Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This interview was originally published in June 2020.
While video game music has become more and more popular as the years have rolled by, there once was a time when it was seen as an afterthought; the tunes that accompanied the titles we played on our home computers and consoles were often there simply to avoid us having to listen to complete silence.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the audio hardware inside many home systems was crude to say the least, yet a few true pioneers managed to utilise these humble tools to create songs which have long outlasted the games they were attached to in terms of adoration and fame. One such tune is the title theme to the Game Boy version of Ocean’s RoboCop, which hit stores shelves in 1990. This surprisingly melancholic tune has developed a life of its own over the decades, seeing use in commercials, viral videos and even a rap song.
Keen to know a bit more about the music, we were lucky enough to speak to its composer, Jonathan Dunn, about his career in games and how he came to create one of the most iconic pieces of chiptune music ever written.
Nintendo Life: Can you give us a little background on how you became involved with writing music for video games?
Jonathan Dunn: Like a lot of youngsters at the time, I was obsessed with computers. It was a time when Commodore 64s and Sinclair Spectrums were everywhere. My first computer was actually a Dragon 32, but I only kept it for about a year. I was too jealous of all the games being released on the other computers so I sold it and replaced it with a Commodore 64. I used to sit for hours at a time teaching myself to program; Basic at first, then later assembly language. I was also interested in music. I had a synthesizer and had taken music lessons for a few years so I had a good basic knowledge of music theory; it seemed obvious for me to combine the two.
I was at college studying performance music and technology, which was a brand new course at the time, when I entered a music competition in Zzap 64! Magazine. I came second but it was the start of something and I began to get random phone calls from hacking groups from all over Europe. I don’t know how they managed to track me down but I started sharing my compositions under the name of ‘Choroid’. I released my first commercial music for a game with Hugh Binns, someone I met on Compunet, an early online system for the C64. The game was called Subterranea and was released on the Hewson Rack-It label. It was the first time I realised that I could make money from doing something that I loved.
This was just as my college course had finished. I wasn’t sure what to do next so I ended up getting a summer job at Argos, running around the warehouse collecting the items for orders. One of my friends at the time encouraged me to send off demos of my music to some game publishers, I think I sent out about 5 or 6. I was hoping to get some freelance work and make some money on the side. I got a few replies, all very positive, but one reply was from Ocean Software. They wanted me to come to their offices in Manchester for an interview.
The next day I handed in my notice at Argos; none of my warehouse colleagues believed that I’d actually got a job at Ocean Software
I had no idea but my letter had been timed perfectly. Martin Galway, then the resident musician at Ocean, had decided to move on so they were looking for someone new to join the team. I turned up at the offices in Central Street, Manchester hoping I would come out with some freelance work, but instead, they offered me a job as an in-house musician. I could hardly believe it and accepted the job there and then. The next day I handed in my notice at Argos; none of my warehouse colleagues believed that I’d actually got a job at Ocean Software.
Ocean obviously did a lot of games based on movies and TV shows, which will have had their own signature themes. Why was the decision made to create entirely original music for these games – was it an issue with licencing the music from the original composer, or did you simply want to flex your creativity?
The first licensed title I worked on at Ocean was Platoon. It was a big project but it was never an option to use the theme from the film, though weirdly they did include a cassette tape of “Tracks of my Tears” by Smokey Robinson with the release. It was just expected that everything would be original compositions. This wasn’t the case for all the games we worked on, and actually, in the Game Boy version of RoboCop, one of the tunes starts with the original Basil Poledouris RoboCop theme. I don’t remember if we had the rights or not, but maybe it was because it was used in the arcade version. Also, for some of the arcade game conversions that we worked on, we would often use their original music. Mostly I would transcribe it by ear, but a couple of times I remember we got sheet music.
What was it like working on crude hardware like the Game Boy, which – as former Rare composer David Wise has said in the past – basically had the sound hardware of an electric doorbell? Did you ever feel constrained by the limitations of the devices you were working with?
