Editorial: A Whole New 8-bit World

My role on Lusipurr’s Fountain of Perpetual Disappointment is a strange one. Sometimes I have so many tasks on deck it is almost impossible to think of how I could complete them all. And then there are other times – like now – when there are mostly just a few low-priority tasks and a few e-mails to take care of while I wait for a bottleneck to unclog.

I actually wanted a Dr. Wily sprite like this. Couldn't find one.
The fictional man who was the inspiration for some of the greatest all-time 8-bit tracks.

I recently decided that I should use this “free time” to challenge myself and give self-lessons on making 8-bit music. Not just chiptunes, but actual 8-bit music. The difference being that I am not going to use the same sequencing program I am using for the majority of LFoPD‘s soundtrack, but rather a program called a tracker that more closely resembles a programming compiler than a music program.

As this was a decision I made relatively recently (see: yesterday), I have barely got my toes wet. I downloaded a few hundred Mega Man tunes, sure, but I am not involved in the current scene, I do not know the well-respected chiptuners of today, and I am certainly not familiar with the wealthy catalog available from the NES era.

Deciding to get involved in a new community is many things. Initially, it is extremely exciting. To discover small but dedicated pockets on the internet all devoted to something is an encouraging prospect. It means that there are people with similar interests who could be knowledgeable critics and valuable resources in avoiding beginner pratfalls.

The other side of the coin is how daunting everything is. Despite a life-long love of games, over a decade of composing for the piano, and even a light background in programming, getting into the world of 8-bit composition is incredibly foreign and definitely intimidating. Hearing the elaborate compositions of other people serves as both an optimistic beacon of what is possible to achieve and a reminder of how far I have to go.

Usually I would focus on the positive factors, but because I am the type of person to have multiple projects on the go I am worried about the dedication I can reasonably have to such an undertaking. I have come to this point before. I remember considering getting into animation a few years ago. And while I still have an interest in animation, I came to realize that I simply did not have the sort of time to dedicate if I wanted to become even competent in the art form.

Starship Mario is outstanding, but it's just one track.
Mario’s most memorable tracks come from his early days.

This incident immediately came to mind yesterday as I scoured forums and listened to Mega Man track after Mega Man track. After some thought, however, I actually think this is different. First of all, LFoPD is going to require around three 8-bit tracks for the game, so there is some immediate practical application, especially because I would prefer authentic 8-bit music to be used for the section.

Secondly, as I touched on earlier, this hobby seems to line up with many of my interests and talents. I am proud of my composition skills and I have proven to have the patience for programming, so writing a decent 8-bit tune would provide a lot of satisfaction for me. Not only that, but tracker software is so lightweight that my netbook operates it with zero difficulty. This is the same hardware that cannot smoothly show a high quality YouTube video. So this is something that will be very easy for me to take on the go; a necessity for how rarely I seem to be in my own home these days.

Thirdly, I actually expect this endeavor to improve my worth as a composer. As is often stated, limitation spawns creativity. Also, the 8-bit era is heralded as perhaps the overall greatest time in video game music. Composers were often classically trained and were required to focus on melody, else their work turn into a muddy mess. Going back to the basics in some ways will force me to analyze the root of what makes good music and how I actually go about creating the work that I am proud of.

It helps that I genuinely love listening to 8-bit music. Not just out of nostalgia – I actually played very few games from the NES/SNES era – but because I love the crispness of the compositions. Nothing can be hidden. Good work is simply good work. I once played the famous Dr. Wily track for a friend who said that it was fine but that he thought I must agree that it would be objectively better played with guitars instead of bleeps and bloops. I could not disagree more, and it was a helpful moment for me in realizing my respect for 8-bit music.

What do you think, LusiBloops? Are you fans of 8-bit music? Do you think this is a wise venture for me?

11 comments

  1. Cool, a post about old-school music.

    In my opinion, the 8-bit era of game music produced the highest ratio of quality music to forgettable music, which is why it should be respected as the golden era of game music. I think it is due, as you mentioned, to the fact that the tracks are much more melody driven and less atmospheric/ambient like most current-gen game music. I don’t dislike atmospheric music, but I also don’t listen to it outside of gaming because it’s largely forgettable.

    Depending on one’s sensibilities, one could argue that the 16-bit era is every bit as good as the 8-bit era, if not better. The 16-bit era is considered by some to be a little less “pure” because heavy use of sampling, but I think that 16-bit music has a higher ceiling than 8-bit music, mostly because 16-bit music can be more deeply layered. I prefer to simply regard both eras equally since they both are so good.

    I often force my girlfriend and friends to listen to 8-bit and 16-bit game music (especially during a long night of drinking or right after I discover a new favorite track) and more often than not, they enjoy it (even if they really didn’t want to hear it in the first place, which is pretty much always the case). They never seem to seek it out on their own, though. I think maybe you have to be a fan of composition and/or have some some nostalgia for that era of gaming to really connect to old-school music.

