Video games have exploded in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s not hard to see why; we’re staying inside, locked down, and living inside virtual worlds is either a welcome distraction, or a source of connection. In correlation to the rise of video games, however, are the soundtracks. Last year, the likes of SOPHIE, Grimes and Gazelle Twin contributed to the soundtrack for Cyberpunk 2077. But if we look at the impact of retro video game music on popular culture, we can find that one particular type of sound – chiptune – influenced popular music throughout the 80s and had a resurgence in the mid-noughties. Since its inception, the sound has appeared throughout several genres, such as grime and hip-hop.
Built using programmable sound generator (PSG) sound chips or synthesisers, some of the earliest examples of popular artists sampling chiptune sounds include Yellow Magic Orchestra’s self-titled LP, released in 1978, and Haruomi Hosono’s Video Game Music album in 1984.
One of the most prominent labels operating in video game music today is Japan’s Brave Wave Productions. Founded in 2013 by Mohammed Taher, the label has a roster of in-house composers that include Keiji Yamagishi, Lena Raine, Tee Lopes and more. The label’s focus is to bridge the gap between western and Japanese composers; through its sound, Brave Wave explores the intersection of chiptune music and video game nostalgia. The label’s back catalogue features releases such as Art of Fighting: The Definitive Soundtrack (2017), Sonic Adventure 2 (2017) and Streets of Rage 4 (2020).
We asked Brave Wave to compile a list of the top 10 chiptune soundtracks ever made, ranging from contemporary albums to beloved releases from the NES and Famicom era. The label’s in-house composers took part, each choosing the best tracks from their favourite releases. Scroll down for the unranked list, and be sure to check out Overlapping Spiral by Saitone too – an extra bonus pick from Keiji Yamagishi, who composed the soundtracks for Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl.
Mega Man 9Mohammed Taher (President and Director of Brave Wave Productions)
Mega Man, a Capcom franchise with one of the most towering musical legacies in video game history, has helped launch the career of a whole range of legendary composers. It fills my heart with joy to be able to say that many of them work with us at Brave Wave today. The soundtrack for each entry in the classic Mega Man series is iconic and notable in its own way, but one track immediately springs to mind when I think of my personal favourites: Flash in the Dark from Mega Man 9. I’m sure many longtime Mega Man fans will understand why. The ninth entry in the classic series released after a painful hiatus of 12 years. To say that the announcement took its fans by surprise would be an understatement.
The series is known for its excellent music, but after all this time no one knew what to expect from the composers at Inti Creates. Ippo Yamada cut his teeth on Mega Man 7, whose 16-bit sound deviated somewhat from that of the classic series, and together with Ryo Kawakami he later worked on the Mega Man Zero series. But none of that indicated what a bombastic, unforgettable and thoroughly authentic 8-bit soundtrack the two would craft for Mega Man 9.
Virtually every entry in the classic series had its standout track somewhere in the Wily Castle levels. This final stretch of stages typically precedes the ultimate battle against Dr Wily, an evil scientist with an insatiable appetite for world domination. It’s a dramatic chapter in each game, steeped in an eerie, sometimes melancholy atmosphere. For a track to reach the heights of the legendary Wily themes from the 80s, composed by Manami Matsumae and Takashi Tateishi, seemed unthinkable. But Flash in the Dark achieved the impossible. Ryo Kawakami understood the benchmark by which he would be judged, and somehow contributed a track that immediately entered the Mega Man music hall of fame. At once wistful and heroic, with unstoppable forward momentum, it represents everything the fans hold dear about the franchise with the Blue Bomber. Mega Man was undeniably back, maybe better than ever!
Mother (Famicom)Keiji Yamagishi (Composer of Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl)
The soundtrack of Mother always sounded like a pop album to me. Bein’ Friends in particular reminds me of Britpop. I’m a fan of the Beatles, 10cc, Todd Rundgren and XTC, etc. That’s what makes me love the Mother soundtrack. I think it’s a great album for all pop music fans.
Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III in the US)Lena Raine (Composer of Celeste, Chicory: A Colourful Tale, Minecraft and ESC)
I accidentally themed my choices around beginnings and endings, so for my first selection I wanted to focus on one of the coolest chiptune openings of all time. The Prelude for Akumajou Densetsu makes full use of Konami’s VRC-6 chip, bringing in huge juicy polyphonic chords along with that buzzy sawtooth bass to make an overwhelming sound that totally surrounds you in the vibes for a cool gothic adventure. Note: this is the Japanese version of Castlevania III.
Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo)Lena Raine
On the endings side of things, To Far Away Times is the kind of credits track that will always make me cry. It encapsulates so many emotions of the journey across time, bringing back familiar motifs alongside a driving shaker rhythm to feel like time is uncontrollably marching onward while things come to a close. That feeling of forward momentum and evolving melodies, eventually concluding against the tick of pendulum just perfectly sums up everything that Chrono Trigger evokes emotionally.
Galaxy Force IIGrant ‘Stemage’ Henry (Composed for and featured on Steven Universe, Ikenfell, Card of Darkness, Metroid Metal)
1991 was a big year for musical introductions. Of course, falling into Nirvana and Soundgarden was a formative experience, but that year also brought my first exposure to contemporary jazz fusion. It was also the year that Galaxy Force II was released for the Sega Genesis. I was a regular to video game music by that point, but I never would have expected to find music resembling The Rippingtons in a Genesis game. The music of Galaxy Force II is a lavishly funky, jazzy and surprisingly energetic creation from members of S.S.T. band (Sega Sound Team) – Sega’s house band from 1988 to 1993. They specialised in performing rock versions of Sega arcade game themes live. While many prefer the original arcade soundtrack for Galaxy Force II, the Genesis conversion has the most punch and remains my favourite.
