Everyone has a favorite classic Nintendo Entertainment System soundtrack. Who could forget the much-celebrated “Tetris” theme, the driving Dr. Wily song from “Mega Man 2,” or the epic Moon-level music from “Ducktales?” Heck, someone even wrote a whole book analyzing Koji Kondo’s legendary original “Super Mario Bros.” soundtrack!
But for a system that boasts more than 700 games, it’s no surprise that some of the best NES soundtracks have fallen through the cracks over the years.
There are a variety of reasons the music from these games really shines: intelligent musical structure, impressive usage of the console’s 2A03 processor sound chip, just plain old good songwriting — or any combination of these attributes. So let’s dig deeper into some NES audio that may have flown under your radar. (Some terms used here may be confusing for those not familiar with chiptune terminology, head over to our free course Getting Started with Chip Music to get acquainted!)
Considering that the game “Silver Surfer” for NES mostly makes headlines for its difficulty and frustrating level design, it’s a bit of a surprise that the music is some of the most boundary-pushing music ever released for the system. Composers Tim and Geoff Follin weren’t exactly household names in the NES’s heyday, but their work is heavily celebrated by chiptune musicians and knowledgeable classic game fans today. Perhaps most impressive is their usage of the console’s lo-fi DPCM Sample channel — namely, they don’t use it at all. Instead, the brothers Follin take advantage of old analog synth tricks and Commodore-64-esque audio techniques using only the NES’s four other channels to come up with incredible percussion sounds, mind-bogglingly full arpeggios, and awesome leads, all bending the limits of this system far beyond what virtually any other composer was doing at the time.
I hate to box myself in by citing the same composer twice in a row, but Tim Follin’s solo work is virtually inescapable on a list like this, and “Treasuremaster” is certainly another soundtrack worth mentioning. In this game, it’s as if Follin took all the tricks that made “Silver Surfer” so remarkable and pushed them even further by incorporating some of the most unexpected influences ever to appear in the 8-bit era: funk (yes, the game’s main title theme is basically an NES version of the “Starsky and Hutch” TV show theme music), progressive rock, and more. Follin’s music for Worlds 3 and 5 is, without a doubt, one of the most impressively over-the-top songs ever composed for the NES; check out the creative — and extremely technically complicated — way it morphs into an almost completely unrelated tune in a whole different time signature at around 50 seconds in.
“Fester’s Quest” features a rocking, aggressive soundtrack that was typical of the titles created by developer Sunsoft at the time. But while Follin was pushing the limits of the 2A03 without using the console’s Sample channel, and others were mainly using it for drum samples and sound effects (think the islandy percussion in “Super Mario Bros. 3” or the cheering crowds in “Punch Out!”), the folks at Sunsoft took a completely different approach. By loading lo-fi melodic instrument samples into their games and essentially changing their speed to alter pitch, they were able to create an extra melodic channel. In the case of “Fester’s Quest,” this channel is responsible for the game’s awesome grungy bass lines (and a few orchestra hits). This technique frees up the Triangle Wave channel to double up with the Noise channel percussion and fill in the drum sounds with pitch-bent hits.
While “Predator” is known more for its confusing sprites and enemies than it’s music (the world may never understand why the developer chose to give Arnold pink pants as he battles rocks with eyeballs in the jungle), the game’s soundtrack is actually pretty impressive as a comprehensive collection of audio. Almost every separate song across all of the game’s levels, cutscenes, and menus features a motif that directly quotes or teases another tune from somewhere else in the soundtrack. The music is catchy, suits the action perfectly, and emotionally appropriate — a detail that often gets lost in low-budget or rushed projects. There aren’t too many fancy sound chip tricks or cool audio samples here, but the songwriting actually feels like the composer was carefully creating an intelligent score to a complete project, something that is often lacking in old video game soundtracks.
Super Dodge Ball
As with “Predator” above, the best game music feels smart and deliberate, like the composer put just as much thought into it as the level designers or story writers put into their pieces of the project. “Super Dodge Ball” is a perfect example of this: As you travel across the globe playing a particularly violent form of dodgeball (you literally kill your opponents by beaning them with what appears to be an otherwise standard volleyball), each stage is accompanied by an intelligent, country-appropriate soundtrack.
At times, the songs are borderline offensive, depicting the “traditional” sound of a certain area in a cartoonish way, but it’s all in good fun, and frankly, it really adds to the mood and makes you feel like you’re there (as much as one can feel like they’re flying around the world in eight bits). The music for the “England” stage stands out as one of the best, with a glorious, Beatles-esque mash-up of some “Get Back” and “A Hard Day’s Night” sound-alike jams that would do John and Paul proud.
Yume Penguin Monogatari
I’m not even sure what to say about this one. An off-the-wall Japanese game that never saw a U.S. release, “Yume Penguin Monogatari” features an insane soundtrack that, with different instruments, wouldn’t feel too out of place in Frank Zappa’s discography. The songs are fast paced and fun, somehow memorable despite their mathy unpredictability, and feature some very cool Sample channel percussion to round out the sound.
Another Japan-only game, “Gimmick!” is worth mentioning for its usage of expansion audio, something we never had access to here in the States. Yes, several games for the Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) featured sound-expanding chips embedded into the cartridge that offered more audio channels; the console was capable of accepting that audio-in to augment the 2A03’s standard five-channel capabilities, which meant more harmonies, cooler sounds, and generally fuller soundtracks. Few games took advantage of this better than Masashi Kageyama’s “Gimmick!” soundtrack, whose additional audio is immediately apparent in the game’s rich harmonies, lush chords, and beautiful melodies. These are songs that almost transcend the game itself. In another life where a hit single could be generated from an 8-bit console, Kageyama’s compositions would’ve topped the charts.
Bonus: Castlevania III/Akumajou Densetsu
The earliest “Castlevania” games are renowned for their soundtracks, and the third game in the series is no exception. So unlike the rest of the games in this list, this soundtrack doesn’t really count as being “unsung.”
But what’s not widely known is that the Japanese port of the game also featured an expansion audio chip: the VRC6, which added a Sawtooth Wave channel and two more Square Wave channels. On its own, the game’s U.S. soundtrack is solid, but comparing the NES audio with Famicom’s expanded version is astonishing. If you grew up with this game and never heard the Japanese version, prepare to have your childhood altered forever. Skip ahead to 0:22 in the video above to hear the rich sound the Famicon’s additional sound channels offer this soundtrack.
Extra Bonus: Lagrange Point
For a truly insane taste of what Famicon’s expansion audio was capable of, check out the “Lagrange Point” soundtrack, which uses Konami’s VRC7 chip to create amazing, arcade-like FM synthesis that sounds absolutely nothing like any other game released for the NES!
Did your favorite NES soundtracks not make this list? Share yours in the comments below!
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