During the holiday season, we’ll republish a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews, and other feature articles over the last 12 months that we consider to be the best of 2020. We hope this will give you a chance to catch up with the work you missed. Or just look back on the year when there were some highlights — honest!
This interview was originally published in June 2020.
Video game music has become more and more popular over the years, but there was a time when it was once considered a retrofit. The songs that accompany the titles we played on our home computers and consoles were often there so that we didn’t have to hear the complete silence.
In the 80’s and 90’s, audio hardware in many home systems was crude, to say the least, but some true pioneers took advantage of these humble tools to attach themselves. I was able to create a song that lasts longer than the game I love. And fame. One such song is the title theme for the Game Boy version of Oceans. Robocop, Lined up in stores in 1990. This amazingly melancholic song has evolved its own life for decades, seeing its use in commercials, viral videos and even rap songs.
I wanted to know a little more about music, so I was lucky enough to ask composer Jonathan to create a career in the game and one of the most iconic chiptune music ever written. I was able to hear about how it became.
Nintendo Life: How did you get involved in writing music for video games?
Jonathan Dan: Like many young people at the time, I was crazy about computers.It was a time when there were Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum wherever.. My first computer was actually a Dragon32, but I only kept it for about a year. I was too jealous of all the games released on other computers, so I sold it and replaced it with a Commodore 64. I sat and taught programming for hours at a time. First basic, then assembly language. I was also interested in music. I had a synthesizer and had been taking music lessons for several years, so I had a basic knowledge of music theory. It seemed obvious to combine the two.
I was studying performance music and technology at university. This was a whole new course at the time, but I participated in a music competition at Zzap64. magazine. I came second, but that was the beginning of something and started receiving random calls from hacking groups all over Europe. I don’t know how they tracked me, but I started sharing my work under the name “Choroid”. I released the first commercial music for a game with Hugh Binns that I met on Compunet, C64’s early online system.The game was called underground Released on the Hewson Rack-It label. It was the first time I realized that I could make money by doing what I liked.
This was the same as my college course was over. I didn’t know what to do next, so I got a summer job in Argos and ran around the warehouse to collect my ordered items. One of my friends at the time recommended that I send a demo of my music to several game publishers. I think I sent about 5 or 6. There were several replies, all very positive, but one reply was from Ocean Software. They wanted me to come to their office in Manchester for an interview.
The next day I submitted a notice in Argos. None of my warehouse colleagues believed that I actually got a job at Ocean Software.
I didn’t know, but my letter was at the perfect time. Martin Galway, then Ocean’s resident musician, was looking for a new person to join the team, so he decided to move on. They appeared in the office on Central Street in Manchester hoping for a freelance job, but instead they offered me a job as an in-house musician. I couldn’t believe it and took on the job on the spot. The next day I submitted a notice in Argos. None of my warehouse colleagues believed that I actually got a job at Ocean Software.
Ocean clearly played many games based on movies and TV shows, but they have their own signature themes. Why did you decide to create completely original music for these games? Was it a problem licensing music from the original composer, or did you just want to change your creativity?
The first license title I worked on at Ocean was platoon.. It was a big project, but strangely, it included a cassette tape of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” at the time of release, but there was no option to use the movie theme.Was expected all It will be the original song. This doesn’t apply to all the games we’ve worked on, and in fact, in the Game Boy version of RoboCop, one of the songs starts with the original Basil Poledouris RoboCop theme. I don’t remember if I have the right, but it may be because it was used in the arcade version. Also, some of the arcade game transformations we worked on often used the original music. I usually copy it by ear, but I remember getting the score several times.
As former rare composer David Wise said in the past, what was it like to work with crude hardware like the Game Boy, which basically had electric doorbell sound hardware? Have you ever felt that you are constrained by the limits of the device you are using?
