The internet has been losing its collective mind about the SNES Classic ever since Nintendo announced it – and for good reason. Not only will this dinky replica console allow you to relive 20 of the best 16-bit games ever released, but it will also be the first time we’re able to play unreleased sci-fi shooter Star Fox 2. Whereas the NES Classic was a brilliantly executed curio, good for a few evenings of fun, the SNES Classic represents hundreds of hours of peerless gameplay, with a bit of something for everyone.
One group who will be particularly excited about the SNES Classic are connoisseurs of video game soundtracks, because the Super Nintendo was home to some of the very best. From Square’s legendary Nobuo Uematsu to Rare’s David Wise, composers from around the world drew beautiful, timeless scores out of the console’s unassuming S-SMP audio chip, developing melodies that many of us still hum to this day. Ahead of the SNES Classic’s release, here’s a look back at a few of our favorites.
ActRaiser (Enix, 1990)
Sadly you won’t be able to play ActRaiser on SNES Classic, but any list of the best soundtracks of the era would be remiss not to include Yuzo Koshiro’s astonishing score for this peculiar platform game/city simulation hybrid. ActRaiser is a game where you control a divine being attempting to liberate a world and restore people’s belief. Upon completing each beautiful side-scrolling platform level, you are then transported to a top-down city-building simulation, where you help populate the land you just saved. It’s surprising that this works so well anyway, but the music is something else. Produced within months of the console hitting the market, Koshiro’s symphonic suite gives the game outsize emotional heft, at turns humble and commanding, rebellious and dutiful. An early masterpiece.
Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995)
ActRaiser is a little obscure, so we can understand why it didn’t make the cut for the SNES Classic, but Chrono Trigger’s absence is unforgivable. Directed by a sort of RPG super group, including Yoshinori Kitase (Final Fantasy VI), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) and Yuuji Horii (Dragon Quest), the result was a time-hopping adventure where every system, design and scenario came together in perfect harmony. The soundtrack was almost effortlessly brilliant. The work of Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu, it was full of hope, ever upbeat in the face of the player’s tribulations. There isn’t a dud among the 61 individual pieces and, fittingly for a game about bonds that echo through time, some of our favorites, like the Guardia Millennial Fair theme, still float to mind as we go through our lives decades later.
Donkey Kong Country (Rare, 1994)
Rare’s Donkey Kong Country was most famous for its Silicon Graphics-influenced visual design, but beneath the technobabble was one of the finest platform games created outside Japan. Levels were well-paced, easy to read and addictive to master, and Donkey and Diddy were a lovable tag team. A lot of that love was for David Wise’s superb soundtrack, which had a bit of everything – catchy upbeat numbers that we still hum to this day, lonesome ambience, particularly in caves and underwater levels, and synth-heavy electronic rhythms for moments of tension like boss fights. Even the little jingles you hear upon finishing a level or completing a secret room successfully are mini masterpieces.
Final Fantasy III / VI (Square, 1994)
Arguably the best soundtrack of the Super Nintendo era, Nobuo Uematsu’s score for Final Fantasy III – as it was known on its initial North American release – includes themes for every major character and location, boss and battle themes, and special music for individual story revelations. Everyone has their own favorite, but for us the basic battle theme stands out. A piece of music you will hear literally thousands of times as you fight your way across hill and vale, it always delivers. Perhaps moreso even than Chrono Trigger, which some felt was overly sentimental, Final Fantasy III had an epic sweep that drew the grand and personal together in a vast symphony of nuanced storytelling, and Uematsu’s soundtrack was more than equal to the task.
Mega Man X (Capcom, 1993)
Now for something completely different. As the blue bomber transcended his NES heritage for this Super Nintendo title, Capcom’s audio team of Setsuo Yamamoto, Makoto Tomozawa, Yuki Iwai, Yuko Takehara and Toshihiko Horiyama took their work to the next level as well. Mega Man is a series famous for its almost rhythmic template of platforming and boss fights, and the game’s composers gave each section its own energetic theme, using rock music as inspiration for their fast-paced electronic melodies in a way that has us pining for the 90s.
Secret of Mana (Square, 1993)
Bold and experimental, Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack for Secret of Mana was as much a feat of technical engineering as musical inspiration. Kikuta famously created samples to match the capabilities of the new Super Nintendo hardware, allowing him to compose Mana’s charming and unusual soundtrack without worrying that his melodies would lose something in transposition from instrument to machine. Mana would become one of the most-loved action-RPGs of the 16-bit era, and like its unusual three-player multitap gameplay option, Kikuta’s soundtrack eschewed convention, preferring haunting piano melodies and peculiar noises – whalesong, bird calls, even phone sounds – to draw you into its mysterious myth.
Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994)
Dark and ominous, Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano’s score for Super Metroid is minimalist and understated, full of tension and foreboding befitting a game about a sole explorer delving into a shadowy, brooding planet full of hidden peril. As players master their environment and the many abilities and resources Samus Aran gathers to her cause, the game itself becomes a less hostile place, but the soundtrack remains ever daunting. Even listening to it now as we type these words transports us back to a scary place that we’re glad we conquered but never felt truly at peace.