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.
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Long before Square Enix was the mammoth corporation that it is today, they were two separate companies know as Square and Enix. While Enix had fond tremendous success with it's Dragon Quest series in 1986, Square was a struggling developer on the brink of bowing out of gaming industry. It was decided that the company would pull all of it's resources into one final game and it would be a fantasy title and thus, Final Fantasy was born. Fourteen sequels a plethora of spin-off titles and twenty five years later, Final Fantasy is still going strong today.
Before Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu had already been scoring music for video games. He composed the music for 3D World Runner and Rad Racer, two NES games that were developed by Square. Final Fantasy would mark his sixteenth game for which he would be composing. Uematsu was very instrumental to the success of the Final Fantasy series much in the same way Koji Kondo's music helped shape the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchise. While most of Uematsu's work on the series from the 16-bit era and onward gets the most praise, his original chiptune compositions are still worth going gaga over.
Right when you boot up the game, a the magical Prelude theme plays, a piece of music that has long been associated with the series. What's very interesting about this particular track is that it was a last minute addition to the game, something Uematsu composed in roughly 10 minutes. I find it rather ironic that such an iconic tune for the series was done up rather quickly. The jovial Main Theme sets the tone for adventure and if you're smart enough to go into Corneria rather than wonder around with your unequipped party, you'll be treated to the gentle Town theme that is used for most towns in the game. You gotta love how the decaying world has some pretty peaceful themes. Speaking of which, Corneria Castle sounds like a kingdom that has everything under control, which is pretty nice considering their princess has been kidnapped. Saving her is actually your first order of business before getting to the main meat of the game.
Some wandering around on the overworld map will quickly thrust you into a random battle and it's here that you hear the only piece of battle music throughout the whole game, Battle Scene. Like the Prelude, Battle Scene is another important musical piece. Battle tracks have always played a large role in Final Fantasy games and Battle Scene is memorable track for three reasons. One, the battle theme itself is very intense, even on 8-bit hardware. Two, it was the very first battle theme of the series. Three, the first six seconds of the intro would go on to be used in the next five Final Fantasy games as part of the standard battle themes. Win a battle and you're treated to what is quite possibly the best Victory fanfare in any RPG. This theme is so darned happy and cheerful that just hearing it makes you wanna stand up and wave your arms up and down. This is another theme that was reused dozens of times in future Final Fantasy titles. Conversely, if you fall in battle (a distinct possibility given the NES version's insane difficulty), you'll hear the Dead Music, which has got to be one of the most depressing 8-bit songs I've ever heard.
As I said above, your first task is saving the princess of Corneria who's being held hostage by Garland at the Chaos Temple, which is the first dungeon of the game, complete with one of my favorite dungeon themes in the whole series. The Chaos Temple would also be the final dungeon of the game and in an unexpcted turn of events, would be explored in the past. The theme used for the past version of the Chaos Temple, Underwater Temple is the Chaos Temple theme but in a lower pitch and a few altered notes. Underwater Temple is very fitting for the final area of the game game and a wonderful callback to the start of your adventure. Not many games on the NES used arrangements like this but considering what Uematsu would do in future installments, I guess it isn't too much of a surprise.
Somehow, even on the 8-bit NES, crossing a bridge seems more epic than it has ever been. Maybe it's because it's the first time you actually see the words Final Fantasy grace the game's screen, or it that shadow image of your character's leaving Corneria. Those are all factors, but a lot of it has to do with that awe-sounding Opening Theme that would appear in a plethora of other titles. It's been arranged and there are many orchestrated versions of it, but even in 8-bit form, it still sounds amazing.
Final Fantasy was a brutal game to be sure, but one area that caused players no end of grief was the Marsh Cave, the second dungeon you explore. It's been said that our ears often give us the first warning signs of danger. One only needs to listen to Dungeon, the theme that plays in the Marsh Cave to know that thety'll be in for one very unpleasant trek. Unlike the warm and welcoming Matoya's Cave, Dungeon fills you with fear, a sense of urgency to get what you came for and hightail it out of there.
