Game That Tune

Silver Surfer

Cosmic Relief

After Depeche Mode, before Daft Punk, there was Silver Surfer on the NES.

By Derrick Sanskrit • February 21, 2013

Game music has the power to earworm its way into your heart long after you put the controller down. Each week in Game That Tune, we highlight a great tune from a great game (or a great tune from a just-okay game).

It’s almost unfair. Actually, a lot of people have called it exactly that—“unfair.” Silver Surfer is remembered for being one of the most unforgiving games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The waves of relentless interplanetary baddies would be no big deal if it weren’t for the Surfer’s one-hit deaths. Yes, once anything touched you, game over. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense considering the shimmering starwanderer was endowed with the Power Cosmic from Galactus himself. In the Marvel comic books, the Silver Surfer can rearrange matter on an atomic level, has God-like strength, is invulnerable, and is cosmically aware. He can see people who are a light year away, and he can peer between sub-atomic particles right in front of his face. Nobody and nothing can sneak up on the guy, let alone hit him. But that would be much more of a challenge for game programmers, so sure, let’s just have him die in one hit. As a result of this difficulty, pretty much nobody has played through the whole game and had the opportunity to experience Tom and Geoff Follin’s wonderful score in its entirety. Thankfully, you only need to hit the power button to hear the best part, right there on the title screen.

Like the rest of the game, the music has next to nothing to do with the source material. Silver Surfer is a solemn and lonely wanderer, forced away from his home and his love forever. This soundtrack is all about bumping and grinding while bowling under the blacklight—which is awesome. There are the ping-pong bounces of laser beams with their echoing pew-pew-pews, the warbled arpeggios of teleporters and starship engines, and the swirling synths of a thousand galaxies lit up like an overzealous Christmas light show. Underneath it all is a persistent drum and bass intent on militaristically hunting you down and destroying you like so many star systems before the devourer of planets.

Even now, more than two decades after the game’s release, as “chiptune” has become an international music movement, this song of electronic badassery stands out. More than a piece of video game music, it’s a fascinating moment in electronic music altogether. Synthpop had already been introduced just a few years prior by the likes of Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, but this was still years before Daft Punk would make it acceptable for electronic music to be seen as anything more than inoffensive dancehall pop. Here, in a largely forgettable licensed NES game, the brothers Follin threw away any conceived notions of what was “acceptable” and created something stunning in its place. And they put their best foot forward, because they rightly knew people might never get past that first step.

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  • His_Space_Holiness

    Wow, I had no idea there had ever been a Silver Surfer game. Red-hot soliloquizing action! You can feel the existential despair coming right at you!

  • PaganPoet

    This is the sort of chiptune I love. It’s like a Kylie backing track produced by Calvin Harris.

  • ShrikeTheAvatar

    I love this feature.  

    • Jackbert322

      Then why don’t you marry it!

      • PaganPoet

        woah there hitler

        • ShrikeTheAvatar

          Derrick said he’s not ready :-(

      • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

        yeah, chill out
        jealous boy

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Fuck yes. I ought to throw together a playlist of these songs. This might be my favorite feature on the site, actually. The Header images are always awesome even! gg, @dsanskrit:disqus 

      • PaganPoet

        It’s one of my favorites too. Especially since, for the most part, Derrick is picking games which I’ve never played, so I never would have thought to seek out their soundtracks.

        • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

          What can I say? I have unpopular taste in everything!

    • Chum Joely

      I to an extent agree with you

  • Chip Dipson

    I had a very serious talk with my 10-year-old about the masochistic levels of difficulty some of these NES games had, and Silver Surfer was the one I had him play to prove my point.

    Also: the Silver Surfer soundtrack is a great and all, but can not hold a candle to the Yes-Era, pseudo proggy perfection that is the title music to Solstice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypNPxwnppU0

    • Captain Internet

      That’s fantastic- you’re right, it sounds like a NES-based homage to Tales of Topographic Oceans.

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      Solstice was one of the first five NES games I owned, which may have something to do with my chip music obsession. Alas, my scruples told me I could only use one song per composer per season-or-so, and this dancefloor freakout could not be ignored.

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      GREAT, now I’m going to have this Solstice/Ghostface mash-up stuck in my head all day. THANKS A LOT, CHIP!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJNCVhc9cnM

    • The_Misanthrope

      “When I was your age, we didn’t have any of that fancy regenerating health…and we liked it that way!”

      • valondar

         You know, I just realized there will eventually come a time that videogames will be so accepted as an art form there will be bored kids in school being forced to play through Important Video Games.

        • https://twitter.com/tymcast Tyler Mills

          “Gosh dangit. By tomorrow I have to finish Dungeon 7 of the Legend of Zelda. I really shouldn’t have been putting it off all week. If I see one more Wizrobe I’m gonna punch someone in the face.”

        • uselessyss

          “Son, I know it’s what you want, but do you really think a Games Studies major is the best choice for your future?”

    • PaganPoet

      I never played Solstice, but I did play Equinox on SNES and I remember loving how atmospheric the music was from that game.

    • http://twitter.com/Frypan_Jack Frypan Jack

      Holy crap, I was completely unprepared for how much that first crescendo was going to blow my mind

    • Jess Ragan

      I really enjoy Yes, but I’m of mixed minds about European chip tunes, which I often describe as “gurgle music.”  It always sounds like someone is violently shaking the system while it attempts to play the song.

  • George_Liquor

    Allow me to describe how most who played Silver Surfer remember this song:

    First 30 seconds or so thoroughly enjoyed.
    Start button pressed.
    Stage selected
    Game begins
    Player dies many, many, many… *sigh* many times. 
    Game is ejected from NES
    Game is smashed into powder with hammers.
    Player tried to collect the shattered remains of his psyche and move on with life. 
    Song quickly sublimates into player’s subconscious, lying dormant for years until finally dredged up by Gameological.
    Player spends the rest of the afternoon curled up in fetal position, muttering to himself.

    Thanks a lot, Sanskrit.

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      Aim to please and shoot to kill.

  • ChicaneryTheYounger

    You’d think it would be scored by Morrissey.

  • http://twitter.com/roundthewheel RTW

    YES. NOW WE’RE TALKIN’.

    Tim Follin, one of the greatest game composers of all time, and arguably the best in the West. Certainly my favorite VGM composer, without a doubt. It’s a shame he’s so flippant about his own body of work in interviews. He had a knack for getting unique sounds out of limited hardware, particularly the NES chip. Other games where his title screen music was the best part of the game include the almost entirely forgotten (for good reason) Treasure Master and Pictionary. He also rather ingeniously altered the number of musical channels dedicated to sound effects for the soundtrack to Plok; I can’t recall the exact numbers but I think in most cases, three of the eight channels on the SNES sound chip were dedicated to music output, whereas for Plok he changed it to five. So you got unique tracks like this

    Although he’s rightly known for the more prog-type chiptune stuff, he was also capable of making good orchestral music. From, respectively, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future and his final soundtrack, Lemmings for the PSP:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQQYk7owL6Y
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuJa8wy5OEg

  • Jess Ragan

    Ah yes, Silver Surfer.  This game made the character so wimpy he could be knocked off his surfboard by ducks, and not even flying ones.