Top 100 NES tracks

as voted by The Shizz



[115-106][105-96][95-86][85-76][75-66][65-56][55-46][45-36][35-26][25-16][15-6][5-1]

#5 - Duck Tales
The Moon

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Track information:
Game title: Duck Tales
Track title: The Moon
Game release year: 1989
Composer:Yoshihiro Sakaguchi
Download: NSFE (complete), NSF (track 7)

Review by raubhimself:
Man, this song. Itís the type of song that fills my heart with just about every emotion there is, reminding me of songs generally left for game endings and credits. Whimsical, joyous, and filling my heart with a straining sense of nostalgia, this is a song I imagine singing and dancing along with, arms around my best bros and buds. I donít think I can put it any other way. Itís a purely emotion-driven tune.

Additionnal review by Jace: Duck Tales is one of the few NES games I actually owned as a kid, and I can confidently say that I've always known there was something special about this song, long before the days of the internet and ensuing dozens of mostly-atrocious arrangements on YouTube (most of which seem content, for some reason, to ignore the [admittedly subtle and insane] fact that the intro is in 15/8, and I find my consternation over this to be one of the greatest indicators of the depth of my NES music sickness.)

This was one of the songs that inspired me, sometime in middle school (mid-90s), to hook the NES' audio out up to the cheap shelf stereo system in my bedroom and record my own NES mixtape to cassette (other games I owned with tunes that ended up on this tape include Mega Man 2, Time Lord, and Pictionary, and man did it annoy my friends if I put this thing on in the car.) Before that, I would sometimes fire up Duck Tales and head to the moon level, put down the controller, and just listen to the music. It made me want to go outside and ride my bike all day, or head into the woods and carve new trails. You'll have to pardon me if I sound nostalgic, then, by asserting that this is probably one of the most melodically engaging pieces of music ever composed for any medium. I feel like Comic Book Guy saying that, but I really believe it. I'm in an NES tribute band that plays the music along to a game as it is beaten in real time on the stage by a human player via projector, and after every show people ask us to do Duck Tales some day. But we know they're really just asking us for the moon theme (maybe Amazon too, but mostly not).



#4 - Mega Man 3
Introduction

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Track information:
Game title: Mega Man 3
Track title: Introduction
Game release year: 1990
Composer:Yasuaki Fujita (BUNBUN)
Download: NSFE (complete), NSF (track 1)

Review by raubhimself:
Itís always been strange to me how long and how good the Mega Man title themes are. Gamers are impatient and sitting at the title screen more for more than 30 seconds is tough. With this song the intensity doesnít pick up until 23 seconds in, opting for a long introduction that is 23 seconds of beautiful video game soul music. Not quite what you might expect for the first notes of a game about a robot saving the world. Those patient enough to wait it out are treated to signature Mega Man inspiration. The illusion of a full drum kit, galloping bass, soaring melodies; itís quintessential Mega Man.



#3 - Silver Surfer
Stage Theme 1

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Track information:
Game title: Silver Surfer
Track title: Stage Theme 1
Game release year: 1990
Composers:Tim Follin, Geoff Follin
Download: NSFE (complete), NSF (track 1)

Review by raubhimself:
The Follin Bros channeled the Power Cosmic for this song. Itís the only way to explain it. The lightspeed pace and breakneck groove is true to the nature of the Silver Surfer riding cosmic waves across the galaxy. The tension describes perfectly the terrible dichotomy of the freeing joy of wielding the Power Cosmic and the enslaving responsibility of being herald of Galactus. Iíll admit to being lukewarm toward a lot of Follin Bros material, but itís undeniable that this song is great in every way. From composition to use of effects to melody itís a wild ride on a galactic scale.

Additionnal review by Jace: If I had been pressed at any point to put money on it, I would have given everything I had on this Silver Surfer stage theme taking the top spot in our list. It is the motherload of everything that makes NES music special.

Many NES composers, Tim Follin foremost among them, have an uncanny knack for emulating actual instruments with the NES, and most commonly it sounds like people were shooting for the electric guitar. Well, nowhere else does a 2A03 square wave sound more like an electric guitar than in this song, particularly with that single piercing high note at the end of the brief intro. But Mr. Follin wasn't content with merely emulating the guitar. I believe that every single programming trick possible is pulled out in this song, giving it an explosive pizzazz quite unlike anything done for any other platform in the 8-bit era, and generally not sounding quite like anything in purely synthesized music for that matter.

