Stop listening to that Noise! Nick D. will show you what real music sounds like all in 8-bit glory.
The NES was a time of massive change for the gaming industry. Games became more complex and a whole new audience jumped aboard. In many ways, the third generation of consoles was the beginning of the industry as we see it today. It seems strange considering the massive limitations of the system, but game developers on the NES often managed the impressive feat of making 8-bit music not just bearable, but actually great to listen to. It only makes sense that, at the turn of the industry, all aspects would evolve in some way, and music was no exception.
As we go boldly into the eighth generation of consoles, I think it’s a good idea to reflect upon the awesome music that spewed so inelegantly from Nintendo’s industry-saving machine. For those who’ve been around long enough, I doubt many of these picks will surprise too much. For those who didn’t grow up with the system and haven’t discovered some of the greatness via the Virtual Console or other less legal methods, I encourage you to check out updated and remixed versions of these tracks on YouTube.
There are a few rules to the list that you may want to be aware of. I’m only putting one entry for each series. This is to prevent a single series from dominating the entire list. To compensate for this, I’ll give a list of runner-up tracks as we move along. Secondly, I’m not basing this list on what is or is not iconic, only what I consider to be the best. Thus, you won’t find certain hugely memorable hits like the Zelda or Mario theme because I don’t consider either of those tracks to be particularly wonderful, memorable as they are. So, with no further ado, on with the list.
5. Overworld Theme – Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy is a series known for its quality music. This was still true in the early days. However, I wouldn’t call the majority of pre-Final Fantasy IV Final Fantasy music particularly stand out. The battles were generally plain, the same with dungeons. There were some exceptions, though, and these really shined. My pick for this series is the Overworld Theme from Final Fantasy III. Since this game took a very long time to come across to NA and PAL territories, it isn’t as well remembered as it should be. But it’s hard to argue with this excellent and melodic theme.
For those looking for more NES Final Fantasy music, I would steer you towards Final Fantasy II’s Battle Theme and Final Fantasy I‘s Mt. Gulg. Both of these stand up pretty well against todays standards.
4. Brinstar Theme – Metroid
I didn’t start playing the Metroid Series until Super Metroid on the SNES, but this theme still stands out even though I don’t have any nostalgia backing it. Unlike the Final Fantasy series, Metroid involves more ambient music, which makes what little music there is far more powerful. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Super Metroid‘s Brinstar Theme, Metroid’s take on the first area is much more full of adventure and grandeur, which is good since most gamers won’t ever get out of Brinstar.
For those looking for more NES Metroid Music, there’s not much to recommend since there’s only a solitary game. Of the tiny list, Kraid’s theme is one worth checking out.
3. Bloody Tears – Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
It used to be that Castlevania had some of the best music in the entire industry, though this isn’t true anymore, it’s still good to recognize the amazing stuff the series was able to churn out in its early days. Bloody Tears stands above titans to claim this throne. You’ll find it on many a best NES list and it’s fully deserving. It’s complex, powerful and catchy as hell. It’s also the best thing to come out of Castlevania II, so it has that running for it as well.
2. Area 5 – Bionic Commando
Bionic Commando is an NES gem that was blessed with a pretty good remake and a pretty mediocre PS3/Xbox 360 sequel. The gameplay was solid, but what really stood out was the amazing music, which still holds strong as some of my favourite in the industry. Area 5 is simply too epic for 8-bit. It’s sad, dangerous, and motivating all at once. Bionic Commando (2009)’s take on this track is worth pointing out and linking. Titled Beyond Dark Skies, this Metal Gear Solid-esque reimagining goes a long way in showing how great NES tracks can be in the modern video game era.
For those looking for more NES Bionic Commando, look no further than Area 9. This theme fought neck and neck for Area 5 for the position, so it’s definitely worth checking out.
1. Dr. Wily Stage 1 – Mega Man 2
Remember when I said that Castlevania was known to have some of the best music in the industry at the time? Well, Mega Man did have the best music in the industry. Between Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3, I could populate a similarly titled list thrice this size. Keeping it to a single entry was simple, however, since Dr. Wily Stage 1 exists. It’s probably the best piece of NES music out there, and it regularly tops lists for good reason. I’d extol the piece’s virtues, but I don’t have to. It has aged extremely well, and stands well enough on its own.
Nowadays, Video game music is a massive endeavour and is far more recognized by the community. However, it’s important to remember that before the amazing soundtracks of Final Fantasy VI or Nier, there were NES soundtracks. Despite the primitive technology some of these tracks continue to be just as great as the stuff you’ll find today, produced with a much higher budget.