This is actually what I enjoyed most about working on these machines. It was the challenge of pushing the machine limitations and doing something interesting. I enjoyed working with the Game Boy; at the time it had some interesting features that I hadn’t come across on the C64 and Spectrum – the ability to define your own waveform in one of the channels, and also the limited stereo capabilities.
I think the European developers approached the Game Boy music development from a different standpoint. We’d developed all these cool techniques on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum for making it sound bigger than it actually was
Of course, it was still basic, but I liked that you could get some interesting sounds from it. I think the European developers approached the Game Boy music development from a different standpoint. We’d developed all these cool techniques on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum for making it sound bigger than it actually was. When I wrote my NES sound driver, I was trying to replicate some of the features from my C64 driver.
When approaching a game like RoboCop, how would you go about coming up with tunes? Did you study the original movie, or simply look at the levels of the game and compose tunes that seemed to fit the on-screen action?
There would always be an obvious underlying style and tempo that would suit a section of a game; the obvious exception to that rule is the RoboCop title screen theme. It really is the exact opposite of what you would expect for the game.
Very true! It’s a hauntingly beautiful theme and a genuine classic of game music – can you remember how you came up with such an emotive track?
At the time I was still living at home, which was above my mother’s restaurant in Preston. We had a piano in the restaurant as my mum would have live jazz nights once a week. I would often sit at the piano after the restaurant was closed and come up with a few ideas. One of those was the chord riff for RoboCop. To this day if I’m near a piano I’m always tempted to play it; it’s a lovely nostalgic feeling.
The theme has taken on a life of its own in the years since the game launched – famously, it appeared in a commercial for Ariston products in the UK. How did that come to pass?
Apparently the story goes that an advertising executive heard the music when his son was playing the game on his Game Boy. I think the repetitive nature of the tune was something that caught his ear. Someone from the agency contacted Ocean to see if they could use it, Ocean just thought it would be good PR for the game.
Some years later, internet artist and indie game designer ‘Chef Boyardee’ used a version in one of his videos, while rapper Lil B used a sample of Boyardee’s version in a 2012 song. What do you make of your work evolving and entering into other songs in this viral fashion?
Being the first-ever piece of video game music listed for Desert Island Discs is a real honour
If you’d have told me at the time of composing it that it would still be around in 30 years, I wouldn’t have believed you. I think it’s great that it’s still being used. I’ve also had my Platoon music sampled by Diplo on a track he did called Rhythm.
You’re a composer from the days when composers had to create their own sound drivers – do you think the skills required back then have become something of a lost art or has ‘chiptune’ music returned to those roots?
I just didn’t get the same enjoyment from working in the CD audio era, it was definitely part of the fun to be able to push the technical boundaries of the machine. It’s definitely a lost art, but technology moves on.
More recently, Charlie Brooker named it as one of his favourite tunes in Desert Island Discs, bringing your work to a new audience. How did it feel to see one of your old tracks gain renewed fame?
Charlie Brooker has helped a lot in keeping the RoboCop music alive. Being the first-ever piece of video game music listed for Desert Island Discs is a real honour.
Why did you decide to retire from composing video game music?
I loved the challenge of pushing the machines and when that went away I wanted to move on to new things.
What have you been up to since moving away from video games?
I stayed in the game industry in a more managerial role for quite a few years, up until around 6 years ago when I started working in the Casino Gaming industry. That’s been a totally new set of challenges and skill sets to learn. I guess I diverged my skill sets rather than combining them, still programming but also composing and releasing house music for quite a few years. I was signed to Chicago house label Guidance Recordings for a while and released a number of records under the name of Soularis.
What are your memories of working on consoles like the NES, Game Boy and SNES? Was this a period of your career you look back on with fondness today?
I loved working on all of them. My work on the SNES was a career highlight for me. I think some of my best work was done for Addams Family and Jurassic Park. The SNES version of Jurassic Park had some great technical tricks; I’ve been asked a few times how we managed to fit so many samples into 64k in an open-world game. We were actually streaming new audio sample banks in real-time as you walked around the park. We used a lot more cartridge space but it meant I could use better samples. It was the reason it worked so well and is still so memorable for a lot of people.
We’d like to thank Jonathan for his time.