Of all the features in Bionic Commando: Rearmed, other than its fundamental game play, nothing bridges 1988 to 2008 like the game's soundtrack. Its driving, blood-pumping, head-nodding rhythm is instantly recognisable as the music from the NES classic of 20 years ago, and it has won praise from many who have reviewed the game. Simon Viklund, of Stockholm-based developer Grin, did more than personally oversee the soundtrack as the game's creative director. He composed it himself.
It's an unusual combination to find in the development of a game. Both skill sets would be served by Viklund's own personal attachment to Bionic Commando, a love shared by others on the Grin/Capcom team behind the game. Conversations with Ben Judd -- Capcom's producer for both BCR and next year's 3D version of Bionic Commando -- and others close to the project revealed an attention to detail that bordered on obsession.
"At the time I think we just loved what we were doing," Judd said. "We were all fans of Bionic Commando. Some of us have incredibly fond memories when we played it as kids. We didn't want to be lazy. We didn't want to be cheap. We wanted to give this title our best."
Last week, Viklund and I had an in-depth discussion of the music. The talk was less about the mechanics of assembling it -- he's a classically trained musician and adept at several instruments, I'm not -- but more the inspiration and memories behind it. The soundtrack is available for download both at iTunes and sumthingdigital.com (where listeners can also buy the original 8-bit soundtrack, and compare the two). More than just great music, it's the guts of a legitimate remake, of something that honours a classic more than imitates it. And a look inside the minds of those who knew they were toying with nostalgia -- including their own -- for a beloved title, and felt a strong commitment to doing this the right way.
Judd remembers being in Sweden when Viklund was scoring the introductory music -- that first screen, with the awe-inspiring "Let me tell you about the man I knew when I was still young," and then the unmistakable tones of the Bionic Commando anthem soaring in over that. "Simon was trying to sync up the exact moment that the intro music comes thumping in, so that it worked well with the text," Judd said. "It's that sort of planning that is what makes Bionic Commando: Rearmed so great. Not only did Simon mix together a great new version of the intro music but he timed every beat so that the text and the music would blend together for maximum impact."
"Judging by Simon's face he put a lot of personal time into the project and well beyond the call of duty to make it the great game it became," Judd said. "It really shows that everyone attached to the product loved the base material and wanted to make damn sure we paid it the proper respect it deserved."
You know, I worked out to the soundtrack today. That's awesome. [laughing]
I was running to it, on the treadmill. It cycled through to the theme, and I had that vision of Nathan "Radd" Spencer, running into the distance as I was poking along in my 10 minute mile on the treadmill. So, you have formal music training?
I played the violin when I was a little kid, and I am a classically trained pianist. Other than that, well, I taught myself to play the bass and the guitar, and I've done [remixing]electronic music on the computer since high school.
But you've studied music theory.
Yes, but not with the aim to become a composer.
You have called this game "a love letter to the entire side-scrolling genre and its fans." Before we talk about the music in-depth, I'm curious how you came to feel that way about this project. Did you set out at the beginning to write this love letter, or was this a feeling that developed in you as moved forward with the project.
I think I knew from the beginning that this would be a project that would consume a lot of my time, that I would pour my heart into it. The original game is one of my favourites from the NES era. When I got the chance to become the creative director, I was like, "OK, we're going to do this right, from the beginning." Initially it wasn't Grin that was supposed to do the remake. Although, or maybe because we were doing the sequel, Capcom were looking at other studios to do the sequels. It was more like a marketing tool, I guess. But it turned into something more, when it was decided that Grin and I were supposed to do the creative direction.
So you had a great affection for this game before coming on to direct it. How did you get that job?
I was asked, and I thought they were joking at first, because it was such an honour to be working with such great source material. Of course I was working with Capcom already as the lead sound designer on the 3D sequel. But to actually, hands-on decide where to take a game and make all the calls in design, that was awesome.
So it sounds like this was envisioned as something to build buzz for the commercial project due out in the coming year. But it also sounds like you went into this project to make a game that was far more than just advertising material, though.
Yeah, any remake, as long as it is faithful enough, it would have been a fun game in its own right anyway. But I don't think there would have been as many features added into it without our ambition.
