With Nintendo’s NES set to return to living rooms this year, FACT’s John Twells and Miles Bowe pick the iconic console’s very best soundtracks – just don’t mention Super Mario Bros.
Initially released by Nintendo as the Family Computer (or Famicom for short) in Japan back in 1983, the bulky grey box that became known in the west as the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) inspired a cultural shift heralded by vivid 8-bit sprites.
At the time, video games were viewed with caution. Massive early success for Atari with the 2600 console had turned into disaster when a devastating crash drove a slew of related companies to bankruptcy (or close) in 1983. This uneven reception in North America made the NES a risky proposition, and when it arrived on US shores in 1985 many retailers were convinced it was a fad, just like the Atari had been. They were wrong, and by 1988 Nintendo had a 70% share of the video games market.
The market had truly bounced back, and video games could no longer be dismissed as merely a hot toy that could disappear from view at any minute. In 2016, games are simply part of the architecture, and that’s partly thanks to Nintendo’s NES.
Riding high on the success of Pokémon Go, Nintendo announced this week that it is relaunching the NES in miniature form. The NES Classic will hit shelves in November (Santa, pay attention), and will come pre-loaded with a selection of the console’s most beloved titles – from Castlevania and Super Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy and Bubble Bobble.
To celebrate this momentous occasion we’ve put together a few of our absolute favorite NES soundtracks. Handily, they’re all taken from games that Nintendo have included on the NES Classic. It’s almost as if they knew.
5. The Legend of Zelda
If the very mention of the word “Zelda” doesn’t have you humming Koji Kondo’s unforgettable theme tune, then you’ve not spent nearly enough time cutting grass with a sword and breaking your neighbors’ ornate pots in search of treasure. The quirky dungeon crawler is one of Nintendo’s most beloved titles, and Kondo’s score is far more than mere embellishment – it’s one of the game’s core assets.
In 1986, Koji Kondo had already established himself as an important part of Nintendo. He was the first proper composer the company had hired, and by creating the soundtrack to the company’s world-beating Super Mario Bros., he had become a crucial cog in the machine. Kondo’s score for The Legend of Zelda was even better, and helped add mystery, awe and wonder to Nintendo’s most ambitious game to date.
You play as Link, a young adventurer whose task is to rescue the Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon. The scope of the game was unusual for the era, and Kondo’s eerie, hopeful compositions were part of the reason players would keep on returning to the world of Hyrule again and again.
Indeed, the music is so beloved that not only was Kondo invited to score or assist on many of the game’s sequels and prequels, but he performed the classic cues with a full orchestra for a number of special concerts celebrating the game’s 25th anniversary in 2011.
4. Kirby’s Adventure
Kirby’s adorable pink look has always hidden the hardened badass underneath and it’s something that applies to every aspect of Kirby’s Adventure’s flawless construction. Behind the child-friendly gameplay is a set of challenging puzzles, and the storybook plot reveals surprising complexity in the motivations of not-really-bad-guy-but-still-kind-of-a-dick King Dedede. Hirokazu Ando’s soundtrack reflects this duality.
Kirby hits you with a cheery simplicity from the moment he’s first painted on screen (“First you draw a circle!”) alongside the bouncing intro melody. But from there, Kirby’s Adventure pushes the NES soundcard to its limit by chasing maximalist sounds. Tracks like ‘Grassy Fields’ or ‘Tower To The Sky’ are dotted with motifs and melodic embellishments. Later pieces reveal an unexpected sensitivity like the wistful ‘Starry Sky’ or the swaying ‘Cloud Tops’. Even its brief themes – such as the starry trill of beating a level or the hyperdrive rush when you’re invincible – feel memorable.
And if you think it’s all cute, good vibes you must not have reached the end, where the final boss suite of ‘Nightmare Emerges’ through ‘Battle Across The Sky’ and ‘The Moon’ amounts to some of the most anxious, hyper-charged music the console ever produced. Like its hero, the Kirby’s Adventure soundtrack swallows everything around it and shoots it back twice as hard.
Kinuyo Yamashita & Satoe Terashima
Released in Japan as Akumajō Dorakyura or Devil’s Castle Dracula, Castlevania was an homage to classic horror – Dracula in particular. The player controls vampire hunter Simon Belmont, and his mission is to traverse Count Dracula’s magical castle to kill the evil eyed demon himself.
