Video Game Audio 106. The Rise of 8-Bit Nintendo NES.

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This is part VI of my article series on video game sound. If you haven’t already, I recommend you start with Part I: Video Game Audio 101. Fiction or Interface. An Introduction.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of 8-bit and 16-bit home computers and game consoles.

Examples of popular 8-bit machines include the Commodore 64 (1982) home computer, the Nintendo NES (1985) home console, and – later – the Nintendo Game Boy (1989) handheld game console.

Popular 16-bit machines include the Commodore Amiga 500 (1985) home computer, the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, also known as the SNES (1990).

You can read more about bits and how it is related to sound quality in this article.

These systems are categorized as 3rd and 4th generation home computers and gaming consoles. To put this in context, the PS5 and Xbox Series X consoles belong to the 9th generation.

In this article, I’ll look at how Nintendo saved an over-saturated market for home consoles in the mid-1980s with their 8-bit NES.

The rise of the Nintendo NES 8-bit console

The Nintendo Entertainment System, aka the NES, was released in Japan in 1983 and the US in 1985.

In Japan, the NES was known as the Famicon, which meant Family Computer.

At the time of the release, the Famicon cost ¥14,800 and included ports of three of Nintendo’s biggest arcade games, i.e., Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye.

In the US, you could purchase the NES for $89.99 without any games or spend an extra ten bucks and get it with Super Mario Bros. included.

The NES saved the home gaming console market, which had drastically decreased in the mid-1980s due to oversaturation and bad investments by Atari.

One of the reasons why the NES was a success is that Nintendo had developed a system that made it impossible to copy or produce games to their console without a license.

But another was their marketing.

Nintendo’s honest marketing won over the consumers’ hearts

The NES won over consumers again because Nintendo did a simple thing in its marketing strategy: they didn’t lie.

Before the NES, home consoles were often sold in boxes printed with beautiful graphics, and the same was true for the packaging boxes for video games.

I’ve bought plenty of video games in the 1980s, where the packaging – and even the loading screen – promised one thing, only to be sorely disappointed by the ugly graphics once the game started.

Nintendo decided to leave this marketing strategy to regain the consumers’ trust.

Instead, they didn’t exaggerate the boxes’ graphics and specified exactly what the NES could do.

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They also specified the genre so the consumers knew what to expect. When you bought a game the NES, you knew exactly what you’d get.

As mentioned earlier, the NES was known as the Famicon – Family Computer – and was marketed as such in Japan.

In the US, it was marketed only toward kids as a toy. It was released with a toy robot and a gun for Duck Hunt (1984).

I still remember playing Duck Hunt at my friend’s house and being amazed at how the game could measure where I pointed the gun at the television screen. Well, to be honest, I still don’t get how it works.

This meant that Nintendo implemented strict policies and limits on sexual, political, and religious elements in the games.

I find this interesting because it signifies that video games in the 1980s are considered to have a cultural impact equal to movies, music, and comics.

You can read more on Nintendo’s marketing in this article by Tiffany Regaudie.

The NES was so successful that it was produced in 1995.

The sounds of the NES: The Ricoh 2A03 sound chip

The sound chip of the NES was developed by Japanese electrical engineer, sound designer, and music composer Yukio Kaneoka.

Yukio Kaneoko is the engineer behind the famous Nintendo 8-bit sound, and he patented the sound chip.

He also designed well-known sounds and wrote the music for major hits such as Donkey Kong (1981 – released 1983 for the NES), Donkey Kong Jr. (1982 – released 1983 for the NES), and Mario Bros. (1983).

The NES sound chip was a five-channel Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). It was programmed directly through assembly language to activate the oscillators.

An oscillator is an electrical signal that generates a repeating figure – a waveform. The most basic example is a sine wave.

An oscillator can create a tone by itself – thus acting as a tone generator – or be mixed with other oscillators to create more complex waveforms.

Instrument sounds are often created from a combination of a waveform and an ADSR envelope generator, which helps shape the sound by manipulating the Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release.

The NES sound chip had two pulse wave channels, which could produce approximately eight octaves between 55 Hz and 12 kHz.

