The Best of Retro Gaming: Music From the 8-Bit Era

Posted by | November 26, 2008

The sad truth is, I’m an old and crumbling husk of bones and withered, parchment-like skin. That’s not just because I’ve taken over a stolen corpse as my body, either. I blinked one day, and when my eyes opened again, time had passed. Twenty years, about.

In some ways, this was extremely cool. The internet happened, over about a week or so as far as I can tell, I was suddenly living in my own house, there was a car in the driveway, and I could eat pizza every day. Video games also got bigger, with that Super Nintendo, Genesis, Playstation, Xbox, a brief flash of Gamecube, and finally the Wii appeared, ghostly in its hidden and unpurchasable majesty.

Then I turned around and talked games with a buddy of mine, and discovered he’d never played the original NES Metroid because it came out before he was born. At that moment, my hair faded away to a silvery gray. My skin cracked, spots appearing upon its translucent surface, and my pants, by the power of some awful and uncontestable force, hiked up to my elbows. One minute a gamer, the next, Grampa Williams.

The point of all this babbling is while games have gotten bigger and deeper, they haven’t necessarily gotten better. Talent is talent, and the folks slaving away over a hot dev kit in the 80s had their share. To give you goldarn whippersnappers some perspective, here’s five shots of the most impressive video game music of that lost paleologic era when the Nintendo Entertainment System ruled the land.

First level. You pass through the rotting courtyard, enter the castle’s gate (after picking up that hidden treasure, of course), and then Vampire Killer started up. This wasn’t a game about hiding in the dust and shadows, Castlevania was for rocking out with your whip out.

Sunsoft got the license to roll out a tie-in Nintendo game for that little Batman movie that just came out back then, and we’re damn lucky they did. Not only did the game offer jaw-dropping graphics and atmosphere, but someone in Sunsoft’s music department sold his soul for power over over the NES’s sound chip. The result was one of the most incredible experiences on the Nintendo, and possibly the best movie game ever made. Here’s the intro.

Mega Man 2
While the first game in the Mega Man series defined “Nintendo Hard” before you’d even got through the first level, Mega Man 2 was somewhat more forgiving. They replaced the gleeful cruelty shown by the former game with creative platforming that still holds up even today. Then, Capcom performed a series of expensive and morally questionable experiments to figure out just what the sound of jumping between platforms while blasting cartoonish robots really was. They refined that knowledge into the soundtrack for Mega Man 2. Although the game features impressive music throughout, the greatest track doesn’t kick in until after you’ve recycled the robot masters. Mega Man teleports in before the gates of Wily’s castle, the music hits like a shot of pure awesome into the brain, and you instantly know two things. First, those robot masters you put down were nothing but lackeys and dogs. Second, this is the real battle.

Ninja Gaiden
There’s a reason every game that flings itself out on the market these days is filled to the screaming brim with cinematics and cutscenes, and that reason is Ninja Gaiden. Not just content to make one of the finer platformers seen on the Nintendo, Tecmo wrapped Ninja Gaiden’s action sequences around a complex plot told through roughly twenty minutes of cinematics. Just as an encore, they shoved a complete soundtrack up the cart’s ass until it bloated out like a turkey filled with stuffing and an alien larva. Because I care about you, here’s not just the music, but the entire set of cutscenes from Ninja Gaiden.

Ninja Gaiden: All Plot, No Game

Chilling, minimalist, sci-fi. The opening chimes of Metroid’s title screen set the tone for a game of exploration and desperate battles against the inhuman Mother Brain. Maybe Metroid has gone on to new pastures, what with all that fancy three-dee and eff-pee-ess the kids talk about, but it all started here. An emergency order from the galaxy police, and that ominous music.

There. That should teach you young damn delinquents. Now get off my lawn!

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