The Music of Maniac Mansion (NES)

The NES port of Maniac Mansion is a game that's very near and dear to me, and a huge part of my love for the game is it's unique soundtrack. It's unique to the NES version, and at first it was going to be a mostly silent game like it was on the C64 and Amiga, with only a small handful of arrangements. However, Nintendo wanted the game to have wall-to-wall music, so they agreed to a contract extension. The game's sole sound person, David Warhol, reached out to composers he had met in his life and work, consisting of George Sanger and Team FAT, as well as jazz-fusion musician Dave Hayes, and the rest is history.

Today, we explore this game's unique soundtrack, and just kinda bask in the fact that four of the six musicians associated with it are named David. All YouTube videos are courtesy of the channel explod2A03, who post a lot of unique and underappreciated retro game music.

Maniac Theme

Composers: Chris Grigg, David Lawrence, David Warhol

Here is a link to a video of the intro proper. Sadly I couldn't find a version with the complete song or decent audio. The version below is the best I've found, but only has audio in the right ear. I'm merely using it as supplementary content to show how it's used in-game; all timestamps will be referring to the OST video to the right.

But yes, this is the intro theme to the game, and it really sets the tone for the experience you're about to have. This is an arrangement of the song originally made for the C64/Amiga version of the game, as credited to Chris Grigg and David Lawrence, but translated to the 2A03 by David Warhol. If you're not familiar with Warhol's unique sound design, this is a great introduction to it.

The way there's a beat after the meteor lands and the drums kick in while the lights in the mansion start turning on is a great touch. Right away you'll start hearing that cool duty-swapping pulse bass this game is known for. Then after some nice dissonant notes, a really nice touch. Listen to the way the note fades out at 0:17. This is a combination of volume decay with the 2A03's hardware sweep pitch bends. You'll be hearing this effect a lot in this OST.

At 0:30 is the song's main melody, fleshed out quite a bit from the original version on the C64, replacing the chirpy call-and-response notes with an extension of the melody. Then it goes into a bass and percussion loop before abruptly ending (which is fine, since we've been on the CSS for a while now and we've probably already started listening to character themes).

The Boys Are Still Back (by Fat Patty) Composer: Dave Hayes

While we did just talk about Maniac Theme, I would argue THIS is the true main theme of the game. Dave is the leader of the bunch, and you'll know him well because he's the only party member that is mandatory. But that's OK because he has arguably one of the catchiest and most interesting songs in the game.

The song was very clearly inspired by Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town", as evidenced by it's name, and follows a similar style and chord progression as well. The pop-rock vibe of the song fits well as a main character theme; energetic and fun, but accessible.

The way the song progresses is something I love about it. It starts off very simple with some chords, with any melodic structure being carried by the bass line. Then around 0:10, you get the main melody. This beautiful melody in the key of A major, accompanied by a rhythmic bass line and percussion, topped off by a cool triangle-wave arpeggio. I might be biased towards A major, but this is honestly one of my favorite melodies in any song, ever. It hits this really satisfying melancholy tone, but it knows when to pull back and not resolve in a cliche way.

Then around 0:30, you get into the blues-ier part of the song, and this is where the lead guitar (well, lead pulse wave) starts to get a little more free-form. Listen to the way the melody gradually becomes more complicated and ornate in this section. It starts off low and slow, playing along to the chords with a couple little flourishes, but then around 0:44, the song starts going into full guitar solo territory (spoiler alert, it stays in this territory until the end of the song, and it slaps).

At the 1:00 minute mark, the song circles back to the same backing from earlier, but the guitar solo is still going, now starting to seamlessly complement the new chord progression it's been introduced to. At about 1:10, it begins to crescendo, with the guitar licks becoming so fast that they're now trilling, then concluding by going right back to the simple chords from the beginning. It's SUCH a satisfying journey!

No No Never Never Well Maybe Sure OK (by The Void)

Composer: George Sanger

A punk rock song for a punk rock girl? Novel! Give it a chance and you'll go slam dance, because this song does a really good job of capturing that punk rock spirit. Maybe even a little too good of a job...

It starts off playing a simple chord progression with the classic downstroke-style that you associate with punk rock. Then at 0:10, you get what are supposed to be the "vocals". Many people think this sounds like a car horn, and certainly it can be repetitive, maybe even annoying to some, but maybe that's the point. 0:21-0:32 is a solid breakdown, the percussion really works here, but it's the part after that which really makes this song fun: the guitar solo. Distinctly different from the one in The Boys Are Still Back, this one doesn't try to carry a melody as much, rather going for a more frantic rocker energy.