Akumajō Dorakyura‘s English title was too risqué for developer Konami’s North American vice president, who thought that the religious undertones were a little too on the nose. The name Castlevania was picked as a replacement, and since then has become one of Konami’s most popular titles, spawning countless sequels and reboots.
The game’s soundtrack was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita (who was amusingly credited as James Banana, a play on the name of Dracula composer James Bernard) and Satoe Terashima, and its propulsive but spooky themes set the tone for a series that would put music at the very center of its lore (if you’ve not played Symphony of the Night, check yourself). Indeed, the music has taken on a life of its own, to the point that some dedicated fans took it upon themselves to press up a vinyl version last year, compiling some of the series’ most treasured cues.
Metroid’s score is only 13 minutes, but you only have to hear a few second to recognize how alien it was to anything around it. Those opening notes, a chilling low-end pulse dotted with glassy, high-pitched tingles, planted the seed for all horror games to come and beyond. Inspired by the disturbing titular aliens, composer Chip Tanaka famously wrote his score to sound like “a living organism” and to blur the line between sound design and soundtrack music. That philosophy has spread within soundtrack music like an infection — this month Cliff Martinez described this very convergence to us as a major inspiration for The Neon Demon. But it goes even further than influencing other videogames, or even soundtrack music.
You can almost imagine a young Oneohtrix Point Never (who’s called the game a childhood favorite) or Arca lost under the surface of Zebes. The disjointed stumble of ‘Norfair’ or the viscous ripples of ‘Chozo’ echo their mutated sounds and recent attempts to turn music into “living organisms” of their own.
Perhaps the most effective quality of Metroid’s music is lost in simply listening to it – it needs to be played. There, those brief 13 minutes reveal their complexity when stretched over the hours of disorientated wandering, of confused backtracking and perpetually feeling lost and threatened. In that context, the brief notes of the ‘Power Up’ theme suddenly become a crucial breath of fresh air and if the wide-eyed ending theme doesn’t seem special to you, try actually earning it through hellish hours lost in the spiraling anxiety of ‘Kraid’ or ‘Tourain’. Few videogame soundtracks have bested it, and even fewer have been more influential.
1. Mega Man 2
Mario, Zelda and Metroid all evolved with newer generations, but it’s the Blue Bomber who remains the true patron saint of retro gaming. Video games are multi-sensory experiences, so there are so many factors that can contribute to something feeling dated. Megaman II has none. Every element remains polished and tightly wound, but it’s the music that holds everything together. No music defines the golden age of video games better than Megaman. No music was more ambitious or satisfying or melded better with the 8-bit images, or with the way the blocky Nintendo controller felt in our hands.
Unlike other games (except Ducktails, which deserved an honorable mention anyway) Megaman II is non-linear. Even a kid who couldn’t beat every stage at least had access to them all from the start. For a composer, that’s even more pressure: if every level could potentially be the first stage, every song has to be able to hook a player. Hook you in they do, but more importantly they instill you with hope as you grapple with the controller-breaking difficulty. ‘Air Man’’s trilling synths and clockwork chug cheers you through every deadly fall and ‘Bubble Man’ squeezes an emotional depth out of its melody that still seems impossible for the console. Later ‘Wily’s Castle’ fuels your persistence and captures our hero’s bravery with its quivering, yet determined melody in a way the 8-bit visuals just couldn’t.
Here’s an experiment. Watch the intro to Megaman II on mute. Its title crawl lays out a slightly-hokey plot before a slow climb up a building to reveal our hero, the top of his head jerking between two frames to simulate wind-blown hair. Now watch it again with the music. Hear the simple MIDI piano melody that twinkles to the opening, “In the year 200X…”, echoing the fairytale grandeur of Star Wars. Hear how every passage splits into complex textures that speed up as we rise along the side of the building, colliding and exploding as we lay eyes on our hero. It’s a moment where sounds and images fuse to create something greater than its parts, something that makes only one request: “Press Start”. It’s a moment that we hold onto in spite of technology’s barreling momentum, and it’s something we always come back to. That’s what great art does.