The greatest Follinnovation of all is the use of the triangle wave to handle two things at once: drum kit and bass. Primarily because of the drum sound, I still can't fully wrap my head around the fact that this song contains no sampled content whatsoever, nor any expansion chips. Furthermore, there's a sense of loudness to this song that should be impossible on paper. The 2A03's triangle wave had a fixed volume, which should mean that pushing the squares too hard would drown it out, but EVERYTHING in this track is blowing up in your face, bursting with an up-frontness that is beyond my comprehension. Deliberate application of certain frequencies likely has something to do with this perceived loudness, as well as the specifics of the interplay between square wave velocities and the fixed triangle.

The greatest criticism of Follin is that he tends to eschew melody and structure in favor of technical details, kitchen-sink flash and blinding shred. A lot of times it sort of sounds like he's just having a self-indulgent laugh. That criticism doesn't hold with this particular song, though. Sure, it has the appearance of one billion things crashing into each other in a spray of neon glitter all shooting out of Galactus' mighty horns, but somehow, against all odds, this one manages to get stuck in your head. I'm not necessarily saying that "good music" needs to be catchy, or that I'm talking about catchy in a Super Mario Bros. way, but this particular creation is all the more amazing for its melodic choices in tandem with insane chunks of flair and the boldness of its chord changes.



#2 - Castlevania II - Simon's Quest
Bloody Tears (Street - Daytime)

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Track information:
Game title: Castlevania II - Simon's Quest
Track title: Bloody Tears (Street - Daytime)
Game release year: 1987
Composers:Kenishi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima
Download: NSFE (complete), NSF (track 2)

Review by Norrin_Radd:
Short, but oh so sweet. Even though it is notably shorter than a lot of other tracks that were on this list, this track feels absolutely complete, and features not a single frame of filler.

The opening to this song features a brilliant use of duty cycles. No other soundtrack on the system used this technique the same way as the did with Simon's Quest. To this game's credit, it may be one of the only games I am aware of that actually used a different duty cycle pattern for each square wave. What I mean is, they did not play the same duty cycle at the same time. They constantly play a different duty cycle than the other square wave, even though the notes them selves are either the same, or harmonized, and playing in sync. The effect is to create a very unique phase cancellation that is not caused by vibrato or tuning as is the usual case in NES soundtracks. The same technique is used here and there through out the song, but featured very prominently at the very start if you are looking for a clear example. Can you think of any other NES game that sounds like that?

After a very synchronized start to the song, both square waves split off, and start playing off each other, in a way that kind of reminds me of two jazz masters on guitar playing a live show. One feeds off the other, and the other adapts. I think this idea is further cemented by the way each square wave continues to have it's own unique duty cycles through out the song. Almost indicating to the listener that these are intended to be two separate players. One remains scratchy, while the other remains bubbly, and any time they come together you get shot right back to the sound in the intro. The overall melody and harmonies created by these square waves, along with the production techniques provided by the duty cycles could very well put this song on to the top of the list!

Additionnal review by raubhimself:Iíve never played Castlevania II for more than a half hour or so at a time. Not because of a lack of opportunity, just because I canít do it. Kudos to anyone who has beaten this game, but itís not for me and my lack of patience. Its saving grace is a killer soundtrack filled with a variety of spooky tunes. The tracks in this game keep much of the same melodic style as the first Castlevania, but the techniques used in these songs make the first soundtrack seem amateur. Bloody Tears, with its harpsichord-like introduction and simple lead harmonies, is without a doubt the greatest song in the game and one of the most memorable Castlevania songs from the seriesí long history. Itís the type of song that makes me forget that I donít really like the game, and makes me want to try it out one more time.



#1 - Mega Man 2
Dr. Wily's Castle

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Track information:
Game title: Mega Man 2
Track title: Dr. Wily's Castle
Game release year: 1989
Composers:Manami Matsumae, Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, Ogeretsu Kun
Download: NSFE (complete), NSF (track 11)

Review by Jace:
At the time of writing, the most-watched YouTube upload of this song has 1,195,478 views. Here is a slightly random selection of some of the ensuing 3,875 comments:

"this is such an overrated song...screw the people who thinks that, this song is GODLIKE!"

"HELL YEAH!! MOTHER F******!! THAT IS THE REAL SONG!! HELL YEAAAAAH!!!"

"Ha! In your face Kingdom Hearts!!! Megaman got more than double the number of views and likes!!! FOR EVERLASTING PEACE, MEGAMAN FOREVER!!!"

"Just set this as my ringtone."

"hmmmm..... this 8 bit song sounds way better then any song made by justin bieber or lady gaga.... more bits does not mean better song"

"This song is so badass. The fact that it so simply made in 8-bit makes it stand out as truly one of the greatest ever. And it's my favorite 8-bit song. You cannot tell me or link to me a better 8-bit song. This is it. I don't give a fuck what you got."

