Released in the USA 25 years ago, back in August, 1991, the Super Nintendo was the biggest selling console of the 16-bit era – driving off stiff competition from SEGA’s popular Genesis. FACT’s John Twells and Miles Bowe look back at the best soundtracks of the console’s legendary run.
In the late 1980s, Nintendo reigned supreme. The Nintendo Entertainment System or NES (known as the Family Computer or Famicom in Japan) was a household name and was enthralling gamers across the world with popular franchises like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. But a more powerful generation of consoles had begun to emerge to challenge Nintendo’s throne.
In 1987, Nippon Electric Company (aka NEC Electronics) released the 16-bit PC Engine boasting higher processing speed, better graphics and more elaborate sound than the NES. It was rebranded as the TurboGrafx-16 for US audiences and while its North American sales were disappointing, the console was a huge success in Japan, boasting a slew of great arcade ports and RPGs.
In 1988, SEGA threw their hat into the ring, releasing the Mega Drive, another 16-bit console that was rebranded the Genesis for North America. Unlike the TurboGrafx-16, SEGA’s new console was a massive hit Stateside, in part thanks to smart marketing that positioned it as a little more edgy and grown up than Nintendo’s NES, which was still seen as a family-friendly toy. “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” was the tagline, and it worked. The console wars had begun.
The Super Famicom was released in Japan in 1990 – long after rival manufacturers had shown the capability of the 16-bit console – but Nintendo had an advantage that its competitors were lacking. While SEGA had finally managed to net itself a mascot with Sonic The Hedgehog, Nintendo already possessed tried-and-true properties and proceeded to roll them out one by one to a shower of critical acclaim. Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart and Donkey Kong Country proved that Nintendo was not ready to roll over and let SEGA snatch away their market share completely – they were developing games that weren’t just faster and slicker-looking than their predecessors, they were better in almost every way.
Of course, the soundtracks that accompanied the games were more lavish than ever, as composers now had a fresh world of options available to them thanks to the Super Nintendo’s S-SMP audio processing unit. Familiar bleepy earworms like the Super Mario Bros. theme and the cues from The Legend of Zelda were expanded to symphonic proportions and some of this era’s soundtracks still stand up as the greatest ever released.
The following five soundtracks are our favorites, and while popular classics like Super Mario World, F-Zero and Star Fox might be conspicuously absent, there’s plenty more to sink your teeth into here.
Read next: The five best NES soundtracks of all time
Setsuo Yamamoto, Makoto Tomozawa, Yuki Iwai, Yuko Takehara and Toshihiko Horiyama
Like most of the Super Nintendo’s continuations of 8-bit franchises, Megaman X aimed to upgrade every aspect of its predecessor. Unlike some sequels however, this one had to beat near-perfection. When X was released in 1993, Megaman 2 still stood as arguably the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Thankfully, Capcom and composers Setsuo Yamamoto, Makoto Tomozawa, Yuki Iwai, Yuko Takehara and Toshihiko Horiyama rose to the challenge to create a game that surpassed its predecessors’ seemingly-impossible bar. Megaman X is the greatest Megaman game of all time and its relentless, hyper-aggressive soundtrack is a big part of why.
Taking inspiration from the grittiness of ‘90s rock music while embracing the vivid melodic energy of the established franchise, Megaman X took everything that Megaman had already perfected and packed it with detail and dynamics. It expanded Megaman’s use of motifs (like Protoman’s iconic theme) to make us feel connected to new, but equally memorable, characters like Zero, Vile and Dr. Light (who’s ghostly pre-recorded projections make him a better character dead than alive). Tracks like ‘Chill Penguin’ and ‘Boomer Kuwanger’ explode with drum fills, sharp synths and tough synthesized guitars. The first Sigma stage even evokes Brad Fiedel’s iconic The Terminator score with its cold, yet paradoxically emotional, synth pulses.
