Is it just me or has video game music lost a lot of its magic over the years? Give me retro chip tunes over full scores any day.
Doing more with less
Video game soundtracks today are so unimaginative. Making music exciting and dramatic is easy when you have a full orchestra at your disposal. Try making a musical impact when you only have a few “instruments” to work with…it’s a little bit harder yet all the more memorable. Little did I know back in the NES days that the game music of the time would become its own genre more than a decade later.
All of these 8-bit era tunes can now be filed under the music heading of “chip tunes” and you’ll find there is a huge following of composers making new 8-bit style music that rivals some of the best game music that I’ll highlight below. I admit that nostalgia runs high when I hear the 5-channel hum of an 8-bit song, but what I really love about the music is how such a limited set of sounds can make such a huge impact. The best game soundtracks are ones that capture the emotion of what’s happening in the game to the point that it works beyond the game. Think about it…most game music is there to set the tone of the level or action that is happening.
Boss battles got big, ominous music that made you feel the pressure and the importance. Driving games got fast and groovy music. Action games got a strong, grinding beat while fantasy titles about wizards and warriors got the appropriate mythical themes. Now take that music out of the game and drop them into your every day life and if you’re like me, you’ll find some of it fits there too. Under a deadline at work? There’s video game music for that. Blogging about some happy moments? There’s a track for that too…all of it in beeping and blooping 8-bit glory.
The birth of a genre
I’m not ashamed to say that I listen to old Nintendo music a lot…at work, at home, in the car…doesn’t matter. When the mood strikes, I’ll put on my headphones (to spare co-workers) and fire up my favorite tracks. Not only will it take me back to a simpler time when life’s only worry was video games, the music really helps me focus because it’s track after track of songs I love and know…and there’s no lyrics or words to distract me. Pure electric boogaloo.
It doesn’t matter what age or generation of games you are, some music has just become timeless and iconic…songs you can’t escape. The Super Mario Bros theme and Zelda themes being two of the big ones, but behind these monolithic 8-bit scores are many great tracks that you’ve maybe never heard or maybe just forgotten. So here in no particular order are some of my favorite 8-bit game soundtracks.
Mega Man 3
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. It’s hard to find poor music when you look back at the 8-bit generation of Mega Man games, and every gamer has their preference, but mine is Mega Man 3. Not only is this the Mega Man title I remember the most, it is probably the soundtrack I listen too most frequently today. To my best estimation, there is no less than 30 minutes of awesome music as you battle through every stage in the game. Everything starts with a simple little jingle of sorts and then races into non-stop melody that doesn’t disappoint.
I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for Robocop. As a huge fan of the movie growing up, it was only proper that I was a fan of the NES game (a game in which I would later hold a world record). Movie video games were less prominent then than they are now so when they came out you noticed. But what makes the Robocop game music standout, fanboy love notwithstanding, is that it seems a near-perfect port of the actual score. The theme is highlighted during the film’s montage of Robocop kicking ass, and all you do in the video game is punch and shoot, so it’s only proper that the music makes you feel like doing just that. The music really put you in the mindset that you were a part of the movie…at least as much as an 8-bit Robocop can.
Battletoads has two accolades in my book. One is that it is one of the hardest NES games you’ll ever player. Two is that the soundtrack is absolutely awesome. Every track makes you want to keep moving and that’s exactly what you need to do in the game. The highlight of the score comes in the third level when it goes from a slow grind into a high-octane beat while you’re riding the hover bikes. The music matched the moment and if you ever need some music to push you to the finish line, this is it.
The first Batman game on the NES is on my Games You Should Have Played list and not just because it’s a lot of fun to play, but because it looks good and it sounds good. Unlike Robocop, Batman doesn’t make use of any film music so it’s all original and that’s all for the better. Every track sounds like superhero music should…powerful and hopeful, but not without moments of despair. I’ll argue that there’s not a bad track to be found in the 17-minute soundtrack. Much like the game, this soundtrack is one of the 8-bit era’s most overlooked.
If superheroes and cyborgs aren’t your thing, try out music from The Immortal and you’ll be transportable to your local renaissance fair instantly…assuming the bards were jamming out on NES consoles and not nose flutes. To be honest, the only track that sticks out here is the title track. Beyond that a few tracks can be somewhat clunky with more thuds and beeps that melody, but a few of the tracks set a good dungeon-fighting mood.
Castlevania, Blades of Steel, Lifeforce…or just about any other Konami game
Out of all the 8-bit era games there are two houses that created most of the memorable music. One of them was Nintendo, the other was Konami. You know the Nintendo songs by heart but music Konami games put out was just as good if not better. I know the Blades of Steel music isn’t a popular ring tone like Mario sounds are, but you’ll be hard pressed to find other NES music with as much depth as games like Castlevania (and Simon’s Quest!), Gradius, Contra and one of my favorites, Rush N Attack. It’s hard to pick just game out of the bunch…of course, it doesn’t help that the music across these games was fairly consistent and shared a lot of traits.
Super Mario Bros 2
I know I said I wasn’t going to include any first-party Nintendo games but I just can’t say “No” to the Super Mario Bros. 2 music, it’s just too happy. You can cite to me the history of SMB2 and how it’s not really a Mario game and all that stuff…I know all that, and I don’t really care. Fact of the matter is, this is one of the most light-hearted and fun soundtracks to come out of the NES era. If the music from this game doesn’t put you in a good mood, you’re a robot.
Chiptunes are alive and well
Even though the 8-bit era of gaming is more than 25 years behind us, the music from the games of the day are alive and well, and they’ve been inspiring new artists ever since. Finding old game music online isn’t too hard but if you’re looking for some new chiptunes then head over to places like 8 Bit Peoples and the 8 Bit Collective. There you’ll find people that have composed original chiptune works using NESes, Game Boys, and everything in between. If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest looking up the artists RushJet1 and Virt. All good stuff there that will take you instantly back to 1988.
In this list I focused only on NES games but I’d like to throw in a serious nod to the TurboGrafx 16 console and all the great music it pumped out as well. The TurboGrafx 16 was an 8-bit machine that acted like a 16-bit machine and because of that it’s not really fair to compare it to the NES but technically they are of the same era. Look for Dungeon Explorer and have your mind blown.