Retro video game music can be, for fans of a certain age, transportive. Watching Shigeru Miyamoto play the Mario theme returns us to being a child, making an 8-bit plumber jump around the Mushroom Kingdom. Part of this nostalgia. Designed for limited hardware of the 1980s, songs of the 8-bit era sound dated in a way that most music doesn’t. But for a number of game soundtracks, including the likes of Ninja Gaiden on the NES, there’s more to their appeal than nostalgia — it’s just good music, game or no game.
Today sees the release of a sprawling and comprehensive remastered edition of the Ninja Gaiden soundtrack from Brave Wave records. It spans two separate albums — one covering the original Ninja Gaiden on NES and arcade, the other featuring the soundtracks of Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3 — and close to two hours of tunes, all of which have been polished to sound nice and crisp through a modern pair of headphones or speakers.
Today, Ninja Gaiden looks like a fairly straightforward 2D action game. But when it debuted in 1988, nearly 30 years ago, it was praised for its cinematic aspirations. The tale of a ninja seeking revenge played out through combat, of course, but was enhanced with the addition of short-but-poignant cutscenes that added a layer of emotional depth emotion that was missing from most of Ninja Gaiden’s contemporaries.
And then there was the sound.
The original Ninja Gaiden soundtrack — composed by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta — features complex tracks that include not only fast-paced action tunes, but also more solemn songs that make the most the NES’s limited sound palette. Listening to the entire collection over the past few days, I’m smitten with how well these songs stand up, and how well they work as an album completely divorced from the games they were created for. Take, for example, Ninja Gaiden 3, which I haven’t played in decades. But its songs, crafted by a young Kaori Nakaba, have become earworms, refusing to leave my head.
Retro game music is an acquired taste. Even if you can look past the old-school sounds to hear the more complex compositions underneath, the songs are mostly very short, written originally to be looped over and over. Some tracks last just a few seconds. It’s a very different experience compared to listening to a more modern orchestral score, which doesn’t have these limitations. But those limitations are also part of what make these soundtracks so endearing.
Thankfully, Ninja Gaiden isn’t alone, as multiple labels have started releasing high-quality remastered soundtracks for classic games. Brave Wave’s excellent “generation series” also includes a cleaned-up edition of Street Fighter II’s soundtrack, as well as the definitive version of the retro-like Shovel Knight soundtrack. Meanwhile, companies like Mondo and Data Discs have released vinyl soundtracks covering games like Streets of Rage and Castlevania III. Much like film scores before them, these albums help contribute to the growing legitimacy of game music.
On a basic level, these reissues make it possible to actually listen to and preserve these soundtracks, most of which were only released in Japan — if at all. But more importantly, they’re a chance to see game music as more than just background noise accompanying on-screen action.
This is music unto itself. And some of it is pretty great.