Music of the 16-bit era: five of the best

Introduction: I spent much of my late teens and my 20s playing and listening to loud music, earning me tinnitus by the age of 30. Its got a bit better in the years since I gave up being in bands, but nevertheless my days of listening to heavy metal are largely behind me (with a few exceptions), and my music of choice now tends to be video game soundtracks. This isn’t just because my hearing is a bit sensitive: even though I spend more time playing games than any man in his 30s should, it’s still not as much time as I would like, and so listening to old video game music is a way to make up for it a bit.

Plus, there is a massive nostalgic appeal to listening to game music from my childhood, not least because it reminds me of spending time with family and friends who I don’t get to see much these days, or who in some cases are gone for good. After all, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’; another word that evokes the same idea is the old German word ‘heimweh’, homesickness. Nostalgia is like the pain of going home, the pain of the past.

Here are some of my favourite tracks from the 16-bit era, mainly from games I first played between the ages of about 10-15. Quite apart from their inherent musical appeal, some of these tracks really stand out for their compositional and technical ingenuity, if you consider the limitations of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

In no particular order:

  1. Fear Factory – Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country was a hugely important game for Nintendo, an amazing technical achievement that boasted brilliant graphics at a time when Nintendo was first challenged by Sony’s Playstation. The game was memorable not only for its visual and clever level design, but also for one of the best soundtracks featured on the Super Nintendo. From the catchy scene-setting of the brilliantly orchestrated opener Jungle Japes, to the beautifully atmospheric Aquatic Ambience, this is a soundtrack that features a number of iconic pieces of music. Gang Plank Galleon, heard when you’re fighting end boss King K. Rool, segues from a pirate-themed intro into a rollicking rhythmic beast of a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Iced Earth album. But for me, the highlight has to be Fear Factory, a stunningly futuristic track that at times makes me think of Mass Effect and Blade Runner. It perfectly captures the sense of incongruity Donkey and Diddy encounter as they traverse the strange (for them) industrial and technologically advanced levels towards the end of the game.

2. Upper Brinstar (The Jungle Floor) – Super Metroid

One of the best games for the Super Nintendo, one of the best RPGs of all time, and arguably the best Metroid game ever made, depending on how you feel about Metroid Prime. Super Metroid’s soundtrack is incredible: hugely atmospheric, it’s surprisingly varied and does a good job of conveying the feel of the diverse regions of planet Zebes. Some parts of the soundtrack are minimalist, reminiscent of something like John Carpenter’s The Thing; then you have a track like Jungle Floor. It’s ridiculously catchy, almost like a disco track, but still menacing and with those weird alien synths washing over it at the same time. It’s a perfect change of pace, but the entire soundtrack is worth listening to from beginning to end.

3. Under Logic – Streets of Rage 2

I never had a Mega Drive as a kid (we were a Nintendo household), and the only game that made me wish I had one was the original Streets of Rage. Side-scrolling beat ’em ups were huge in the late 80s/early 90s, and for me SOR was the best of them all, better than Double Dragon, Final Fight, and everything else. I remember playing it at my friends house and absolutely loving it. So, I never owned Streets of Rage 2 as a kid, but I do now, and its soundtrack is my go-to for easy listening at work. The whole soundtrack is killer, with major standouts obviously being Go Straight and Dreamer. Under Logic, though, is probably my favourite, not least due to its opening, which is just insanely good. One of the best video game soundtracks ever composed, hands down, on any system, from any era.

4. Pyramids – Zombies Ate My Neighbours

Zombies is a cult classic: a top-down, hard-as-nails B-movie horror themed shooter that supported two-player co-op. I got it for my tenth birthday and absolutely loved it, even though I was terrible at it and never completed it. One of the best things about the game is its soundtrack, composed by the inestimable Joe McDermott, who kindly gave me an interview for this very blog earlier this year. The award-winning soundtrack has received many plaudits over the years, and for good reason: it’s spooky, catchy, and perfectly captures the comedy-horror vibe exuded by the game’s graphics and writing. My personal favourite track is Pyramids, a remarkable piece of music that features a ridiculously groovy and catchy bass line, amazing keys, some sick samples, and is just pure gold from beginning to end. It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves more attention. I’ve often wondered if the members of the band Ghoul played this game as kids.

5. Phantom and a Rose – Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana was a very special game, probably my favourite RPG on the Super Nintendo and one of my favourite games of all time. Many aspects of the game were very unusual and have never been successfully copied since, like its weird three-player support, peculiar fusion of real-time combat with ATB gauges, and expansive magic levelling system. But somehow everything came together perfectly, due in large part to its fascinating, rich, and beautiful world, and it’s long, complex, dark, and sad story. A big part of this appeal was its stunning soundtrack, which is full of hauntingly beautiful pieces of music, and it’s really hard to pick out any one from the others. Just listen to the whole thing. For me, nothing captures the feeling of listening to music from my childhood quite like this.

Chrono Trigger, a successor to Secret of Mana and regarded by many to be a superior game, was never released for the SNES in Europe, and so I never played it as a child. CT has a famously good soundtrack, and I am finally getting round to playing it now, on the DS, over 20 years after its original release. But no matter how good it is, I doubt I will ever have the same emotional response to it as I do with Secret of Mana.

So, these are some of my favourite pieces of music from the 16-bit era–arguably video gaming’s golden age. I hope you like them, and if you’re not familiar with the source games, I encourage you to check them all out!

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