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Friday, September 6, 2013

Essential NES Soundtracks Part 1

Like most kids growing up in the 1980s, the NES was my bread and butter for console gaming. This system cemented my love for Mega Man, Castlevania and Mario. It was also the start of my beautiful and loving relationship with video game music. Compared to today's gaming audio, the NES is obviously primitive. Yet, even with a mere five sound channels to work with, composers gave of some of gaming's most beloved soundtracks. These are the NES soundtracks that I think anyone that loves NES music or video game music should not pass up.

Mega Man

Composer: Manami Matsumae

What? You say this isn't the Mega Man game you were expecting? Relax, I'll get to that game in due time. In fact, you'll be seeing quite a number of Mega Man games throughout this multipart feature. While that Mega Man game's soundtrack is unquestionably good, I'm in the camp that firmly believes the series hit the ground running with memorable audio on day one.

The first Mega Man game was innovative for allowing players to choose their own path by selecting the order in which to dispose of the Robot Masters. Each level had it's own stage gimmicks and background music, which really helped the levels feel different from one another. Bomb Man Stage, while one of the more under appreciated pieces of Mega Man music, has always been one of my favorites. It isn't a hectic tune and it goes along great with the slow pace of the stage. On the other hand, Fire Man Stage is positively frantic with so much stuff trying to kill you and as such his level is accompanied by a rather fast paced song that's notes get higher and higher as it plays. Elec Man Stage is one of the longer levels and has a song that may or may not be inspired by Journey's Faithfully. Elec Man may very well have what fans consider to be the best Robot Master level theme from the first Mega Man game, but then you have Cut Man Stage, which is super catchy even for Mega Man music. Guts Man Stage is by far the shortest level in the game and has what could be considered a repetitive track (the level has one of the most infamous platforming sections in the history of Mega Man games) but I think it works for the length of the level. The final four stages also carry some good tunes, especially Dr. Wily Stage 1, which is used for the first two Wily Stages. Dr Wily Stage 2 may not be on the same level as Dr. Wily Stage 1, but it's still a fine track and definitely lets you know that you're coming down to the end game. The Dr. Wily Stage Boss theme, wily certainly on the repetitious side works quite well considering most of the bosses in these levels are no scrubs.

Do I think the Mega Man games that came after this one have better music? You bet. Does that diminish from the music that this gave brought? No way. Even shorter tracks like Stage Select and the very much "Well, that's that" Game Over music are part of the reasons why I love then original Mega Man's soundtrack. The famous Game Start theme, which many falsely credit to Mega Man 2 was first used in this game but with lower notes. Even the Opening theme from Mega Man 2 comes from part of this game's Ending music. And how can you not feel a great sense of accomplishment when after all you've been through, you finally trounce Wily and All Stage Clear plays? Many of the sequels may have been much better but we still have much to be thankful for regarding Mega Man's first steps and you better believe the music is one of them, or at least this gamer thinks so. Manami Matsuame, thank you so much for contributing to the legacy that is Mega Man.

Mega Man Playlist

Super Mario Bros.

Composer: Koji Kondo

I don't think anyone should be surprised that this one is here at all. There are countless reasons one could talk about Super Mario Bros. It was a major shake up to the platforming genre and changed the face of gaming. It revived the North American video game market after a crash that lasted nearly three years. It made Nintendo and Mario household names. At over forty million copies, it's the second best selling video game of all-time. Whew. That's a lot for an 8-bit video game to have under it's belt. OK, one more. Super Mario Bros. has the most memorable, iconic soundtrack in the history of video games.

If you turn on the game and don't press the start button a demo plays. Unlike today's games, though, no music accompanies the demo. You don't hear a single piece of music until you start playing the game, beginning in World 1-1. The first musical track you hear in Super Mario Bros. just happens to be the most famous video game track ever, the Ground Theme. Even people that don't play video games are familiar with this song. Heck, it can be recognized by just the first seven notes alone. Ground Theme is quite the lengthy song, playing for almost a minute and a half before looping over again, which is pretty impressive for an NES song in the early days. Even the earliest of NES tracks were less than a minute long before looped back ground. Ground Theme has gone on to becoming the official theme of Mario and it has made in appearance in just about every single Mario game in some form or another. It's been played at live concerts and remixed and arranged more than any other video game song, including Dr. Wily Stage 1 from Mega Man 2.

