Nostalgia is a powerful manipulator. Whether it’s the latest Star Wars or superhero retread or yet another video game sequel, nostalgia is big business. But who exactly wants to go back? Who yearns for some imagined time devoid of anxiety or 21st-century fears? Although anyone could experience nostalgia for just about anything, this phenomenon casts its widest net at people of privilege, or, more accurately, people of privilege who fear their station has been diminished, that only the allure of childhood—Super Mario Bros., X-Men, Power Rangers—could reconjure a sense of being at home in the world, a bright future all but guaranteed. This year, we’ve seen this morbid desire play out on the political stage and all the hate and chaos that goes along with it.
So I try to be hyperaware of the false promises of nostalgia, even though I surrender to them all the time. I own over 500 NES games proudly displayed on my shelves. I keep a 1988 Macintosh SE at work even though there’s no practical use for it whatsoever. I wrote an entire book about Mega Man 3 and how it’s almost impossible to critically examine beloved games from your childhood. And maybe that’s why I was both eager and anxious to review Brave Wave’s Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack. 1990’s Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is one of my favorite 2D platformers of all time. I cut my gaming teeth on it as a fresh-faced six-year-old, trading the controller back and forth with my father as we battled toward Ashtar and one thrilling cutscene after another. Would I be able to objectively review its restored soundtrack?
I’m still not sure, but after a few bouts with the Definitive Soundtrack, it’s clear that Brave Wave has done a spectacular job building on the legacy of 1980s Japanese sound designers. Their website is a treasure trove of interviews and information about a diverse mix of musicians from the ’80s and ’90s—everything from the mega-popular Street Fighter II and Tecmo Bowl to the more obscure Gargoyle’s Quest and Gimmick!—and this dedication carries over to Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack. Brave Wave has restored the soundtracks to not just Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II—the most famous and critically acclaimed entries in the series—but also Ninja Gaiden III and the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, a completely different game.
The soundtracks to Ninja Gaiden and its first sequel are burned deeply into my brain, but I was surprised to discover how well they held up when I wasn’t holding a sweaty NES controller, wholly focused on charting one death-defying leap after another, eagles divebombing from all directions. In an age when chiptunes and MIDI controllers and FamiTracker are all the rage, the Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II soundtracks pull us back to the roots of 8-bit music, and they’re as kinetic and atmospheric as ever.
The stage music is probably the highlight of the package. “Going Gets Tough” and “Thunderstorm” still amp me up so much I want to run around the room kicking and punching like a child playing ninjas. Part of this is because of the drum samples. The NES’s sound chip isn’t capable of natively producing a drum beat, and the Tecmo sound designers were one of the first development teams to figure out how to use drum samples in an NES game. Compare Koji Kondo’s melodic Super Mario Bros. themes to anything from Ninja Gaiden. The former sounds like an electronic symphony, the latter like a garage band fused with techno. It’s a dirtier, more frenetic style.
Even though the stage tracks are so memorable and unique, the genius of this definitive collection is that it also includes the cutscene music from all three NES games. The Ninja Gaiden trilogy was famous for its frequent cutscenes, a stark contrast to the brief narrative interludes of similar games like Castlevania or Contra. As the Ninja Gaiden story grew in complexity, so did the soundtracks. The Contra score, for example, is all up-tempo action music, but Ninja Gaiden’s cutscene music has to express a wider ranger of emotions and situations—despair, shock, even exposition. Because of this, the sonic landscape of Ninja Gaiden is much more complex than its platforming peers, more in line with something offbeat and strange like Maniac Mansion or Portopia than the more streamlined DuckTales or Mega Man 2. Tracks like “Determination: Father’s Melody” or “Dehumanize” communicate ominous shades of melancholy that predict so much of what we see from the chiptune community today.
The Ninja Gaiden III soundtrack is perhaps a notch below the original Ninja Gaiden or Ninja Gaiden II, but even this is balanced by the unexpectedly great arcade soundtrack. I only ever saw the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden once as a kid, and I imagine many listeners will share the experience I had listening to the soundtrack for the first time. Unlike the techno 8-bit sensibility of its NES brethren, the arcade version opts for a heavy dose of camp, culminating in the bizarre “NY Stage,” which lifts Michael Jackson’s “Bad” wholesale, or “NY Stage / Transcontinental Railroad Stage Boss,” which does the same to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The arcade soundtrack is a madcap synth romp that serves as a nice contrast, and it’s also an unexpected surprise even for folks who have played the NES installments hundreds and hundreds of times.
Brave Wave grounds this material with two separate booklets containing art and interviews with the games’ many composers. And it’s this work that vaults Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack from nostalgia into something else entirely—preservation. Here, we learn all kinds of background information. The composers fluctuate from the hypertechnical—lovingly describing the synthesizers they adored thirty years ago—to broader development tales. Their influences range from the obvious—ninja films and anime—to the completely unexpected—U2’s The Edge and Italian prog rock. This material begs to be preserved for future generations.
Like MGM’s early preservation efforts or the Film Foundation or even the Criterion Collection, Brave Wave is focused on maintaining old media for future generations—only their area of focus is video games, not film. Over the course of four vinyl records and two booklets, they make the case in Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack that game music is just as deserving of preservation as the scores of Citizen Kane or Casablanca. After listening to “Irene: Overture of Dawn” or “The Amazing Ryu” again and again and again, I truly hope they succeed.