Super Metroid’s soundtrack proves the value of chiptunes

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Beginning with the original NES title, the music in the Metroid series has been about more than just catchy compositions.

The first game's composer, Hip Tanaka, specifically wanted the sounds of Planet Zebes to evoke a sense of organic life, even (or especially) if that life was terrifying. You can hear his intentions in much of Metroid's ambient sound effects and melodies.

For the Super NES sequel, Super Metroid, new composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano maintained that feeling…except this time they had a broader audio palette to choose from. The SNES's improved hardware allowed for some of the most evocative, even chilling, sounds ever heard in a game.

These days, videogame culture seeks to remake and improve everything we loved as kids, many times to great effect. But the unnerving electronic tones of Super Metroid fit the game's aesthetic better than a modern orchestra ever could.

Take a listen to the tracks below for a few good examples:


You can certainly hear specific, synthesized instruments here — the melody-carrying trumpet stands out most prominently — but that's not the point. The point is the lurking, alien-sounding menace of the bass line, along with the keening wail of the minor second synth choir. The chiptune sound of the SNES actually augments this feeling; a modern orchestra would sound too safe and known here.

This sparse track plays when Samus first arrives on Zebes, and it's incredibly ominous. Even the digitized sound of the thunder in the background feels alien and strange in a way that real sounds could not have managed.

This is my favorite track in the game, so I had to include it. Again, all the instruments are largely identifiable — piano, flute, choir — but the SNES's rendering of these sounds creates a much more foreign atmosphere.

Playing Super Metroid is such a solitary experience; you're one silent hunter against a planet of unknown dangers. Any touchstone to something familiar would make you feel safer. Instead, you're forced to explore and defeat Zebes on your own, with nothing but these haunting tunes for company.

I'm a big fan of game-music remixes, and the Metroid series has produced a few doozies. But Super Metroid's soundtrack is perfect just as it is.

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