999 – A Game music report

999 – A Game music report

“[Today] you have virtually unlimited tracks at your disposal. Needless to say, trying to squeeze your creations to the limitations of an 8-bit console can be a bit of a challenge. Pun intended.”

G’day to you all from Popverstas, the game music & sound producer from the land of 1000’s of lakes! We continue reporting on our productions, this time in English. We go to Swindon, Great Britain, where you can find one of the biggest roundabouts in the world, comprised of five smaller ones.

In Swindon, there is also the indie developer Tydecon Games, led by Dan John. Popverstas got to make music and sound for their ninth game, aptly titled 999. It’s their second Steam game, and the seven others are for Android.

Since the beginning of the project, Dan’s idea was to create a “super difficult” puzzle game with 999 levels and 999 player lives. You use a mouse to control the ball-shaped character, making it jump and giving it a trajectory. The levels feature a psychedelic color scheme and they are just fun to play. You could pass some levels easily, while others are… well, super difficult. The challenging difficulty and 999 game levels make for a long-lasting challenge for just about anyone.

Dan’s vision included music that sounded like the original 8-bit Nintendo system. Known as “Chiptunes”, this music style has been popular in recent years and it is used a lot in retro “Pixel art” style game productions, which are embracing the graphic style of old 8 and 16 bit games. Some more famous titles of the genre include: Undertale (2015), Hotline Miami (2012), Shovel Knight (2014) ja Super Meat Boy (2010). While the graphics and sound of these games remain close to the original 80’s classics, modern platforms give developers freedom to expand beyond the limitations of the original consoles.

True to this paradigm, the music of 999 was a modern production created in the spirit of the classics. It could be described as “8-bit on steroids”. A total of 26 tracks were created, including two for trailers, and a bunch of sound effects. Cubase, Super Audio Cart, Serum and Battery 4 were some of the software instances used in composing the soundtrack.

After delivery, it was also agreed that we would deliver realistic 8-bit sounding versions of two tracks. They were made using Deflemask, which is a free “Tracker-style” program emulating the sound of many old game platforms, such as NES, Sega MegaDrive, Commodore 64 and Game Boy. You can even use Deflemask to actually program the original consoles! Too bad we didn’t have them handy this time, so we used Deflemask’s emulated sound, which was good enough. When you compose something using software such as Cubase you have virtually unlimited tracks at your disposal. Needless to say, trying to squeeze your creations to the limitations of an 8-bit console can be a bit of a challenge. Pun intended.

The original NES sound chip could play five sounds simultaneously. You had two square waves, one triangle wave, one noise track, aaaanddd…. one track for PCM samples! Granted, the sample could be anything, but on the original system sample playback was so processor-intensive that all the graphic movement had to be halted for the duration. So not exactly a bread and butter tool for the poor game musician.

The square waves were used to create melody and harmony and the triangle wave was for bass. Using only three voices limited the use of chords, because of course you wanted to have a melody and a groovy baseline going. This was circumvented with the characterising use of (often blazingly fast) chord arpeggios, which is now regarded as also a stylistic thing. You could also make delay effects by repeating your melody at a lower volume on a second track. The noise track was used for drums and percussion.

So, if you’re into the classic 8-bit Nintendo game tunes, we can recommend downloading Deflemask or FamiTracker. After some familiarising, you can make your own authentic-sounding chiptunes. And maybe, just for a moment, you can grasp the feeling of being a real 80’s game composer. Those guys were so cool. We wish we could be those guys. Sigh.

Popverstas delivered all the tracks and sounds on schedule, and received all positive feedback from Tydecon Games. One of the more uptempo songs, a Sonic-esque tune, was chosen to be the theme song of the game. You can hear it on the trailer video. This was also one of the songs with an 8 bit version made, you can listen to it below. The game 999 is available from Steam on June 29, 2018. The official soundtrack is to be released later. Popverstas out!

999 Theme

999 Theme, “8-bit” version

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