There was a time before everything in the video game industry became a studio-produced, slick machine of a thing. Games had to be ever so reliant on the ingenuity of the programmers, artists and composers as technology at the time could only get them so far.
This especially comes to mind when I think of video game soundtracks. There are certain ones that could not help but stick out in my mind even to this day. 8- and 16-bit music may be retro-interpreted as bleeps and bloops, but in truth quite a few themes from the time displayed a certain level of artistic flair that was far above what was required in an age when digitized speech was still a big deal.
These are some that recently came to mind:
Mega Man 2 - Bubble Man’s Stage
My favorite video game theme of all time, somehow this manages to be haunting and catchy at once. During this stage you fought in front of a waterfall that was so gigantic that you couldn’t see the sky… which was slightly mind-blowing for the time.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 - Oil Ocean Zone
I believe everyone’s favorite theme from this game was Mystic Cave, which WAS damn good, but I think Oil Ocean wins with me for being head-bopping and for fooling you at the beginning as to where it was going… albeit for a few seconds. This stage itself was quite awe-inspiring as you were basically running through a gigantic oil spill.
Ducktales - Transylvania
The great thing about many of the better video game themes is when you can pick out what the composer was influenced by. In this case, the Transylvania theme from the Duck Tales video game was clearly influenced by the sort of “horror rock” that spanned genres to include groups like The Misfits, The B-52s, and The Cramps.
Metroid - Brinstar
For a game so heavily influenced by Aliens, the opening theme is a very stirring little ditty. The game waited to get truly sinister later on, music-wise, but that’s ok seeing as your feeble 8-year-old brain probably wasn’t getting that far into this one anyway. The world of Metroid was so big, it would stump many gamers today.
Super Mario Brothers III - Underground
Super Mario III is a game that comes up quite often in “Best Video Game of All Time” discussions and… well… it’s hard to argue against it. A lot of what the production team did with that game had this aura of “look at how far we’ve come” since SMB 1. Take their breakbeat-inspired take on the original underground theme.
Street Fighter II - Vega’s Theme
Street Fighter II felt like one of those games where one could say “there were games before SFII and after SFII…”. You really had to bring your A-game as far as presentation and production were concerned when this was released back in 1991. Few games at the time had a scene as memorable as fighting in front of a frenzied crowd while this theme stirred you to action.
Out Run - Passing Breeze
Back when the video game wars were basically a two-horse race (at least in America), there was this sort of Peloponnesian-like relationship between Sega and Nintendo: Nintendo had all the third-party support and thus titles, but Sega had the innovation and technology. During the 80’s Sega became known for producing titles that were years ahead of their time, especially in the arcade where the true costs were hidden from the general quarter-popping public. Take this CD-quality “smooth jazz” driving theme from the 1986 (!) driver Out Run as a small example.
Revenge of Shinobi - Chinatown
It truly says something that when searching for this theme on Youtube, merely typing in “Revenge of Shinobi” made the search suggest “Revenge of Shinobi Chinatown”… this track is that good: Chinese harp music (a 16-bit version, anyway) is set again a driving techno beat and it works perfectly. In the game itself, during the Chinatown stage you fight a gang so bad ass that they dispense with the guns and armor you fought against for so many rounds and face you strictly hand to hand. Of course using video game logic, it’s one of the harder stages.
Bionic Commando - Area 12
Something that video game producers started doing in the 8-bit era that (correct me if I’m wrong) I find went out of favor later was finding a way to make the “final stage” music give a real sense of tension and finality. Responsible for much of this list, if you’re knowledgeable about such things, Capcom did this exceedingly well. How else could you describe this theme for the last drop behind enemy territory? It was very electronic and eerie but somehow it managed to convey a certain sense of “now or never”.
The Tetris Theme
Rounding out this list is the “A” theme for one of what I consider the few perfect games ever made: Tetris. The Gameboy version featured this updated reconstruction of the classic Russian folk song Коробейники (Peddlers) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korobeiniki