Friday, September 23, 2011

Video Game Music Nerddom: The NES

So before you get it into your head that I'm "cool", you should know that I listen to video game music, like, for real, as recreation. I have for nearly 20 years now. My friend Amanda and I used to make these painstakingly complicated compilation tapes (that I still have somewhere) by recording music off of our consoles as it played through this black-and-white TV/radio/cassette player system my dad gave me.

I LOVE older video game tunes. Now that anything goes, in terms of how they're made, I feel like for the most part, they just don't have the same charm and power for me. In ye olden tymes, a composer only had a handful of tracks to fill at any one moment in the song, and a fairly limited array of sounds to choose from, so while to a casual listener they may sound like beeps set to a drumtrack, a lot of the work being done throughout the NES's time was pretty amazing.

Yeah, I still have mine. Plus a backup spare. Both need repair :(

First, some technical info. The Nintendo Entertainment System (introduced in the US in 1985) used a sound chip called the NES 2A03. There were a total of 5 sound channels available for the composer to use at any one time - that means that if you've got 5 things going on and you come to a part in the song where you want to add one more, you have to choose something to drop out to accommodate the new sound - which includes all in-game sound effects like guns and jumping noises.  Not only were they limited to 5 channels, the channels were specific types: two Pulse Wave channels, that had set duty-cycle (producing different types of sound) levels, a 16-position volume control, and some pitch bending (used a lot in the "musical" tones), one Triangle Wave channel, with no volume control. One "white noise" channel with adjustable volume, and 16 preprogrammed sample rates (good for drums and explosion sound effects). And one kind of interesting channel capable of actual low-rate samples, called PCM (Pulse Code Modulation). These samples were sometimes used for speech or sound effects, but creative composers used the PCM for expanding their library of percussion sounds.

Okay, techy stuff over, let's listen to some of my favorite stand-out NES tunes, where I feel like the composers really got creative. Keep these limitations in mind while you listen, and try to hear how all of these songs are constructed! It's like an auditory puzzle with only 5 pieces that are constantly changing, I think  it's pretty fun.

Don't be self-conscious either, turn this crap UP! You can hear it better ;)

Journey to Silius, 1990, Sunsoft:

 By this time, composers were really making use of that PCM sampling feature - listen for the really "80's" sounding laser-drums. Those were definitely not possible with the existing sounds. Also a good track for just pushing the envelope in terms of NO silent moments during the song, the constant deep bass, and some nice volume-shifting with the lead.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, 1988, Konami

Really nice examples of the bassy depths those pure tones could reach, and a nice array of white-noise drum sounds. Composition is super-interesting, with weird timing, cool lurching beats, and the fact that it still continued in the canon of "what Castlevania games sound like" without repeating itself. Those guys at Konami knew what they were doing.

Mega Man 3, 1990, Capcom

In my opinion, Capcom's MegaMan games really took the musical cake when it came to composing songs that never sounded like they were limited to 5 tracks. There's always so much going on in all the layers, and they change so often, it's sometimes hard  to pick out what channel is doing what. They also employed a lot of "chorus effect" by layering the two Pulse wave tracks over each other, doing the same thing. This is a track that's built kind of like a pop song, with an intro, verse, bridge, and chorus.

Seriously though, I could talk about this ALL DAY LONG. There are so many more examples I'd love to share, but you'd never get through the blogpost. If you want to hear more, Youtube is a great resource. Start with MegaMan 1-5, Castlevania 1-3, Ducktales,  Metroid,  and Contra, and that will keep you busy for a while.

Also, lest you think I'm only "nerdy sometimes", I'll be continuing this series intermittently, with music from different consoles. Hooray!


  1. The Goonies II "rooms theme" music is my favorite NES music of all time.

  2. I certainly hope you're intimately familiar with the Chiptune genre!! It's one of my favorite types of music <3
    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Kinda on subject, there is a sweet shirt on sale for today only (Tues 9/27) at featuring a NES and a Genesis/Megadrive hi-fiving..

  4. I always liked the music from the end of Super Mario Bros. 2, the dream sequence. That was put to tape way back when.

    Two broken Nintendos? Get Jon to fix it with


  5. the envelope in terms of NO silent moments during the song, the constant deep bass, and some nice volume-shifting with the lead. Diablo2

  6. This was the best music which got beautiful composition. It's like something unique. It really draws one attention. Most of them admire it as it got the feel of old music. Being a music junky i often love to hear such tracks. Thanks for the video's uploaded above, i have thoroughly enjoyed.

    Roger D. Miles


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