My favorite version of the first Final Fantasy is the Origins remake on the PS1. I really like the updated graphics, balanced difficulty and that masterfully arranged soundtrack, which Uematsu himself covered. But even so, I'm quite fond of the man's original Final Fantasy 8-bit tracks. If you didn't get into the series until later entries, it may be a bit tough to appreciate some of these tracks, but my first Final Fantasy was VI and I still found much to adore about the first Final Fantasy's music. From the themes that would get arranged numerous times to the ones that wouldn't, Final Fantasy still represents some of the series' best audio.
Composers: Kinuyo Yamashita, Satoe Terashima
Originally released on the Famicom Disk System in Japan in 1986 as Akumajou Dracula, the game was ported to the NES in 1987 and released under the title Castlevania. Since this series is still alive and kicking to this day, it should go without saying that this is one of Konami's most successful franchises.
With only six stages, Castlevania doesn't have the most extensive NES soundtrack. Still, what's available is truly exceptional. That opening with Simon Belmont walking up to the front gate of Dracula's castle has got to be one of the most iconic intros to a video game and that chilling Prologue music really completes the image. Immidately following that is the first stage, complete with one of the finest pieces of first level music in gaming, Vampire Killer. This song, like the original Super Mario Bros. Ground Theme has been remixed to death and it isn't hard to see why, but as great as a lot of the remixes are, the original theme still holds up. I find that it sounds a tad creepy but quite catchy. Now for a full blown creepy piece of 8-bit music, Stalker cannot be beat. This stage has spiked crushers that can kill you instantly and is infamous for introducing gamers to one of the biggest pests in gaming, Medusa Heads. Hard as the second stage can be, it doesn't come close to frustrating me like stage three does with it's bottomless pits, Medusa Heads and those annoying mummy bosses at the end. This was the real difficulty spike in Castlevania for me but Wicked Child helped me pull through. I think the bass line in this track is godly especially at the 17 second mark.
Alright, I know I said Stalker couldn't be beat, but Walking on the Edge truly is the darkest song in the game and it really fits the whole underground cavern setup. The bass makes part of the track sound like the theme from Jaws but it's still very much it's own music, which takes place during one of the most frustrating levels. The whole clock tower thing originated in this game and it went on to become a series staple. Ironically, the theme that plays in the clock tower segment is called Out of Time.
Castlevania makes use of two bosses themes, three depending on how you look at it. Poison Mind, the regular boss tune is highly repetitive but still enjoyable, making some of the bosses seem like genuine threats (Death certainly is if you don't spam Holy Water). On your way up to the final staircase to meet Dracula, Nothing to Lose plays. Since this theme is also heard during the fight with Dracula's first form, it can be considered a battle theme. Should you succeed in defeating Dracula's first form, he turns into a hideous beast for round 2 and he hits like a tank. Black Night is the final battle music and it will have you on edge as you try your hardest to deplete Drac's life bar. It isn't easy but it can be done. When the lord of vampires bites the dust, you see his castle crumble and Voyager kicks in, a short but sweet ending theme to an incredible hard but great game.
Vampire Killer would go on to be one of the most used musical tracks in the franchise' long history, but Castlevania's entire soundtrack ranks right up there with Konami's best sound works. You'll have the music from this game in your head long after you've turned the power off and moved on to other titles.
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
Long before there were channels dedicated to running nothing but cartoons all the time, a few hours after school was our only means of getting our animated fix until Saturday arrived. The Disney Afternoon was a two hour block of animated shows featuring already established characters along with fresh faces. DuckTales was a big part of the Disney Afternoon, but the show was large and in charges years before this cartoon block was even formed.
Hitting the TV screen in 1987, DuckTales was about the treasure hunting adventures of Scrooge McDuck who was often in the company of his nephews Huey, Dewey, Louie and Launchpad McQuack. Scrooge's never-ending quest to get richer took him all around. Sounds like a good premise for a video game, don'tcha think? Placing the license in the then-capable hands of Capcom, DuckTales on the NES, unlike Fester's Quest, Total Recall and Back to the Future was solid licensed product and is fondly remembered as an NES classic.
