Never in a million years did I think I’d have the awesome pleasure of composing the soundtrack for an entire video game. And not just any game, but a SNES-style game where you played as the bad guys, with a cute little devil mascot that practically begged for heavy riffage, pounding drums, and spandex pants (okay, maybe not that last one).
As with most things in life, though, you can’t just turn it up to 11 and walk away. That gets old fast, and you need contrasting sounds and moods to balance things out as the scenes call for it. This is the challenge (and fun!) of writing music for Boss Saga.
Humble, Nerdy Beginnings
I was secretive of this as a kid, lest I be labeled the undisputed King of All Nerds, but I used to set a tape recorder next to my TV and record game music so I could listen to it later (you know, in those few moments when I wasn’t playing a game!). You couldn’t tell me that the earworms of Mega Man or the lush orchestral scores of Final Fantasy weren’t masterpieces worthy of Grammy awards. I felt validation later in life as bands like The Advantage emerged, and I knew then that I wasn’t alone in my sentiments. In fact, I eventually took a stab at covering game music myself with a medley of metal-infused Street Fighter II music that I created for the game’s 25th anniversary.
So, fast-forward a bit – more games, playing in bands, self-authoring my “Epic Symphony” in the Rock Band game series – and John eventually proposed this project to me. Despite feeling a jolt of excitement at the prospect, my gut reaction was to turn it down. Where on Earth was I going to find the time for that? Family life didn’t leave much room for hobbies, and it had already been years since I’d released any new music (still working on that as of this writing, actually). But when I thought about it, I realized it was everything I’d ever wanted to do. It’s an entire video game soundtrack, from the era of gaming that’s closest to my heart. The concept screamed for hard-rocking tunes – precisely in my wheelhouse. And I’d more or less have complete creative control over it. I didn’t know how I’d do it or how long it would take, (In fact, I still don’t know how long it will take!) but I was determined to make it happen.
I’m often asked – how do you come up with a concept for a song? And the answer is usually, “I don’t know.” It’s a weird creative process that’s difficult to explain.
The question this time was different, though. How would I come up with an overarching concept for an entire project? I didn’t want to just write stuff. That’s what I was already doing to amuse myself with Van Friscia. Not only that, but I had literally no clue how I was going to make this sound like a 16-bit game. How do you generate authentic-sounding tones without being an audio programmer on the original SNES hardware? And really, despite my delusions of rocking out with Nobuo Uematsu in all my symphonic prog-metal glory, was that even a possibility if I was going to stay authentic to the retro stylings that Boss Saga called for?
As it turns out, yes, it’s all entirely possible (even if Mr. Uematsu will never join my band).
I thought – what if I did both? I could do a “Classic” 16-bit soundtrack first, self-imposing the same basic limitations of real SNES hardware and using authentic tones courtesy of Super Audio Cart. With that as a starting point, I could then let loose to create a complementary “Modern” soundtrack without limitations. The player could choose to listen to whichever one they wanted. And, actually, wouldn’t it be super cool if they could switch soundtracks on the fly with the touch of a button? Why yes, self, that sure would be cool! And since I’m also the sole programmer, I approved my amazingly brilliant request on the spot and went off to the races. (I’m sure I also conferred with John on this idea at some point too, but you know – details.)
That was the genesis. I looked at John’s graphics and reread the concept a million times. I created guitar sounds in Super Audio Cart that were unique and fit with the concept and tone. I was pleasantly surprised to see that, yes, I actually could make it sound heavy. (Not to toot my own horn, but this is shaping up to be the heaviest-sounding SNES game I’ve ever heard!) I studied the SNES hardware and enforced a strict limit of eight simultaneous tones when composing. With all the pieces of the puzzle in place, all that was left was to actually… write some music.
Since then, I’ve fallen into a pretty good workflow. Each tune starts in earnest with its Classic version. I make sure it’s workable within those limitations first, before expanding it into something potentially bigger with the Modern version. Things inevitably change a bit once the Modern take is completed, so I then go back to the Classic one to ensure it matches up and still highlights the most important parts, even if the harmony isn’t quite as dense. Here’s a very brief example showcasing both versions of the “Defeat” tune that plays when the player loses a battle (although it sounds like a victory tune because, in this game, losing means the heroes won!).
If there’s any drawback to my (self-proclaimed) brilliant double soundtrack, it’s that it’s at least double the work. But it’s also double the fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m incredibly stoked to continue writing not just bangers (man do I love bangers!), but also more orchestral pieces and weird little ditties that I’d otherwise have no practical reason to compose. Really, what more could a songwriter ask for?
We’ve got a long way to go (and I’ve got a lot of songs to write), but we would love it if you went along on this journey with us! Check back here for more on Boss Saga’s development and music, and please follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook as well!
PS: If you managed to get both the Metallica / Metal Blade and the Dragon Quest references in the title of this post – you’re my kind of people. 😊