15 NES Games WIth Under-Appreciated Music
You guys love NES music right? If you value your kneecaps, I think you know how you should answer.
That's right! You good little boys and girls love all those cool and rockin' NES tunes from games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Zelda, and Contra! You love them so much that you've absolutely run them into the fucking ground with how much you love referencing them thinking you're cool and posting your shitty little Fruity Loops remixes. You just can't get enough, can you?
WELL I CAN! You fuckers need to find a new bag. Mega Man and Mario aren't the best damn things from that era! There's so much more you could be taking in and doing new things with. So much new and amazing stuff for your virgin little ears to discover if you'd just step outside that comfort zone a bit and expose yourself to some game music that I personally feel has gone woefully under appreciated.
Luckily for you, I'm here to help you find the virtual cream of the crop as it were. Ya know, the good stuff you can't get on the shelf. I got your hookup, dawg, and the good news is the first hit's free of charge!
Below you'll find a handy dandy list of fifteen games whose soundtracks I feel have been largely forgotten by time. Not only are the games listed, but I've also done you one better and created a nice selection of some of my favorite moments from each game for you to discover and enjoy. There's over 80 minutes of top-quality five-channel goodness below. It's all yours for the taking, so what are you waiting for?
I will apologize in advance if a bit of my commentary on each game's soundtrack becomes a bit technical. I've been interested in NES music since a very early age and have learned a lot about the NES and how it processes sound over the years, so sometimes I like to indulge that a bit. The star of each entry is the music, so you should probably focus on that first and foremost.
You're not gonna read that dumb shit anyway, so why don't we go ahead and get to what's important: The NES music you should be paying attention to!
Ya know what? Since this is an article about NES music and I'm such a huge Konami nerd, I think it makes total sense that we start this article out with some god damn Konami-ass Konami music.
And that's really the best way you can describe the selection of music in the NES version of Gyruss. It hits all the Konami composer tricks including use of a sampled DPCM kick drum, that noise snare that anyone who played a Konami game in the late 80's/early 90's would be familiar with, and extensive use of echoing in the two square wave channels giving the main melodies a nice and airy sound. The use of rapid-fire note runs is always pleasing to the ears as well, especially after a slower sustained melody.
The rendition of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" at the beginning of the selection is downright god damn sinister, and I've been known to use it as a ringtone every now and then. Just some really great by-the-numbers stuff from a company that really knew how to write a good hook.
Al Unser Jr. Turbo Racing
A bit of an oddball choice to some I'm sure, and admittedly the only two songs in the game that I like are featured in this video, but I really think they're great pieces that deserve just a bit of love.
Both selections seem a tad out of place here, being that it's one of the fastest racing games I do believe I've played on the NES. Both songs liesurely cruise along and have very simple melodies that seem more relaxing than something that'd get you ready for some white knuckle racing. They'd likely feel more at home in something like Sega's OutRun with its beach-side aesthetics, rather than the "we're trying to be an official racing game" mood set by Turbo Racing.
Surprisingly, probably both to myself and to you, this will not be Data East's final entry on this list.
AbadoX was composed by Kyouhei Sada, a man behind many of Konami's early great NES soundtracks including Contra, The Adventures of Bayou Billy, and Rush 'n Attack. For whatever reason, he left Konami and began composing for Natsume. This was the first of his works.
The Konami style he honed in his previous work clearly carried over into his debut Natsume project, and you can hear many distinct characteristics and techniques used in his older games in the tunes presented here, like the driving triangle channel bassline and the selection of similar DPCM drum samples. A lot of the sound effects used in the game are just straight up re-creations of familiar Konami sound effects of the era (including use of the 4 note Konami pause tone) as well. In fact, the entire game as a whole can seem like one great big Life Force rip-off at times.
Game aside, these tunes are great. That title theme is haunting as all shit, the stage themes have a nice and chunky groove to them, and the ending theme will stand a damn good chance of getting stuck in your head from prolonged exposure. I'm sure there's worse things that could be stuck in your head though, right?
Batman: Return of the Joker
I think everybody knows by now that Sunsoft knew their fucking way around the NES's hardware. By the end of the console's life cycle they'd pushed the console almost harder than anyone else, creating some of the most fantastic looking and sounding games of the generation.
Sunsoft developed their own distinct style on the NES hardware that utilized a DPCM sampled bass guitar that could be pitched to create proper basslines, which freed up the triangle and noise channels to create their own brand of supremely punchy percussion. They often mixed all this together with echoed or harmonized melodies in the square channels to create soundtracks that had a generally darker texture to them, and as you'll hear, are very pleasing to the ears. I believe this style originated in Journey to Silius, and would persist throughout the remainder of Sunsoft's NES work.
It's a dirty shame that their technical prowess never really made it out of the NES era, but we got left with a lot of great soundtracks to revisit. The original Batman: The Game soundtrack is also one of the best on the console, if I say so myself.