Perhaps the score’s greatest moment comes with the stunning, sobering ‘Ending’ theme, as X stands on a cliff reflecting over the events that have left blood on his hands and his best friend dead. That would become something of a cliche in later games, but those others never had music this gut-punchingly poignant.
20 years later, it’s hardly surprising that Fuck Buttons used the Capcom theme to open their breakthrough album Tarot Sport. Its glimmering synth cascade is playful, but with an edge that suggests an unknown threat. It was the prelude to many great games, but feels most appropriate as the first sound you hear on Megaman X. That’s the game that couldn’t settle for being simply the best of its generation and it’s cutting edge influence is still informing electronic music to this day.
Final Fantasy VI
Veteran composer Nobuo Uematsu’s score for Final Fantasy’s sixth installment (known as Final Fantasy III in the US) is one of the series’ most beloved, and with good reason. Its emotive motifs accompanied a game with an ambition only matched by its whimsical flourishes and while there are plenty of elaborate, high quality orchestral versions out there, it’s the original SNES version that we still prefer above all others.
There’s something about the limitations of the Super Nintendo’s sound chip that forces a playfulness out of Uematsu, who had to improvise with the tools available. When he wasn’t able to work out how to use a real vocal track on ‘Aria di Mezzo Carattere’ he instead synthesized it, leading to an unusual Mellotron-style effect that’s as memorable as it is haunting. Sure, you can find a version with a real singer on it now, but it’s just not the same.
Final Fantasy VI showed just what the Super Nintendo was capable of – here was a soundtrack that ranged from bombastic to hopeful and from terrifying to delicate. Even the best the NES could offer simply didn’t come close; SEGA might have been using marketing to declare that their games were far from toys, but with Final Fantasy VI, the Super Nintendo had an RPG that would modify the way people approached the genre.
A testament to Final Fantasy VI enduring popularity is a 2012 remix album from OverClocked ReMix that raised a whopping $150k on Kickstarter, resulting in a 74 track multi-CD project featuring 74 different artists. None of the reworks came close to the originals of course, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
The sixth best-selling game on the SNES, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest has quite the legacy, and a good proportion of its success is down to David Wise’s winning score. Influenced by Koji Kondo’s memorable themes for The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. series’, Wise set about piecing together compositions that teetered on the precipice of fun and cheesy. The new set of themes built on his score for Donkey Kong Country but added even more variation as Wise had grown more comfortable with the SNES’s limitations.
It was a successful formula, and to this day stands as Wise’s most beloved score. Particular highlights are the gorgeous ambient piece ‘Forest Interlude’ and ‘Stickerbrush Symphony’ (aka ‘Bramble Blast’) which, according to Ryan Hemsworth, inspired his entire musical career. Not bad for a game based on a character that started out as a completely one-dimensional barrel throwing baddie.
Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano
After its second game was relegated to the Game Boy, Metroid reached it’s full potential on the Super Nintendo. The game took everything that made composer “Chip” Tanaka’s score so revolutionary and, despite its 8-bit form, so disturbing. As those initial synths eerily breath to life, blurring the line between sound effect and score like Eraserhead before it, Super Metroid laid out the musical framework for all sci-fi and horror games to come.
Few video game settings felt as alive as the subterranean pathways of planet Zebes. While designers filled areas like Maridia, Norfair and Brinstar with writhing flora and fauna, composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano captured the details the SNES simply couldn’t, creating atmospheres that felt dim and miasmatic. Later games often gave Samus some kind of inner monologue, but here she remains silent. Instead, it’s up to pieces like ‘Brinstar – Underground Depths’ and ‘Maridia – Swampy Caverns’ to convey the growing anxiety that something horrible has happened in this place. Even before we encounter the ghost-filled nightmare of the Wrecked Spaceship (which carries one of the game’s most threatening soundscapes), Super Metroid feels haunted.
