Rad NES sound effects

[Blog topic by request of vaeran]

The nature of sound design in video games has changed radically in the past 25 years. These days, audio designers tend to be more concerned about properly reproducing specific facets of sound: The dopplering sound of bullets, the effects of distance and material on waveform decay to allow for accurate sightless tracking of in-game actions for people with 7.1 surround systems, that sort of thing. In the NES days, audio design basically consisted of, “How can we make this sound as not-terrible as possible?”

The NES had a whopping four five sound channels, all of which were actually not created equal. They could each generate different waveforms to create distinct sounds, and one of them was a “noise” channel that allowed for rudimentary audio sampling. Those four channels included both music and in-game audio, meaning that creating complex layered tunes ran the risk of certain sounds dropping out due to sound effects. This happened a lot in Mega Man 4, as the sound of the Mega Buster charging caused portions of the music to clip out for as long as you held down the fire button.

NES sound effects took on a life of their own. Sure, everyone talks about game music they remember and love, but the other audio elements played an equally huge — albeit considerably more ephemeral — role in the NES experience. The Konami pause jingle will bring all sorts of memories bubbling to the surface. Battletoads didn’t have a pause jingle; it had a drum loop that played for as long as the game was paused. Sometimes the absence of sound worked just as well: Bionic Commando used occasional silence to tremendous effect, bringing a sense of real tension to comm rooms (where you risked tripping a dangerous enemy alert by wire tapping their network). And of course the sound effects in Super Mario Bros. were deliberately designed by composer Koji Kondo to syncopate with the melody of the background music, creating a melodic sensation with the simple act of playing the game.

By far the most enduring sound effects from the NES appeared in the original Dragon Quest, of course. 27 years later, the series is still using samples from the first game to denote dialogue cues, menu selections, stair-climbing, spell effects. There is obvious DNA of an NES game in a major MMO RPG! That’s pretty wild.

Still, my favorite piece of sound on the NES isn’t an effect: It’s the Norfair theme in Metroid.

The first time I heard this theme, way back in 1987 or so, I couldn’t believe my ears. Video game music was supposed to be upbeat, high-tempo marching tunes! Not this somber piece, almost funereal, that sounded almost like a Spanish guitar. But it so perfectly accentuated the atmosphere created by the stark graphics, and the increasing sense of ominous as you advanced further into the underground labyrinth and found yourself ever more lost. Just perfect — the sort of spot-on marriage of sound, gameplay, and visuals that make games great.

12 thoughts on “Rad NES sound effects

  1. While I wouldn’t say Metroid’s Norfair theme is my favorite piece of NES music, (I came to Metroid far too late, in like, the latter half of the 90s, to see it as much more than an artifact) it is absolutely great stuff. Metroid overall is one of the few early video games I can think of to move away from the more thematic, ditty-ish music prevalent on the NES towards more ambient tunes designed to influence (or in some cases, wholly dictate) atmosphere.

  2. my personal favorite tune is from SMB2, when you get the super star and then hit pause. there’s this gorgeous minor version of the theme with a funky bass line.

  3. I find it hard not to admire the craftsmanship one sees in the sound design of classic NES titles, personally. The fact that you can hear the chirp of Mega Man’s buster literally hundreds of times in a single 3-5 minute level without it becoming extremely grating is pretty impressive, considering how terribly annoying 8-bit sounds can be if they aren’t carefully designed.

  4. I like the theme to Kraid’s hideout best, I think. But I can’t imagine it without also hearing the sound of morphing, jumping, and the glitch static sound that accompanies wall walking.

  5. King Crimson’s The Power to Believe sounds like the soundtrack to a forgotten Metroid sequel in places. Listen to ‘Level Five’ and ‘Elektrik’ and it definitely sounds like they’re riffing on Norfair or Brinstar.

  6. One more technical clarification (oh boy!): the noise channel didn’t allow for rudimentary sampling. That was the purview of DPCM, as mentioned in a comment above. The noise channel was–as advertised–pseudo-random noise that could be pitched and looped into percussion and other noisy sound effects.

    • Yeah, in thinking in terms of Famicom tech I’d conflated the noise and DPCM channels into the same thing.

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