This is, in fact, what I enjoyed most about working with these machines. It was a challenge to push the boundaries of the machine and do something interesting. I enjoyed working with the Game Boy. At the time, there were some interesting features that the C64 and Spectrum didn’t have. It has the ability to define its own waveform on one of the channels and a limited stereo feature.
I think European developers have approached Game Boy’s music development from a different perspective.We have developed all these cool techniques on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum to make them sound louder than they really are.
Of course, it’s also basic, but it was good to be able to make interesting sounds. I think European developers have approached Game Boy’s music development from a different perspective. We’ve developed all these cool techniques on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum to make them sound louder than they really are. When I wrote the NES sound driver, I was trying to duplicate some features from the C64 driver.
How do you come up with a song when approaching a game like Robocop? Did you study the original movie, or did you just look at the level of the game and create a song that seems to fit the action on the screen?
There is always a clear basic style and tempo that fits the section of the game. The obvious exception to that rule is the theme of the RoboCop title screen. That’s really the exact opposite of what you would expect from a game.
Really! It’s a beautiful theme to remember and a real classic of game music. Do you remember how you came up with such an emotional track?
At that time, I was still living at home. It was above my mother’s restaurant in Preston. We had a piano in the restaurant because my mother plays live jazz nights once a week. After the restaurant closed, I often sat in front of the piano and came up with some ideas. One of them was RoboCop’s code riff. To date, whenever I’m near the piano, I always want to play it. I feel nostalgic and wonderful.
This theme has lived its own life in the years since the game started. Notably, it appeared in commercials for Ariston products in the United Kingdom. How did that happen?
Apparently, there is a story about an advertising company executive listening to music while his son was playing a game on his Game Boy. I think the repeating nature of the song reached his ears. Someone at the agency contacted Ocean to see if it could be used. Ocean thought it was a good PR for the game.
A few years later, internet artist and indie game designer “Chef Boyardy” used the version in one of his videos, and rapper Lil B used a sample of Boyardy’s version in a 2012 song. What do you think of your work that evolves in this viral way and participates in other songs?
It’s a real honor to be the first ever video game music listed on a desert island disc.
If I had been told that it was still 30 years after the composition, I wouldn’t believe it. I think it’s great that it’s still in use. We also sampled the platoon’s music on a track that Diplo called Rhythm.
You are a composer from an era when composers had to create their own sound drivers. Do you think the skills you needed at the time were like lost art, or do you think “chiptune” music has returned to its roots?
I couldn’t get the same enjoyment by working in the age of CD audio. It was definitely part of the fun to be able to push the technical limits of the machine. It’s definitely a lost art, but technology is advancing.
Recently, Charlie Brooker named it one of his favorite songs on a deserted island disc and brought your work to a new audience. How did you feel when you saw one of your old trucks gaining new fame?
Charlie Brooker helped keep Robocop’s music alive. It’s a real honor to be the first video game music ever listed on a desert island disc.
Why did you stop composing video game music?
I love the challenge of pushing the machine, and when it’s gone, I wanted to move on to something new.
What have you been doing since you left the video game?
I stayed in the gaming industry in a more administrative role for quite some years, until about six years ago when I started working in the casino gaming industry. This is a whole new set of tasks and skills to learn. I think I’ve been composing and releasing house music for quite some years, continuing to program rather than combining skill sets. I signed with Chicago house label Guidance Recordings for a while and released a lot of records under the name Soularis.
What are your memories of working on consoles such as NES, Game Boy, and SNES? Was this the period of your career that you affectionately look back on today?
I liked working on them all. My work at SNES was a career highlight for me.I think some of my best work was done for Adams family And Jurassic Park.. The SNES version of Jurassic Park had some great technical tricks. I’ve been asked several times how I was able to fit so many samples in 64k in an open world game. As we roamed the park, we were actually streaming a new audio sample bank in real time. We used more cartridge space, which meant we could use better samples. That’s why it worked so well, and it’s still very memorable for many.
Thank you for taking the time with Jonathan.