A pulse wave looks similar to a square wave, which has many harmonic overtones but doesn’t share the exact symmetry. Its shape is defined by the oscillator’s duty cycle.

Sound Waves types
Different types of basic sound waves. Square waves are often referred to as having a hollow sound and are used to recreate brass instruments.

Here’s a nice video where you can hear the sounds of the basic waveforms:

The pulse wave’s duty cycle can be modulated in many synths, called pulse wave modulation, for more dynamic harmonic overtones.

When the duty cycle is of equal length, the pulse wave becomes a square wave.

Here you can hear some examples of pulse wave modulation:

One of the two pulse wave channels had a frequency sweep function, which made it possible to create a portamento effect, i.e., when the pitch slides from one tone to another.

This was great for creating sci-fi sounds like those of UFOs and laser guns.

The two pulse wave channels were often used for melodies and chords.

The third channel produced a triangle wave, one octave deeper than the pulse wave channels, and was useful for bass sounds.

The fourth channel produced white noise, which was great for percussion sounds.

The fifth channel (the Delta Modulation Channel, aka DMC) was a sampler, which could sample sound bites from speech or sound effects in 1-bit.

Here’s an awesome video by KYLXBN, which illustrates how the different sounds of the NES five-channel chip sound:

How the sound chip defined the music and effects in the NES/Famicon

Even though the sound chip in the NES was lightyears ahead of the competition (at least compared to other home consoles), it also had its limits, which helped shape the overall compositions and aesthetics of the game’s soundscape.

The early games had very few music loops. Donkey Kong fx had only short melodies of a couple of measures.

Chords were often arpeggiated.

Also, sound effects often clashed with the music because there was no way actually to mix the music.

Home console Nintendo games were often ported from arcade hits. In the mid-1980s, arcade games began to have more complex music and sound effects, and because the NES had such an advanced chip, it could keep up.

Thus the music on the NES began to include longer music loops too.

The impact of game genre on the music

However, the game genre often determined the length of the music loops.

As Collins points out in Game Sound (2008:27) (link to Amazon), shorter loops were often found in more action-oriented games such as sports and flight simulators.

Longer loops were found in RPGs and platform adventure games.

Take a listen to the music in Castlevania (1987) and compare it to the earlier short loops in Donkey Kong above.

The loop-based music didn’t follow popular music’s verse and chorus structure.

Instead, it consisted of sections – up to eight measures – which you heard once before another section replaced the section.

This is similar to how house and techno music is composed, and it’s probably no coincidence that both genres flourished simultaneously.

Koji Kondo’s Sonic Worlds

One of the composers who stood out at the time was Japanese Koji Kondo, probably best known for his music in Super Marios Bros (1985).

He understood how to get the most out of the NES chip and the limited amount of memory available.

The music in Super Mario Bros set a standard for how music was used in many games in the years to come.

There are three game states that each trigger a piece of music: overworld (good), underworld (evil), and boss (the end-of-level monster).

The Overworld theme is the Super Mario Bros theme, aka Ground theme, and is a calypso-like music piece. It consists of four-measure loops with small variations.

The game picks from these variations before looping the whole song again.

Another Overworld theme is the water level theme (or Underwater Theme), a Waltz in 3/4.

The Underworld Theme(s) is much more sinister and conveys danger.

Journalist Gino Sorcinelli has a great article on the inspirations for the Underworld theme, which I recommend reading.

And here’s Wired’s interview with the maestro about his video game music.

The overworld and underworld themes often consisted of longer loops. But when the game changed the state to a boss battle, the shorter, more hectic loops were used.

This made sense since the boss battles often didn’t last very long.

In Closing

I hope you found this short article on the Nintendo NES, aka Famicon, fun.

In the next article, I’ll look closely at one of my favorite computers of all time, the Commodore 64 and the famous SID chip.

The Commodore 64 hit the market around the same time as the Nintendo NES, and thus the seeds were planted for one of the infamous flame wars that still take place today: which is better for gaming – a PC or a console.

Until next time, happy gaming!


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.