A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES), David Wise, 1989
Before developer Rare became one of gaming’s powerhouses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it toiled away for several years as one of the many companies churning out NES titles for various distributors. One of those distributors was LNJ – infamous for the usually low quality of the products that the company peddled. More than a few of their games were developed by Rare – almost all of them justifiably forgotten.
One of the stronger results of the collaboration between LNJ and Rare was A Nightmare on Elm Street – based of course on one of the most popular horror franchises of the 1980s. “Stronger” doesn’t mean that the game was an unqualified success – according to critics, it was merely better than most other LNJ titles and all in all made for a passable platformer. The game arguably would have been more distinctive had Rare stuck with the original concept where gamers controlled Freddie to hunt down teenagers. It’s not hard to see why this initial draft of the game was scrapped, particularly on a Nintendo console.
David Wise had delivered the music for each Rare NES (and Game Boy) title since joining the company in 1986. That Wise became a game composer was due to a chance encounter with Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper in the Leicester music shop Wise worked in. After demonstrating a Yamaha CX5 sequencer (the company’s first music computer) with his own MIDI compositions, Wise was offered a job at Rare by the Stampers. While it would be the Battletoads franchise that brought Wise’s name to the attention of game music fans, the A Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack firmly stands as Wise’s first great score.
Writing horror music on a console as technologically restricted as the NES poses a particular challenge. Often enough, NES soundtracks overcome their inherent limitations by focusing on memorable melodies or intricate, creative rhythms. As Wise put it himself in an interview: “In the early days of video game music, with the limited resources we had at our disposal, the melody was incredibly important.” However, much contemporary horror scoring achieves its effect through other means – unsettling textures and extended use of dissonances. These musical approaches don’t translate easily to the NES, at least not without grating quickly if put in the hands of a lesser composer.
Wise achieves a more than workable compromise on the A Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack. His score is more melodic than many horror movie and game soundtracks, but equally creates a nearly constant feeling of dread (if never outright terror). Take “Town of Elm Street”, whose opening sounds almost adventurous. Its opening melody is maybe the most complex lead Wise has written for a chiptunes score, almost cascading and rushing forth in excitement, with an upbeat conclusion to each phrase. Expert harmonisation of the two pulse wave leads begins to introduce an otherworldly feel – and then the music suddenly falls into a black pit inhabited only by a mechnical pulse and eerie background drones that uncomfortably rise in pitch. It’s not a subtle change of mood, but it’s definitely effective, particularly as those encroaching drones never leave, even as the track returns to the relatively upbeat mood of its beginning.
Wise’s use of a nagging bass pulse to underscore evil returns on several other tracks – it’s hard not to suspect the influence of John Carpenter’s horror scores here. What works on the maestro’s soundtracks does the job on the A Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack too though. Mechanical and relentless, that bass ostinato and the menace it underscores remain elusive, without a face or other means to identify it, hunting down its victims with single-minded intent.
Other tracks find different ways to imbue horror scoring tropes with melodic content. Initially, “Inside House 2” dabbles in well-executed stereotypes. High-pitched, discordant melodies and swelling drones alternate with a forward tumbling, almost panicked bass figure. But then Wise seamlessly leads into a wistful, downright beautiful melody that comes out of nowhere – far more moving than what one would expect from an NES horror game. “Inside House 3”’s melodies – despite their fragmented nature – are almost heroic in their fanfaric progressions. Victory seems plausible and the track’s second half brings that sentiment across even more clearly with insistent, catchy chord progressions that add some pop sensibilities to the score. Wise’s most interesting composition here is “Elm Street Cemetary”. The cue pits its motivating forward push against an indecipherable shower of dissonant notes on both pulse wave channels, while also sporting the soundtrack’s most intriguing, experimental melodies.
Considering Wise’s obvious talents, it’s not surprising that the A Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack also shines when it goes for straight horror scoring. “Title Screen”’s slowly progressing bass pulse and drones right away set the required creepy mood, working in tandem with spine-tingling, almost shrill melodies. The skeletal, but highly effective instrumentation and shrapnels of melody recall Hirokazu Tanaka’s Metroid soundtrack, while the slow tempo creates a quietly suffocating atmosphere. “Junkyard” is more aggressively dissonant still. It returns that bass pulse in its most effectively unsettling iteration, underscoring creepily harmonised arpeggios that have a disconcerting stutter effect. As a game, A Nightmare on Elm Street might have exceeded expectations simply by not being really bad – but Wise’s ambitious and creative soundtrack goes above and beyond, creating an outstanding NES score where few would have expected one.
Around the same time as the NES game hit the market, a separate A Nightmare on Elm Street title for C64 and Atari ST was released (not developed by Rare). Paul Mudra’s composition for the C64 game is reasonably catchy – with sufficiently creepy undertones – but at less than one minute, it doesn’t have much time to make its mark.
- 01 - Title Screen Wise, David 2:14
- 02 - Town of Elm Street Wise, David 2:45
- 03 - Inside House 1 Wise, David 1:50
- 04 - Inside House 2 Wise, David 2:32
- 05 - Inside House 3 Wise, David 2:36
- 06 - Junkyard Wise, David 2:52
- 07 - Elm Street Cemetary Wise, David 3:12