Today we reach the end of our summer long countdown chronicling the 25 greatest NES soundtracks ever made. If you missed last week, please click here.
Listen: The Duel (Opening)
- Ninja Gaiden / Composer : Keiji Yamagishi / Release Year :1989
It’s plausible (indulge me), to say that without Keiji Yamagishi’s 1989 album for Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, the video games industry might not have made it this far, or at the very least, we’d be sitting in a very alternate version of 1985. Story would have remained an afterthought, music in-game treated as some exorbitant luxury: some would have it, and others wouldn’t. It’s that simple. Where certainly there had been fine examples before Yamagishi’s treatise, his peers were indeed vocal: Konami’s 1987 Castlevania and Nintendo’s 1985 classic Metroid immediately spring to mind, neither matched Yamagishi’s fetish for scale .
Ninja Gaiden is one of the first records to truly capture the character of its franchise: loose and nimble, stark and conflicted Ryu Hyabusa is given such an articulate baritone that people stopped dead in the streets, simply to breathe him in. He could be reading penny saver advertisements, Publishers Clearing House propoganda, the latest polls that no one seemed to care about: it didn’t matter; when Yamagishi’s foil was flapping his jaws, the public remained entranced.
You’d heard action and drama scored in games before, but really, you hadn‘t; no one had until Yamagishi’s platter arrived at their door. His union brought something filmic, a depth far beyond the general discord, his sound outclassing even the most high end titles and stymieing, once and for all, the noxious potpourri found to be emanating frequently from Nintendo’s more bottom feeding scores.
Playing back the tapes some 26 years later, you’re still likely to be caught up and transfixed by Yamagishi’s multiple ticks. The tracks aren’t all that long, and they’re quick to reach their refrain, but for what they lack in excess, they replace with a kind of fixation: you’re more than happy, insistent even to hear Ninja Gaiden’s main cues for hours, maybe even to complete nausea. You’re convinced that there is no other way to hear these tunes. I’m here to tell you: of course not, you might miss something, and so what’s another go around?
It’s a dare really, find something better than Yamagishi’s Information and Coercion ; try to top Masked Devil. What intro level music surpasses Pushing Onward? How about Unbreakable Determination? Go ahead, I’ll wait here….(years pass)………..Time’s up!
So, I entreat you, be thankful everyday for Keiji Yamagishi, and Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. Without them, your idea of video games might have been irrevocably skewed. It’s difficult, I know, but imagine games today being as bare bones and empty as the worst Atari 2600 shovel ware. Those lengthy stories, that character development, that cinematic touch, and of course the music all gone! Crisis averted.
Listen, I hear Yamagishi’s a real sucker for mail and stickers, and I think it’s time we all sent over some thank you cards, don’t you?
Essential Tracks: Information and Coercion/ Evading the Enemy/ Masked Devil / The Duel / Rugged Terrain / Seeking Truth / Unbreakable Determination / Nowhere to Run
Update: Keiji Yamagishi is part of the fantastic creative collective Brave Wave. He currently has a new record that can be found here. Spoiler: it’s incredible!
Listen: Good Weather
- Mr. Gimmick / Composer: Masashi Kageyama / Release Year: 1992
Composer Masashi Kageyama’s score for Sunsoft’s Mr. Gimmick is neither the product of a script, nor of action, nor of canned applause and least of all not something built from a predetermined and circumscribed path. The NES employs a rather hollow core for use in the creation of its music, a stingy meridian that utilizes a pitiful gratuity of sound samples and carries even fewer channels with which to screen its broadcast.
Its design, seemingly in perpetuity, is partially responsible for muddling every composition ever written for it. That is, of course, with the exception of one: Mr. Gimmick. (Gimmick in Japan)
Listen: Happy Birthday
Writing for the NES requires constant adaptation, as the movement from organic strings to sound type to numbered values removes a vast number of the elements that make it accessible to the public at large. Not everyone can understand nor decipher, nor appreciate your love for this music, and it is because, for better or worse, the fact is that many of its human elements have been stripped away.
When you think of these compositions, hear them playing, you’re most likely to envision machines, and not the people who actually wrote the songs. One’s personal enjoyment of 8-bit chiptunes is tied to a process of surrender and acceptance, and it is an invitation that few willingly grant passage.
Listen: Lion Heart
It’s with all of this in mind that I’d like you to forget for a moment the litany of restrictions I’ve just painstakingly described, because as I stated in the beginning, absolutely none of it applies to Masashi Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick. Catharsis is not a term I’d assign to many of the forebears of this genre, but I do so without reservation. On top of that suspension, I’d like to add an indulgent, rather liberal heaping of praise when it concerns Kageyama’s 1992 score.