    Ethan, have you tried listening to “The Legacy Music Hour” podcast? They feature 8-bit and 16-bit era music only, and they often find some really good lesser known tracks. It can get a bit dry at times, but the show gets pretty entertaining after the hosts find their legs a few episodes in. One host (a classically trained pianist) sometimes really gets into what exactly makes certain compositions good, which might help you with your composition efforts.

    Addressing your anecdote about the Dr. Wily track from MM2, I don’t always prefer game music to be played with bleeps and bloops. I can enjoy remixes (SQ Chips, for example) and instrumental covers (The Advantage is my favorite 8-bit cover band) more than the original tracks when done well. For me, it’s not the bleeps and bloops that I love about old-school game music, it’s about the composition itself (the melody in particular). I often get annoyed at my friends when they suggest that I will enjoy some modern song simply because it features bleeps and bloops.

    Anyway, your argument with your friend about which medium is objectively better is a little silly, mostly because there is no way to objectively define how “good” a song is. Someone’s definition of what makes good music will always boil down to their taste and/or the tastes of others, which is certainly not objective.

    Kudos for deciding to try to compose your own 8-bit stuff. I will be interested to hear how it goes.

    In summary, YES and YES are my answers to your questions.

  2. In regards to objectivity and subjectivity in music, I’ll partially agree. I definitely agree in terms of what genres a person might prefer, but there is certainly such thing as superiority in composition. My favourite example is Mozart. There is no denying that the man was a musical genius. So many of his works are brilliant, and yet I really don’t enjoy listening to him. He was objectively a skilled composer with great works and I subjectively don’t like most of his music (despite loving classical in general).

    After snooping around some forums and listening to other people’s work (including this rando who wrote a brilliant 13 minute opus that I spent 5 hours studying today), I might actually use an extension on FamiTracker to write in 16 bit. I think I feel the same way in saying that I find the eras to be pretty equal in terms of compositional greatness.

    In terms of my listening preference, I definitely prefer 8-bit/16-bit to chiptunes. I don’t really like the genre mixing there. Sometimes it works, but overall it doesn’t mix with my sensibilities.

  3. I’d really like to hear what you come up with! Since LFoPD is a work of passion for you, making the music has to be another side of that. Whenever they’re ready, post some demo tracks that you’re working on, if you please.

    Some of the NES music is so incredible because there is a lot going on at once, with melodic and rythmic lines and counterpoints complementing each other. It’s truly good music. Mega Man 2 is a good example, and one of my all-time favorite “albums” really. Sometimes it’s a distillation of classical sensibilities, sometimes hard rock even, and I think they had to have improved young gamers’ music appreciation. The “bleeps and bloops” constitute individual instruments in themselves.

    My favorite band who covered video game songs from about a decade ago was The NESkimos from St. Augustine, FL who did more heavy metal versions. I think they’re still around? More recently, Anamanaguchi who made the Scott Pilgrim game soundtrack do pretty original chiptune stuff that incorporates guitars very well into the sound.

    Keep on trackin’!

  4. Hmm, I do have some very rough piano demos already. I don’t want to post something unfinished on the blog, but I wouldn’t mind putting up some temporary SoundCloud links here in the comment section for interested parties. Either way I’ll definitely be posting my 8/16-bit stuff. I need all the feedback I can get.

  5. Wow, I like what you have so far.

    The Overworld track is very reminiscent of the Gerudo’s Fortress track from OoT in some places. It’s more melancholic, though. Parts of the fourth track also remind me loosely of the Clock Town Theme from Majora’s Mask, the second half does anyway. I’d love to hear these pieces in a more orchestral style, but what’s present sounds like good stuff to build from.

  6. Overall, I like it as a foundation from which to build, but all the tracks strike me as a bit too atmospheric in their current form for me to be able to see it working with 8-bit limitations, but maybe 16 bit could add enough instruments to give them more oomph. I guess it just depends on what you’re going for. I jotted down my observations (comparisons to other music are loose at best and just whatever I thought of on first listen) after listening to everything a few times.

    Overworld reminds me of Ash in sound and mood. This one sounds the most complete and suited to solo piano. I like it a lot. The track sounds like it could be a main theme and a leitmotif. Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Valkyria Chronicles 2 Main Theme being reprised in the Championship and Farewell, My Academy tracks comes to mind as a recent example of how to do this well.

    I get what you’re going for with the Glenn track (it’s got the Kefka or Zorn and Thorn evil clown thing going for it), but I would probably attempt to listen to it as little as possible while playing the game. The track starts out beautifully then transitions into that choppy, repetitive, kind of jarring section. That jarring section is something a lot of game music does with villain tracks that I just personally never like. On a ridiculous note, LADY GAGA NEWS, everyone: the beginning of this reminds me of the beginning of Lady Gaga’s hit track Telephone.

