Mega Man, Shovel Knight, And Save Me Mr Tako Composers On Getting ‘That’ Retro Sound – Feature



As any self-respecting subscriber of the Gaming Historian knows, one national survey conducted in 1990 found that more American children could identify Mario than Mickey. That sounds about right to this writer, who was one of those children.

What truly astonished us, however, was witnessing firsthand how your average Japanese child could still sing most every note of the over- and underworld themes from Super Mario Bros. even in the year 2021. How did composers from the 8-bit era—who had to share precious cartridge space with everything else that makes a video game—manage to paint such memorable tunes with a sound palette typically laid out with perhaps only a couple of monophonic (one note at a time) square waves, a single monophonic pseudo-triangle wave, some more-or-less random noise, and maybe a horridly degraded audio sample or two?

To help us ponder that question and catch a glimpse at how the legacy of the 8-bit era has endured into the present, we interviewed three of the most talented retro video game music composers (albeit via email and across oceans and languages) whose work Nintendo fans can find on the Switch eShop:

  • Manami Matsumae is a legendary veteran of the Japanese video game industry with over thirty years experience, and was either responsible for or contributed to many of your favorite Capcom classics such as Mega Man—to say nothing of her stellar additions to the Shovel Knight soundtrack.
  • Jake Kaufman has led something of a legendary twenty-year career in the American video game industry himself, notably composing some of the best WayForward and Yacht Club soundtracks from Shantae to the aforementioned (and somewhat ubiquitous) Shovel Knight.
  • Marc-Antoine Archier is a comparative newcomer to the French video game industry, but in our opinion—which is, objectively, the best opinion—perfectly nailed the nostalgia when he composed the soundtrack to Christophe Galati’s tribute to the Game Boy era Tasukete, Tako-San! / Save Me, Mr. Tako!

Nintendo Life: How would you define chiptune? Are the differences between 8-bit and contemporary video game music simply technical or are they stylistic as well?

Manami Matsumae: I joined Capcom during the heyday of the Famicom, which used simple tones and had a limited number of sound channels, and I composed under such restrictions. In those days, video game music wasn’t what we would call chiptune or 8-bit music today—it was simply music to make the games more exciting.

In time, people who thought all those restrictions were a good thing emerged, making music and putting it out into the world, which I believe is how musical genres like chiptune started. There are a lot of technical restrictions, so I think that’s what creates a unique sound and atmosphere.

Jake Kaufman: I mean, personally, I can sleep at night when someone calls Shovel Knight a chiptune soundtrack and not a chip soundtrack. But I have old friends who I’m sure would hyperventilate if I didn’t make the distinction for Amiga MOD-related purism reasons. Chiptune was originally supposed to be for music formats that use samples and don’t usually sound like an old chip faked into sounding like one. Luckily, I do both kinds—“real” and “fake”—and I’m against gatekeeping these days, so cowabunga!

As for the second part, well, everything sure changed with CD audio tracks. Game music can be just any regular music you want now—a full orchestra, droning atmospheric synth stuff, hip hop with vocals, modern shiny production with retro vibes (think Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze or A Hat in Time), or even just recordings of the classic chips because they’re cool and retro now.

If you ask me, though, serious contemporary AAA game music has included 8-bit influences for a while now. Square waves are everywhere—bweep!—even in the commercially licensed electronic dance music I hear in driving games or a major RPG like Nier. Chip sorta goes with everything.

Marc-Antoine Archier: I would define chiptune as a kind of music that tries to flourish within constraints. As many artists would say, constraints can be a great driving force for creativity. In chiptune, as in many other musical styles, the technical constraints produce the stylistic characteristics. The most obvious example is that since chiptune musicians only have access to a very limited panel of tones that are usually not very pleasant by themselves, most rely on melodies rather than on textures.

I think chiptune is one of the best examples of how very harsh constraints can lead to creativity

And there are many more obvious examples. For instance, the very in-time character of chiptune music is a direct consequence of a music tracker’s grid. In Game Boy or NES music, as you’ve got only three voices plus the noise channel, very fast arpeggios are a good way to play chords in only one voice. Vibrato and tremolo are probably the easiest way to give texture to the very poor tones that are at your disposal and are used very often. And I could go on. In fact, I think chiptune is one of the best examples of how very harsh constraints can lead to creativity.

OK, our apologies to Jake’s old friends for not appreciating how chiptune specifically refers to a very particular niche…! When composing music for (or intended to evoke) retro video game consoles such as the Famicom/NES and Game Boy, do you compose at a traditional instrument like the piano? Or, do you compose directly in computer software like a music tracker?

Manami Matsumae: These days, there’re music trackers for making chiptune music like FamiTracker, but I find it much easier to compose in a digital audio workstation (DAW) called Cubase and compose by setting the audio device to Super Audio Cart from Impact Soundworks. By using that plug-in, I can get a retro vibe and ideas for compositions.

As for my workflow, I compose while referring to things in the game like its mood, the impression its world gives, and how its characters move. What I feel shouldn’t be too removed from what the developers feel, so I communicate with them and go from there. What’s more important is creating music that stirs up the players’ emotions, and I refine the music while thinking about how I can craft tunes that will draw players into the game and hook them.


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