Video Game Music Spotlight #9: Best of the NES - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted 6 days ago / 882 Views
On August 14, 1995, exactly 24 years ago to the day, the original NES was discontinued in the west, bringing an end to an almost ten year period of dominance for the 8-bit console in North America. Over that period of time we saw the birth of some of the most beloved video game franchises ever, many of which are still going strong today, ensuring a legacy for the console that stands near unrivalled in the industry.
Of course, a significant part of that enduring legacy is the music from those games, composed by many of the most talented composers to ever work on video games. For many people it was the NES that introduced them to exceptionally talented composers such as Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, David Wise, Koichi Sugiyama, and many others. What follows are just some of the countless amazing themes the NES gave us over its lifespan, some of which might be completely new to many of you.
Stage 1 & 5
(from Journey to Silius)
The NES library is full of games with truly exceptional, yet generally unheralded soundtracks, and the developer with perhaps the most games falling under this category was Sunsoft. The music in the developer's games on the Famicom/NES often had a very unique sound, largely thanks to the work of composer Naoki Kodaka who, together with a number of different programmers, used the NES sound chips in an entirely different way from practically every other composer working at the time.
Composers had to work around some rather severe limitations when it came to the NES and you could often tell which of them were able to actually use these limitations to their advantage. Kodaka was definitely one of them, creating his own style and sound by cleverly reworking the way the console handled sound.
(from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest)
There are few video game series that can claim to have the kind of impressive musical lineage that Castlevania has. From the very first entry in the long-running franchise, one of its most memorable elements was its music. However, it was Castlevania II: Simon's Quest that introduced the world to the track that to this day remains my favourite in the series, 'Bloody Tears'.
It may not be the absolute best version of the theme, but all the integral elements were already there from the very beginning. Later versions have altered and experimented with it, leading to numerous excellent takes on what has become a classic track, but there's still something pure and wonderful about the original that allows it to stand the test of time.
(from Silver Surfer)
If you ever wanted to know what it would sound like if you composed progressive rock/metal on the NES, take a listen to the music from Silver Surfer. Tim and Geoff Follin effectively pushed the NES sound chip to its absolute limit here, and the results are spellbinding, even if the game itself isn't really all that impressive, being far too difficult for its own good and lacking in originality. In general the Follins seemed to be stuck creating amazing music for supbar games for much of their careers.
Fortunately, we can still enjoy their work and appreciate the mastery they exhibited in creating songs like this one. Both have since largely left the video game industry, but their legacies live on through amazing music in games like Silver Surfer.
(from Ninja Gaiden)
If you've ever wondered why the term ”Nintendo Hard” was a thing you only need to play games like the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES. These weren't just difficult games, they were often almost unbeatable unless you perfectly memorised every facet of every stage in them, and yet for some reason we simply accepted that at the time. It was just the way games were and you either learned all the strange tricks and unfair sections or you gave up.
In games like Ninja Gaiden you had to learn to live with the frustration, and among the elements that made things a little bit more bearable was the music. The soundtrack was composed by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta. Of the two, Yamagishi is likely the more well-known, having worked on games like Temco Bowl and Onimusha Tactics. More recently he provided some additional music for 2018's The Messenger.
Pharaoh Man Stage
(from Mega Man 4)
When it comes to the NES Mega Man games, the ones that people usually tend to bring up as the best are 2 and 3, both in terms of gameplay and music. However, I've always had a soft spot for Mega Man 4. In my opinion it stands right alongside the previous two games in the series as one of the best entries in the entire franchise. It also introduced one of my favourite mechanics in the Mega Buster.
In addition, it contains some of the very best themes the Mega Man games have ever produced. The music was composed by Minae Fujii, one of the many different people who worked on the series' music throughout the NES era, and as is becoming a theme here, she has since largely left the industry.
(from Chip'n Dale Rescue Rangers)
Out of all the great Disney platformers made by Capcom for the NES, the one I regard the most fondly is actually Chip'n Dale Rescue Rangers. I expect many other people to have similar feelings towards Ducktales or maybe Darkwing Duck, but I always liked Rescue Rangers the most out of the three. Perhaps it's just nostalgia, but it was always the one I went back to the most.
The score for the game was composed by one of the many often overlooked female composers who worked in Japan in the 90s – Harumi Fujita - which is unfortunate as her work was always excellent. Many of you have likely heard plenty of her tracks without even knowing it, as she composed music for games like Bionic Commando, Strider, Final Fight, Mega Man 3, and Tomba!. In comparison, the soundtrack for Rescue Rangers is not nearly as well remembered, but that doesn't make it any less great.
(from Blaster Master)
I've already mentioned Sunsoft and Naoki Kodaka earlier in this article, and how their music is often sadly overlooked when people talk about great NES scores. Personally, the game that introduced me to both the studio and the composer was Blaster Master, an excellent action-platformer with an impressive variety of gameplay styles mixed together. It's also a really difficult and often obtuse game that rarely tells the player what they actually need to do or where they need to go.
Fortunately, the music makes the time you're going to spend being completely lost at least tolerable. Kodaka was very much on a roll at the time, putting out one excellent score after another pretty much for a decade straight. Kodaka is another composer who has since unfortunately left the video game industry and these days he's a professor at Nagoya College of Music.
Here's another one from Tim Follin, just for good measure. The title track from Solstice is reportedly Follin's personal favourite composition from his own work and I can certainly understand why. It's among the most varied pieces of video game music found in the entire NES library, running the gambit from high fantasy to progressive shredding and anything in between. There's really nothing else quite like it on the console, outside of some of Follin's other work.
Solstice was released the same year as Silver Surfer, and at this point in time Follin was without question among the best video game composers working anywhere in the industry. It really can't be emphasized enough just how far he was able to push the NES hardware, managing to produce sounds far beyond what the console was ever thought to be capable of achieving.
It's fitting that we end this look at the music of the NES with one of Nintendo's own games. Of course, choosing just one game to represent every single release from the company isn't easy, especially considering all the amazing music found in those titles. Naturally I could have just as easily highlighted one of the many tracks composed by Koji Kondo, but I chose to give this spot to another tenured Nintendo composer who doesn't get nearly enough praise for his excellent work throughout the years – Hirokazu Tanaka.
In his career Tanaka has composed the music for numerous classic games such as Metroid, Kid Icarus, Duck Hunt, as well as partially composed the soundtracks for Mother and Earthbound, among many others. The music on the NES (and Game Boy) version of Tetris is another of his works; one that features some of his most memorable pieces ever. It's an overall great soundtrack and a perfect way to end our look at the music of the NES.
Question of the Month:
What is Your All Time Favourite NES Soundtrack?
Deciding on just one soundtrack out of all the amazing NES scores is really difficult. Beyond the games mentioned in this article there are the likes of DuckTales, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Batman, Kirby's Adventure, and so many others. Ultimately, my pick may very well be Mega Man 2, though it's a very close call between numerous different games.
That brings this month's spotlight to an end. Please share your favourite NES themes and soundtracks in the comments below, and if you have suggestions for future themes you can leave them there as well if you wish.