High Scores: The Moon Theme

The first piece of videogame music I ever fell in love with was in a game I didn’t like all that much. The song scored the Moon stage of the Disney-licensed Nintendo game DuckTales, based on the syndicated cartoon series of the same name. The game wasn’t bad, but the “Moon Theme” (or “The Moon,” as it’s often called) totally outshined it. I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard it—I had to have been about four or five given the game’s October 1989 release in North America. I know I heard it at a babysitter’s house, but I don’t remember which one. I don’t remember who was playing, my brother or the babysitter or I. But I distinctly remember hearing “The Moon” and feeling instantly lifted. The song was pure joy. Its optimism was audible. It sounded triumphant, more appropriate to a credits sequence at the end of a game than to a mid-game stage. Charismatic and commanding, it quieted the chatter in the TV room. However generic this licensed mascot platformer was (I’d call it good but not great), its “Moon” had a glow that couldn’t be ignored.

This is the consensus. Composed by Capcom’s Hiroshige Tonomura, “The Moon” is canon, a mainstay of videogame-music covers and rankings. One of the first such listicles I came across was the now defunct website ScrewAttack’s 2008 video “Top 10 Video Game Themes Ever,” which has “The Moon” clock in at #6. (The Super Mario Bros. Overworld theme is #5.) This list was crowd-sourced by ScrewAttack’s fans, one of whom, called g1sidesmash, made a comment about the song’s relevance that has stuck with me since:

This tune stands out in my mind as the theme of the eight-bit era. When you listen, you hear a small tune, like the leftovers of the video game crash of ’83. It gains momentum with more tunes, and it explodes, just like the NES’s popularity in ’89.

While it may not use the technical language of music theory or computer sound programming, this comment is a very perceptive historical hearing of the song. Ever since I first read it, I’ve heard “The Moon” not just as a theme from a video game but a theme about video games. It’s a love letter to the NES, which few in the early ’80s expected to succeed, and to the music that made this success possible.

If you’re not familiar with the 1983 “crash” that g1sidesmash refers to, you’re probably at least familiar with Atari, the company whose home-gaming console, the Atari 2600, was emblematic of the crash. Basically, in ’83, a combination of a flooded market and poor game design led to a huge drop in Atari’s sales and videogame sales more generally. It’s not like this drop totally killed off video games; the Atari 2600 was available for purchase until 1992, and many other consoles (Intellivision and ColecoVision, e.g.) enjoyed moderate success between the ’83 “crash” and the ’85 debut of the NES, which ushered in the third console generation and modern gaming as we know it. The “crash” refers to enthusiasm more than it does to actual availability. People just seemed to get bored of games, at least those with the Atari’s capabilities.

It’s not well discussed, but I would also chalk the ’83 crash up to the extreme dullness of the sound in these games—and more to the point, their lack of music. The Atari 2600 only had two sound channels, which were mostly used for sound effects. The only music you were likely to hear on a game from that era would be all melody, like the chirpy eighth-notes in first two bars of “The Moon.” A good example of Atari music is the theme for Moon Patrol, a very simple blues vamp that is admirably on-key given the extremely limited number of notes the Atari could play. A much worse and perhaps more revealing example of the Atari’s musical capacity is the band Journey’s charming but clunky video game Journey Escape, which stretches the Atari to its audio limit by incorporating both melody and harmony, as well as sound effects, which completely interrupt the background music. When the music is playing, it’s off-tune and -tempo. We tend to take music as a given in today’s games, but in the first and second console generations, music was a luxury few could afford and even fewer could perfect. There are no famous songs from these consoles’ games for a reason.

By imitating the Atari sound in its first two bars, then layering on bass harmony and finally adding percussion once its loop begins in earnest, “The Moon” captures in microcosm the Cambrian explosion in expressive potential between the second and third console generations. The song achieves emotional liftoff, and it’s rightly ranked alongside the other classics of the eight-bit era. In a way, it’s even more remarkable than the “SMB Overworld Theme” or “Dr. Wily Castle Stage 1” because it’s not from a franchise that went on to have much of a legacy. Any game made for the NES had the potential to create sensational music, even a synergistic cash-grab of a licensed mascot platformer.

Licensed games were huge on the Atari, too. We’ve all heard the legend of the overstock copies of E.T. buried in the New Mexico desert. The truth is, E.T. was not exceptionally terrible for games of this time. It couldn’t have been much worse than the Atari Alien or Ghostbusters or Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle. It was just transparently profit-motivated, and it didn’t have the graphical or musical chops to even approximate the spirit of its source material. “The Moon,” on the other hand, not only rises to the spiritual level of the DuckTales cartoon; it exceeds it.

The best proof of this is that Disney ended up taking the song from the video game and adapting it for TV. The 2017 reboot of DuckTales features arrangements of “The Moon” in several episodes, reimagining it as a lullaby sung to Huey, Dewey, and Louie by their mother, Della Duck. She even gave it lyrics:

Look to the stars, my darling baby boys
Life is strange and vast
Filled with wonders and joys

Face each new sun with eyes clear and true
Unafraid of the unknown
Because I’ll face it with you

I don’t remember much from the original DuckTales cartoon, which ran from 1987-1990, aside from the iconic opening theme and a vague crush on Launchpad McQuack. I remember thinking through the dangers of swan-diving into a hoard of gold coins. I remember thinking it odd how the name “Scrooge” wandered from Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” to the Disney adaptation of the same story to this TV series, where the money-grubbing of the Dickensian character became a lovable quirk rather than a character flaw. This careless greed translated to the video game, as well, the object of which was to collect as much money as possible. In an age when billionaires are financing private rockets to outer space, Scrooge McDuck and DuckTales hit a little differently.

But “The Moon” still comes out unsullied, at least to me. The outer-space it celebrates isn’t that of SpaceX or Blue Origin. It’s the black background of Galaga and Asteroids. It’s the moon of Lunar Lander, Moon Patrol, and, later, Final Fantasy IV and Super Mario Odyssey. In video games, the moon is still a place anyone can reach. I played “The Moon” relentlessly on Apple Music the year I first moved to Denton to start my PhD. I remember listening to it the day I cast my early vote in the 2020 general election. I didn’t know the Della Duck lyrics at the time, but I still used the song as a companion, a reminder that the unknown is as wonderful as it may be frightening. It’s a message I’ll never stop needing to hear.