There really wasn't much to talk about with this one. The composition is pretty simple, but still cool.

Comp-U-Nerd (by The Rocket Scientists)

Composer: David Govett

I'm not sure exactly what genre Bernard's theme is supposed to be, but my best guess is new wave. Whatever the case, this composition is such a good fit for the sound design that I can't imagine it sounding any other way.

Right off the bat, Comp-U-Nerd is noticably quirkier than the previous songs, with the pulse bass coming in strong and the triangle serving as a lead instrument in parts (fairly rare for NES games). There's a fun dancey-ness to this song, almost in spite of it's start-and-stop rhythm, but the way the instruments all play off each other keeps it moving.

The downbeat section starting at 0:32 gives you a very clear shot of those hardware sweep echo effects I was talking about earlier. It then goes back into a section very similar to the beginning of the song, but with some very subtle differences like the pulse voices being different.

A notable difference in the loop is 1:12. In the first section, this was just a short note that swept down once, but here it lingers longer and has that echo effect. Really satisfying. Then at 1:20 it goes back to the real beginning of the song. This particular rip actually loops incorrectly, as it fades out during the reprise section, presumably thinking it was the beginning of the song again.

Bernard is very much a stereotypical nerd, right down to the shirt pocket full of pens, and this song feels like the type of off-beat music you would expect from such an archetype. It's a really cool song and definitely a memorable one.

Psychedelic Brie (by Metalflake)

Composer: Dave Hayes

I've always associated Syd's theme with the mansion's living room, which is strange because there's nothing significant for Syd to do in this room. *shrugs*

Syd plays exactly the same as Razor, and his theme similarly has very alternative rocker vibes. But unlike Razor, Syd's theme is a little bit more mellow. You would think the name "Metalflake" would imply a heavy metal band, but I honestly get more of a Joy Division kinda vibe.

This song has a lot of long droning notes, the drumbeat stays simple, and the bass plays a lot of the same rhythm for most of the song, luring you into this sort of zen-like repetition where the song doesn't stand still but don't really go anywhere either.

Then at 0:58, the key changes as it goes to the bridge. The melody gets slightly more sinister as the drums start playing on a strange rhythm, then the percussion gets faster as the song begins to build to its crescendo. Then, like Dave's theme, it goes back to the beginning, to those simple chords, and it works really well.

Syd's theme is a lot more interesting than it seems on the surface, and once you listen to it for a while you really start to appreciate it more.

Sonatina in G Opus 47 BVW 801

Composer: David Govett

Wendy's theme is interesting, as it's a very baroque/classical-styled composition you'd expect to hear in a medieval JRPG like Dragon Quest, but juxtaposed against an otherwise loud, rock-centric soundtrack. I feel like this song was composed with a piano or harpsichord in mind, with the whimsical trilling effect in sections like 0:15. Considering Wendy is a novelist, perhaps her taste in music gives us a glimpse into what kind of things she likes to write?

What makes this song interesting to me is the tempo fluctuations. The steady noise percussion in the song gives this away in several parts, slowing down ever so slightly, particularly noticable in the section starting at 0:48.

Said section is also where it starts to display more of it's classical music influence; it's easy to imagine this part being played by an orchestra, the stringed instruments swelling in volume as we approach the higher chords. At 1:10, the melody then starts to move downwards towards the tonic note, reaching it four seconds later (unfortunately the pulse phasing dampens the sound a bit, but it's fine).

We then reprise to a melodic structure similar to the beginning of the song, now in a brighter key. It's a fitting resolution to a song like this. Even though I had comparatively less to say about Sonatina, I still think it's an underrated song, and it's existence in this game speaks to how diverse an NES soundtrack can be.

Surf Face (by The Goofy Feet)

Composer: George Sanger

This would be a good time to bring up the fact that, while all these songs were composed by several different people, David Warhol was responsible for taking their original MIDI compositions and arranging them for the NES. I bring this up because Team FAT actually made an arranged version of this song in 1994 that does an effective job at conveying this song's surf rock intentions.

Needless to say, Jeff is the surfer dude of the group. As a result, his song is a mellowed-out, almost melancholy surf rock tune, complete with some very nice pulse toms. Those three quick notes in the triangle channel you hear at the beginning of the song are likely meant as a guitar stroking a chord.

