Constraints and Creativity: What Old Nintendo Music Can Tell Us About Thinking Outside of the (Old Gray) Box

I like to listen to music while I work, primarily instrumental stuff so I don’t get distracted. Usually, this is classical and other orchestral music, but lately I’ve rediscovered the magic of old video game music. 

That’s right: I’m talking about 8-bit Nintendo chiptune soundtracks. 

And at me tell you, in addition to the nostalgia factor–many of these themes are forever seared into my memory–the music is just plain good. There’s a reason why it sticks in the memory so: compositional genius. 

Genius? Yes!

In order to both avoid boredom and capture the mood of the, albeit, primitive by today’s standards games, the music, usually a minute or two long per theme, sometime shorter, had to be catchy and not annoying. 

And let me tell you, these composers, the great ones, were able to do his masterfully. This is even more impressive given the hardware constraints of the console they were working with. 

Interesting, right? It’s almost as if the constraint on their resources lead to an increase in creativity

Drawing by MaxinePixieLennon. I will remove upon request.
Recently, I finished an MBA program that had a strong emphasis on innovation, design thinking, and creativity. This sounds weird, but it helps with thinking about any given problem from multiple angles, as well as their solutions. (We did the numbers stuff, of course, as well). 

Believe it or not, there are “rules” about creativity and how to increase your own. You might not become the next Shakespeare or Mozart or Edison, but you might just surprise yourself. 

The unit’s final assignment was a creative project that could be anything as long as it put the principles of creativity into practice. I decided to write a piece of music only using my son’s toy instruments. 

Here were my tools, and therefore my constraints:

  • A toy piano that played three notes: C, E, and G (this is also a C major chord). 
  • A toy trumpet that played C, E, and G
  • A toy harmonica that played F major and C major chords
  • A little xylophone that played a C major scale in 2 octaves 
  • Assorted toy percussion 
  • A ukelele

So I was quite firmly ensconced in C major land, and I stuck to chords I could create with a C, E, and G, give or take a few other notes, plus the F. So invaded the piece on C major, F major, G major, and E minor chords, the diatonic notes in the key of C, and I was off. 

And let me tell you…constraining myself made the composing easier to do. It forced me to come up with more interesting ways to use the limited palette, and I was really pleased with the result. 

(I don’t have it in a format I can share on here; give me some time and I’ll try to put it up). 

I remember playing in jazz and rock bands, sometimes we’d pick a few notes and a handful of drums and improvise just on those to see what we’d come up with. Often, this lead to different directions than full-blown noodling, and formed the basis for fully feared-out songs. It’s amazi how the mind can stretch when it’s forced to. 

It’s almost as though our sense of creativity is like a brilliant but lazy teenager, capable of great things, but just needing a swift kick in the pants.

Anyway, my point is that if you’re in a creative rut with work or personal projects, try intentintoinally limiting the tools available. 

Obviously, not if you’re building a bridge or a building, or performing heart surgery or something. But even in the conceptual stage, doing so might force you to think in ways you wouldn’t normally think otherwise, creating combinations that can than be extrapolated onto the broader whole. 

Or you can just listen to old Nintendo music. Whatever.

Because I Know You’re Wondering…

You thought I’d write a post touching on old NES music without listing some of my favorites, didn’t you? For shame. 

The Legend of Zelda (Koji Kondo) and Zelda II: The Adveture of Link (Akito Nakaysuka): “Iconic” doesn’t even begin to describe these. Want to feel like you’re on an adventure? Fire up the main theme to either of these games as you drive and be on your way. 

Castlevania (Kinuyo Yamashita), Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Kenichi Matsubara), and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Yoshinori Sasake, Jun Funabashi, and Yukie Morinoto): These will get you pumped and freak you out. I have to give the sight nod to II‘s soundtrack (“Bloody Tears” for life), but they’re all worth a listen. 

Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3 (Koji Kondo): You know the music. In fact, you’re hummin it right now. 

StarTropics (Y. Hirai): Let’s get obscure here. The StarTropics soundtrack perfectly complements the game’s “tropical island-meets-aliens” theme, and I particularly like how the majority of tunes work in variations of the same theme. Great stuff. 

Magician (Neil Baldwin): You won’t believe these sounds came from an NES. From the crickets chirping of the “Merl Forest” theme to the “Maze of Doom,” the “Dungeons,” and the final boss fight, Mr. Baldwin here produced some of the most layered, complex and even funky NES music, and those drum sounds are unparalleled, save by only…

The Immortal (Rob Hubbard): …this game dark, moody, atmospheric-meets-quasi-medieval soundtrack. Haunting  and frenetic themes that will get under your skin (in a good way).

Blaster Master (Naoki Kodaka), Journey to Silius (Naoki Kodaka, About SS Nobuyuki, Marumo, and Mabochan), Batman (Naoki Kodaka and Nobuyuki Hara), and Batman: Return of the Joker (Naoki Kodaka, Nobuyuki Hara, and Shinichi Seya): Sunsoft’s games had near-universally great music, but these four are my favorites. Batman‘s first two level themes will make you want to punch some criminals, and Journey to Silius is a techno-influenced rock goldmine. 

Silver Surfer (Tim and Geoff Follin): At least a game this nut-crunchingly hard (and unfair) has a bitchin’ soundtrack, courtesy of the legendary Follin brothers, designed to get you pumped and ready for one more try. 

