The 15 best retro video game songs
Modern video game music is, for the most part, indistinguishable from movies in terms of quality and composition style, but this was not always the case. For decades, audio and music in games consisted of a small collection of simple tones, masterfully manipulated by composers into complex and catchy tunes. These sonic constructs blossomed into a wholly unique genre of music born from necessity and the limitations of that audio technology.
Take a look at this article if you’d like to learn how this music was made, but even without knowing the effort that creating these pieces entailed, it’s easy to appreciate the retro charm they embody. Disguised behind the primitive compositional tools is a diverse array of complexity and inventiveness; beauty born out of creative methods of technological circumvention.
This style more or less disappeared with the switch to disc-based media, as the increased storage space and development budgets allowed developers to use more traditional recording techniques for soundtracks. Gone were the imitation instruments constructed of manipulated machine language tones, replaced with fully orchestrated pieces that shed that unique sensibility for more traditional trappings.
Far more than fifteen
Though it’s beyond the scope of this article to dive too deeply into the history of video game music in its entirety, we’ve gathered here fifteen of our favorite pieces from the pre-orchestra video game world. It’s by no means comprehensive, and focuses primarily on the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles most people are familiar with, with a few examples from the Nintendo 64. We chose to forego handheld consoles, not because of a lack of commendable music, just the opposite; because there’s more than enough quality content there for another article.
It’s not our intention to disparage modern video game music, which is unquestionably diverse and worthy of study and praise. This collection is rather a celebration of the inventive composers who used the musical tools at their disposal to create timeless melodies. Melodies that will live on in the public consciousness long after the plastic and metal that once housed them has crumbled away.
So get out your pogs and gigapets, and let’s get this retrospective chiptune party started. Be sure to let us know any examples you think we missed in the comments.
Nintendo Entertainment System
Though great music and sound design certainly existed in video games before the NES, the smashing success of this home console could arguably be considered the progenitor of the modern video game soundtrack. Most of what the general public considers video game music started with the NES, so we’ll begin there as well.
Super Mario Bros. - Main Theme - Koji Kondo - 1985
This is probably the most obvious choice, but there's no denying the brilliant simplicity of this iconic tune. Not only did it help to kick start the career of gaming’s most famous mustachioed face, it has also managed to become gaming's most well known theme, and is often what people still think of (for better or worse) when they think of video game music.
Though you can probably already hear it perfectly in your head, it never hurts to listen to it again in all its 8-bit glory. The Super Mario Bros. theme is proof that simplicity is an incredibly effective compositional tool.
Castlevania - Dracula Killer - Kinuyo Yamashita - 1986
If you hear this song and feel fear in your cold heart, it’s probably because you’re Dracula, and you know that a Belmont is coming to kick your ass Buffy style.
For everyone else, you’ll hear how perfectly this song exemplifies the beauty of music from this era. The simplicity of the sounds belies the complexity of the composition, and how it manages to create a theme that personifies Castlevania’s torch smashing, vampire whipping adventures.
The legacy of female composers in Castlevania is also noteworthy, given the lack of gender diversity elsewhere on this list.
Megaman 2 - Dr. Wily's Castle - Takashi Tateishi - 1988
This piece just just screams action. If it doesn’t make you want to don a buster gun and go to war with robots, I have bad news for you: you are one of the robots. And you of all people should appreciate this tune, because it’s the robot national anthem, and when the inevitable machine uprising occurs, this song will no doubt be played at the robo-President’s inauguration.
Silver Surfer - Title Screen Theme - Tim Follin - 1990
I’m not sure what demon Tim Follin made a blood pact to get these incredible chiptune songs jammed into an NES cartridge, but I’m sure he had sweet sunglasses and smoked futuristic neon cigarettes with Galactus in a William Gibson novel.
