There are times when it’s hard to go back and play even the best NES games. There are times when it’s hard to look at even some of the best-looking NES games. There has never been a time when it’s difficult to listen to the best NES soundtracks.
There’s a timeless quality to the best songs of the chiptune era. Granted, some NES songs simply sound better when they’re played by a live orchestra or are being reimagined in some remastered way, but that’s honestly a testament to the longevity of those tunes. Even if you’re not a fan of that classic chiptune style, the best NES soundtracks still featured legitimately great compositions that shine bright in various forms.
As always, though, let’s take a look at some of our selection criteria for this list before we dive into the picks:
- There is a “one entry per franchise” rule in place for this list. Not only does that rule allow for greater variety among the selections, but it helps ensure that some franchises that feature repeated tracks don’t benefit from a significant advantage.
- The general rule for this list is “quality of songs over quantity of songs.” While that does mean smaller soundtracks were still eligible, it also means that larger soundtracks that featured as many (if not more) great songs as smaller soundtracks did have a natural advantage.
- While it was more important for a game’s songs to enhance the experience of playing that game, special consideration was given to soundtracks where the songs stand up outside of the context of the game they’re featured in.
With that out of the way, here are 15 of the best NES soundtracks that I hope you won’t be able to get out of your head…
Composer: Tim Follin
There were so many incredible NES soundtracks vying for the bottom spots on this list. Ultimately, Solstice earned this highly competitive spot by virtue of its variety, maturity, and the ways it tested the limits of the NES’ soundtrack capabilities. Honestly, I might be underrating it.
I mean, just listen to the beat drop at the beginning of that title screen song. That track hits as hard today as it did back in 1990 when it stunned many unprepared gamers. Composter Tim Follin really tried to explore what the NES was capable of during the console’s later days, and he may have discovered some of the device’s absolute music limits. While I wish there were more tracks in this game, Solstice’s constantly shifting and genre-blending tunes really set a mood for this dungeon-crawling puzzle game that couldn’t have been achieved through any other means.
14. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Composer: Naoki Kodaka
While I have heard this soundtrack in the past in bits and pieces, it wasn’t until I sat down and really listened to the whole thing while researching this list that I realized it’s a truly special collection of retro game music. Honestly, it might be the best horror soundtrack on the NES.
Not only is the Gremlins 2 soundtrack better than the (still pretty good) game it’s found in; it might be better than the soundtrack of the movie that game is based on. There’s a sense of dread and panic found throughout this soundtrack that somehow never compromises the playful and mischievous nature of the source material. This soundtrack would undoubtedly be celebrated more if it were composed for a bigger game that stood the test of time just a little better.
13. Double Dragon II – The Revenge
Composer: Kazunaka Yamane
I honestly didn’t go into this list thinking that Double Dragon II would end up beating out so many other noteworthy beat-em-up soundtracks (especially the TMNT soundtracks). However, it’s hard to listen to this soundtrack and not just think…”wow.”
What I love about this soundtrack compared to some of its genre competitors is that it doesn’t feel the need to force-feed you adrenaline all the time. It’s packed with incredible fight songs, but other tracks are slow, moody, and (in the case of the track embedded above) even haunting. It’s one of those NES soundtracks that lends real atmosphere to a game that may have otherwise not benefited from that crucial (yet complicated) design element.
12. Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos
Composers: Ryuichi Nitta and Mayuko Okamura
I had a very hard time deciding which Ninja Gaiden soundtrack was going to make this list. While I was very tempted to give the original Ninja Gaiden’s soundtrack the slight edge due to its historical impact, Ninja Gaiden II’s eclectic collection of tracks was just too good to ignore.
While many tracks on the Ninja Gaiden soundtrack sound like they were pulled from a lost Iron Maiden album (I certainly mean that as a compliment), it’s some of the more unusual songs that really stand out from this one. The way this soundtrack is constantly dictating wildly different paces and tones without ever feeling at odds with the on-screen action is a true accomplishment. It’s not the best soundtrack to play in the background, but it fits this game like a glove.
11. Super Mario Bros. 3
Composers: Koji Kondo
I think this soundtrack is probably a little lower on this list than many fans suspected it would be. Since I don’t like spending too much time talking about why something great enough to make a competitive list like this isn’t ranked higher, I’ll just say that this is certainly a case where this soundtracks placement says more about the incredible quality of the soundtracks ahead of it.
A bigger and more diverse Super Mario game deserved a bigger and more diverse soundtrack, and that’s exactly what Super Mario Bros. 3 delivered. There’s a playful liveliness and bouncy energy to this soundtrack that will likely never fail to put a smile on your face. It almost perfectly expands upon the soundtracks of its legendary predecessors while rarely relying too much on callbacks and recycled material.
10. Final Fantasy III
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
I was a little surprised to see so many people down on (or relatively indifferent to) this soundtrack during my research. While I agree it’s not the best Final Fantasy soundtrack ever (that’s a topic for another day), it’s an incredible example of what makes the NES/Famicom era of music so powerful and unforgettable.
While a few of this game’s more intense songs usually steal the spotlight, I actually like a lot of Final Fantasy 3’s lighter themes. There’s a playful, almost fairytale-like nature to this game that is perfectly represented by several oddly peaceful tracks. It’s not as epic as some other Final Fantasy soundtracks (or other soundtracks we’ll be talking about on this list), but it’s a beautiful and purposeful collection of tracks that all wonderfully help set a mood.
Composer: David Wise
The Battletoads soundtrack is such a unique beast that I honestly struggled to rank it among the other great NES soundtracks. What I do know is that it absolutely deserves to be part of that conversation.
