Meet the System: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

One of the goals of this website is to introduce people to the various video game consoles and their sound capabilities.  Today, I choose the Nintendo Entertainment System.

A Brief Description

Known as the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System is the 10th best selling game console of all time at 61.91 million units sold.  It featured 8-bit graphics, a library of 799 games, and numerous peripherals including the NES Zapper (a light gun for simulated shooting games), the Power Glove (the first controller that allowed human movement to control a video game), and the Power Pad (a floor mat controller controlled by a player’s feet).  The console was released in the US in 1984 and was discontinued 1994.  For more info, check out the NES wiki :

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

The NES uses a Ricoh 2A03 8-bit microprocessor.  It was based on the MOS Technology 6502, the same processor as the famous Apple II series.  (The MOS Technology 6502 was developed by the same engineering team that built the very popular and successful Motorola 6800.  (A nerdy aside:  the Motorola 6800 is the processor that eventually led to the development of the MC68000 series, the Apple Macintosh chip that competed with the Intel x86 chip for many years and was coincidentally the chip used in the Sega Genesis). )

The 2A03 allowed for two pulse wave channels with 16 volume settings and duty settings of 12.5%, 25%, 50%, and 75%, one fixed-volume triangle wave channel, a white noise channel with 16 volume settings, and delta pulse-code modulation (DPCM).  The console also allowed for sound expansion chips.  These were controlled by two pins on the cartridge connection.  This allowed for more simultaneous sounds, extra channels, and other sound types such as sawtooth waves.  Unfortunately, the two pins were removed from the US Nintendo console so we actually never heard the most powerful and clean sound expansion chips.  I’ll save that conversation for another post.


Essentially, most first generation NES games had only 4 different simultaneous sounds – two pulse waves that could change in timbre from pulse to square with adjustments, a triangle wave, and a white noise channel.  The DPCM is essentially just a really, really primitive audio sampler.  A lot of the sound effects you hear when you play NES (such as punching, kicking, jumping, power ups etc) are just sampled sounds that are fed through the DPCM.  Through creative use of these channels, early NES composers managed to create music.  Here’s a montage of all the songs from Super Mario Bros. for NES:

(credit:  Garudoh)

So, what you’re hearing right now from composer Koji Kondo is the two pulse waves controlling the melody and the triangle serving as the bass.  The noise channel is manipulated to attempt to create something that sounds like or acts like drums.  What is interesting to know is that the triangle wave is fixed volume so while the other channels can technically be louder or softer, the total volume has to be based completely on the output sound of the triangle wave.  A puzzling limitation.

However, as I mentioned before, there were MANY sound expansion modules that were attached to the game cartridges themselves that allowed for extra channels to be added.  Many companies, when producing games, took advantage of this to add many more “instrument” options for their composers.  Here’s of an example Yoshinori Sasaki et al using Konami’s VRC6, a chip that added two pulse waves and a sawtooth wave:

(credit:  Explod2A03 – awesome name)


The NES was and still is an incredibly iconic system that paved the way for modern video game consoles.  Its sound capabilities are impressive and vast due the system’s ability to process sound expansion modules from the game cartridges themselves.  I hope this brief “meet and greet” has been informative and has allowed for a greater understanding of what composers worked with in order to create the music for the NES.

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

3 responses to “Meet the System: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

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