By the time I was in 5th grade everyone I knew had their own Nintendo Entertainment System. My brother and I saved every cent we could and eventually we were able to make the amazing purchase. The system came with the single game cartridge containing two games, Super Mario Brothers/Duckhunt, two controllers and le piece de resistance the light gun. The most astounding thing about those first consoles was not the gun though, it was the music. Up till then music was very sparse in most games you could play at home, on early computers. In my case we had the “Kaypro2” which only made a beep noise sometimes, no music at all. The music in other games, I’d play at my friends houses was very fun and I still remember the themes for “King’s Quest”, “Hero’s Quest” (“Quest For Glory”) and “Space Quest”. But even these games used music very sparsely. Nintendo, and specifically “Super Mario Brothers” was my first experience of having a constant running soundtrack that would entertain you throughout the entire game. For me, it was the hook. I was gonna be a lifelong gamer. The great music themes of the early days of home gaming still ring through my head. The original Warcraft, Mean Streets, Descent but for me it all began with those original NES games.
I decided to find a few of my absolute favorite themes and turn them into modern electronic tunes. I had recently released my album “Step Into Infinity” on which I had used a lot of sounds that had an 8 bit feel. I was using Logic 9’s ES2 and was playing with LFO modulation and distortion, making old chip tune sounds.
Nothing new, lots of stuff guys like Bassnectar,Skrillex and others were already doing. But to me sounds are not enough, Music is about melody, harmony and rhythm. Music from my childhood is riddled with very catchy melodies. The themes from movies half of which were written by John Williams and Danny Elfman still ring in my head and even more so with game themes by Keiji Yamagishi, Koji Kondo, Hirokazu Tanaka and Harumi Fujita.
There is a definite trend towards more textural music now. Orchestras and game times have both increased. Modern game soundtracks are much more lush and textural but also less thematically driven. In other words you can’t whistle the themes to modern games. The old chip tunes didn’t have the bandwidth for lush texture, they had to rely on only a handful of monophonic tones to create the music. That means no Orchestra tutti and no giant chords. The simple 2-4 part themes from games like “Strider” “The Legend Of Zelda” “Kid Icarus” “Contra” “Castlevania”,” Are still memorable and fun. These days music in games seems to be more about subtle mood and texture then repeating melodies. Don’t get me wrong I love the music in today’s games just as much. They are amazing, lush and epic. Grandiose sweeping movements worthy of the great film composers; in some case by the film composers. But something about those little chips emitting those loops made the 8 bit console games what they were. Thus I took it upon myself to re-imagine some of my favorite music from my old NES days.
I wanted to make music that would fit into my personal style of dark, edgy and hard-hitting, so I chose the themes from my favorite games that were minor/diminished and driving. It’s my personal preference I guess but I always liked the minor keys better. I love the Legend of Zelda theme but the dungeon theme is dark, creepy and totally cool. I also love all the music from Kid Icarus but the training room/noses room theme is definitely the most dark and creepy.
The first theme I chose to cover was one of absolute favorites . The theme from level 4-2 in Tecmo’s original “Ninja Gaiden.” The theme can be heard here at 5:59
Keiji Yamagishi’s music throughout the original Ninja Gaiden is compelling, intricate and to risk sounding redundant, dark! I will probably cover one or two more of the level themes at some point. But the song I chose lent itself well to the dubstep style drop. Have a listen here:
I used Logic 9 to create this one, (hadn’t yet bought X) I used a lot of ES2 synths to create the dubstep sounds and some samples I got from school. The EXS24 is still one of my favorite Logic instruments. But the ES2 made all the crazy wobble effects possible by automating LFO rates and using them to modulate frequency cutoffs. Since this was the first song I didn’t play as much with the arrangement as the latter ones. All of these covers got more involved as I proceeded. The video was also the first one I made. I used iMovie and edited all the cutscenes together, using a split screen so you could see both the cutscene narrative and the actual gameplay at the same time. I think it’s fun to watch and listen to. I had to cut some stuff from the actual cutscenes since there are some really long side plots in the game. So don’t yell about how it isn’t the same exact narrative.
