Video game film score PART 2 – NES Chiptunes

Hello friends and aliens! Welcome back to another exciting edition of Video game film score. In today’s episode we’re going to continue laying the ground work for our film score. Last week we talked about the film’s story and sonic needs, this week we’ll start putting together our inspiration.

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And what of inspiration? Did the director give us any direction on what to write for his animated masterpiece? Absolutely. In Stuck’s current reels, the director and editor clipped in some NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era music to help us understand their thought process. Which games you ask? Well for one, Balloon Fight, though we’re sure you won’t be surprised that they also included music from Megaman 3 (to the uninitiated, Megaman 2 and Megaman 3 are often fighting for the top NES music of all time spot; while the director was unaware of this fact he apparently has good taste).

Megaman 2 and Megaman 3 have been remixed more than almost any other game on our favorite vg remix site: OC Remix

In fact, there were no video game sounds from any system other than an NES in the reels; this should really tell us something about the synth-aesthetic our director is looking for: 8 bits, 80’s sounding, loopy. But is there more to know about the NES aesthetic than the simple bit count? Yep.

Video game music of this era is so many things: hardware, composer, programming technique, passion. In our film, the sounds of the NES will enforce a confidently nostalgic, yet modern experience with our audience. Music born of hardware limitations and budget, a very real system of constraints that emboldened a coveted retro aesthetic.

While we have no intention of writing an exclusively NES sounding film score (our imaginary console is 9 bit, let’s call it the Nintari II), the NES is a key component of understanding our director’s grand vision. As such, let’s study hard and see what we come up with… shall we?

The NES Sound

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was originally released in Japan as the Famicom in 1983 and then in the U.S. as the NES in 1985. This little console was tremendous changing the landscape of video games forever, especially impactful in Japan and the United States. In fact, in the U.S., the NES was the clear winner against its rivals in Sega (via the technically superior Sega Master System) and the established player Atari (who caused the video game crash of 1984).

The NES has a classically recognizable sound. At least for those of us who participated in the 80’s and 90’s in the United States, there’s nothing like it and no derivative. Well, except for the GameBoy, which has extremely similar hardware sound capabilities to the Famicom/NES.

The NES sound [in the US] is provided by the Ricoh 2A03 chip. This chip gives the composer a grand total of 5 discrete voices each of which has a specific function.


  • Two pulse width voices with modifiable duty cycle — used for like, errythang.
  • Triangle wave – bass and drums
  • Noise – commonly used for drums
  • DPCM — a sampling channel (yep, NES games used samples). Different games used (or didn’t) use this voice for different purposes.

For each voice they’re pretty limited compared to normal synths. For example notes can only be played at 16 different volume levels (most digital synths at least give you 127 discrete volume steps per voice). Nothing is continuous on chips like these, by the way. They’re pretty old school, so you usually get a limited selection of parameter values and nothing in between; there just wasn’t enough tech available to get any flashier than that.

We’d also like to note none of the other commonly found synth-y things are available on an NES: no filters, no lfos, no fancy effects – just 5 voices and a handful of values you can set on them. It’s no wonder chip tunes have become an accepted art form as of late, there’s a lot that goes into making these limitations sound good. And, with just these five voices, we not only get that epic NES music we love, they’re also serving all of the game’s sound effects as well. Hrm, we think the folks that bridged this gap for us were quite clever people, clever indeed.

And what of the sound? Well, in the United States (we’ll get to why I keep calling out the country in a minute btw), the NES “sound” might be something like this…

The songs from this game have been remixed and covered about a billion times each. This is Castlevania II’s Bloody Tears; its wholly infamous.

NES Enhancement Chips

Outside of the U.S., you know… in Japan, the NES worked slightly differently. In the original Famicom (Japanese NES) design the Famicom has two pins for an audio connections in the cartridge slot. Over time, additional chips were added to cartridges that could extend the sound capabilities of the Famicom. On the US design, these two pins were placed on the bottom of the console instead due to reasons (click the fucking link if you want to know them) and so US cartridges all had exactly the same sound, that of the NES hardware described above.