Gun Nac is a great little Compile shooter on the NES. Stages seem to run on a bit long, but back then that was sorta their calling card, I suppose. Definitely worth looking up if you got the time and an itchin' for some shooty action.
Admittedly, not all of Gun Nac's music is as stellar as the selections I've chosen to highlight here, but I'd say you'll be hard pressed to find a set of songs that are more upbeat and triumphant, which mixes very well with with that "You Vs. The Entire World" vibe these kinda games invoke.
Sky Shark was one of the first NES games I ever owned. It was part of the haul I received with my NES one truly memorable Christmas morning. It was also the very first video game to make me stop and say, "Wait, they can make videogame music sound like that? I thought it was just all beeps and boops!"
Sky Shark was composed by the one and only Tim Follin, a genius when it came to making very limited hardware do amazing things with sound. His work on the Commodore 64 and NES is renowned throughout the interbutts, and deservingly so. Sky Shark may not be his best set of tunes, but damn if they didn't influence my love of what the system was capable of right from the get-go. From the moment I heard Sky Shark's opening theme, I was always interested in what games were doing with sound.
The music in this game is also interesting in that none of the songs in the game use more than 3 out of the 5 available sound channels alotted to them. Think about this as you listen: He's using one square wave channel for all main melodies, echoing and arpeggiating notes left and right. The triangle channel is being used for both the bassline AND to give percussion some oomph in conjunction with the noise channel. That's pretty god damn impressive if you ask me.
I like to think he composed this soundtrack the way he did on a bet or a dare.
Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones
I may be only one of a few people who would say that Double Dragon III gets a bad rap. While it's not the most terrific game ever crafted, it's certainly nowhere close to the "shit load of fuck" or whatever internet videogame reviewers would have you believe. On top of that, it's got some fantastic tunes.
Double Dragon III's tones are maybe just a bit hammy and stereotypical of each portion of the world they're supposed to represent. Even without the annotations in the video, it likely wouldn't be too hard to place where in the world each piece of music was paired with. The melodies aren't overly complex, but have immediate hummability, and the square wave work on the leads is pretty solid, with standard echoing and harmonies carrying each selection. No real fancy tricks or anything, just solid tunes that can get stuck in your head if you're not careful.
Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.
Something you'll notice about non-Japanese composers is that even though they all worked on the same hardware, the way they utilized it in the creation of audio is almost dramatically different across the board. While most Japanese composers seemed to focus more on clean melodies and percussion, non-Japanese composers fiddled a lot more with subtlety in their music, with melodies working within other parts of a song to create more of a mood. These compositions often feel more "full" with lots of arpeggiation, "dirty" punchy percussion, and overall song length. (Most NES tunes tend to tap out at around the 45-60 second mark, and then loop.) It's also interesting that most of these composers scored licensed games.
Alien3 was handled by Jeroen Tel, another Commodore 64 vet who widely known for pushing the technology, and is still in the business of composing for games these days with a group called Maniacs of Noise.
Alien3's score is probably one of the most original and interesting sounding on the NES. Its most distinct quality is just how "un-NES" it sounds, which is pretty damn impressive when all you're dealing with is square waves, triangle waves, and a noise channel. Even more impressive is that just like Tim Follin's work on Sky Shark a good number of the tracks here only use 3 of 5 channels with no DPCM samples whatsoever. Tracks in the game run the gamut of creepy and atmospheric to outright technopop. With a crazy amount of work being put into the main melodies and the overall unique sound coming out of it, the Alien3 soundtrack should really be up there when people talk about the best the system had to offer.
Though they're not known for mind-blowingly awesome games, Data East's in-house team of composers were pretty damn good at what they did. Most of their efforts involved taking arcade tunes and NES-izing them.
I will admit, I'm not all that familiar with the the Heavy Barrel arcade game, so I can't really comment much on the quality of these downsizings or how well-translated they are from the arcade version, but I can say that even though the game only has a scant few tunes, they're really pretty damn good. It's just really simple and really well-done videogame music that...well...fits in a video game. The two stage themes highlighted in the video above are my favorites. The other tunes aren't bad, but I didn't really feel the need to try and share the whole thing.
If there's one complaint I can think of it's that the main stage theme's use of the noise channel for percussion is a little too damn loud, but it doesn't really wreck the song.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Another entry into the Sunsoft library of excellent sounds. Nothing's really changed here stylistically from the earlier Batman: Return of the Joker entry, I'm simply including it because these tunes are awesome and I don't feel they get quite as much attention as other games under Sunsoft's NES hat.
And here we have another Follin. Geoff Follin, Mr. Tim Follin's brother. They both worked to create the wondrous tunes that showed up in the Silver Surfer game, if you didn't know.
