Opinion: Best NES Composers

Opinion pieces will be my take on the five best…of something. In this case, I want to share my votes for the five greatest composers for the NES hardware.

5) KONAMI KuKeiHa Club (Konami)

Yes, I’m cheating slightly by including the entirety of Konami’s sensational musical staff from the 80s, so I won’t let them rank higher than fifth place. I would much prefer to pinpoint individuals from Konami, but unfortunately the company hasn’t really released proper documentation on individual songs, so I can’t determine who did what song for NES/Famicom Konami games where more than one member worked on a project. However, I just can’t ignore how god damn amazing they were. Listen to Contra, Blades of Steel, Castlevania II and III, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II, Super C, and just about any game they worked on in-house for the NES and you’ll know why they’re here. Impressive, incredible work.

4) Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (Nintendo)

The pioneer of the Nintendo sound, Tanaka composed several of Nintendo’s early games for the system (Wrecking Crew, Donkey Kong, Pinball, Golf, Balloon Fight, Urban Champion, Gyromite, Stack-Up, Duck Hunt, Gumshoe), as well as creating one of the most atmospheric soundtracks for the system with Metroid. His later work on the console included Tetris, Dr. Mario, Mother, Fire Emblem Gaiden, and Kid Icarus. Arguably the busiest of all of the composers I discuss (outside of the KuKeiHa Club, of course), Tanaka deserves to be considered among the system’s finest musicians.

3) Kinuyo Yamashita (Konami/Natsume)

Despite the breadth of Tanaka’s backcatalog, I do have to give Kinuyo Yamashita a higher spot than him for one major reason: she helped launched the musical opus that is Castlevania, establishing a precedent for stellar compositions that would follow long after she left Konami. I consider Castlevania to be the first overall “perfect” soundtrack for the NES, with every song being a delight to listen to. I recently learned that Yamashita did not compose all of Castlevania (courtesy of this link), but she did compose most of the standouts in my opinion save “Vampire Killer” (done by her musical partner Satoe Terashima). “Wicked Child” is my favorite song from the series, hands down. But beyond her work on ‘Vania, I also really love her Power Blade soundtrack a bunch — another nearly flawless composition. She also provided music for Esper Dream, Arumana no Kiseki, Stinger,  Maze of Galious, King Kong 2, and Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken for Konami, and Power Blade 2 for Natsume.

2) Koji Kondo (Nintendo)

Koji Kondo composed two of the most legendary themes in video game lore back on the NES: the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda main themes. That alone is enough to launch him high on this list, but he also composed the excellent Super Mario Bros. 2/Doki Doki Panic!, Super Mario Bros. 3, The Mysterious Murasame Castle, Devil World, Kung Fu, Volleyball, Soccer, and Shin Onigashima. Kondo definitely deserves every ounce of praise he’s earned over the years, but his NES work is among his finest.

1) Naoki Kodaka (Sunsoft)

Sunsoft’s Naoki Kodaka took the NES soundchip to places it had never traveled to before, and he made songs that exceeded the compositions of his peers in terms of construction and dynamism. Beginning with Blaster Master, Kodaka set a new standard for music on the console, continuing to impress with the soundtracks to Batman, Journey to Silius, U-four-ia: The Saga, Batman: Return of the Joker, Gremlins II: The New Batch, and Super Spy Hunter. Part of his success was his utilization of the DPCM signal to generate groundbreaking ways to create the bass sample for his tunes, giving Sunsoft games a very distinct sound. In short, his work on the NES redefined the notion of music on the console, and he made some of the most incredible pieces of music for any gaming device in his prime, so I have to award Kodaka my #1 pick for NES composers.