Anyone that's watched an episode of DuckTales no doubt has the catchy theme tune stuck in their head. Even without lyrics, you'll be humming and whistling along to the Title Theme in all it's 8-bit glory. The title music also sets the tone for most of the music in the game, which is of a very upbeat, lighthearted affair. The Amazon, The Himalayas, and The African Mines are all lively, catchy themes.
Not all of DuckTales music is sunshine and flowers, though. The Boss theme gets serious even if all of the boss encounters can be disposed of with ease. Transylvania, being a level set inside a eerie mansion is a haunted theme, lacking the brightness associated with the other tunes. Its still an excellent track, which is a very good thing because Transylvania is a stage you have to revisit several times.
But the theme that made DuckTales legendary among video game music lovers is without a shadow of a doubt The Moon. Often sighted as the best track in the game, The Moon has a light, slow start that perfectly sets up the main course when the drums kick in 12 seconds into the song. It's a cheerful theme to be sure, but it has an otherworldly vibe to it. Fitting since this is the one level in the game that doesn't take place on Earth.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Composer: Koji Kondo
For two decades, Super Mario Bros. 2 was seen as the black sheep of the Super Mario series simply because it was so radically different from the other games. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, a sadistically cruel, tough as nails mission pack game was touted as the true Super Mario Bros. 2 and that the version American and European gamers got, a character swapped Doki Doki Panic, was not a real Mario game. All those gamers and journalists that dissed Super Mario Bros. 2 for not being a "true Mario game" were in for a rude awakening when a 2011 interview with Shigeru Miyamoto revealed that such claims were bogus. A prototype version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was in the works in 1986 and it played very much like the version of Super Mario Bros. 2 that was released outside of Japan. Long story short, Super Mario Bros. 2 started out as a Mario game, was turned into a non-Mario game and was then transformed back into a Mario game. Super Mario games would be far less interesting with out this puppy.
Super Mario Bros. 2 is certainly different from the more traditional Super Mario titles, but this turns out to be a big strength rather than a weakness. Subcon is not the Mushroom Kingdom and this is not only reflected in the game's visual presentation, but the music as well. At the same time, composer Koji Kondo was mindful that this is indeed a Mario game and gave it some musical ties to the game that came before it. This is the first game in the series to have a Title theme and it turns out to be an arrangement of the original Super Mario Bros. Underwater music.
The Player Select theme is some giddy, insanely cheery music that is super catchy. I especially love the use of the piano at the 22 second mark. I was delighted to hear this music get arranged in Super Mario 3D World.
Super Mario Bros. 2 Overworld theme is the equivalent to Super Mario Bros. Ground Theme, in that you'll be hearing it a lot. Somehow, Kondo managed to make Overoworld even more lighthearted than Ground Theme. That may seem blasphemous as Super Mario Bros. Ground Theme is the most iconic piece of video game music ever, but strictly speaking in terms of overall moods, I have to give the nod to Super Mario Bros. 2's Overworld music for sounding far more vibrant.
Of course, Underground cannot be overlooked, the music that plays whenever you're in an indoor area. I always got an Egyptian, tomb-like vibe from all of Super Mario Bros. 2 indoor areas, so the I found the bongo drums to be a nice touch.
This was also the first game in the series to have boss themes. The standard Boss theme can get repetitive, but true for form for Kondo's music, it never gets irritating. The Last Boss theme, used for Wart sounds even more sinister and intense than the regular boss tune.
The final piece of music in the game, the Ending theme starts out as a triumphant victory theme before switching gears to a more dreamy song, and I do mean dreamy. That scene with Mario sleeping soundly only to wake up for a brief moment and fall back asleep was probably almost as shocking as finding out that Samus is a girl in the original Metroid.