This soundtrack features a surprising amount of bass for a console that was barely equipped to offer that particular sound. Yet, composer David Wise and his collaborators were able to use what the NES offered to piece together an always bizarre and often wonderful collection of tracks that never fail to make you nod your head. Battletoads also features arguably the best pause screen beat in video game history.
8. Castlevania III
Composers: Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi, Yukie Morimoto, Yoshinori Sasaki
I was very tempted to give this spot to Castlevania 2 based largely on the strength of that game’s excellent Bloody Tears track. Ultimately, though, Castlevania 3 proved to be just too damn good to be upset by that slight sleeper pick.
It’s appropriate that the game that defines so much of Castlevania’s lore and legacy also features a soundtrack that captures what traditionally makes Castlevania soundtracks so great. Classic gothic sounds run throughout most of the tracks in Castlevania 3, but those more traditional orchestral tunes are reimagined through the limitations and capabilities of the NES. The result is a soundtrack that gets your heart pumping without compromising the strength of this game’s horror atmosphere.
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
I’m glad that Ducktales is one of those previously overlooked NES games that the internet has really helped revive over the years. The game always deserved more love for overachieving in a lot of respects. Yet, if you were to tell me that the rest of the game had to be thrown out and that only its soundtrack would remain…well, I wouldn’t be happy about that, but I’d understand.
Highlighted by the simply wonderful Moon Theme embedded above, the Ducktales soundtrack is pure bliss. It’s the kind of soundtrack that makes you realize the best NES composers weren’t always simply making the most out of what was available; they were trying to craft music that felt distinct using every tool in the relatively limited toolbox that was available. This is a joyful, bouncy, and technically impressive soundtrack that really channels the spirit of that era of gaming.
Composers: Naoki Kodaka and Noboyuki Hara
The 1989 NES Batman game exceeded nearly every expectation, but even if you’re somehow not a fan of its Ninja Gaiden-like action gameplay, I’m willing to bet that you won’t be able to get this game’s soundtrack out of your head.
Technical ambition aside (just listen to those drums), the thing that impresses me about this soundtrack is how it was clearly spiritually inspired by Danny Elfman’s famous Batman score yet rarely feels derivative of that film’s soundtrack. How did composers Naoki Kodaka and Noboyuki Hara squeeze so many perfect Batman themes out of the NES?
Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka
I previously talked about how Metroid was one of the first games to really show us the power of atmosphere in a video game. Well, that game’s incredible soundtrack is one of the biggest reasons why that revolutionary title was able to achieve what so few other titles at the time could dare dream of.
There are a few action-heavy songs on the Metroid soundtrack, but most of the game’s best tracks are best described as “haunting.” That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily scary (though some are) but rather that they have this way of just surrounding you and making you feel like you’ve been thrown into the game’s world. Most modern video game soundtracks are still chasing that same feeling.
4. Silver Surfer
Composers: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin
The considerable talents of composers Tim Follin and Jeff Follin are on full display in this Silver Surfer soundtrack: a rare soundtrack so good that it almost makes it worth playing the very difficult (and kind of bad) game it’s attached to.
This soundtrack is pure adrenaline. Nearly every song in this game is designed to make you believe you have a chance of beating one of the NES’ toughest experiences. Fist-pump tracks aside, it’s the complexity of this soundtrack that elevates it. I can’t begin to imagine how its composers got these rich and layered sounds out of the NES. The fact that even some of the best composers in the industry at the time never came close to replicating this soundtrack’s technical accomplishments suggests actual magic may have been used.
3. Journey to Silius
Composer: Naoki Kodaka
Did you know that Journey to Silius began as an adaptation of the first Terminator movie? While developer Sunsoft lost the rights to that license and was forced to change aspects of the game’s graphics and plot as a result, this underrated title’s amazing soundtrack is the clearest proof of the Terminator influences in this title that remained untouched.
Journey to Silius’ Title Screen song is so good that I’m willing to bet a lot of young gamers had a hard time justifying hitting that start button to properly begin the game. Once in the game, though, they inevitably found a series of pulse-pounding, sci-fi beats that relay the threats of a situation without making you feel helpless. It’s almost like every track in this game is actually a battle anthem for the machines you’re fighting.
2. Mega Man 2
Composer: Takashi Tateishi
Mega Man 2 vs. Mega Man 3 was undoubtedly the toughest franchise decision I had to make on this list. Honestly, the decision ultimately came down to the strength of the “Dr. Wily’s Castle” track embedded above. After all, that’s arguably the best song in the history of NES soundtracks.
Of course, it’s pretty impressive that a single track can dominate a soundtrack that doesn’t feature a song that ever dips too far below “all-time classic” status. Every song on this game’s soundtrack has a personality of its own yet still feels like a piece of a bigger and greater whole. This entire soundtrack will send chills down the spine of anyone who grew up with this game, and it stands surprisingly tall on its own even outside of that context.
1. The Legend of Zelda
Composer: Koji Kondo
If there’s one thing I learned (or was at least reminded of) when researching this list, it’s that the best NES soundtracks were often found outside of the biggest and best games. At a time when so many in the industry were trying to navigate a bold new era for gaming, the most incredible creative voices and sounds could sometimes come from the most unlikely places. It was tempting to give one of those underrated or overlooked soundtracks the top spot to help prove that point.
Yet, there is no denying the brilliance of The Legend of Zelda’s soundtracks. In 1986, The Legend of Zelda soundtrack was capable of bringing a tear to your eye. In 2022…well, not much has changed. Variations of the best songs and sounds in this game are heard in even modern Zelda soundtracks, and they are still just as powerful as they were back then.
With The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo announced that it was time to start looking at video games a bit differently. With this game’s soundtrack, they also made it clear that it was time to start listening to them differently as well.