But as I said above, Super Mario Bros. soundtrack is legendary. Beyond the famous Ground Theme, is Underground, a tune that plays whenever Mario goes down a pipe or travels through an level that's beneath the surface of the Mushroom Kingdom. It's short and some may argue that it's far more simplistic in comparison to Ground Theme, but I can't think of underground areas in games or real life without this music springing to mind. The fortress stages are some of the most devious levels in the game and offer no check points. The Castle theme that plays during these areas is highly intimidating, playing on the nerves of the players to add an even greater sense of fear and dread. There were only two underwater levels in the whole game but they were accompanied by an absolutely beautiful aquatic theme, simply called Underwater. Whenever Mario picks up a Starman, the Invincible music plays and it fills you with an overwhelming sense of empowerment, which is quite fitting since nothing can hurt you so you just wanna make a mad dash through the level, hitting as many enemies as possible before it wears off.

It's amazing what a faster beat can do to a song. You see, if you  take too long in a level and the clock ticks down to 99 seconds, a warning goes off and the level tune plays at an accelerated pace. The music is flat out telling you to get a move on. Castle (Hurry Up!) is audio nightmare fuel, but on the flip side Invincible (Hurry Up!) sounds even more awesome when it's sped up.

The jingles  of Super Mario Bros. are just as famous as the level themes. Whenever someone performs a medley of the Super Mario Bros. music, either the Level Clear or Game Over themes are used to signify the conclusion.

Super Mario Bros. doesn't have as many tracks as a lot of other NES games. But it's quality over quantity and the quality of Super Mario Bros'. soundtrack can simply not be measured. Almost thirty years after the game released, Super Mario Bros. soundtrack has not aged a bit, being every bit as whistle and hum-worthy as it was in 1985.

Super Mario Bros. Playlist

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Composer: Jun Funahashi

After the 1989 hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coin-op made arcades the place for Turtle fans to be, quite a number of them were miffed when they realized that Ultra Games (another part of Konami) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was nothing like the arcade version. The only thing TMNT on the NES had with TMNT on the arcade was that they happened to share the same name. This was an action platformer that only supported the single player experience and it's difficulty became known far and wide. While it is a flawed game, it isn't anywhere near as bad as a lot of critics say it is. And even the critics fail to say just how well done the game's soundtrack is, one of the best of the 8-bit era, to be precise.

It may be hard to recognize the rock elements of NES music, but they do exist and are all over the place in TMNT. This first becomes apparent with the sick Title/Opening theme, that introduces the Turtles, their weapons and the first bits of story. Those guitar riffs are crazy awesome. Overworld 1 is probably the most upbeat piece of music in the game. Stage Theme 1 sounds like a serious but mellow feel to it. Stage Theme 2 kicks things up a notch sounding way more intense than the previous theme, which is fitting because this is the part of the game where the difficulty really starts to spike. Everyone that's ever played this games knows the horrors of the underwater dam level. Thankfully, Underwater Bombs helps take some of the sting off of those deaths you probably suffered and as much as gamers hated that level, many give it the honor of having the best theme in the entire game. The two boss themes Mini Boss Battle and Boss Battle are heavy on the rock and put you in the mood to kick some shell (sorry).

When you make it past the dam (it gets much harder after that), you get to hear Overworld 2, which sounds like it's fit for a stealth mission. In fact, some Metal Gear elements are even tossed in, having you stay away from spot lights lest you have to contend with a Foot Soldier (which are easily disposed of). Once you take down the Technodrome, you go inside and find that it's much bigger than what it looked like from outside as Final Stage plays. It really gets you jazzed for the final showdown with Shredder, who is actually quite easy to defeat if you keep hitting him at the right spots. Getting there, however, is a different story.

The really interesting thing about TMNT's soundtrack is that none of it's tracks use any of the 1987 theme song, which would show up in a plethora of other tracks in future Turtle games. As much as I adore that theme, I love what this game's soundtrack accomplished without it, which is a fusion of some of the best chiptunes and rock I've ever heard.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Playlist

Kirby's Adventure

Composer: Hirokazu Ando

The second game in the long running Kirby series, Kirby's Adventure was released in 1993, late into the NES life, at a time where many gamers were doing their gaming on the SNES and Genesis. So if you missed out on Kirby's Adventure, well, man, do I feel sorry for you.

Kirby's Dream Land on the Game Boy, Kirby's first video game was composed solely by Jun Ishikawa, who we owe much thanks for giving us themes like Green Greens, Castle Lololo and of course, Mt. Dedede, King Dedede's theme. But Hirokazu Ando, the man responsible for the music in Kirby's Adventure deserves just as much credit for his works. Ando wrote tracks that have become Kirby staples like the super happy Vegetable Valley, Butter Building, Ice Cream Island, and Orange Ocean. It doesn't sound too radically different from the Game Boy, but Ando's version of Green Greens is still my preferred chiptune version of the famous theme.

