Unless your parents always made you mute your TV when you played, you know that that music was a vital part of the Nintendo gaming experience. Like any great score the 8-bit chip tunes of your NES set the tone for countless adventures. They filled you with confidence, dread and wonder in equal measure. And I'm willing to bet that you still catch yourself absentmindedly humming your favorite game tracks to this day. Here are my picks for the 10 tunes that best defined the Nintendo Generation.
10. Final Fantasy: Victory!
Short. Sweet. Iconic. There's a reason
Victory! has been repurposed
for pretty much
every other Final Fantasy game ever made: you can't improve upon
perfection. Just listen to that fanfare, and tell me you don't feel a
surge of accomplishment as those synthesized trumpets blare. It's the
sound of, well, victory. It expertly captures the feeling you get every time you beat a level, or rack up a new high score. Heck, it's what plays in my head every time I finish my tax returns. If high-fives had a theme song, it would be this.
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9. Metroid: Title Theme
Metroid may not feature the most upbeat soundtrack on the NES, however
it easily has one of the most atmospheric. Its title theme opens with a mix of piercing echoes alongside ominous bass notes that perfectly suit the sci-fi setting. The music has a claustrophobic air that sets you on edge, while alien beeps and boops provide an eerie reminder that the extraterrestrial caverns you're about to explore are filled with unseen dangers. True, it eventually gives way to a cheerier melody. But those opening bars, still make for one of the most haunting themes in all of gaming.
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8. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!: Fight Theme
Every match in Punch-Out!! has the same music. In any other game, that would get old real fast. So, it's a good thing Nintendo created one of the best tunes in the company's history. Every note of
Fight Theme is designed to amp up the player. It's energetic beat makes you feel like the soundtrack itself is cheering you on. The fact that we've all been listening to it on loop for nearly three decades, and it's yet to feel stale, is a testament to just how seamlessly it melds with the game's action. Seriously, the Rocky Theme has
nothing on Punch-Out!!
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7. Contra: Jungle Theme
Few soundtracks on the NES that do a better job
of setting a game's tone than Contra. Just from listening to the first
stage's opening bars, you know that you need to go in guns blazing. The
frantic percussion and crazed guitar riffs scream "Action!" It's
impossible to keep your thumbs still while this tune is blaring, and it
will keep playing in your head long after you've set down the
controller. It's pure audio adrenaline. And in Contra, I wouldn't have it any other way.
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6. Castlevania: Vampire Killer
The music to Castlevania's first stage makes my list for the same reason as Contra. But in my book, it beats out the last game's opening track for two reasons. First: it's much easier to hum along to. And secondly: just look at the track title.
Vampire Killer? That just says it all, doesn't it? This melody does an amazing job of mixing genuinely creepy beats with a playful tempo that is perfect for storming the crumbling ruins of Dracula's foyer. It keeps things feeling tense, but not overbearing. It's also a more versatile theme than many NES entries, complementing the game's combat just as well as its inherent exploration elements. It serves as a pitch-perfect musical setup for the adventure ahead.
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5. Duck Tales: The Moon Theme
Some of you were probably expecting this to take the number one spot. Duck Tales' Moon theme is widely considered to be the single greatest track on the entire NES. And I agree that it's an 8-bit masterpiece. It's opening electronic blips smoothly transition into a remarkably elaborate orchestral arrangement. It's an epic, sweeping piece that fills you with a sense of adventure.The Moon Theme perfectly accentuates the simple joys of watching a Scottish Duck bounce around the lunar surface on a pogo-stick cane. If childhood had a credits theme, it might very well be this. However, that's the problem. The Moon Theme is not a credits theme. In fact, it doesn't even play over the final level. Context is key to how effective a game's score will come across. And sadly, The Moon Theme just doesn't get the prominence it deserves, buried in a game filled with other tracks that just can't hope to measure up to this show-stealing number.
4. Ninja Gaiden: A Hero's End
I am convinced that the only reason this track isn't iconic, is because probably only a handful of people ever heard it more than once. You see, this is the instrumental that plays the moment you beat Ninja Gaiden, one of the most unforgivingly difficult games on the NES. Just getting a chance to even hear this music will require nerves of steel, and, well, ninja-like reflexes. Ninja Gaiden's sendoff music is one of the greatest ever composed.It's bittersweet notes act as a perfect counter-balance to the
pulse-pounding action that has bombarded you across every stage of the
game so far, signalling that your battle is at last truly over.
A Hero's End recognizes just how far you've come to reach your moment of triumph, and plays you off into the sunset on a suitably epic note.
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3. Mega Man 2: Dr Wily's Castle
The entire Mega Man series on the NES is host to dozens of jaw-droppingly awesome tracks. However, if I must choose just one game to highlight it's gotta be Mega Man II. This game's entire soundtrack is gold, and overall one of the greatest ever produced for the Nintendo. Picking one tune from that game is even harder, but my personal vote goes to
Dr Wily's Castle. It's not just a video game boss theme. It is
the video game boss theme. In the game, you are storming a heavily armed fortress to stop a crazed megalomaniac, in a race against time. There's urgency behind every note of this track, ordering you to rush out, bring down the big bad, and finish this once and for all. It's a rocking 8-bit ballad, that can motivate anyone to greatness.
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2. Super Mario Bros: Overworld Theme
The main theme of Super Mario Bros. may not be the best theme on the NES. In fact, it's objectively worse than the overworld themes of its successors: Super Mario Bros. 2 as well as Super Mario Bros. 3. However, none of that matters because in all likelihood this was the first tune you heard when you powered up your original NES. To most everyone who ever gamed in the 80s, this is the sound of Nintendo. And that makes it one of the most recognizable tracks in gaming history. It's the first tune to play in anyone's head when they think about their NES, and that kind of lasting appeal more than makes up for its technical limitations. In fact, I can think of only one musical track that's more iconic...
1. The Legend of Zelda: Overworld Theme
Okay. I serously defy you to name me a piece of gaming music as enduring as the Zelda Theme. This tune has appeared in pretty much every Zelda game ever made. And, with good reason. Just listen to it! It starts out with a few tentative notes, before boldly marching into a full-fledged orchestral arrangement. It's confident swell mirrors every player's first cautious steps into the land of Hyrule, before flinging themselves headlong into its sprawling world. When the director Edgar Wright used it in his movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World, he described Zelda's music as "nursery rhymes to a generation." I can think of no higher praise, nor any better way to describe Nintendo's first and greatest ode to adventure.
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Anyway, those are my picks for the 10 most iconic pieces of NES music. Did I miss any? Am I a terrible person for not giving Duck Tales top billing? As always, I welcome any and all of your feedback in the comments below!