It’s the Home Stretch! To be entirely honest, I was actually pretty certain of what my top five was going to be going into this list, and the order was more-or-less nailed down as well. These are the top 5 8-bit Era soundtracks that have stuck with me through the years..
5. Life Force (Konami; 1986)
Composers: Miki Higashino, Hidenori Maezawa, Shinya Sakamoto, Satoe Terashima, Atsushi Fujio
In Life Force, Miki Higashino manages to capture the sound of sci-fi adventure and perfectly tie it into a fast-paced arcade experience. She has a pretty strong reputation for composing the musical equivalent of any moment on screen or any feeling or mood that moment should engender. As is the case with all MAME cab ports, shrinking the big arcade sound down to work for the NES is no simple task but Konami’s talented sound team did Higashino’s work justice with a superb rendition of the classic sound of the arcade game Salamander (as it is called in Japan) using the far-less-powerful NES hardware. Each tune is bouncy, catchy and distinct but compositionally for the time has a very sophisticated sound to it. This is a trend both Konami and Capcom would maintain through the years, maximizing the sound potential of any game they produce on console hardware.
4. Mega Man 5 (Capcom; 1993)
Composer: Mari Yamaguchi
As the sun began to set on the 8-bit era (which would ‘officially’ end in 1995), most developers had since maximized the potential of the system on all fronts. There was little left to do by 1992 except put as much skill and talent into a project as one could. Some have called Mega Man 5 the best Mega Man game on the NES. It is a controversial pick over the much more popular Mega Man 2, but the experience here is certainly different. Mega Man V is bigger, faster and certainly more challenging and the tone is brighter and more exciting. I would argue that the biggest factor in this tonal shift is the music. Mega Man V uses very long loops for an NES game, with the average 2-minute level run playing 1-1.25 minute music loops as opposed to the traditional 30-40 seconds. This gave composers wiggle room to make more complex themes that shift in tone and intensify as the song proceeds. From a composition standpoint, Mega Man V shows great maturity over its counterparts, and this includes its predecessor released the following year.
3. DuckTales (Capcom; 1989)
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
“The Moon Theme”. Say that to a retro video game fan and chances are they will know exactly what you are talking about. It is markedly one of the most beloved 8-bit tracks in the annals of video game music history. The question is, is that one theme the reason it is on this list? Well, no. It takes a lot more than one masterful track to make it stand out to me as one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time. The dilemma facing DuckTales is not that The Moon Theme is the only good song on the soundtrack, rather it is that the one track is so good as to dominate the rest of this excellent game’s fantastic series of chiptune classics. If one sits and listens to the entirety of the soundtrack it is easy to see why this one would make my list. While DuckTales does not have an extensive library, I would argue it does not have a bad tune; Not one skippable track. From the jaunty 8-bit rendition of the theme song that will never get out of our heads, to the soft welcoming sounds of the level select screen, to the smile-inducing “Amazon Theme”, this is a masterwork of video game auditory excellence. Who would have thought a four-season Disney animated TV series that everyone loved would also produce not only one of the best games on the NES, but also some of the best musical compositions in game history?
2. Castlevania (Konami; 1986)
Composer: Kinuyo Yamashita, Satoe Terashima
Do the list! “Vampire Killer!” “Heart of Fire!” “Wicked Child!” How many retro game soundtracks do you know that have names that metal? Not only that, but the songs actually have names. They aren’t called “Level 01 theme” or “Wily’s Castle 1”, rather, the respect that went into this production went so far as to treat the soundtrack not as one simply made for a video game, but rather one that is to be accepted as a pure musical experience. Castlevania was released in 1986. This was before anyone had fully capitalized on the potential of the NES and yet we got a simple soundtrack, with just a few layers, that has stood the test of time. Thousands of covers and remixes exist for any of the tunes in this game. Metal guitarists cover the entire soundtrack. It is the standard to which video game soundtracks would be held for years. Even, to some extent, over my number-1 pick…
1. Mega Man 2 (Capcom; 1988)
Composer: Takashi Tateishi
While it would be difficult for me to really nail it down, I would have to say the game that probably made me fall in love with game music was Mega Man 2. The upbeat, rocking soundtrack was unlike anything else of its time. While very few games have music that resonate through the years, even fewer still have music that can stand on its own with the reverence of a great rock album of the 70’s. It is, arguably, the most beloved soundtrack in gaming (contended only by the likes of Mega Man X and some of the entries in the Final Fantasy and Touhou series). Part of this was its simplicity. The standard sound effects for the game were limited in favor of the music, allowing for fuller sounds than just about any other game from the period. Also, the successful effort to match the tone of the music to the look and pace of each level, creating a variety of music with each theme having a personality of its own, added a degree of atmosphere that was almost nonexistent in console games of the period. It is easy to understand why this soundtrack is held in such high regard, and I can certainly find justification in placing it at the top spot of my list of favorite NES soundtracks.
Well, that concludes my list of 20 favorite NES soundtracks. Did you go give these a listen? If not, I recommend taking the time to play through these classics and tell us what you think! I’ll be back next week with another classic review!