Diggin’ in the Carts: The Unsung Heroes + My Favorite 8-Bit Jams

Episode one of Diggin’ in the Carts, the Red Bull Music Academy’s new miniseries that explores the history of video game music and the influential composers of Japan, came out yesterday. This first of six weekly installments gives a brief overview of the origins of sound and music in video games, from Pong to Pacman and beyond, before moving on to the importance of early soundtracks by Namco’s Junko Ozawa and Nintendo’s Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka. A composer and hardware designer, Tanaka had a hand in the creation of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) sound chip and also went on to design the sound hardware for the Gameboy.

As a child of the NES epoch, these 8-bit sounds are burrowed deep into my psyche and bring forth a flood of nostalgia and emotion, as they do for much of my generation. I’m excited for the rest of the series and will be sure to post the episodes here. After all, many of these composers haven’t received their due credit, considering the far-reaching influence of their works. It’s great to see them getting it here.

To commemorate the series’ kickoff, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite 8-bit compositions from the golden NES era (presented in no particular order). Peep the list after the jump and feel free to share some of your own favorites in the comments.

CDCs Favorite 8-Bit Jams

8-Bit background by Matt Schwartz.

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Contra – “Stage 1 – Jungle”
Composers: Kazuki Muraoka and Hidenori Maezawa

Contra, Konami’s classic side-scrolling shooter, was by far one of the most played games on my NES back in the day. Fun, challenging, and packed with enough absurd weaponry to charm any 8 year old boy, the game was thoroughly enriched by its excellent soundtrack. And, if you weren’t using the Konami Code, you probably heard this Stage 1 jam a lot. No complaints about that— this driving game-opener impeccably sets the tone for your grueling battle against the Red Falcon terrorists and their H.R. Giger-style alien overlords.

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Metroid – “Kraid’s Lair”
Composer: Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka

‘Hip’ Tanaka’s influence in video game music cannot be overstated, both in terms of his composed works as well as his important role in the development of the actual sound chip hardware of both the NES and Gameboy. Without a doubt one of his most memorable compositions, “Kraid’s Lair” is a hypnotic and unsettling track with a waltz-like quality that provides an early example of Tanaka’s renowned attention to rhythm.

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Castlevania – “Wicked Child”
Composers: Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima

Castlevania was another mainstay of my NES days that featured a soundtrack that’s stellar from start to finish. This game was an early Konami release for Nintendo and helped establish their studio as one of the finest in gaming and music composition. “Wicked Child”, the music from Stage 3, edged out its ample competition with its sweeping and addictive melody.

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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – “Bloody Tears” (Day Theme)
Composers: Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima

I’m 99% sure that “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is the NES track that’s been converted into the most metal guitar leads on YouTube. Of course, that’s a bit of a no brainer, really— the refrain’s flood of staccato arpeggios was just begging to be Yngwie Malmsteen-ed. It’s hard to image a better soundtrack for a vampire slaying.

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The Legend of Zelda – “Main Theme”
Composer: Koji Kondo

The title music from The Legend of Zelda is nothing less than an indelible classic and no collection of 8-bit music would be complete without including it. The hint of the intro notes, the galloping percussion, the triumphant build of the melody, and the interlocking harmonies all collide to make this truly one of the most dynamic and expertly composed NES themes. What else should we expect from Koji Kondo?

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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – “Palace Theme”
Composer: Akito Nakatsuka

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a very different game than its predecessor, scrapping the top-down view for a side-scrolling adventure game with more RPG elements. Koji Kondo was also absent as composer— he would return for the third installment, A Link to the Past— though that’s not to say this game didn’t have a solid soundtrack. In fact, Akito Nakatsuka’s compositions lend a much more melancholic mood to Zelda II which help to distinguish this sequel and dispel the considerable shadow cast by The Legend of Zelda. “Palace Theme” captures the grinding stress of the dungeon crawling that characterized this game perfectly.

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Mega Man 2 – “Bubble Man”
Composer: Takashi Tateishi

The Mega Man 2 soundtrack was easily one of the most difficult to make a selection from, which shouldn’t be too surprising to the initiated. This game is absolutely brimming with incredible tunes and went on to influence countless soundtracks many years after its release. “Bubble Man” is pure testosterone-laden action sequence guitar solos distilled to a series of blips and bloops and it couldn’t be more exquisite.

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Mega Man 2 – “Dr. Wily Stage 1”
Composer: Takashi Tateishi

Yeah that’s right, Mega Man 2 gets another entry on this list. It was difficult enough whittling down to these two, how could I be expected to choose between all of those excellent stage themes and the Dr. Wily “Stage 1” music? It couldn’t be done. It shouldn’t be done. Again, simply a testament to the greatness of this game’s entire soundtrack.

