When I did my personal Top 5 for old-school anime, the thought of a running gimmick was born. I wanted to go through my past and figure what was my top five for other things. I figured, if I’m gonna do a tired old trick, I’m running the bitch into the ground!
To be honest, I didn’t come to that conclusion in such a vulgar way. I did think I’d run with a tired gimmick, but I’d do it for selfish reasons. We all want to quantify what are the best things we’ve ever played, heard, done, or wanted. It’s practically human nature. From the moment we have conscious thought, we have wanted to rank things in our life. Even if it’s something as banal as “Top 5 Pizza Toppings.”
Or is that just me?
I want to try out a Personal Top 5 series. This series will be my way of drudging through the past, picking out the top five things of a certain topic that calls out to me the most, and allow me to write about them. Unlike the old-school anime exercise, these will not be ranked. It’s hard to assign a number to favorite memories. I just want an outlet for the thoughts I have for a certain topic. There are so many things I love about my geek history, and I’d love to express them in some way. A Personal Top 5 is a great way to do so.
The real impetus for the idea is the NES. For all the bile I want to spit at Nintendo now, the Nintendo Entertainment System was one of the greatest home consoles ever. Many people revere the games that graced the system. I can’t argue with that. The history of the console goes beyond its role in the salvation of the home video game market. Venerated series like Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, and Mega Man got their start on the little 8-bit box that could. I cut my teeth on many of those series, as many retro gamers did. The NES is arguably the birthplace of modern gaming as we know it.
When I reminisce about the NES, the games themselves have to come to mind. But the thing that I wax nostalgic about the most is the chiptune music the games provided. Yes, the console was pretty potent graphically for the time. But among my fondest memories are the tunes that emanated from said games. As awesome as games like Contra and River City Ransom are, there are soundtracks that are equally amazing.
For my first proper Personal Top 5, I’m going to delve into my personal favorite chiptune tracks on the NES. These are not definitive; you may not consider some of my choices worthy of being in a top five listing at all. Hell, it was hard enough for me to whittle down my list to just five. But these are the five tracks that I personally feel are the most representative of how awesome the NES is when it’s at its best, in no particular order. I am essentially writing this as a stream-of-consciousness piece. I have put thought into it, but I’m blurting my choices as I think of them. I labored long and hard to come up with this list.
Part of this series is the discussion that follows the article. I want to know what entries you feel are worthy to reside in your personal top five lists. Feel free to let me know your choices. Remember, there are no wrong choices…except mine are less wrong than yours because reasons!
Overworld Theme – Super Mario Bros. 3
The overworld themes for the Super Mario Bros. series of games are about as iconic as you can get on the NESs. The easy choice here would be the overworld theme for the original game, as that game is as synonymous with the console as the myth that blowing on the cartridges gets them to work (hint: it doesn’t).
I, however, prefer the overworld theme for the third entry in the mainline series. While the original overworld theme is more iconic, the overworld theme for Super Mario Bros. 3 takes more advantage of the NES’s technical specs. It also helps that I hold the third entry in much higher regard than I do the original.
The music for Super Mario Bros. 3 is the work of mega-ultra-legend Koji Kondo. He is responsible for the music in so many stupendous Nintendo works on multiple consoles that it’s disgusting to even think about it. He worked on all mainline Super Mario Bros. titles on the NES. He also did the musical work on Kung Fu, The Legend of Zelda, and Devil World for the 8-bit wonder. All of those soundtracks are worthy of mention in any “Best Ever” discussions, even if they don’t appear here.
After that, he penned the scores for Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, Yoshi’s Island, Pilotwings, Star Fox, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES. And his credits on the Nintendo 64 include Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, the Mario Party trilogy, and BOTH The Legend of Zelda games! So, you know, he did some good stuff.
One of the things that stick out the most in my head is how Kondo used samples in Super Mario Bros. 3. I touched on it in an article discussing my love for game music, but I’ll give a brief synopsis here. The console’s RP2A03 APU had a channel dedicated to allowing samples to be played. In Super Mario Bros. 3, Nintendo used that channel to play the timbale and bongo sounds that permeate the entire game.
The result, in my opinion, was a soundtrack that sounded more thematic than other Mario games. Many of the game’s levels had an almost tropical sound, something that was hard to replicate using the console’s other four channels. Many songs in the game followed the theme, but the main overworld theme was the one that stuck the most.
With Super Mario Bros. 3 and its overworld theme, Nintendo really showcased the console’s aural abilities. It can be argued that other games did the same. It can even be argued that some games did it better. What cannot be argued that this game didn’t do it really well.
