Games

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

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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.

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