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Mega Man 3 – “Title Theme”
Composer: Yasuaki Fujita, aka Bun Bun

Of course I had to give Mega Man 3 a shout out as well. I didn’t own this game, so I didn’t play it all that much as a kid, but it didn’t take many plays to get the “Title Theme” lodged into my head forever. There’s surely an ongoing rage session on a forum somewhere about whether Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3 is in fact the better game. And while each can make the claim of being the gold standard of this momentous series, with an opening song this good who wants to even leave the title screen, am I right?

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Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! – “Fight Theme”
Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito Nakatsuka, and Kenji Yamamoto

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was an essential of any NES household. I can remember getting the password for the Mike Tyson final bout from my Uncle and roundly getting my ass kicked like it was yesterday. The “Fight Theme”, which doubles as the “Training Theme” when it’s suped up and set to Lil Mac’s jog over looking Manhattan, is absolutely central to this game. Central as in it’s literally playing for most of the game. Minimal, but lively, this propulsive loop provides just the right amount of catchiness and dramatic flair, while its simplicity ensures the track never overstays its welcome.

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Double Dragon – “Mission 1 (Billy & Jimmy’s Theme)
Composer: Kazunaka Yamane

Though the main title from Double Dragon is a great track, I had to with Mission 1 (Billy and Jimmy’s Theme)” as my selection from this franchise. The track’s copious crescendos, pitch bends, and overall sense of urgency really set the mood for this classic beat ’em up title.

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Ninja Gaiden – “Stage 4-2”
Composers: Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta

To be honest, I didn’t play a whole lot of Ninja Gaiden because I never owned a copy and it was so damn difficult that I could never borrow one long enough to beat it. Alas, if you actually made it to Level 4-2 in the game, this striking theme was just enough to inspire you to pick up the pieces of your crushed spirit and carry on. “I will get my revenge!”, indeed.

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Ducktales – “The Moon”
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura

Another absolutely essential track, “The Moon” from Ducktales is a tune that really pulls at the heart strings. Its melody, full of dynamic changes, interlocking notes, and tasteful flourishes of vibrato, is arguably unmatched by any other song from this era. The game itself was solid as well and has apparently inspired enough collective nostalgia to inspire last year’s multi-platform release of a “remastered” version of the game with updated graphics and sound. Yet, no high-definition remake will ever have the power of this little jam— and that’s somethin’ special.

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Treasure Master – “The Moon”
Composer: Tim Follin

I did a little diggin’ in the carts myself for this list and in the course of revisiting many soundtracks that brought back a rush of memories, I stumbled across this gem from Treasure Master. I had never even heard of this game, and this playthrough probably confirms why— it looks insanely difficult and without much character (aside from that swagged out strut of the game’s protagonist). That being said, the soundtrack is on another planet compositionally, as are apparently Tim Follin’s other works. And hey, who knew there was another theme for “The Moon” that was so awesome?

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Super Mario Bros. – “Overworld Theme”
Composer: Koji Kondo

The “Overworld Theme” from Super Mario Bros. is without question the most celebrated song from any video game ever. This inescapable melody has entered the collective unconscious and is now recognizable to virtually everyone, gamer or not. And why shouldn’t it be? Not only did this title help define a generation of video games, but the theme itself is infectious and unlike any that came before it. It’s notably tropical in vibe and also remarkably simple, featuring just the main melody, sparse bass tones, and some light percussion. In that simplicity lies a perfection that has carried this theme well beyond its 8-bit chip.

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Super Mario Bros. 2 – “Overworld Theme”
Composer: Koji Kondo

Obviously similar in compositional structure to the indelible theme from the original Super Mario Bros, the “Overworld Theme” from Super Mario Bros. 2 is bent into a more whimsical, even circus-like, tune. The game itself was actually born from a prototype for another game, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, which explains the bizarre otherworldly feel and disparate gameplay dynamics when compared to its predecessor. The soundtrack feeds into that nicely and helps create a strange vision of a strange world where pink dinosaurs shoot eggs out of their mouths and root vegetables are the most common weapon available.

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Final Fantasy – “Opening Theme”
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu

Nobuo Uematsu is nothing short of a legend in the world of video game music. He went on to create his true masterpieces on Super Nintendo and Playstation, in my opinion, but that fact in no way disparages Uematsu’s work on the NES. His soundtracks for the early Final Fantasy games are among the finest of all Nintendo compositions. The most memorable track for me would have to be the “Opening Theme” from the progenitor of the series. I played and re-played Final Fantasy so many times that all of the songs and sounds are pretty special to me, but this one just cranks that nostalgia meter up to 11.

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