My next project was The Legend of Zelda. As I mentioned I love the opening theme to this game, It’s iconic to say the least. But I was going for a darker edge to the music and so I chose the dungeon theme. Which you may remember sounds like this:
Totally awesome, yet very repetitive. It’s fascinating to me how the conventions of gaming have changed so much especially with music. Yet I digress… I played more in Logic on this one knowing that it had to be dynamically spruced up or it would be too repetitious. The key of course is midi remapping. and lot’s more LFO automation. This is the only other song I used Logic 9 and my old school samples. After this I would graduate to Logic X. The video was again in iMovie but I had to make it interesting. I knew I couldn’t do the same thing from Ninja Gaiden but I couldn’t think of how to tell the story of the Legend of Zelda through the game footage. Finally I realized that I should focus more on the visual aspect of the game rather than the story which everyone pretty much knows. The Legend Of Zelda of all the games I’ve covered so far is the only overhead view. This led me to the idea of creating a visualization rather than a narrative. Since iMovie is so limited this meant I had to repeatedly export the whole movie in order to stack up each layer. The concept is that each level begins in order, in a separate split screen and each level is mirrored and rotated creating a crazy kaleidoscope effect. Each level is sped up to match the pace of the first level which of course if you remember is much much smaller than the 8th level. They are all timed so that the levels end more or less together and at the end of the song Link acquires all 8 pieces of the Triforce at once. Check it out!
Like I said, those first two were the most simple. I produced them in Logic 9 and didn’t really mess too much with the arrangement. A couple of months after I made these two covers I bought Logic X and then the real fun began! Logic X is a really great upgrade to Logic 9. I’m not trying to plug it or anything but I have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the new features and library. The first cover I did in Logic X was Kid Icarus noses.
I learned on making the video that the Noses are actually a joke about the composer I never knew what these were when I played the game, since I didn’t have the manual that came with it. If you want to know what I’m talking about skip ahead in this video to 5:13
Anyway, Kid Icarus is one of my fondest memories of gaming and although I had no idea what the game was even about, when I first played it (I actually thought the noses were flying mice.) It was really fun making this cover. The theme is rather repetitive so for this one I almost completely rearranged the music. I turned the simple loop into a whole song. Using just little bits to create other loops and adding lots of bass and drums. Once again relying heavily on the ES2 synced wobbles and lfo rates and using the EXS24 as my main drum sample instrument. For this video I got the idea to use the text from the original manual as the background and the entire gameplay on fast forward in the split screen. Then I got bored with that so I started playing with all sorts of effects to create a trippy music video out of the gameplay footage. Enjoy!
Castlevania was another game that left me with a difficult choice. Nearly every theme in that game is dark and fun, so in the end I just had to pick one. I really was having fun with the new toys in Logic X, so Castlevania got an even more extensive treatment, in terms of playing with the capabilities and musical expression.
This quirky theme lent itself well to the dubstep Retro Synth Plug-In From Logic X used in “Castlevania Redeux” style arrangement and I had a lot of fun playing with it, tweaking it and Midi mapping. This video was probably the most basic. Just a fast speed run through of the whole game with little slow mo split screens to show off the cool bosses. Check it out!
Midi Loop From “Castlevania Redeux”
The final cover I did was Hidenori Maezawa’s theme from the Base level in Konami’s “Contra” This game is riddled with badass music but the Base theme is the most rockin, and naturally this led to a hardcore metal arrangement, in which I played actual electric guitar to blow it out the water. At first I just played the whole song through it was only about 2 minutes and so much fun that I had to extend it. I broke it down in the middle looping the various parts to make it into a trippy techno version. Then I rearranged the whole song as a kind of funk/hip-hop version. for the final verse. This was definitely the most fun and let me explore Logic X’s capabilities. I actual made two versions of this video. The first was like the “Castlevania” one just a straight runthrough of the game but I thought this would be too boring so I reworked it using the cutscenes and split screen to give it some narrative. I always loved “Contra” because it was one of the first games I had that you could actually play two player simultaneously Me and my brother and my other friends played this game together until we could finally win it. It took awhile even with the Konami code: “upupdowndownleftrightleftrightBAselectstart”- yes, I still remember it. Check out the video:
Conclusion and Links
Working on these cover songs was a lot of fun and I enjoyed learning new video skills in iMovie. I definitely plan to do a couple more including one of my favorite aptly named games “Strider” By the amazing composer Harumi Fujita. So be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and check out the new videos and music I am constantly releasing. Also check me out on Soundcloud:
for even more music that is always being updated.
About the Author
Here is a link to Lev Strider‘s bio and his websites and music.