It’s between these long passages that we’re given moments of relief. ‘Item Room Ambience’ characterized the relief of a save room long before Resident Evil’s iconic ‘Typewriter Theme’, and the brief melody that comes with acquiring a new item is one of the most cathartic sounds in video games. Even hearing the bright theme to the surface level Crateria acts like a deep breath before another dive into the suffocating darkness.
The original Metroid famously resisted giving its player a “hummable tune” until the very end. Super Metroid takes a different path and it’s a better soundtrack (and game) because of it. By giving us a richer, deeper score, it immersed players even further into its world and in the case of this world, that’s a scary thing.
Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu
Role playing games stick with us as consoles rise and fall because storytelling and characterization ages far better than graphics and gameplay. Things that felt epic to us at one point feel smaller as technology advances; as time passes and as we grow, things just don’t look the same anymore. No video game has ever understood that better that Chrono Trigger, a masterpiece that brought together the greatest minds in the industry to create something that felt like a culmination of the entire medium.
Chrono Trigger offered a smaller world than Final Fantasy VI or Secret Of Mana, but through its time travel-filled adventure made something even larger and more complex than anything before it. Its sweeping story shows the complete havoc that results from cause and effect, the damage that we are implicit in through blind action. In its makeshift family of characters, spread across time and generations, we’re given only a glimpse of hope. It’s that flickering hope that informs composer Yasunori Mitsuda and Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu. From the score’s opening ticking clock, it grows into a work of art that gives us faith in these characters, even as they struggle to see their own worth.
“I wanted to create music that wouldn’t fit into any established genre … music of an imaginary world,” Mitsuda explained in the 2004 book Power-Up. “The game’s director, Masato Kato, was my close friend, and so I’d always talk with him about the setting and the scene before going into writing.”
With Chrono Trigger, Mitsuda essentially wrote five scores, one for each of the game’s distinct time periods. The bright, hopeful present of Chrono, Lucca and Marle; the dark, war-torn Middle Ages; a post-apocalyptic Future; a dinosaur-filled Prehistory; and finally Antiquity (or the Dark Ages), where an advanced, forgotten city floats above the ancient frozen planet. Each score is so vivid, we not only feel immediately connected to them, but we empathize with how living in these environments has affected each character.
Mitsuda has spoken about the influence of leitmotifs – a concept pioneered by Wagner – on his score and the way he uses melodies to convey character is worthy of the comparison. For example, we’re transported to the destroyed, industrial Future with the eerie, polluted atmospheres of ‘Ruined World’ and ‘Remains Of The Factory.’ It sets us up to meet Robo, a clanking automaton who, in his struggle to relate to humanity, becomes the heart of the group. In the war-ridden Middle Ages, the fanfare of ‘Frog’s Theme’ captures the chivalrous, honor-bound upbringing of its cursed reptilian knight, but later the plaintive ‘Secret Of The Forest’ hints at the devastating memories of the man he once was. Ayla, the wild queen of her prehistoric tribe, has her humorously primal perspective reflected by the untamed percussion of ‘Rhythm of Sky, Wind, and Earth’.
And then there are the moments when we slip between time itself, signified by the cleansing harp strokes at The End Of Time. A frozen, fixed point in time where characters stop and rest whenever traveling between worlds. It’s a place where reality melts, where a snarky god (whose theme ‘Delightful Spekkio’ is Mitsuda’s most carefree composition) teaches your characters magic and a mop bucket inexplicably allows you to skip to the final boss battle at any time – a key to discovering the game’s 13 possible endings. It’s a point where all reality has died down to a single streetlamp flickering on a corner, but its atmosphere and music are oddly peaceful in the midst of all the fighting. It’s a reminder that they can do this — technically, they already did.
Like Chrono Trigger’s time periods, its characters and its designers, the vast score unites to form something greater than its many parts. As time passes, things just don’t look the same anymore, but that doesn’t apply to Chrono Trigger. It’s timeless.