    I really like the way you play 1:07 to 1:18 in Dungeon/Flashback (the track definitely sounds more like flashback scene with sad/menacing undertones than a dungeon). This song has touches of Swords and Sworcery (Prettiest Weed maybe?) and Lost Odyssey (sad song from A Thousand Years of Dreams – which is probably why it sounds like a flashback to me), which is definitely a good thing.

    The fourth (undecided) track is probably my favorite I wonder if it’s because it’s the only track that isn’t sad or evil sounding). I think the right hand parts could use a little less repetition, especially in the quiet part. I think even a slight variation on the melody instead of just repeating it during that part would help make the track even better.

    I’m by no means a composer or music expert myself so hopefully my suspect terminology is understandable.

  7. Just heading out, so I’ll respond to these in full tomorrow, but quick notes.

    Thanks for responding, guys!
    Also, I should have clarified, Mel has the right idea, these tracks will be orchestrated, NOT 8-bit. Only 2-4 tracks on the OST will be 8-bit, and these were written before I got the Tracker bug.

  8. I’m just writing them on the piano because

    a) That’s the instrument I write on
    b) It will allow the tracks to be melody focused so that the melody will dictate the arrangement instead of just writing another muddy generic game soundtrack.

  9. Alright, detailed reply to Brettsuo’s detailed reply!

    I’ve never played/heard Ash’s OST, so I can’t relate to the comparison, but I can say that it IS the most complete piece as of now (including the other 15 or so I didn’t upload). I don’t entirely agree about solo piano (especially the middle section), but I do plan to open the track almost exactly the way it opens now. I also expect piano to take the melody lead for about half the track at least. But again, this is all subject to change.

    I also haven’t started working leitmotif into the soundtrack yet, although it was definitely a melody I’ve been putting in the back of my mind to use as such. But I didn’t know if that was just because it was one of my more complete tracks and one of the first ones I wrote specifically for the purpose of LFoPD. But the reactions I’ve been getting point to my gut being right.

    I definitely studied Kefka and Jesters of the Moon for Glenn’s track. In fact, I constantly worry that it’s too similar to Kefka’s Theme, despite reassurance from others to the contrary. It’s far from finished in my opinion, so that eases my mind a bit. The theme is meant to be a little jarring as is the character, but I can understand not having the taste for it. The plan is for it to play before key battles. Almost like the music that plays when a trainer catches your eye in Pokémon before the battle. That’s actually a pretty apt comparison to when Glenn’s theme will play.

    A Lost Odyssey comparison is certainly a very flattering one. That OST is one of Nobuo’s greats. I used to be convinced it would be a flashback as well, but the more I compose, the more I’m interested in going in a different direction for the dungeon themes. I think dungeon music is often TOO ambient. I understand that the melody shouldn’t get grating, but I also think melody is a large part of giving personality to areas in RPGs and forgettable dungeon music makes for forgettable dungeons. So offering this track (with instrumentation/arrangement to not make it feel too repetitive + writing more of the song) as a dungeon track is intriguing to me.

    Excepting the bridge (which I agree is too repetitive. It’s the thing I’m least satisfied with in all four tracks), I would actually say that the fourth track IS sad-sounding a little. Or at least still in the melancholic realm. But more on that in a second. Back to the shitty bridge/second section. I know you didn’t call it shitty, but I am. I kept it in mostly BECAUSE it’s happier sounding and I need a little bit of that. I imagine I’ll keep the chord progression and play with melody. I also want to write about 2 or 3 more parts to that track. I’m really pleased with the main hook (that’s one of the most recent things I’ve written for the game), so I want to do it justice.

    Back to the general melancholic feel of the entire soundtrack. It’s pretty prevalent through the entire OST. There are a number of reasons for this.

    1.) It’s what I’m best at writing
    2.) It’s what I’m best at writing because it’s my favourite type of piano/VGMusic
    3.) Although LFoPD is a comedy RPG, the characters have depth, so I want to take the world and characters seriously. Both good comedy and drama start at the characters and at the core, LFoPD actually has a pretty melancholic message with some pretty twisted characters. Therefore the tone of the soundtrack is thematically relevant.

    Anyhoo, it should be obvious by now that I am putting probably a little TOO much thought into the OST, but it is incredibly important that it turns out well and I think that music is too often overlooked in RPGs. In the sense that it’s seen as an overlay. As something to fit in afterward and not something to be woven into the story.

    As long as you guys don’t mind my INCREDIBLY RAMBLY replies, I might post more in a few days. The feedback is extremely helpful.

  10. OSTs are very important to the game, both thematically and mechanically. How a track sounds and (inevitably) repeats itself to us, and in which moments throughout the game that it does this, can have a lasting impact on our experience with the gameplay itself. It might not be something everyone mentions at first, but having music that fits the action you’re doing or is simply well crafted and sets the mood for the game is part of the magic that makes a great game into a classic.

    When I hear another song or musical piece, and just a little part of it sounds like something great from a game I’ve played and it sends me back into that world and that experience I had while that music was playing… For me, I know then that the music was an important part of what made me like that game.

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