The drums do a lot for the mood of the song; if you break this measure up into eight parts, you get: a kick, hat, snare, two kicks, then three parts of rest. That's the loop you hear for most of the song. It creates a subtle sense of anticipation to the rhythm that compliments the ring of the longer notes in the melody.

At 1:09, there's a nice effect where the rest of the song cuts out as the guitar (pulse wave, whatever) climbs down. It's a very surf rock kinda touch that gets you ready for the next section.

I didn't have that much to say about this one, as the composition is fairly easy to follow and speaks for itself, but it's still one of my favorites from this soundtrack. It's a very nostalgic tune and another one I think is underappreciated.

Flashbulb Funk (by Princess)

Composer: Dave Hayes

Michael F. Stoppe is a photographer, hence why his theme song has the name "Flashbulb Funk". But that also means that in-universe, Princess made a funk song about flashbulbs. Is this a whole genre we don't know about?

As you may have assumed from the name of the in-universe artist "Princess", this song pays homage to Prince, being a disco/funk song track. This is one song where Hayes' background with jazz fusion really shines through. I particularly love the lead instrument using duty-swapping to emulate a stanky funk guitar.

0:33, yet another good instance of Warhol's distinct echo effect. Here we take a break from the melody and focus more on the percussion, with the bass keeping things moving. I love the pause at 0:48 to get us back into the song.

Here, we reintroduce the lead, now going more freeform. This continues to 1:23, where we're back to a similar structure as 0:33 but now with the lead continuing it solo, really hitting those high notes. Usually high notes on an NES can be grating, but I think it works here. It feels very natural.

Michael's theme is a very fun and unique song in this soundtrack, one that's hard to resist dancing to. Something thats common in a lot of the songs on this soundtrack is melodies taking on more freeform structures than a lot of what you'd hear in Japanese games. There's definitely melodic hooks and memorable phrases, but then they're used as a foundation for some incredible solos. There's a reason Maniac Mansion is considered one of the best examples of American chiptune from this era.

Better Ed Than Dead

Composer: George Sanger

Remember how I said The Boys Are Still Back was the true main theme of the game? Well, I lied, because THIS is the true main theme of the game. This plays basically any time an Edison or tentacle is on-screen. You will hear this song, A LOT. But that's fine, because it's a banger!

The first 3 seconds are just iconic. The trilling between semitones gives a sense of alert and urgency, which is very fitting when an Edison suddenly shows up in the room you're in and you need to beat cheeks to avoid capture.

After this, the song goes into a steady beat, playing a slightly quirky blues-y tune, showing you that while the Edisons are scary, they're also strange and comical.

0:28, my personal favorite part of the song, where the beat kicks up and the melody gets more intense. The triangle shredding in the background compliments the bass exceptionally well, and the lead guitar playings its fast licks punctuated with lingering echoing notes. It makes it really easy to imagine a live performance of this song with the guitarist going ham on the strings.

0:41, a more downbeat section of the song, you have the melody now playing to the beat, with the triangle taking up the off-beat. This slower section of the song conveys a more lurking horror, the idea that you don't know what, or who, you're going to discover going from room to room. And of course, every song in this game loops back to the very beginning, so you get to hear those trilling chords again, don't worry.

This song is equal parts intimidating and quirky, which makes it a perfect fit not only for the Edison family, but the game as a whole. It's probably the best musical distillation of the game's tone in the entire soundtrack. There's a reason I made it my ringtone.

Doo Dop Deep

Composer: David Warhol

This is the song you hear whenever Razor or Syd plays the piano, and the song that can earn them a recording contract from Mark Eteer (more on him in a bit).

This is a shorter, non-looping song, and very much sounds like it was arranged with a piano in mind. The style brings to mind a sort of 50s rock-and-roll vibe, a little bit of a Jerry Lee Lewis influence maybe. You can even imagine the title, Doo Dop Deep, being scatted along to the tune of the main melody. It's a fairly simple arrangement overall, but the piano slide at the end is a nice touch.

This is one of two songs that David Warhol himself composed, likely being created before the decision to add wall-to-wall music. The piano always has a short piece of music associated with it in every version of Maniac Mansion, but is generally unique across all of them. Likewise, different versions of this game will have completely different piano themes.

