Whether it was one incredible piece of music or an entire soundtrack, the NES contained some of the most iconic video game music ever created.
When the Nintendo Entertainment System was first released in Japan in 1983, it was known as the Famicom (or Family Computer). Over the next decade, Nintendo didn’t just create some of the most iconic games ever, but they created some of the best video game music ever.
Games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Contra, and many more put home video game consoles back on the map at a time when the industry as a whole was headed for oblivion. But even as great as these games are, their music is a big part of what makes them truly iconic.
While many retailers believed the console would just be a fad, as many consoles (like the Atari 2600) had proven to be, the NES proved everyone wrong and became one of the highest selling consoles of all time. In fact, the NES was so successful, that Nintendo had a 70% share of the video game market by 1988.
Much of the industry’s later success stories (early Sega consoles, PlayStation, Xbox etc.) can be attributed to the NES, as it gave way to a resurgence in home consoles and showed the world these machines weren’t simply toys that were bound to fall out of fashion.
I remember the NES craze, as I was a part of it. My first time playing Super Mario Bros. was one of the highlights of my childhood. While I was amazed by the innovative graphics and gameplay, there was one thing I loved more than anything when it came to NES games and that was the music.
Each game had a sound all its own, and even less successful titles were still enjoyable due to the soundtrack alone. Without further ado, here’s my list of some of the best NES soundtracks:
1. Mega Man 2 – Composed by Takashi Tateishi
The score for “Mega Man 2” may be the pinnacle of video game music. The music in the other video games all changed over time. But, “Mega Man 2” has had the same music since day one and easily some of the best NES music.
Video game players know that there’s more to it than sitting down and playing a game. It’s a multi-faceted experience that touches every human sense.
There are many paths that one can go down that can end in a game feeling old and stale. “Mega Man 2” is free of any of them. It runs like a well-oiled machine, and its music is the glue that holds it all together.
The music that was composed for this video game was top-notch on every level. The game is non-linear, which can pose problems for whoever composes the music for the game. Since every level can be accessed from the outset, the music needs to be a game-changer and draw players in from the start.
Takashi Tateishi delivered on this tall order. The music is hopeful as it drives you through the game. Every step you take is propelled by the sounds that are pouring through your TV set. Somehow each tune evokes every possible emotion out of you as you traverse your way through the game.
If you want to see just how essential the music is to this game, try watching the introduction to it with the sound off. It’s slow with a somewhat pedestrian and silly plot. Then, watch it again with the sound on. It’s a completely different experience that induces emotion and spurs feeling for the hero.
The music is the catalyst for all that is good in the “Mega Man 2” world. It encourages you to hit the “start” button and enter the fantasy world where anything can happen. Just like any other work of great art, it draws you back time and again.
2. Kirby’s Adventure – Composed by Hirokazu Ando
Kirby has always been a bit of an enigma. He looks soft and adorable on the outside but inside, lurks the heart of a true warrior. His two sides combine to make him the perfect character we’ve all come to know and love.
On the outside, Kirby’s Adventure looks like nothing more than a simplistic child’s game. But, on a second look, you will find a more complex world full of challenges like thought-provoking puzzles.
Plus, the story line progresses to show deep, multi-layered characters like King Dedede, who is both an average Joe and a total jerk. The two sides of his personality are expertly shown through the music composition of Hirokazu Ando.
Kirby’s first moment on screen is accompanied with an upbeat melody that virtually encourages you to tap your feet. Shortly after that, once he sets off on his journey, the music quickens to exemplify his frenetic pace.
It doesn’t take a musical genius to know that the familiar sounds of “Grassy Fields” and “Towers in the Sky” are interspersed with elements that help create the entire mood of the game.
When the mood is more calm, it is highlighted by the softer sounds of “Starry Sky” and other smoother tunes.
All of the themes in the game are expertly represented by melodies that are hard to forget, whether it’s the hyperness of kinetic movement or the intense feeling of knowing you can’t lose, the music always perfectly fits the situation. It’s the perfect complement to Kirby’s shoot-it-back-at-you personality.
3. The Legend of Zelda – Composed by Koji Kondo
Do you remember the awesome tune that accompanied “Zelda”? Who doesn’t? Does the mere thought of it take you back to a time when you couldn’t help but act out the video game, regardless of where you were and what you were doing?
Koji Kondo’s score is a fan-favorite among Nintendo users (myself included), and for good reason. This music is a major part of the game, and it simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
By 1986, Kondo was already an integral part of Nintendo, as he was the first composer hired by the company. He knocked it out of the park with the score he composed for “Super Mario Bros.”, and solidified himself as a major component of the company’s success.
The music he created for “Zelda” was on another level. It added elements to the game that were nothing short of incredible, which was no small feat, as “Zelda” was already an incredible undertaking for Nintendo.
The premise of the game is pretty simple. The player takes on the persona of “Link”, an adventurous youth whose goal is to release Princess Zelda who is being held captive by the sinister Ganon.
This idea was innovative and different from anything else happening in the gaming world at the time. Kondo’s music added the right mood of mystery combined with hopefulness and was a major reason why players came back to play the game time and again.
The music was both successful and loved by many, spurring Nintendo to extend an invitation to either write or assist with writing the scores for other games in the “Zelda” franchise.
Another indication of how popular and loved Kondo’s creation was the invitation he received to perform the music with a full orchestra for a special 25th anniversary performance.
4. Metroid – Composed by Hirokazu Tanaka
The score for Metroid is 13 minutes of pure bliss. But, you don’t even need that much time to realize its excellence.
Everything about this original score, from its first sounds to its last, provide the right aura for a horror game, including both high and low sounds that keep the listener in constant wonder of what is going to happen next. In fact, many games that came after it took their cue from this music.
The music for this game was created by Chip Tanaka, who drew his inspiration from the extraterrestrials for whom the game is named. He wanted his music to be a mix between sound design and something suitable for a soundtrack.
His idea was spot-on, as other composers are still using this technique today. Cliff Martinez has commented that he was inspired by this combination when he created “The Neon Demon”. But, the influence doesn’t stop there.
You can practically hear the influence in many popular music outlets, like in songs composed by artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca.
Thirteen minutes may seem like a short duration, but Tanaka jams so much into it it can seem like it plays on forever. Listening it being played for hours can truly pull you into the action of the game.
The opening notes of the initial music may seem ordinary at first, but once you’ve spent hours trying to master this game, it will draw you in and take over your soul. It’s one of the best video game soundtracks out there, and it’s influence knows no bounds.
5. Castlevania – Composed by Kinuyo Yamashita & Satoe Terashima
Dracula lovers everywhere love the game “Castlevania”, which is nothing short of an honorable salute to the well-known horror story. In fact, in Japan the name of the game is “Akumajo Dorakyura”, which translates to “Devil’s Castle Dracula”.
In this game, the player takes on the persona of Simon Belmont whose mission is to capture and eliminate the monster.
The original English translation of the game’s title was a bit worrisome for the developer’s North American president.
So, the name needed to be tweaked a bit, and “Castlevania” was born. Over the years, this game has become a favorite among NES gamers to the point where a multitude of subsequent games in the franchise have been created.
Kinuya Yamashita and Satoe Terashima were tasked with creating the music for the game, and they did not disappoint. The score they created not only drove the game forward, but it also provided an eerie and mysterious aura that was perfect for the series of games and cemented its popularity.
The awesome music created for “Castlevania” transcended the game. Some dedicated lovers of the game decided to put together a compilation of its music and cut a vinyl record of it. If that doesn’t say love, nothing does.