These chips didn’t exclusively enhance sound. Often they assisted by adding processing horsepower to the system. Basically, if you had one of these chips in your cartridge, your games would be more bad ass than the other games. Third parties manufactured their own as well as Nintendo releasing an official line of Memory Mappers.

Being personal, for a second, these soundtracks sound really impressive to us. Check these out…

Konami games are somewhat famous for their music. Coincidentally, they have quite a few impressive memory mappers. This one is the VRC6. They re-wrote the music for the NES version of this game because they couldn’t use the sound enhancement capabilities of their chip.

If you’re Japanese then that classic NES sound might be quite different depending on who made the game and when.

Zelda 2 was released on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) in Japan; you know, on those little floppies? It just so happens that the FDS has an additional Ricoh sound chip in it, the RP2C233. This little chip adds a channel of wavetable synthesis, a technique where different waveforms can be loaded. Compare this version with the US Version if you like.

While it’s a shame we missed out on these features here in the West, no matter, at least we can enjoy this fantastic music now. But really the one thing we’d like you to take away is that it just so turns out that the sounds representative of the NES vary quite a bit. We have a lot of room to experiment with our orchestration and still carry that NES vibe.

NES Hardware Synthesizers

When it comes to reproducing this classic NES sound, there are a few options and we really mean it… just a few. And, if you’re, us and only like to use hardware synthesizers, outside of an NES (or GameBoy) there are kinda two choices. Of course, we already have both of them in our synth-pile too; the Chiptune LLC NesMONO and the Twisted Electrons HapiNES. These synths each take a different approach to replicating the NES sound and each one honestly sounds quite unique despite them both designed to model the same console.

The NesMONO is mono as advertised and provides around 64 presets that replicate different common NES sounds. It’s dual oscillator too, which gives it some really exciting big unison sounds though it is true to the NES and is single voiced (only one note at a time). Unlike the NES, the NesMONO is extremely clean sounding which offers some unique applications over an NES proper. This isn’t the synth you would use to make a faithful 5 channel NES track, though it does provide you with one of the best (cleanest) NES voices we’ve ever heard.

The Twisted Electrons approach is different aiming at providing composers with a reasonably functional NES replacement. Offering 4 of the voices from the original NES, the hapiNES only leaves out the DPCM sampling channel. The hapiNES is multitimbral, giving you access to each of the voices independently and simultaneously. With this little box you can get some pretty-close-to-the-original sounding NES tunes; it’s nice and gritty sounding too.

The hapiNES has its own sequencer, it’s all you need to write NES tunes. We have the L version which adds midi and a fancy-pants metal box. Note, there’s no way in hardware, that we know of, to replicate chip enhancements. For that you gotta use software like Famitracker.

With these two little synths combined, we will create the NES aspect of our imaginary console for this short film. These won’t be our only chip sounds, but they will form the base sonic aesthetic.

Beyond Hardware

The music of the NES is rich, though we’ve only scratched the surface. NES era music stems from much more than the hardware that it was created on, though it was specifically hardware limitations that inspired the compositional techniques that made this music so special. Each composer and programming team came up with their own techniques for programming NES music, in some cases evoking genius levels of creativity. We sort of want to write about it… but we won’t.

You see, the realities of what we can replicate with the NES synths we have is fundamentally different than working with a console. We’re not limited in the same ways (and we’re limited in slightly different ways). That said, we did want to give a nod to the significant compositional technique played in created our cherished NES music. We will cover some video game tracks in depth in a future article, but we’ll never really dive into this deep and interesting area of study. We highly recommend digging into it, or maybe we will someday too 🙂

Okay, that’s all we’ve got for this article. Catch us in part 3 where we explore more chips we’ll be using to score this movie.

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