Go See Mark

Composer: David Govett

Mark Eteer is from Three Guys Who Publish Anything, a publisher that, well, publishes anything. Manuscripts, demo tapes, quarters. You name it, he'll take it! You can hear this song during his TV ad, or during cutscenes where Mark reacts to whatever you send him.

It's another short song, and it sounds exactly like the kind of ear wormy jingle a commercial like this would have (in a good way!). It's almost folksy, like a William Tell or a more upbeat song you'd hear in a Western. You also get to hear some hardware sweeps bending UP for a change, likely to make the song sound more whimsical and silly. It works!

Eddie Van Tentacle

Composer: David Warhol

This is the other Warhol song, but in-universe is the song from the demo tape made by GT and The Suction Cups. Green Tentacle will give it to you in exchange for your own demo tape (if you're Razor or Syd), at which point you can mail it in to Mark and get a recording contract for him, after which he'll be in your debt.

This has a very garage band, Van Halen-inspired sound, as you might have guessed. How a disembodied tentacle is able to shred like that is anybody's guess. It starts off with just the guitar (pulse wave) playing fairly fast, but then it goes into a slower, almost prog-like song. I know I keep talking about the Maniac Mansion echo effect, but it's very iconic and used extensively here to great effect.

It picks up again around 0:31, goes back into the lick from the beginning, then resolves by delaying the final note for a few beats. It's very experimental and cool. Green Tentacle is truly one of the most innovative artists of our time.

Heeeeeeeere's Talk Show Host!

Composer: Dave Hayes

Y'know, if I'm being honest, this really isn't my favorite song. But that's fine, this song wasn't really meant to be listened to extensively anyway. In fact, it's the rarest song in the game; you only get to hear it during two possible endings, both of which involve completing Wendy's time-consuming manuscript quest. So in that sense, it's nice being able to hear it in-game because it means you've really accomplished something.

Wind Smiley is the host of the talk show that the meteor can appear on. He's somewhat a parody of Jay Leno, as evidenced by his strong jawline, and this song sounds a lot like something the in-house band on The Tonight Show would play. Very jazzy.

I will admit, I like the triangle solo starting at 0:33. I can imagine this was meant to invoke a saxophone.

Maniac Theme Reprise

Composers: Chris Grigg, David Lawrence, David Warhol

This is the credits theme! You can hear this when you beat the game, but perhaps a more likely place you'd hear it is after getting a game over. In that sense, it's a bittersweet song. It can either mean you finally beat this game you've been figuring out for ages... or you pushed the wrong button and blew the house up.

It's very similar to the opening theme, almost an Act 2 arrangement. It starts out a little quicker, going straight to the bassline, and you can notice some differences in the melody as well.

0:17 introduces the triangle to the song, and this is where it stands out the most from the intro, as the triangle serves as a great harmony to the main melody that we haven't heard before. You can hear it at 0:22 complementing the chord progression, then again at 0:43 as it plays an interesting call-and-response with the lead instruments.

This song doesn't seem like it should loop, but it does. After it ends on the credits screen, it will start playing again after a few seconds of silence. I don't know if this is just part of the song itself or if the credits sequence actually triggers the song to play again, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Unused Theme

Composer: George Sanger

This is an unused music track found in the game's data. It's been known about for a long time, shrouded in mystery, as fans could only guess what it was used for. Several years ago, composer George Sanger confirmed what many had guessed: this was the song that was supposed to play during the final moments of the game. Whether it was meant to play during the penultimate cutscene or while you were disposing of the meteor is unclear, but Sanger attributes the song to "evil Dr. Fred".

It's an interesting listen to be sure, and in some ways harkens back to the regular Edison theme. It starts off fairly quirky, though slighly unnerving with lots of dissonant passing notes. The song really kicks into gear at 0:38, with Pulse 1 and Triangle playing some intense chords. Interestingly, the melody is carried by Pulse 2, which is almost always used for bass in the MM soundtrack. The bass is instead placed into the off-beats of Pulse 1, giving the illusion that there are more channels being used than there actually are.

Kinda sad we never got to hear this in-game, it's very interesting and would have made the final moments of the game that much more exciting and memorable.


And... that's basically every song in the game. There are some other jingles and sound effects that, while they have some neat musical references, feel excessive to go into even for a deep dive like this.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this analysis of Maniac Mansion's unique soundtrack. If you've never heard it before, I hope you were able to find at least a couple songs you liked. This soundtrack has always been very important to me, so I'm glad I had this opportunity to share my love of it with you.

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