My Top 10 Retro Video Game Tracks, Part 1

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Now that we’re into our 4th week of quarantine, or is it the 5th… 6th?  Man, I don’t even know any more.  All I know is, I’m running out of things to do.  So, it might just be time to bust out the old Nintendo once again.  That is, as long as find time between the Real Housewives of New York (aka, RHONY) and Beverly Hills.


But whenever I do manage to pick up the controller, nostalgia hits me in three different forms.

  1. An intense amount of rage, frustration, and cursing re-emerges.
  2. The obsessive/compulsive side of me awakens to turn me into an unstable psychopath.
  3. I’m brought back to sanity by the sweet and soothing sound of NES music.

The music in video games is a vastly underappreciated fragment of American society.  Sing the first jingle of the Super Mario Brothers theme and the person next to you will instantaneously recognize it.  Whether it’s Tetris, Zelda, or Street Fighter, those 8-bit melodies have been ingrained in their heads.  It’s quite clever, provided the limitations of sound quality, and these retro-era composers don’t get anywhere near amount of credit they deserve.

Having grown up in the throngs of the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming, I know first-hand how well these tunes add to the mood and tone of any setting.  Any avid gamer remembers the moment you finally get to the boss in a level and suddenly, the music turns to a grimmer, edgier, and more frantic.  Your heart begins to beat rapidly, your concentration level peaks, and you sit up in your chair to lean into the TV, as in, “this ain’t a game no more.  Time to get down to business!”

With such influence on my childhood making me into the man I am today, I couldn’t go without paying tribute to some of my favorite video game tunes from the retro era.  Thus, here are a few of my favorites from Grizzly Chadams’ years of young.

Part of the reason why these are my favorite are the personal connection I had to each of the games. I remember details of my childhood, where I was, how it made me feel, and the stories behind playing them. And knowing there are a lot of great soundtracks out there from games I haven’t spent the appropriate time playing, and there are many others of which you may have had your own personal connections with, please chime in with some of your favorites. I just hope you are able to enjoy a few the stories behind mine.

10. Street Fighter II – Guile’s Theme

This was probably the hardest one to choose, knowing that there would be so many other games that I’d have to leave out.  Classics like the Castlevania series, Contra, Ducktails, or the entire Super Mario World medley all had great tracks, but eventually, I had to make a cutoff, and before I change my mind once again, I’m going with Street Fighter II.

I’m not sure there was a kid who wasn’t obsessed with Street Fighter II in the 90’s.  But thanks to Mortal Kombat, (a much inferior game for a multitude of reasons, but that would require an entirely separate blog), parents were a little uptight about games that revolve around committing acts of violence upon others.  So, when one of us were lucky enough to get our hands on a copy of the game, we cherished the experience to its fullest extent, for there was no guarantee as to when our next chance to play it would be.

In a way, the enigma of playing such a game “banned” by the parentals added to the entire experience, but that’s not what made Street Fighter II great.  Not only were the fighting mechanics crisp and balanced, but the amount of detail that was put into each character, from fighting style and personality to stage layout and character theme music really solidified the game as the gold standard of the fighting genre.  Getting to try out all the characters added to the entire experience, for there was genuine respect for each one (except for Sagat, who was extremely cheap.  His stage was the worst!).

That laugh still pisses me off!

And although Ryu was always (and still is) my favorite character, I think Guile wins the award for the most iconic stage in the game.  The military setting with the fighter jet in the background combined with the pro-America theme song makes you believe that as soon as Guile’s is done sonic booming you into a crate, he’s going to hop in that plane and ride off to kick some M. Bison ass!

The full version of Guile’s theme song

Overall, Guile’s stage and theme song fully represents what makes Street Fighter II the all-time classic it is.

9. The Legend of Zelda, Opening Theme

With most games, there’s always a little bit of a wait before you got to the title screen.  They may roll in with some developers credits and a second or two of black screen, a chance to ease in before you press start.  Not the case with the original Zelda for the NES.