The soundtracks in most Kirby games have joyous themes for the most part and the same certainly holds true for Kirby's Adventure. However, when the boss or area calls for it, sugar coated, too cute music takes a breather. Whenever Kirby enters a Forest Area, gone are there cheerful songs you'd normally hear and in their place is a theme that reflects the more low key environment that all the large trees and shade provides. Grape Garden, Ending and Rainbow Resort are without a doubt some of the most soothing tracks to come out of the old 2A03 NES sound chip. I especially feel that Rainbow Resort is one of the best songs from the 8-bit era and is a flat out masterpiece. As great as the more lively tracks of Kirby's Adventure are, the more relaxing themes are just fantastic and help the soundtrack maintain a nice balance.

There are only two boss tracks in Kirby's Adventure and while Boss Battle is quite good, Nightmare is by far the best fight theme of the two. There's an intense buildup in Nightmare that uses two different sets of drums and at fourteen seconds in, there's a pause and the main course begins. What follows is a jaw dropping final battle theme that's mindblowingly awesome.

Since Kirby's Adventure was released near the end of the NES' days, developers were really getting the hang of all of the tricks that could get out of the system both visually and audibly. The colors in Kirby's Adventure really pop and are some of the finest on the NES and there's even some impressive parallax scrolling in a few levels. Even though I'd been enjoying 8-bit music since the early days of the NES, I was still amazed at what Ando did with this game's soundtrack. If you missed Kirby's Adventure upon initial release, not only did you miss out on one of the console's best platformers, you missed out on some amazing music and therefore, you had a crappy childhood.

Kirby's Adventure Playlist

Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu

Composer: Sinkon Kiyoshi

I imagine more than a few of you may be wondering what a game like this would be doing here. In truth, part of this feature is to honor great known NES soundtracks as well as those that are more obscure. Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu was an action platforming game developed by Hudson and it was one of those licensed games that didn't suck.

I'm not really familiar with the work of Sinkon Kiyoshi. I couldn't tell you if he wrote music for any other NES games, but what I can tell you is that his compositions for Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu are among the best on the NES that I'll bet most of you have never heard. Level 1-1/1-2/1-3 makes for an uptempo first level theme while Level 1-4/1-5/1-6/5-3/5-5 takes a turn for the serious. I particularly like how this track changes things up at 1:04. You think it's going to go back to the beginning but it expands on the existing melody and the song doesn't repeat until about 1:30. For those that were fortunate enough to check this game out, this song tends to be their favorite. I'm guessing Kiyoshi was quite fond of that song since it's heard frequently. My personal favorite track is Level 2-1/4-1/5-2. The first area of level 2 takes place in what appears to be a volcano. Around 0:38-0:51 I'd always catch myself climbing the rocks to escape the rising lava and I felt the music perfectly matched on on-screen platforming. Right after you narrowly avoid being melted to death, you move towards colder pastures, complete with those oh-so wonderful ice physics as Level 2-2/4-2/4-3 plays.

There's a ton of  music that borders on the not-so-whimsical side in this game, so much that you may think that after Level 1-1/1-2/1-3 you won't hear anything else like that, but then Level 3-1/4-4 kicks in along with Level 3-2. The Bonus Stage music is also quite the perky theme. I enjoy all kinds of video game music, both on the bright and sunny side and on the dark and brooding but I really like when a game decides to use both and even better when both styles of music are done so well. Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu more than succeeds on both fronts.The Final Boss theme is easily the most sinister-sound track in the game and that Ending Theme starts off slow but changes speed at 0:48 as the end credits roll, morphing into something else entirely. I don't think there were too many NES games that had Ending themes that did that so not only is that a cool thing in and of itself, the actual song is one of my all-time favorite NES Ending themes. I mean, just listen to it. The track even slows down again as it fades out. It's insanely good.

Kiyoshi should have won an award for his compositions on Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu. Hudson easily could have had hired someone that couldn't give two craps about the the music staring a man that was, at the time a pretty unknown figure. That's right, Jackie Chan didn't really start becoming famous until about the mid '90s. I didn't just mention this game's score because the game is obscure. I mentioned I honestly feel it has some of the best music that ever came out of Nintendo's 8-bit baby. I'm serious as a heart attack when I say that Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu's soundtrack deserves to be up there rubbing plastic shoulders with the likes of Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man 3.

Jackie Chan's Action Fung Fu Playlist

Part 2


Chalgyr Vokel said...

Pretty solid starting list. Mega Man's soundtrack was good, but Mega Man 2 actually is one of my favorite NES sound tracks of all time, though I have several that immediately came to mind. Double Dragon, Double Dragon 2, Bionic Command, Simon's Quest just to bop off a few right now. Happy Friday!

Reggie White Jr. said...

I greatly enjoy all of the music from the game you mentioned. Oh and spoiler alert: all of those games will be featured here at some point. =)