You mentioned you played this on 8-bit NES.
Actually throughout growing up, I'd bring this out on my old NES from time to time and play it.
So you knew the game front and back.
You knew the music, more to the point -- you could hum it or recite it to yourself before you were brought into this project,
Oh yes, definitely. It's something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Sure, I think that's why people are reacting the way they are to Bionic Commando. There is such a culture of nostalgia for video game music, and it presents a double-edged sword, because it's already something that's provoked a great emotional reaction in the people who played it. At the same time, you're trying to update it, bring it into the future and make it relevant to times that are 20 years into the future with instruments that are 20 years into the future. Was it more an advantage to have the themes created ahead of time, or was it a disadvantage to be working with music that people had already cared about, deeply, for 20 years?
I'd say it was absolutely an advantage. The fear was there as well, because you're messing with people's nostalgia. Some people, I've read, hate BCR because they think it's redone in the way they don't think it should be redone. Most people seem to like it, which I'm happy to hear. But I could never have written that music. I'm not taking credit for all the raving reviews that the game gets, because we're basing it off of something that has been done before. A lot of why people like the game and the music is because of the nostalgic factor. And that has nothing to do with me. I was eight years old, nine years old when t he game came out. I can't take credit for that. But it did help a lot.
So maybe you couldn't have written these melodies, exactly, but could you have composed a soundtrack from scratch?
I suppose, but it would have taken a lot more time, with the melodies and the harmonies. I just took the source material and added my own flavour to it. That made it a lot easier.
Talking to Ben Judd, Capcom's producer for this project, he said he wasn't sold on techno or electronica as the theme or genre for the soundtrack. But he let you have creative space on it. His concern was that techno wouldn't serve people's memory of what the game was. How did you arrive at your decision to do the game's soundtrack in that style, and how did you justify it as honouring the memory of the original Bionic Commando.
Listening to the original Bionic Commando soundtrack for the NES, you can interpret it in two basic ways: Either it's just ... beep sounds, computer generated music of that age. Bringing that to the future would mean making electronic music, but how it sounds today. So, that was music the NES could make in 1988, and now we're making it the way it can be made today, with the compressors and distortions, and you can add your own loops, and the way we make it today. Or, you could interpret the original music and try to emulate it with something else. And with the military theme of Bionic Commando, you can then make that into, real sounding, orchestrated military music. It can be more cinematic. And that's how we interpreted the music for the 3D sequel, it's a larger game, and it has these larger views and you have these huge outdoors areas, and it fits with a game that has these huge cinematic cut scenes. That's the game where we would interpret the music as more orchestrated. For BCR, which has these bright colours, and a cartoonish look to it, I thought it would fit with something more dance, disco, techno music, for the visual style.
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What was the first piece of music you worked with?
I started working on the Area 1 music. But I was so tired of that song, because I had written several interpretations of it for the 3D sequel. Before we went into full production, Capcom wanted to see a prototype, and for the prototype, I was planning to have the Area 1 music. But I realised I needed something new. I realised I needed to sink my teeth into another one of those tracks and interpret something else, just to get my inspiration flowing again. So I started with area 1 but I finished Area 5.
And that would be "Heat Wave."
Yes, and then I went back and finished area 1, and I forget what the third one was ... I was so tired of Area 1. but when I got my inspiration back, it went pretty well, although the drum snares I had in the beginning, which are iconic in a way, they're gone now. There's a completely different melody going on at the beginning of Area 1, and then as soon as the drums kick in, you're like "Ah, here's the melody," now it's in there. So you get the two-stage rocket, when you arrive in the area for the first time, when you parachute in and you have all these graphics to take in, and then you leave some space in the music because you don't recognise it until 20 seconds in, and that's when the recognisable theme kicks in. So I thought people could get the graphics first and then the music kicks in.
Which theme posed the most creative challenge to you?
