Over a million players have played Relic Hunters Zero as a free title on Steam. It’s uncomplicated. It’s high energy. It’ll run on a toaster. For the past five years, Relic Hunters Zero has created a real community of active, avid players who are hungry to see what pops up out of their next run, curious on how to unlock their favorite hunter, and ecstatic to find the most satisfying gun to fire. All the while, these players are going to be listening to the game’s chiptune soundtrack. When it came time to upgrade Relic Hunters Zero into a new experience for the Nintendo Switch - Relic Hunters Zero: Remix - one of the first things everyone agreed upon was the need for an expansion to that soundtrack.
“The first few songs that I made were actually a lot tamer and the things [the Relic Hunters Zero: Remix team] actually responded to were the more experimental ones, were the spicier ones, were the more progressive ones,” Cat Arthur tells me in an interview, which you can listen to on the Akupara Games Youtube channel. “So, I’m like, all right! If that’s what you want, I can do that.”
Source of the Soundtrack
With a background in creating catchy, attention-grabbing melodies for slot machines as well as Rush and Dream Theater inspired progressive metal songs, Cat’s unique sensibilities made them the perfect composer to bring out the best in Relic Hunters Zero: Remix. “So my first thought when I opened it up was like, ‘OK. So Relic Hunters already had a soundtrack. They got a Creative Commons license music from the artist Goto80. And that's what they used for the original. And I wanted to do something that paid homage to that in spirit.’”
With Relic Hunters’ bright, colorful characters and environments, it only made sense to make sure the music was equally as bright and colorful. More than that, though, the game is also a throwback to some retro art styles. Its art is 16-bit, so the source of its sound are chipsets and soundcards from that era. “I’d say it’s mostly NES and Commodore 64, with a little bit of Sega Genesis thrown in for flavor. I didn't want to do something that was like really strict, accurate, authentic chip tunes like the kind of chip tunes that you could literally put on a cartridge and have it play representatively on a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis.”
One of the advantages to modern hardware is its ability to expand above the limitations of a retro console. With Relic Hunters Zero: Remix, you’ll have dozens of enemies on screen, bullets flying left, forcing players to bob and weave through hails of gunfire. The intensity of that gameplay only exists because of the power of modern computing hardware being able to render and track all of that at once. “The first thing I threw out was the voice limitation I did for the initial concept. Try to keep a fairly strict sound as far as the timbre we were going for, like I only used chip instruments. I only use chip drums. I only used chip pads. There were a lot more voices, but it was a stricter sound,” Cat explains. “And when I bounced that off the team, they said they wanted more. They didn't need it to be as strict as that was. So at that point, I started adding in some additional synthesizers. Actually, it was the suggestion of the Rogue Snail main composer Raphael to get into FM Eight, which is a synthesizer. And so I did. And that is a good third of the sounds that you hear is actually from a totally not videogame synthesizer.”
Getting Along with Gameplay
In Relic Hunters Zero: Remix, you delve into the Asteroid Dungeon Nemesis as a crew member of the Spaceheart. While Storm Mode and Endless Mode carry more roguelike elements through the game, Adventure Mode has you descending deeper and deeper into the dungeon against more powerful enemies. There are four different levels, each with four different stages to fight through. “As this soundtrack developed more, it was clear what the team wanted to hear was more progressive rock. So, the first song that I made was the level one music. But after that, it became more and more progressive. And I named it like part one, part two, part three, part four in Roman numerals, because that's a lot of the time the way you see multipart songs broken up on progressive rock albums. On Rush, on Dream Theater, when they have Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, all those movements are broken up in tracks and also on the liner notes with Roman numerals.”
Players aren’t always blasting away at the Ducans, though. In between runs of the Dungeon, you’ll find yourself loading up in the Spaceheart. As a safe haven, the Spaceheart serves as the central hub that allows players to customize their loadout, heal up between missions and equip the powerful relics of the game’s title. Fittingly, the Spaceheart track plays more laid back to match the gameplay’s tone. “That was actually the fastest one to produce because it’s a lot less intense than the rest of the soundtrack. That’s supposed to be the relaxing one. So it’s really interesting to hear that that’s what everyone’s favorite seems to be. I’m absolutely for it.” My favorite song just so happens to be Spaceheart!
Then, of course, there’s the boss fight against the Ducan Commander. “It’s the most intense song on the soundtrack,” Cat says. “It’s a lot more inspired by metal. You gotta do metal for the boss.” While other stages in other levels are more about positioning and clearing Ducans with strategic gunplay and cover-based shooting, the final fight against the Ducan Commander can be a race against time, trying to end him before he blows you up with rockets or calls enough reinforcements to overwhelm you. “And that's how you make the boss music. You do the heavy riffs. I actually wrote that riff on a guitar first and then transferred it to chiptune.” That’s not the only secret to the boss music, however. “This is the only music in the game that is not a strict loop. So usually, most music is like one piece all the way through. Then it loops back to the beginning. Very classic. But this music actually has a little bit of an intro and that intro doesn't repeat because there's about a 20 second period when you're okay going around, picking up your goods, getting ready to fight him, and then the music really starts. And that's what loops.”
The Melody Behind the Madness
For the more musically inclined, Cat shared some of their more complex strategies for making the music come alive. One specific technique they used, for instance, was called Iron Maiden Harmonization. “It's harmonizing the melody in diatonic thirds, which is the thing that will typically happen between two guitars. So for the non-music theory nerds out there, all that means is if one guitar plays a note, the backup guitar will play a note two scale degrees slower and they'll just move that same interval through the song.” Choices like that make the sound richer, layering melodies more fully throughout the song.
And make sure you pay attention to the different time signatures that change up throughout the songs of the soundtrack. “I got to use a lot of cool asymmetrical meters,” Cat says, letting me in on the secret. “That’s something I’ve wanted to put in a game for a while that I haven’t had a great opportunity to do.” While the first few songs remain in the more typical four four time signature, as the game progresses into deeper difficulties, the music becomes more progressive and complex. “It's just got a lot of weird spicy meters and I'm very glad I got to put that in the game. Really glad the team was open to that and actually really liked it.”
If you'd like to hear the full interview on the debut episode of the Akupara Podcast, make sure to check it out here!
As an indie for indies, we’re always looking to give our players and our friends in the industry a peak behind the curtain on how we go about creating our games. The Relic Hunters Zero: Remix soundtrack is out now on a number of different platforms and you can also give it a listen on the Akupara Games Youtube channel. Next Thursday, May 7th, Relic Hunters Zero: Remix will be coming to Nintendo America and Nintendo Europe eShops. An early adopter sale will be running until May 11th where you can pick up the game for 23% off. If you’d like to keep up with the Cat’s latest music, you can follow their Twitter, Soundcloud and Spotify! As always, you can always feel free to follow Akupara Games on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and connect with members of our team by joining the official Discord.