The FM chip on Genesis required the creation of instruments and sounds, not just the sequencing of the music. This meant that the worst Genesis music was some of the worst sounding game music period, and the best sounding Genesis music was some of the best ever. The instrumentation on Galaxy Force II’s soundtrack is some of the most convincing in a Genesis game. It sounds like a live band.
Beyond the Galaxy is arguably the general favourite from the soundtrack. It is full of rhythmic change-ups, slap bass, and multiple refrains. Many game songs come in loops, and this loop clocks in at a staggering 5:30. And if you make it to the end, you are treated with separate bass and drum solos. In case you were wondering, the best bass and drum solos are from space. And I’m here for it.
Gimmick (Famicom)Dino Lionetti (Band member and founder of Cheap Dinosaurs and Brave Wave’s in-house band Super Strikers)
Famously known as a NES era game that didn’t make it to the US, Sunsoft’s Gimmick! slowly garnered attention and had a cult surrounding it before long. Like many players, I discovered Gimmick via an emulator, and soon switched from playing to just listening. The melodies that Masashi Kageyama created forcefully stuck in my head, and the extra sound channels gave it a sweet depth that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but Just Friends has always stood out to me from the rest of the excellent soundtrack due to its minimal arrangement. When the slap bass suddenly turns to a pure crystal tone, the music becomes quiet and mysterious. The pensive mood is perfect for solving a puzzle, hidden away from the rest of the grandiosity. It’s also just purely excellent, and I’ve left it looping in the background of normal life many times.
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (Game Boy)Marco Guardia (Composer and developer of Octahedron, Associate Director at Brave Wave Productions and Mixing Engineer)
Hidehiro Funauchi is one of the great unsung heroes of the 8-bit era. His soundtrack for Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge on the Game Boy is also perhaps the series’ most underrated entry. Listening to it today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that many of the franchise’s most iconic themes must have emerged right here. Sadly, unlike the melodies of its series contemporaries, many of this soundtrack’s most memorable songs have never been revisited. Almost inconceivable considering some of the highlights: New Messiah, Praying Hands, Ripe Seeds.
There are stunning originals here, abound with clever key changes and unconventional structure. The songwriting is augmented by Funauchi’s signature drum programming: playful, sharp rhythmic patterns that giddily trip over themselves or accelerate into unexpected polyrhythms. But Funauchi takes it a step further. Wearing Castlevania’s musical influences on its sleeve more boldly than the franchise has dared before or since, he repurposes [Johann Sebastian] Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue – complete with a 4-bit harpsichord – for a climactic boss fight, and uses excerpts from [Claude] Debussy’s Suite bergamasque for the game’s final chapter.
Original Sin maybe comes closest to a favourite, a piece made for the first part of Dracula’s Castle. It has all the hallmarks of a great Funauchi track: a relentless, buzzing staccato bassline that refuses to settle, continually adapting, momentarily exploding into wild arpeggios or little chromatic ornaments; a rhythmically unorthodox melody with intriguing syncopation, cunning accents that play catch with the downbeat – this is a melody that manically, but effortlessly transitions between long, sustained notes and quick arpeggios, And, finally, a nimble, hectic beat, playing entirely by its own rules, adding an intriguing rhythmic counterpoint – only the stuttering drum fills briefly align the song’s rhythms across bass, lead and percussion. It’s an exhilarating listen that captures both the adrenaline rush of the game’s tough as nails penultimate level, and the player’s high spirits upon reaching it.
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Master System)Tee Lopes (Composer of Sonic Mania and Team Sonic Racing)
Sonic the Hedgehog was the first video game I ever owned – not the original Genesis/Mega Drive one most people know, but the more humble, 8-bit version for the Master System. This title wasn’t a port, but rather a completely different game, with a distinct soundtrack by veteran composer Yuzo Koshiro. My favourite track is Bridge Zone for its echoey, lighthearted melody over a cadent, yet reassuring chord progression. It’s smile-inducing, even today.
Phantasy Star IV (Sega Genesis)Tee Lopes
Soundtracks on the Sega Genesis can be very hit-or-miss to me, especially in terms of instrumentation, but there are a good number of titles that make excellent use of its YM2612 sound chip. One brilliant example is Phantasy Star IV, with its sharp distorted guitars, bright synth bells and growling bass sounds which are cleverly used to create vivid atmospheres throughout the adventure. I’m especially fond of Motavia Town, perhaps due to nostalgia and its ultra-catchy melody, but the whole soundtrack is spectacular, as is the game.
Genocide Square (FM Towns)Steve Lakawicz (Composer of Brock Crocodile, Keiji Yamagishi’s The Retro-Active Experience, and band member of Super Strikers)
Picking just one favourite soundtrack and just one tune from said soundtrack is a daunting choice. That said, my gut reaction led me here and the many memories – good and bad – I’ve had over the years while listening to it. Unfortunate circumstances forced me to work on a report while on vacation in Tokyo, and I remember quite vividly sitting in a cafe in Ueno with this track from the FM Towns version of this OST in particular on loop for well over two hours. The drums and bass kept me going and pumped (and about a litre of coffee and four packs of Poifull), and I finished my report in no time. While I also have a soft spot for the 8 polyphonic FM channels of the X68000 version, there’s something magical about the FM Towns version – it could just be the mix of FM and PCM and how it reminds me of being at the arcades as a kid in the 80s and hearing all the loud music blend together.