Overworld Theme – Dragon Warrior
In a JRPG, the overworld theme is the music track you hear the most. It was doubly so for the NES, whose JRPGs were technically inferior to later entries in more advanced consoles. As a JRPG fan who discovered his love for the genre on the NES, it’s fortunate that the overworld theme for Enix’s Dragon Warrior accompanied me for the bulk of my playing time. As simple as it is, it is also the most soothing music track for me. It’s so soothing, it’s my phone ringtone. As much as I hate talking on the phone, at least the tone beckoning me to answer and hate life makes me happy.
The composer of the soundtrack for Dragon Warrior is Koichi Sugiyama. He is a very accomplished composer, and the soundtrack for the Enix game series – renamed from the original Dragon Quest to Dragon Warrior in North America for copyright reasons – is his claim to fame. He is known for extremely bombastic scores, but his level of musical emotion was scaled back because of the technical limitations of the NES.
Even so, the overworld theme for Dragon Warrior is what I consider to be the perfect marriage of simplicity and effectiveness. It’s so familiar and pleasant for me, I was not as annoyed with the game’s incessant grinding as I should have been. The theme was so comforting, I nearly squealed in glee when I stepped into Alefgard in Dragon Warrior II and heard it again.
When you hear a song for over ten hours, it better not grate on your nerves. The overworld theme for Dragon Warrior most certainly does not.
Level 1 – Silver Surfer
You wanna talk about a song you’re going to hear for a repeatedly long amount of time? The Level 1 music for Arcadia System’s Silver Surfer – a game notorious for its punishing difficulty – is one you will hear a lot. Thank God that it’s only THE MOST METAL TRACK THE NES HAS EVER SHOWCASED!!!
The first time I played this game, this track quickly whipped me into a frenzy. The music, composed by Tim Follin, is one of the most insane tracks to ever grace the NES’s APU. It sounds like if Black Sabbath was given ALL the speed and recorded on high speed and 8-bit. It is full of energy, something you would want to accompany a frenetic side-scrolling shooter like Silver Surfer.
Follin also composed the soundtrack for Solstice, another NES game I love. The man knows how to extract lovely music from the 8-bit box. But as awesome as that soundtrack for Solstice is, I have to give the edge to Silver Surfer’s. The amount of energy and absolute badassitude the track for Level 1 alone is reason enough to give it the nod.
Title Theme – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Speaking of metal music on the NES, there is no way on God’s green Earth that you can do so without mentioning the title theme for Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That theme song is the stuff NES dreams are made of!
In truth, the entire game’s soundtrack is exemplary. Kozo Nakamura, the game’s composer, worked on all the NES TMNT games, as well as the awesome arcade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time game, its superior SNES port, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist on the SEGA Genesis. All of them are beyond reproach.
The title theme for the original NES game, however, stands out in particular. It is one of the most spectacular tracks for the system in my opinion. Whenever I hear it, I remember all the times I spent trying and failing to defeat Shredder.
Man, I sucked a lot in NES games. But at least I got to hear awesome music. And the title theme to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of my favorites.
Airman Theme – Mega Man 2
If I had my druthers, this Top 5 list would be filled with tracks from Capcom’s excellent Mega Man series. Since I decided to artificially limit myself to one track per series, I stuck with Airman’s stage music in Mega Man 2. Just know that I could have substituted at least ten other themes here.
Why did I pick this theme over all the others? That’s simple. It’s because of Bit Brigade. For those unfamiliar with them, they are a band that hits big conventions and plays the themes to popular retro games while one of their own plays the game to completion. They decided to tackle Mega Man 2 during MAGFest X and played all the themes in time to their bandmate’s gameplay. It’s their rendition of the Airman stage I love the most. I linked the beginning of that theme here, but I strongly suggest that you hear the entire playthrough. It’s amazing!
Of course, it’s not because of Bit Brigade that I love this theme. The entire soundtrack for Mega Man 2 was composed by Takashi Tateishi, alias Ogeretsu Kun. His list of credits is short, but Mega Man 2 is his crowning achievement. Of the original six titles on the NES, the second entry is seen – in sales and sentiment – as the best. Listening to the varied tracks of all the robot boss’s stages is a testament to its stature. And I feel that the Airman stage is the best example of the game’s awesome soundtrack.
Bonus Entry: Pause Screen Music – Battletoads
I mean, COME ON! In my mind, the only music more iconic than the Super Mario Bros. overworld theme is this little ditty. I used the AVGN version because he’s awesome, and that’s the only reason. I’m willing to bet half of you are dancing to it with him right now!