Quick: Name your favorite soundtrack from the Nintendo Entertainment System. Here's the catch, though: You can't mention anything from the Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, or Castlevania series.
Gets tougher, doesn't it?
The fact is, if you like chiptunes (or just really great melodic compositions), the NES had a ton of excellent work to choose from outside of the big franchises. And even if you haven't played the games in question, those tunes hold up today.
So here are five of my favorite soundtracks from the NES era from games you might not have played. Give 'em a listen, and add your own suggestions in the comments.
Shatterhand (Natsume/Jaleco, 1991)
The gameplay of Shatterhand isn't really memorable — it's essentially Strider, except with 100% more punching — but the soundtrack is a glorious example of the prog-rock-influenced tunes the NES is known for. The first few measures set up a pulsating sextuplet beat before breaking into an energetic lead melody. (Plus, look at that box art! Man, the '90s were so cool.)
Journey to Silius (Sunsoft, 1990)
This title started life as a licensed product based on the first Terminator movie. When that plan fell through, Sunsoft had to rework the gameplay and graphics. (Spoiler: Neither are that great.) The music, on the other hand, definitely fits the hard sci-fi, apocalyptic vibe of the James Cameron film. Rather than looping the same minute of melody over and over, Silius features multi-section tunes with robust drum fills. It's a much more cinematic sound.
Little Nemo: The Dream Master (Capcom, 1990)
Capcom's licensed NES titles all had excellent soundtracks; most would probably pick the Moon stage from DuckTales as the pinnacle of the period. But I prefer the simpler strains of Little Nemo, a tie-in product to an animated movie that wasn't released until two years later. This track, from the game's first stage, features a strong single-note bass line beneath a surprisingly unique harmony. It goes beyond imitation synth-rock to something that can only be called "chiptune."
Destiny of an Emperor (Capcom, 1990)
Oh man, you guys. This is my favorite underrated gem on the NES. It takes the characters from the "Three Kingdoms" period of Chinese history — featured in Koei's long-running Dynasty Warriors series — and plops them into a surprisingly entertaining Dragon Quest-esque role-playing game. And the music! Super-energetic battle compositions mingle with calmer overworld melodies, each with a unique pentatonic sound to give it that Asian flavor. The boss-battle theme above is my favorite, but I could link the whole soundtrack. It's superb.
Solstice (Software Creations/Nintendo, 1990)
Buckle up, cats and kittens — you're about to go on a prog-rock adventure, courtesy of European composer Tim Follin. (His work on Magic Johnson's Fast Break is also a favorite.) This title theme from Solstice sounds like a lost track from a Yes album (you can even spot a couple of similar riffs if you listen closely). It psyches you out with its single-note fanfare intro, instantly kicks into high gear with cascading synth lines, then settles into a propulsive 6/8 rock beat. Solstice isn't as compulsively singable as other selections in this list…but it might be the best composition of all.
What are your favorite lesser-known NES soundtracks? Share 'em in the comments.