As soon as you press the power button on your Nintendo, “THE LEGEND OF ZELDA” with its iconic waterfall background pierces your eyes and the theme song blasts you in the face.  It’s only there for a moment, as the colors quickly fade as if it suddenly turned to nightfall and a tombish rhythm beats on to tell you the backstory, the threat of Gannon, and how it’s up to you to save princess Zelda.

As a 4-year-old seeing this for the first time at my grandparents’ house, I was petrified at the daunting task ahead of me.  “What happens if I fail?  I don’t want to die…”  Yet, I was much too intrigued to look away… too invested to turn back.  Princess Zelda needed my help, and there was no way I was letting her down.  So, I pressed start, and the adventure did not disappoint.

Simple and to the point, there isn’t an intro that makes quite the impression as The Legend of Zelda does, not even 34 years later.

8. Maniac Mansion

Almost considered a hidden gem of the NES, you play as Dave, an all-around cool dude who must sneak into a mansion to save Sandy, his babe of a girlfriend being held captive by a mad scientist under the spell of an evil meteor!  In order to pull off his diabolical plan, Dave, being the cool guy he is, solicits the help of two friends chosen amongst a group of eccentric teens with various skills to help you break into the house and solve a plethora of puzzles in the mansion and get to Sandy.

But wait?  How do you know Dave is such a cool guy?  By his theme song, of course.

You see, each kid is equipped with a CD player that repeats a tune that conveniently mirrors their personality.  Bernard, the nerd and frankly, most skilled of the group, has a clunky, almost robotic theme while Razor, the leader of her own punk rock band, has as you would expect, a sharp and driving melody the likes of which would send you into the mosh pit.  While all the kid’s themes add to the gameplay to keep the action fresh, Dave’s is hands the best one.  It’s a cool beat, not to heavy, not too mellow, just a rockin’ tune to keep you cruising through the mansion, closer to your goal of saving your girl.

7. Star Tropics, Sub-C theme

The year was 1991.  My dad had just moved us from Mississippi to start a new life and for the moment, we were homeless.  So I, along with my mom, dad, and two sisters lived out of a motel in Lewiston, Idaho.  All my friends were gone.  The land around me was strange and my family’s stress level was rising, but I was not deterred.  I was focused.  I was determined.  And after a year of practice, pain, and trial and error, I had finally delivered the final blow to defeat the evil alien Zoda. In that double queen bed room at the Sacajawea Motor Inn, I had beaten Star Tropics.  It was undoubtedly the best day of my 5-year-old life.

Anybody who grew up in the 8-bit area knows how much more gratifying it was to beat a game back then than it is today, but that’s another blog for another time.  Having spent 20% of my life up to that point devoted to it, I quickly developed a lot of great memories playing Star Tropics, easily making it my all-time favorite game for the NES.  It’s unique mix of adventure style gameplay with puzzles that naturally blend with the game’s environment was like nothing that had been seen before, and something that hasn’t been recreated since.  And out of all the different parts of the game, nothing takes me back to the feeling I had as a kid quite like hoping into “Sub-C” and hearing the theme song.

The original

Sub-C is a submarine-like vehicle, your means of hopping from island to island in the game, where the real adventures await. And that’s what the song truly encompasses, the feeling of starting a new adventure, the exhilaration behind it and the intrigue of not knowing what monsters you’ll run into along the way. I love the tropical setting the game immerses you in. It’s a world that’s colorful and inviting, yet full of peril and excitement, for you never know what type of quest each village chief will send you on to help his island people, and what monster await. And each time you hop into Sub-C, it’s off to another village, off to another adventure, and off to more fun.

A little Star Tropics Gameplay with the Sub-C Theme Song

To me, Star Tropics is a masterpiece of a game, one that I don’t think ever got the amount of credit it deserved.  I was so glad to see that it made it into the NES Classic so others could experience its greatness.

6. Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball

It all started on a Spring Cub Scout outing in the 4th Grade.  I can’t exactly remember the reason all the Cub Scout Den Leaders met at Alex Barkley’s house on that Saturday, but what I do remember is that Alex had a new Super Nintendo game—Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.

Me, I wasn’t too high on sports games, for games with adventure/fantasy aspects that escaped the rules of the real world always seemed more appealing.  However, because they dared to bend reality just ever so slightly, there were a few sports titles that I was drawn to such as NFL Blitz and NBA Jam.  Ken Griffey Jr. was one of those games, and as Seattle Mariners fans, we had to play.

Now, I don’t mean to brag or anything, but that afternoon, I was whooping up on all the kids, including Alex himself!  And believe me, nothing was more devastating than having a friend beat you at your own game, especially with the entire Cub Scout troop watching.  Well, Alex didn’t take kindly too such a thrashing, and thus began a 20+ year feud between us.

There are many things that make this game the classic it is.  It’s simple controls, though they may take years to master, are easy to pick up.  It has subtle humor sprinkled throughout and its fast pace helps keep the action fresh.  But perhaps its most overlooked aspect is the running theme song that keeps playing throughout the course of a match.  Blending in common themes from a Major League Baseball game that utilize the potential of the Super Nintendo’s soundboard, the soundtrack is driving, it keeps the tension up, and it reminds you not to let your guard down, for a game can turn at any point.  Simply put, it’s never over till it’s over, a lesson both Alex and I have learned many times over.  No matter how many times it repeats itself, the song never gets old, and you can always count on it to get you into the mood for some good old fashioned baseball.

A little gameplay action to get you into the mood

As we went from grade school, to jr. high and high school, we continued to play, and I would win each time, of course.  But Alex practiced, and practice some more.  Eventually, he got better, and the matches became closer and closer, until one day… he actually beat me.

I couldn’t believe it.  Out of the entire history of our feud, it had to be an anomaly!  But a few months later, we played again, and sure enough, he won again, and the next time… and the time after that.  It was official.  He had taken the Ken Griffey Jr. crown, and there was nothing I could do about it.  And for the next several years, well into our adult lives, I did not beat him.  Alex had developed a respectable win streak, that is, until my bachelor party…

After what could be described as an eventful weekend in Vegas with a solid crew, Alex and I were the last ones left standing.  Our bags were packed, and there was less than an hour before we had to check out of our room. “You up for one more game of Griffey,” asked Alex, having strategically brought his SNES classic with him so we could have a match or two. I was a bit reluctant, for I had just been embarrassed with a loss in front of the likes of Austin Moody, Josh Ulrich, and Mike Masters the night before, resulting in a lost bet in which I was forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol against my will.  However, I out of honor and respect, I could not say no.

I grabbed the controller, hunkered into position, my eyes narrowed and my postured leaned towards the TV, and as the Major League soundtrack started playing, I locked into focus, vowing that this would be the day the streak ends.  My pitches were strategic and effective at producing outs, but so were his.  Every time I escaped an inning without allowing him a run, he’d return the favor and deny me the pleasure of scoring.  We went back and forth in a defensive clinic of a game that went into extra innings.  But that morning, one of the lasts as a bachelor, I did it.  It took nearly a perfectly pitched game, but in stunning fashion, I had once again beaten the champion with a score of 2-1.

I’ll never forget that day

Now, it may very well be the last time I ever do it, but at least I proved that it could be done, and it won’t ever stop me from trying again in the future.  As the years turn to decades and our families grow, our exhibitions will undoubtedly become less and less frequent.  And much to my chagrin, he’ll probably continue to having the great pleasure of watching me swear and freak out, as is customary with my video game habits.  But even though we live thousands of miles apart, we’ll still find a way to battle.  And we’ll still be rocking out to the killer soundtrack until we turn old and gray.

And each time we play, you can bet your ass the emotions will be just as tense as they were that Saturday in 1994 at the Cub Scout Den Meeting.

Click here for Part 2 of the list.

-Grizzly Chadams