Measuring the worth of hundreds of Nes musical scores isn’t something I would call an enviable task. For one, you’re somewhat limited by your own scope: what you’ve heard, what you love, and what your definition of classic consists of. No matter what you do, someone’s bound to disagree. Then, there are the lines that have already been drawn out: it’s been done to death; we’ve already seen this particular pattern play out… what could possibly be different here? Instantaneously, a short list of candidates begins forming inside the head: it’s Zelda, Metroid and Mario Brothers, or some switching of position of those three. So, I’ve chosen to disregard this common holy ground: You might not see them in this countdown…I know. BUT. If we can’t even have an open dialogue about what also might be just as worthy of those top spots, then we’re not being realistic. Let’s have some fun!
Agree or disagree, here are 25 of the very best NES soundtracks ever made.
Listen: Castle Entrance
25. Shadowgate/ Composer: Hiroyuki Masuno / Release Year 1989
Composer Hiroyuki Masuno, was no stranger to the crafting of beautiful things when he signed on with Japanese development house Kemco in 1985. Early on, Masuno’s arrangements show promise, and his employers, eager to build upon his sparse balsa wood compositions, are desperate to provide him with a fitting muse.1986’s Uninvited plays a minor footnote to 1988’s palatial Deja-Vu, but it is Masuno’s 1989 score for Kemco’s reinterpretation of Icom Simulation’s Shadowgate is where he finally leaves all fragility behind. Shadowgate is a sequestered bitter labor of protracted, carcinogenic stanzas and boreal darkness. All stone, all remoteness made possible through the draft created by Masuno’s frigid echo.
Essential tracks: Title Screen / Subterranean Cavern / Banquet Hall / Courtyard And of course…Castle Entrance
Listen: Bernard’s Theme
24. Maniac Mansion / Composers: David Warhol, George Sanger, David Hayes / Release Year 1990
When looking back through all of your library of NES vinyl, one thing becomes alarmingly, glaringly apparent: Most musical scores were handled by a single individual. At the time, while integral to every game they were written for, the creation of these records was seen as nothing more than a burden put upon game development companies: It ranked a costly expenditure eating away at the collective’s profit margin. Why pay three musicians to do the work of 1? While this stingy method of corporate rancor may have thrived for most of the NES’s lifespan, there are those few rare instances of hiring a dedicated house band. David Warhol, George “The Fat Man” Sanger, his band “Team Fat” and David Hayes all had a hand in banging out Maniac Mansion’s schizophrenia, one frenetic jam session at a time. Maniac Mansion’s score is a towering monolith hemorrhaging thick, slovenly streams of both diatribe and compromise. The confusion all this interplay generates is fascinating, though, as the languages these composers speak tend to stumble over the others’ more complex dialect. Any effort made to make directions clearer, only adds to their voices growing louder, drowning out all aim and meaning. Sophisticated as it is entertaining, Maniac Mansion is potent math rock for 80’s console sects.
Essential Tracks: Dave’s Theme / Razor’s Theme/ Syd’s Theme/ Edison Family Tentacle theme/Bernard’s Theme
Listen: Stage Theme
23. Kung Fu /Composer: Koji Kondo / Release Year 1985
Take a minute, and think of your favorite NES soundtrack. Now, strip and separate each and every layer that you can from it. What do you hear? Chances are, not much. The addition of sound on sound on sound works only when all the pieces are present. The melody you hum inside your head ceases to work once you’ve extracted some of the required pulp. Now, test it further: can you hear the tune in its entirety without omitting any of the piece’s subtler elements…on the blades of a moving ceiling fan? Try it. Can you hear it on the air? Composer Koji Kondo’s flawless translation of arcade coin-op Kung-Fu Master’s single theme in no way relies on the fattening of the anemic source material. Kondo’s take is one to one: Exact. Kung Fu’s rolling monotony, while admittedly meager, rubs on you like an infection, and hearing it for less than 5 minutes comes with a guarantee: As you’re lying there, trying to fall asleep for the night, you can still hear EVERY single inch of it mercilessly rotating overhead.
Essential Tracks: Stage Theme/s
Listen: Stage 1 Theme
22. Rygar/ Composer:Michiharu Hasuya /Release Year 1986
It’s 1986 and Tecmo’s Rygar is mere months from completion. Sadly, Composer Michiharu Hasuya’s ardent love of Red Sonia comics and Sundays spent full regalia in a small band of Japanese Amtguard enthusiasts have failed to reach the heights of immersion requested by his employer. Time had grown short, but looming deadlines can be kind. So what makes up Hasuya’s Rygar? All the leather as seen in Krull, all the official D&D rule books by TSR, and ALL the many legions of brass: Exhibit A: the noxiously loud trumpets from Stage 1… fairly hard to forget. Hasuya is THE barbarian, and not Lothar playing amongst barbarians. Heavy costuming aside, Hasuya’s exhaustingly physical musical presence demands examination and multiple replays.
Essential Tracks: Theme For Stage 2/ Theme For Stage 5/ Theme For Stage 6 / Overworld theme
Listen: Second and Fourth Guardian
21. Aliens 3/ Composer Jeroen Tel /Release Year1993
By most accounts, the NES was a dead system by 1993. Yet, there were those still clinging to the innards of a machine whose carcass had no new secrets to reveal to whoever probed it. Dutch composer Jeroen Tel, however, would most likely relate a very different tale. Tel’s last and desperate act of NES console archeology produced this anomalous and sprawling corridor crawl: it’s not about what’s left to be uncovered, but what is already in situ. Aliens 3, however, isn’t just an assemblage of existing sound frames. NO. Tel’s redirection of the old circuitry, produces some rather brilliant scrambles of code. Aliens 3 is all hot solder, and dangerous sparking experiment.
Essential tracks: Prisoners Die , Missions 1 and 2, Missions 3 and 4,
Stay tuned next week as we continue the countdown.
What are some of your favorite NES soundtracks? Sound off below.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.