This soundtrack is a perfect example of what ambition and a deep understanding of the sound chip on the NES can accomplish. The complexity of these compositions is leagues above anything that should be expected from a random licensed game from 1990. It’s a shame the game sucks so much, because it has one of the most incredible soundtracks of the entire console generation.
It’s absolutely worth checking out all of Tim Follin’s compositions. Keep in mind though, he composed for almost exclusively terrible games, so just listen and don’t touch.
Sega Master System
Sega’s competitor to the NES, the Master System, never really had a chance. Despite having fairly strong hardware for the time, the Nintendo juggernaut simply steamrolled it. Even though it never quite managed to find a huge North American audience, it looms large in many retro gamer’s hearts.
Space Harrier - Main Theme - Hiroshi Kawaguchi - 1986
Space Harrier was the first port of a popular arcade game by the same name, and was the first two-megabit cartridge produced for the Master System. Despite being a fairly bare bones version of a superior arcade experience, the music is exceptional. The main theme is a compelling combination of hopeful and epic, and transcends the rudimentary sounds Kawaguchi had to work with.
Nintendo’s second console allowed for considerably more sophisticated composition options. You can hear this upgrade illustrated clearly in the differences between two versions of one of the mediums most iconic and enduring songs: the Legend of Zelda theme by Nintendo veteran Koji Kondo.
Here is the NES version, written in 1986-
Compare that to this version from A Link to the Past, which debuted on the SNES in 1992-
There’s substantially more going on in the second rendition, and though it’s still far from an orchestra, you can hear that it was designed as though a full symphony was present. This style of instrumentational mimicry became increasingly popular, and that trend continued throughout the nineties.
Donkey Kong Country 2 - Stickerbush Symphony - David Wise - 1994
Donkey Kong Country was one of Rare’s earliest break out successes, and used a previously unused compression technique paired with pre-rendered graphics to create one of the most visually compelling games of the time.
The music too, was well ahead of its time. The first DKC had great music as well, but the relaxing and solemn melody in Stickerbrush Symphony stands out, both as a beautiful composition, and as an interesting thematic contrast to a game about monkeys in clothes jumping on alligators.
Final Fantasy III (6) - Terra’s Theme - Nobuo Uematsu - 1994
It was a struggle to decide which Final Fantasy to include and from which console, as Nobuo Uematsu has countless excellent credits to his name before and after the SNES. Terra’s Theme from Final Fantasy III, (AKA Final Fantasy VI in Japan) is a perfect example of his sophisticated and memorable compositional chops. It’s a haunting melody that perfectly encapsulates the epic adventure across the World of Balance, Magitek armor, ghost trains, and all.
Chrono Trigger - Wind Scene - Yasunori Mitsuda - 1995
Chrono Trigger is widely considered one of the best games of all time, and a huge part of that is the unforgettable music. From Frog’s soaring theme to the serene Morning Sunlight, Chrono Trigger has one of the most musically diverse soundtracks from the era.
It also has insanely awesome art design, one of the best battle systems in any RPG, a moving story, and more than a dozen endings. Play it.
The Sega Genesis took full advantage of its two audio chips to create some of the most memorable soundtracks in gaming. Back when the SNES/Genesis wars were in full effect, the Genesis’ superior sound quality was often used as ammunition, and rightfully so. The deep bass lines allowed composers to create wholly unique and instantly recognizable sounds. You can learn about how those two two sound chips operated in this video.
Sonic 2 - Chemical Plant Zone - Masato Nakamura - 1992
From the opening music to the memorable boss battle theme, pretty much every song in this amazing game stands out to this day. Sonic 2 is a perfect example of what the dual sound chips in the Genesis were capable of in the hands of a talented composer.
Streets of Rage 2 - Introduction - Yuzo Koshiro, Motohiro Kawashima - 1992
This song has held up so well, it’s somewhat astonishing. Streets of Rage 2, while fun, is a fairly straight forward side-scrolling beat em up, but the music has a danceable, highly produced sound that makes excellent use of the system’s capabilities. If there’s a club where they play exclusively video game music, this one would close out the night. Every night.