Contra (Hidenori Maezawa and Kyouhei Sawa) and Super C (Hidenori Maezawa): The soundtracks to the movies Arnold and Sly never made in the 80s, but should have. The perfect strident, heavy rock and metal soundtracks to big muscle guys with big guns running through jungles and obliterating aliens. 

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy III (Nobuo Uematsu): Epic, evocative themes you’ll be hard-pressed to get out of your head. Classical, contrapuntally sound compositions coexist with rock- and prof-inflected themes, each expertly catching the adventerous (I), desperate (II) and exploratory (III) of each game. Slight nod to I, since it was the only one released on the console in the US. 

Dragon Warrior, Dragon Warrior II, Dragon Warrior III, and Dragon Warrior IV (Koichi Sugiyama): The other huge JRPG juggernaut that got its start on the NES, Mr. Sugiyama’s soindtracks are firmly classical, but display levels of compositional sophistication beyond what you’d expect (dungeon themes are particularly atonal and even avant-garde). All told though, the music,   the games themselves, is incredibly charming, and this is meant as the highest of compliments. 

Ninja Gaiden (More Yamasan, B.B., and Hasake), Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (Shitamachi Kajiya and Hiroshi Miyazaki), and Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom (Hiroshi Miyazaki, Kaori Nakabai, and L. Shigeno): Soundtracks as cinematic and driving as the games that pioneered video game storytelling. II has to be the top because, I mean, it has “Tower of Lahja” on it, but these are all highly memorable. I mean, that boss theme…

Faxanadu (Jun Chikuma): Few games have music that matches the settings as perfectly as Ms. Chikuma’s Faxanadu soundtrack. The desperation of a dying world and the race to save it can be felt throughout, even in seemingly cheery tunes like the opening town and the overworld. But once you get to the land of mist and the branches of the World Tree, that sense of mystery and yearning and foreboding come to the fore. And the creepy dungeon and boss themes perfectly capture the grotesque designs of the various monsters within. One of the best, mos underrated soundtracks.  

Mega Man (Manami Matsumae and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi), Mega Man 2 (Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, Manami Matsumae, and Ogeretsu Kun), Mega Man 3 (Yasukai Fujita), Mega Man 4 (Yasukai Fujita and Minae Fujii), Mega Man 5 (Mari Yamaguchi), and Mega Man 6 (Yuko Takehara): I saved the biggest for last. These games are a treasure trove of awesomely catchy themes. The cliche that 2 and 3 are the best is true (seriously: they’re the best), but instead of the original rounding out the top 3, I’d rank 6‘s soundtrack just below 2 and 3; some excellent themes on here. The original has great themes, but the arrangements are a bit sparse compared to the rest, while 4 and 5 aren’t bad, but just not as memorable. 

I know I missed a bunch. Tell me all about them in the comments.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and Gab.ai @DaytimeRenegade

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11 thoughts on “Constraints and Creativity: What Old Nintendo Music Can Tell Us About Thinking Outside of the (Old Gray) Box

  1. I’ve done quite a bit of chiptune covers… and even I don’t limit myself to the constraints the original NES had. Only 3 voices and a noise channel. Makes you appreciate all that much more what the original creators did with it, especially considering they also had to do sound effects and percussion with it!

    One of my favorite NES soundtracks was MegaMan (all of them). Super Mario Brothers 3 was also a favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      Yeah I saw that on your site! I know what you mean about the limits of the hardware. I’m still blown away by how good these tracks are. And the percussion, when done right, sounds awesome.

      In my musician days, my band played with a dude who had two Game Boys run through effects pedals and a looper. Each button and direction on the D-pad made a different note or sound. He’d create his songs, loop them, and sing over them through a megaphone while standing on a table. It was awesome.

      Like

  2. rawlenyanzi says:

    Also, if you have an Android device, the ZXTune app allows you to play chiptune music in its original format just as easily as if it were a standard music file.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. rawlenyanzi says:

        Search for “8 Beats Video Game Music” (without quotes) on Youtube. That channel has interesting renditions of classic video game music while retaining the chiptune sound.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ninja Gaiden is not only one of my favorite video games of all time, it’s also the source of one of my proudest video game feats ever. Once upon a time I beat that game without losing a single health bar. It would take a lot of practice to repeat that feat today…

    Suffice to say, I played the game a *LOT* back in the day. Several of those tracks are permanently lodged in my brain. There are two or three semi-mainstream songs I’ve heard in the past decade that I’d *SWEAR* ripped off Ninja Gaiden’s music. Sadly, I can remember which NG tracks they ripped off… but not the actual songs.

    All of it is good. “Unbreakable Determination” (stage 4-2, at 14:13 on the video linked) was always one of my personal favorites – and it accomplished its goal. I always did feel determined when I hit that stage. But once you hit level 6-1, it’s a powerhouse of emotional music straight through to the end of the game.

    But did y’all know that the soundtrack is getting an elaborate 30-year anniversary makeover, from the original composer and musical artists themselves – reunited specifically for this project?

    http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/21/13481450/ninja-gaiden-soundtrack-remaster-brave-wave

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      This is an amazing development, but more so than the music…

      …YOU BEAT NINJA GAIDEN WITHOUT TAKING A HIT? Damn, and I thought *I* played this game a lot back in the day.

      My hat is permanently off to you, good sir.

      Like

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