"i'm SO making a guitar version of this song (i'm sure someone already has) but i must do it!!!"

"This is the most overrated Mega Man track of all time. Also Brentalfloss is a faggot."

"I've heard this so many times in so many different 'My Top 10 Themes' vids on Youtube, and always seeing it at number one or two, and it does get tedious seeing it.But the epicness of the theme makes up for it x20."

"I like this song so much because its makes you think about the past and space and rythm, also shows the true powar of old Cellphone music quality..Its such a nice beat.The text would be some sort of love song :)"

"is sad, the more advance games get the less we hear great music, like this. Developers spend more time on music it playes a HUGE part in gaming like mega man, kid icarus, all the legend of zeldas, super mario bros, sonic the hedghog, ductales, so on and so forth"

"I adore this song because it's so different than the stereotypical "Final Boss" levels - the music is always dark and moody and ominous, like it's telling you you're going to lose - but not this. You hear it? This music is cheering for you. It believes in you!"

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Yes, I do hear it. If a piece of music could ever be described as "anthropomorphic," it's this song, and it would appear in the form of all of your friends and family cheering you on, earnestly, from the depths of their hearts, knowing that if you die, you are dead.

There is a wistful quality to its melodies that helps separate Mega Man 2's Wily Stage 1 theme from stereotypical pump-you-up, Vince DiCola music of the day (see the Punch-Out!!! training theme for a generic example of this style on the NES). That's not to slight DiCola's works outright; they're fun, but commercial and sort of tongue-in-cheek in ways that this most heralded of NES theme songs is not.

Seeing this track take the top spot on our list gives me pause...I am reminded of the documentary "Helvetica," which dances around proposing that perhaps that namesake typeface possesses, impossibly but nevertheless, some sort of objective quality that makes it work, uniformly and undeniably, as the clearest and cleanest possible communicator of the Roman alphabet. In this sense, it almost seems that the music in Mega Man 2, Wily Stage 1 is the Helvetica of NES songs. Here we stand, The Shizz, united as a community composed of connoisseurs of VGM, giving our top prize to the same song as just about every YouTubing individual before us who has worked to come up with their own Top 'whatever' list. So again I am reminded of something else, this time William Burroughs' famous article on Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin published in Crawdaddy magazine in 1975. An excerpt of Burroughs' thoughts following his first experience at a Led Zeppelin concert:

"Music, like all the arts, is magical and ceremonial in origin. Can rock music return to these ceremonial roots and take its fans with it? Can rockmusic use older forms like Moroccan trance music? There is at present a wideinterest among young people in the occult and all means of expandingconsciousness. Can rock music appeal directly to this interest? In short,there are a number of disparate tendencies waiting to be synthesized. Can rock music serve as a vehicle for this synthesis?"

Mega Man 2's Wily Stage 1 theme answers this last question with a fist-pumping "yes." Music is real magic. We understand what music is trying to say without being told by anyone else that it's saying it, and that comprehension vastly predates obscuring factors that the cynical might use to explain away this phenomenon (advertising jingles, scenes in movies, television theme songs, radio, recorded music, etc.) Whether or not there are magic worlds, other realms from which music derives its language, we do not know, but on this realm, on this earth and in this time right now, a piece of music can have a life of its own beyond even what any human says or thinks about it, beyond any tributes to it, beyond even listening to it. Mega Man 2's Wily Stage 1 theme is just THERE; it is in our molecules, pumping through our hearts and minds. We've always been listening to it, all of us, and we always will be, even in silence.

Additionnal review by raubhimself: Ah, the song everyone knew would be here and many hoped would not. Thereís a reason nearly every VGM band has covered this song: Itís awesome. With galloping bass, staccato and flowing melodies, itís a dream to play. You can dance to it, you can headbang to it, you can pump fists to it. Itís like disco and NWOBHM combined. In context of the game, this is the beginning of the end. The eight robot masters have been defeated, now itís time for Wily. After taking down the previous levels, gamers need something to keep them going. Rather than go for an ominous song that portrays the seriousness of infiltrating Dr. Wilyís lair, we are treated to a song that sounds more like a warning to Dr. Wily than to Mega Man. Get pumped. You can do it.



This is it! Thank you for reading. I hope you have enjoyed the list, but mostly the music and the reviews. Thanks again to everyone who helped, especially the track reviewers who did a lot of good job in a rather short amount of time!

Also, please note that the complete rankings are available, as well as an anonymized rating database (as an exported SQLite DB), in case you want to do your own analysis of the ratings. Finally, here are the archived NSFEs, full NSFEs, and NSFs.
[115-106][105-96][95-86][85-76][75-66][65-56][55-46][45-36][35-26][25-16][15-6][5-1]