The style on display here is very similar to Tim's, however I feel Geoff is a bit more conservative in going balls-ass crazy. He still uses a lot of the same tricks and it would be easy to confuse this as a Tim Follin soundtrack upon first listen, however Geoff's tunes feel like they have a more cohesive structure to them, whereas Tim's work feels a bit "LISTEN TO WHAT I CAN DO!" at times.
Much like the Alien tunes earlier, these feel more like songs rather than themes to be looped in a game (even though they are.) I really have to wonder how guys like this only ever ended up scoring some pretty mediocre and offensively bad games.
Wait, wait, wait. Hold the fuck phone. What is this shit? Contra Fuck Force on my god damn website after all these years of sketchy religious ceremonies, contracts, and actively trying to hate it out of existence? How the hell does this happen, you stupid, ditzy bitch?
Well, there are some things in the universe that even I can't deny. Like the fact that you're a fucking loser sitting here on the internet arguing with a pink and white website, and that Contra Fuck Force actually has some pretty rad tunes.
The music here was produced near the tail end of Konami's run on the NES, around the time they slipped into non-stop licensed products, and my guess would be that most of their other composers had either gone freelance (Kinuyo Yamashita) or were working on the SNES by this time, because Contra Fuck Force's music has a bit of a different edge to it than the usual Konami offerings.
Still within the realm of action videogamey and upbeat, these tunes are unfortunately stuck in a game that they are far better than. How can you not love that orchestral stinger that's so tastefully used in most of the tracks? The DPCM drum samples also help to invoke that militaristic theme they were going for. I also love the way certain notes get "revved up" or are rapidly "plucked" in certain passages. I can't really say more than that. These are just some great songs that could use a bit more attention.
Why not have some more Tim Follin work while we're at it, right? I could be wrong and maybe this one does get more attention than I'm thinking, but I can't help but love the music in this game. I also enjoy the fact that the style is fairly uncharacteristic of what we're used to hearing from a Tim Follin joint (except maybe that final track in the video). I have to admit that triangle-sounding instrument coming out of the noise channel is pretty damn impressive too. Never would have imagined the NES's noise channel creating a sound that crystal clear.
I think those of us that have tried to slog through Solstice know that damn song far too well and can probably hear it in our dreams or nightmares on any given night.
S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team
S.C.A.T., besides being one of the most unfortunately named games of all-time, is a pretty alright game. It's another work on this list that was composed by Kyouhei Sada.
Released in Japan as Final Mission, it's sort of a "What if Contra was a shmup?" type game with a bit of Forgotten Worlds mixed in for good measure. As far as shmups go it's pretty damn brutal, even with the changes made to the US version, which doubled player health (you only get one life.) In fact, this game underwent a lot of interesting changes when it was localized for Europe and the US, most notably for the sake of this article, the music saw a bit of an overhaul.
Certain portions of the music were re-worked with a couple songs seemingly being re-composed an octave higher, and most of the percussion was fitted with new, poppier DPCM samples and new noise channel work. It's hard to say whether Sada himself handled the re-workings or if someone on staff for the localization took up the task. Regardless, I consider this version of the game's soundtrack to be way better.
The style presented here is a lot groovier than his older Konami work and AbadoX. Just get yourself a fat earful of that first stage theme. Groovy. As. Fuck. The Japanese versions of these tunes are certainly worth looking up, but the newer versions are the ones I consider definitive of the game's style and seem a much better fit when the game is in action.
Brutal. That's about the only way I can describe Snake's Revenge's soundtrack. It's one of the most abrasive and heavy sounding soundtracks I can think of on the NES. Playing this game is distracting not only because I'm playing fucking Snake's Revenge, but because I always wanna just stop to listen to the music.
The game's sound is credited to one T. Ogura, who also composed Mission Impossible. Beyond that, I can't find out much else about them. If I could say anything to this person though it'd be that you created one of my most favorite NES soundtracks of all-time (only edged out by Ninja Gaiden II.)
Simply put, Snake's Revenge's soundtrack doesn't fuck around. Everything about this game's music is a fat ass assault on the poor little NES's audio output hardware. The heavy DPCM sampled percussion pays a huge role, but a lot of great phasing effects are used on the square channels to create a full and rich sound that most NES games simply can't touch. When the game launches into a rockin' out with your cock out melody with a pumping bassline and almost overbearing percussion work it's hard not to get taken in by it and just listen to the awesome that's happening.
While Snake's Revenge may never be destined to be anyone's favorite game ever, its soundtrack is certainly worth notice.
And so, there you have it. Fifteen NES games whose music I feel deserves more than just a passing listen.
Why not think about some of these tunes the next time you drag out your old busted copy of Fruity Loops and start to work on your 500th half-assed Mega Man 2 dubstep mix for OCR? No need to play to the lowest common denominator when you can show people you have better taste (but not better tham mine, mind you) and a bit of class when it comes to you and your chiptunes.