[In this interview, VVVVVV composer Magnus "Souleye" Palsson speaks with Gamasutra contributor Joel Johnson about how he discovered and started creating chiptunes, and his work on the soundtrack for fan-made Mega Man 2.5D.
Composer Magnus "Souleye" Palsson is a pretty nice guy. He speaks casually and tends to diverge into lighthearted conversation. I hadn't planned on asking him about E.T.
on the Atari 2600, for example, or discussing which artifacts will remain of our digital lifestyles. It just happened to come up.
He also hits the right notes. Here Palsson talks fluently about his chiptune influences, the difference between composing music for the unofficial Mega Man 2.5D project
and Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV
, and whether the NES or the Commodore 64 had better music.
I picked Souleye so long ago. Had I known what I know now, I'd have chosen something else. There's an American rapper called Souleye who's married to Alanis Morissette. Some of his friends even mistake me for him. They email me. "Hey, I need some banging beats for my live sets." I'm like, "Here's some experimental chiptune stuff I've been working on..." I send them an MP3 and I get big question marks in return!
Who are your influences?
A lot of old-school game musicians have influenced me. Guys like Chris Hulsbeck
(who did Turrican
, The Great Giana Sisters
, Jim Power in Mutant Planet
), Martin Galway
, Kong Strikes Back
), and Koji Kondo
(Super Mario Bros.
). I don't know who did the Street Fighter 2
music, but I really like it. You can hear its influence
in the VVVVVV
What is your favorite music instrument?
The electric guitar. I can totally zone out listening to it. People assume that because I'm a chiptune musician, I like a lot of synths and tech stuff. Not really. I like the electric guitar. It evokes emotion.
How did you get started making chip music?
My first musical creation was done on the first portable computer ever, the Epson-HX 20
. It was capable of beeping one note at a specific pitch for a specific length of time. You can imagine how that sounded. I was fascinated, but my family was less than amused. My parents loved it when I played the piano...
The first experience I had with a music tracking program came courtesy of the CU Amiga Magazine
. A floppy disk came with every issue. One of these disks contained a program called Soundtracker
, which I used to make chip music on a friend's computer. I thought I had made the best tune in the whole wide world. So I asked him, "Where do I save it?" But he didn't have any disks. He told me to just turn it off. I was like, "But, but, but...." And he just went Click
Have you lost much music?
I have lost so many tunes. It's horrible when it happens! Now, I keep backups of everything. When I started, I used floppy disks. Floppies have a stupidly short lifespan. I think it's around seven years. I keep mine in a box in the attic with no television near them, nor anything that can interfere. I eventually put them on a hard drive.
Do you ever wonder what will be left? I mean, if someone found a hard drive a hundred years from now, they probably wouldn't even be able to access it.
We keep so many things on websites, hard drives, and CDs. A CD will last a hundred years, but a thousand years from now... I'm not sure if we're going to know much about our civilization. There are game libraries and computer libraries, but I wonder what games will be left. They could end up buried in the desert, like E.T.
Of course, some games are better off forgotten.
I actually played E.T.
when I was a kid, and I won. I completed the freaking game! E.T.
went home! Most people couldn't even get out of the hole. You fall into a pit. Now what? I still remember: You extend the neck. Then, you can go up. It's pixel-perfect. You have to stop going up as soon as you reach the edge of the screen or you'd fall back in. It came as no surprise that E.T.
wound up being called the worst game of all-time.
The worst game I ever played is probably the graphic adventure Neuromancer.
I was thinking about that game today! I don't know why. I played it when I was a kid. I remember walking up to some dude, and he wanted to buy my organs! You can choose what body parts you want to sell. Your lungs, your heart, your eyes. As a kid, I got scared! Really? Sell my eyes? It was disturbing.
For a while, old games where just old games. When did you realized that old games were still desirable?
Whenever there's a technology shift, games become old games. When the Commodore 64 was succeeded by the Amiga, everybody wanted Amiga games. There's a drive inside people to look for the new, but recently I've began to realize that enjoyment has less to do with what you're doing and more to do with your state of mind. It doesn't really matter what it is that makes you happy. The main thing is if you are happy or not. Like the way I enjoyed playing E.T.
The first time I noticed modern interest in old games was around ten years ago. I went over to a friend's house, and he was playing Mega Man. Everybody was really into it. What is it about the original Mega Man that makes it so iconic?
The variety of weapons is cool; the whole notion of killing an enemy and taking his weapon to use for your own. And the music, of course. If the music hadn't been so good, the series wouldn't be so popular. Mega Man
is challenging. You can't beat it in an afternoon. You have to develop skill. You can't have abrasive music to a repetitive game, or you will shoot yourself in the foot.
You're composing the soundtrack for Mega Man 2.5D. What can you tell me about the project?
It's an unofficial project. Just some indie guys remaking Mega Man
. It's a mix between a 2D game and a 3D game. And it has co-op. The game is inspired by Mega Man 2
and Mega Man 3
, which are the best Mega Man
games. Naturally, the music
sounds like a mixture of those two games.
What are your favorite tunes from those games?
I love the opening from Mega Man 2
. Everybody knows what happens next. Do-do-da-duh-do-doo.
We've heard it too much already. I like the opening because it tells a story. I can imagine things happening. The screen is scrolling up a skyscraper. It says something about the year 200X. But even if there was no text, I could make up my own story. At first, something bad was happening. We lost all hope. But now our hero is here to save us!
How about from Mega Man 3?
The Password song!
I just get so happy when I hear that song! It's like I'm taking a walk, the sun is shining, and everything is okay. It's expressive, simple, and it has a very strong melody. It's a gem that I savor. I don't want to get tired of it. I listen just a little.
How do you maintain the integrity of Mega Man's original music while adding your own style to it?
I don't. [Laughs.]
I don't want to bend over backwards to make music. I'm going to do what I think sounds good. It's not going to sound exactly like Mega Man
, but it will sound similar because my style is similar. Mega Man
's music conveys emotion and tells a story. I try to mimic that aspect with the music I'm doing for 2.5D
. I hope people will understand that I'm trying to stay true to the old songs, yet make something new.
How much of the soundtrack is in your style, and how much is it in Mega Man's style?
I made some covers. Those would be 100% Mega Man
. But other stuff is going to be pure me. I don't want to make a cover album. I want to make something that sounds like me. Mega Man
has such a huge fan-base. They want everything to be just right. They can flame me if they want to. I'm going to do something I like. You can't please everybody. I'll just settle for pleasing myself.
VVVVVV had a very European aesthetic to it. On the other hand, Mega Man has a distinct Japanese vibe. What is the difference between a Commodore 64/Amiga soundtrack and a Famicom/Super Famicom soundtrack?
We have more arpeggios in Euro-music. We like to keep one channel playing the same sequence of notes throughout the entire song. I do that a lot in my music. Japanese music, on the other hand, is a little more melodic. European music uses more modes.
Which is the best classic gaming system: the NES or the Commodore 64?
The NES. [Sigh.]
Some of my favorite games are for Commodore 64. But there was a "feel" to the NES. It was a gray box. It had cartridges. It felt real. Whereas I used floppy disks and cassette tapes to play games on the Commodore. I liked having something physical. I liked the act of inserting cartridges into the slot. Also, the moods that some of the games evoked were awesome: Zelda 2
had really nice music. The music did it for me. It was very subconscious. But I think that's why.