Earthworm Jim - New Junk City - Tommy Tallarico - 1994
Earthworm Jim was released on the SNES and the Genesis, but the Genesis version sounds substantially better. The theme has an edge to it because of the Genesis sound chips, whereas the SNES version sounds a bit goofier. Granted, Earthworm Jim is a profoundly silly game, so it might be a matter of personal preference, but there’s no denying the Genesis version has more of an edge.
The Nintendo 64 was in many ways limited by the choice of Nintendo to continue using cartridges despite the almost universal embrace of optical discs as a storage medium by Nintendo’s competitors. This left the Nintendo 64 as the last of the console based systems, and as a result, has some of the best and most inventive melodies before the increased space of discs allowed composers to go more traditional recording routes.
Despite not having a dedicated sound chip, the N64 was a bridge from the simple audio capabilities of cartridge based consoles to a more standard musical arrangements. Nintendo 64 music desperately wanted to sound like it was created with real instruments, and though they mostly don’t, there are some excellent songs that have a fascinating combination of old school audio charm mixed with modern compositional techniques.
The Nintendo 64 is where we’ll end, because it was the final hoorah for this unique and underrated genre of music in mainstream consoles.
Tetrisphere - Prophetic - Neil Voss - 1997
Tetrisphere is a game that a criminally small number of people played, and that’s a shame. The gameplay is exactly what it sounds like: a version of Tetris that takes place on a sphere, filled with cute robots, powerups, and an incredibly ambitious techno soundtrack that sounds way ahead of its time more than twenty years later.
Goldeneye - Antenna Cradle - Graeme Norgate and Grant Kirkhope - 1997
Goldeneye came out of nowhere, and changed everything. It changed expectations of what a licensed game could be, it changed multiplayer gaming forever, and it proved that an FPS could be done on a console, and done well. Part of why this game made such an impact was the incredibly fast paced and elegant score that riffed on the James Bond musical motifs while doing very much its own thing.
It sounds great in game, but even better when you listen to it before it was compressed to fit on a 12 MB cartridge.
Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Gerudo Valley - Koji Kondo - 1998
Like Final Fantasy, it’s difficult to choose just one example from this decades old franchise famous for it’s music,but Gerudo Valley is something special. It’s one of the most interesting examples of Nintendo 64 attempting to replicate a more traditional symphonic experience. The song effectively emulates the sounds of castanets, guitars, and horns, and manages to paint a beautiful picture of the desert, despite the N64’s limited audio capabilities.
Banjo Kazooie - Gruntilda's Lair - Grant Kirkhope - 1998
This song closes us out not necessarily because it’s a great song, (though it is,) but because of the ingenious way it implemented music into the gameplay experience.
Whenever you adventure near the entrance to a level in Gruntilda’s massive layer, the theme of that level would gracefully intertwine with the hub world theme, providing a fascinating and seamless audio texture that was unlike anything else on the console.
Listen to around the 2-minute mark in the video above to hear the first example of the song changing to incorporate themes and instruments from the level. This was very forward-thinking, and like so many of the songs on this list, very much ahead of its time.
A retro audio legacy
Though many games continued the tradition of chiptune style music after the Nintendo 64, and still do to this day, it’s now a stylistic choice instead of an inevitability. In the '80s and '90s this was all there was, and that forced these talented composers to try new things, resulting in extraordinary results.
There are countless more incredible examples of music from these eras and beyond, not to mention the renaissance of the genre with the proliferation of more sophisticated handheld consoles like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, and modern games like Shovel Knight. But there’s something special about music from these cartridges; a unique sound that won’t ever be recaptured. That’s why it’s important to reflect on not only the accomplishments of these talented composers, but how far video game music has come due to their achievements.
What are some of your favorite songs from this genre and time period? Any you think we missed? Let us know in the comments!