In this post I’m going to talk about how we approached production of the soundtrack for Guntastic, our upcoming party brawler inspired by the 16bit coin-op games of the late 90s.

Wanted: Video Game Music

Various covers of video games from the 90s, including Metal Slug, Doom and Street Fighter II

Since the early production stage of Guntastic I wondered how the music should sound, but it was only as work on the game progressed that things became clearer. The soundtrack needed to accomplish two different objectives:

  1. Support the fast action-packed gameplay as much as possible.
  2. Support the retro artistic direction of the game by intuitively sound like “video game music”.

Wikipedia defines video game music as “the soundtrack that accompanies video games”. I don’t have any problems with that definition, but let’s be honest… Some video game soundtracks sound more like video game soundtracks than others. And from my perspective it’s all about how it sounds.

Defining the Sound

When it comes down to writing music, sound palette is as important as rhythm, melody and harmony to me and that’s why I spent a lot of time searching for the right approach to use for the Guntastic soundtrack. In the end, I decided for a mixed approach: I wanted the music to sound straight out of a 90s arcade video game, but at the same time I didn’t want to have all the technical limitations of those years (i.e. limited polyphony, no – or very little – DSP, etc.), although some restrictions were kept for stylistic reasons.

When possible, I tried to use iconic sounds from vintage rigs for the maximum nostalgia.

Two main principles guided me throughout production.

1. Everything Needs to Be Sequenced and Sample-Based

This was probably the main trademark of video game music from the early 90s and was a direct consequence of technical limitations artists faced back then. In order to replicate that sound, no live performances need to be used. That said, tracks in Guntastic aren’t played by sound modules while the game is running and have gone through proper mixing and mastering phases to ensure the best sound quality.

A screenshot of the sequencer software, with one of the projects from the Guntastic soundtrack open
A modern workflow was used to produce the music, although special care was taken to replicate some of the technical limitations artists faced in the 90s.

Having a completely sequenced music track is extremely convenient during the production phase as it allows to rapidly adjust tempo and pitch and to experiment a lot. The goal was to produce some retro-sounding music using a mix of old and modern production techniques, trying to get the best of both worlds.

Soundtrack of the ”Subway“ level playing on an old Yamaha YPT300 General Midi toy keyboard.

2. Don’t Stick to a Specific Music Genre, But Have a Consistent Palette of Sounds

One of the things I love the most about old video game soundtracks is their great variety in terms of styles and genres: you can have big band cues next to rock or metal ones, next to orchestral tracks and so on… But everything still sounds natural and consistent! For Guntastic I decided to have a pretty solid palette and selection of instruments throughout the tracks, but not to be limited in terms of writing style and genre. At the same time, I tried to add some recurring harmonic and melodic elements as a distinctive mark and cohesive component of the overall soundtrack.

A scale on quartal chord of G
Some crazy scale-action based upon the same quartal chord.
A five-note quartal chord of G
A five-note quartal chord of G used in the intro of the “Subway” cue and many other tracks as a recurring element.

Music in Guntastic

In Guntastic players battle in very fast matches on levels that change every few rounds. The music during battles is hectic and up-tempo and aims to emphasize the action happening on screen without distracting the players. Each level in Guntastic is set in a different environment, so a different music track was created to support each setting. For example, the music of the “Egyptian Tomb” map is reminiscent of middle eastern music while the one of the “Subway” level has a very hectic and jazzy mood, more suitable for an urban setting. Some sections of the game menu have their own custom cues as well.

Relaxing music to listen while browsing game options.

Anatomy of A Track

Each track in Guntastic consists of three different segments that are played seamlessly based on the gameplay state:

  1. Intro: an opening part that plays at the beginning of the round, during the initial countdown.
  2. Loop: a looping part that plays during the match.
  3. Hurry up: a final part that kicks in when the round is almost over. It’s more tense and hectic than the others and serves both as a way to make sure players notice that time’s almost up and to add tension to the last few seconds of the game.
Intro, Loop and Hurry up segments from the “Subway” track.

Final Notes

Writing and producing music for Guntastic gave me a lot of creative freedom and the opportunity to experiment with things I normally try to avoid as a freelance composer in the advertising industry. Thinking outside of the box to overcome the limitations you’ve imposed on yourself, while trying to create something that sounds authentic and original at the same time was extremely stimulating.

Hope you enjoyed this foray into music production for Guntastic. Feel free to share your thoughts by dropping a comment below or by joining us on Discord!