aren’t just talking about a moderately-popular animated series. No, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a phenomenon to which I cannot name a modern parallel. The first NES game was a disappointment. Modeled more after the indie comic by Eastman and Laird that birthed the franchise, it was awkward but did have a pretty decent soundtrack, but it’s arcade counterpart… Well, that’s a whole different story. The TMNT arcade classic had a fast, fun soundtrack that still holds up well to this day and the NES port of the game (released as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game) was a surprisingly-faithful recreation of the arcade’s exciting score. Konami’s sound team, being hampered by the NES’s weaker hardware, did all they could to preserve the sound of the Arcade experience and, at least to me, they created a game that is as fun as the original and would stand as the definitive Turtles console title until the release of Turtles in Time on the Super NES the following year.
6. Mega Man III (Capcom; 1990)
Composers: Yasuki Fujita, Harumi Fujita
While the classic Mega Man IV soundtrack is more smooth and melodic, the rougher edge of Mega Man III’s soundtrack draws its inspiration from blues and jazz. Funky bass riffs and fast moving piano tones really make it stand out against its successor’s electro-rock style. A major issue with a lot of NES soundtracks is, while they can be memorable, they are not always deserving of artistic examination, but I would argue the soundtrack for Mega Man III is a standout experience and one of the definitive game soundtracks of the 90’s. As a kid, it was not uncommon for me to play this game just to hear the music and to this day I find myself enjoying the upbeat but still warm tones of this entry in the epic series’ classic music.