Listen: Slow Illusion
Again the NES, solely judged on its sound chip, has but a few splintered emotions to explore, and such a small percentage of its composers understood exactly how to fully manipulate it. Kageyama, however, is one of the VERY select few to cultivate such a flush and widely versed terrain of play despite these limitations. While most will hit a particular type of note over the head, beat it to death even (the action game score, the joyous platformer, the haunted house, and the space mission ), Kageyama plays naturally and without repetition in response to changes in the situation, but he’s also a person, a friend who’s alive and in the room: someone you can see, someone you find ease in talking to, and someone you can reach out and touch.
Kageyama realizes, like any truly brilliant musician does ( and I’ve said this many times before), that music cannot be directed nor come from a place of convolution or duplicity: People will always see right through it. It has to be real, and it has to be come with a willingness to speak with and to counsel as many people as is conceivable.
Close examination of Masashi Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick reveals a deeply personal tale, one that is easily identifiable, but one that’s told with such affably sweet tenderness, and with gentle, but unflinching introspection that it can be emotionally overwhelming. Kageyama speaks at times low, describing the pained frustrations to be found within his own past, things he‘s perhaps not proud of, outbursts he’d rather forget, and if could dial back a clock to a certain moment in time, he’d do so without a second glance. It’s universal.
And yes, I’m getting a sense of all this directly from his score.
Listen: Just Friends
This is but one single angle of this particular recording though, and many times, more than can accurately be accounted for, he’s prone to beaming. Kageyama is nothing less than effulgent in his recollections, snapshots recalling everything from the bizarre inconsistencies in the shapes and colors of fall leaves, wind on his face during bike rides on isolated strips of road, being surrounded by friends; all their separate bonds, and how during the winter if you stand a VERY certain way, half slouched, hands out to your sides but still in direct sunlight, it can make you forget the cold. His tales fly at you with such charisma and warmth that by the night’s end, you’ve felt you’ve known him your entire life, already sharing inside jokes betweeen the two of you and having exchanged phone numbers, the logical next step is becoming best friends. Kageyama’s happy to oblige.
Probing the album even further, you begin to realize how all-encompassing Mr. Gimmick truly is. Our composer shies away from nothing; if it is something to be found in daily life, he’s included it here to sumptuous effect: birthday mornings, falling in love, the paralysis of a sudden tragedy, grades of sunshine, family around a table, afternoon breaks, trying to fall asleep and friendship. There’s more though, throughout Mr. Gimmick’s entirety, its lengthy musical sojurn, Kageyama holds your hand. It is unprecedented, the feeling of closeness that he creates, it’s amplified, radiant even, and it bests the typical separation anxiety that comes with most albums from the NES library. There are no words for it, and it’s the only one of its kind that has ever left me sobbing and in tears.
Listen: Good Night
So, what makes the difference here? What makes Mr. Gimmick the very best NES soundtrack ever made? Well…there’s a thing about nostalgia, and nostalgia is something that’s tied to each and every game on this list. Let us take an example, The Legend Of Zelda’s over world theme; it’s amazing, but it’s a permanent memory. If you heard it today for the first time, you’d probably still love it very much, but I’m not sure that you’d be able to relate to it as readily as you would to Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick. While Zelda’s theme remains completely incredible, my guess is that if you found both Zelda and Mr. Gimmick together in a play list you might in fact skip over Zelda’s theme in favor of Mr. Gimmick. Why?
It’s simple, Zelda is a recollection tied to very specific moments, and in the given scenario you might not exactly be feeling its very explicit pull. Mr. Gimmick on the other hand, regardless of any lingering sentimentality, remains something stunning and unsurprisingly current. Kageyama’s album plays more like the records in your own collection, and when called upon, has the ability to not only scratch the more familiar of your itches, but also encourages further experimentation in the pursuit of new retrospection. It’s what elevates his work over all others. Kageyama’s not the product of some blurring reminiscence, and he’s not stamped by time. He’s physically always going to be there with you when playing his songs. He’s not separated by language, not hamstrung by the actual distance between himself and his audience, and not at all afraid to share with you personally: there‘s both trust, and love there. Masashi Kageyama and his music never seem to concern themselves with the preoccupations of this industry: it is never about dungeons, shoot-outs, evil undead hordes, or aliens…his primary concern is making music that fosters a direct connection with the audience he cares so much about.
He’s happy playing his saxophone, content in between to joke loudly , or listen intently all the while, smiling…the only living boy in New York.
It is for all these aforementioned reasons, for his genius and inspiration that Masashi Kageyama and the music for Mr. Gimmick earn without question the award for the Nintendo Entertaiment System’s single greatest soundtrack ever made.
Essential tracks: ALL OF IT…don’t miss a single beat.
Update: At the time of this writing Kageyama is currently in preparations to record a brand new album, his first in years. He’s also joined the spectacular roster of artists commissioned by the wonderful folks at Brave Wave. Please look forward to it.
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.