That would be "Power Plant." (Area 8). That was one of those songs, I had the schedule that said this song is supposed to be written by this month, this song supposed to be written after that. And I was closing in on the time when I would have to have written the music for the Area 8 theme. And I wasn't looking forward to it. I had no idea how to make a take on that one. I had The Crystal Method [a U.S. electronica duo]-- for anyone who likes BCR, they should check them out -- I did the Crystal Method take on Area 1 and 5, but for Area 8, I listened to the original NES track and realised I had to do something else. I was not looking forward to sinking my teeth into that.
Listening to the original, it looked like they were going for a blaring horn, almost like a siren, kind of opening to that. You came in, slowed down the pace a little ... it was an interesting redo, as opposed to a literal translation ...
When I listened to the original song, what I'm hearing is folk music, like Eastern European folk music, maybe accordions and stuff, some kind of a polka melody. The melodies are so awkward ... But I made a trip to the U.S. at the end of the summer, August 2007 to supervise the recordings of some voice acting, and I was standing in a Virgin Megastore, and they had some CD on display there, and it was this French group, disco- and funk-inspired house and techno. This duo called Justice. I listened to it and I was blown away. It was so cool. Usually, I'm more of a break beats guy, rather than a [emulates heavy "Zoolander" house beat]style, which I see as a modern take on polka, because it's just 1-2-1-2, nothing happens really. I've seen that as uninteresting, maybe unfunky in a way. But now I thought this is something I can use, that kind of a groove for this take on the area 8 music. When I came back to Sweden, I had listened to the Justice CD a lot, and I used that inspiration to make "Power Plant." After that I did the Area 12 song, which has the same kind of a vibe to it.
Did you see your job here more as honouring the original, or perfecting it?
In this project, we asked ourselves if the creators of the original NES title were making the game today with today's technology, what would they do? Of course we realised that would be cooperative modes, and the ability to grab and throw around barrels, that's how we came up with those ideas, and that's how I approached the music as well. In the original, they had maybe three or four channels of sound. I have unlimited channels as of now, so, what about adding some melodies, and adding some layers of stuff, but not changing things around too much? But if you listen close enough, you'll hear where I have missed some details, unintentionally and sometimes intentionally. It hasn't changed a lot, but it's more layers, of pads, and drums, and stuff.
Bionic Commando is notable -- you even parody this in the trailer -- for the fact your character can't jump. It's the feature that, by denying it, makes the game what it is. What is the musical equivalent of jumping?
Great question. For the longest time, it would have been guitars. There are guitars in the soundtrack, if you go into the secret tunnels -- on the soundtrack it's "Killt's Hidden Treasures" -- so I guess I sold out. [Laughs]Some people, the ones who don't like techno, they wanted me to interpret the originals with rock guitars. If I was making interpretations of the Mega Man music, that's guitars. But for BCR, either it's symphonic military, or it's techno, because it's military and science-fiction themed. For the longest time I thought I wasn't gonna do guitars in this game.
But it's in there, subtly.
And also in a part of the game which not everyone will find. You don't need to find these secret tunnels to complete the game.
Yeah, you buried it, literally.
Which track did you work on the most? The track where you knew what you were doing, but you were working on it as a perfectionist.
"Heat Wave." It was the first track that I finished, but it was also the one I came back to as I was working on the other son
gs. It was the last song I was fiddling with in the project. It was good enough to be released, as it was in the prototype, back in August 2007, but I kept coming back to that song and updating the mix, and the harmonies, up to the end of the project in the summer of 2008. The perfectionist in me kept coming back to that song and adding stuff, partly because I found new ways of mixing the songs and I had all these tricks that I was using that I discovered when I was doing the songs. So I kept coming back to Area 5 to update it, so that it would match the other songs.
If you could take a crack at any classic soundtrack --
I'd have to say Mega Man 2.
Nice choice, what theme is it you would want to remake in there?
I know all the bosses and their melodies by heart, but ... Flashman? I don't know, it's a tough choice. They're really good melodies. But if I could choose just one song from any game, that would be the moon stage from Duck Tales.
Didn't the same guy write both Bionic Commando and Duck Tales? [Note: This could not be verified.]
Actually, that was a girl. Her name was Gondamin. it was her handle, most of the creators back in the day had these secret names. They told me because the companies didn't want other companies to steal their talents. The gaming industry was so small back then. The good people were so hard to come by. They still are today.