[In the latest of his 'Sound Current' interviews with notable video game musicians, Jeriaska sits down with Stockholm-based Simon Viklund to discuss his soundtrack to console downloadable title Bionic Commando Rearmed and its sequel.]

Composer Simon Viklund has written music and served as creative director on several current generation game titles developed in Sweden. In 2007 he led the team at GRIN behind Bionic Commando Rearmed for the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation 3's Playstation Network, a downloadable remake of the 8-bit action title Bionic Commando.

For the soundtrack, released as a digital album through iTunes, the musician arranged compositions from the NES game by Capcom composer Junko Tamiya. More recently, he has returned to score the direct sequel, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, this time handled by developer Fatshark.

Unlike the enhanced remake, Rearmed 2 features an entirely new storyline and original music compositions in addition to arranged renditions of the NES music. This interview with the composer investigates the challenges of tapping into the feel of the classic Bionic Commando soundtrack and what narrative elements have been seen as vital to the the Rearmed series of games.

Beyond composing for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, you served as creative advisor. How would you compare the role with your involvement in the first Rearmed title?

Simon Viklund: There’s a huge difference between being creative director and advising on direction. Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 was first in development at GRIN and I was serving as creative director. In that position, just as with the first game, I had daily hands-on control over the details and had the final "yay" or "nay" on every piece of level design or animation.

Four months or so into production, GRIN went bankrupt and the project was transferred to Fatshark. There, my involvement was naturally downsized considerably. (They were taking over things mid-project and I worked as a creative advisor during the hand-over to tell them what they were looking at.) So many of the design ideas in the game were hatched by me but executed by Fatshark. I was an advisor and they could choose to take my advice or not. That's the difference between being a creative director and a creative advisor.

In expanding beyond arranging melodies found in the Bionic Commando NES game, how much of the new soundtrack is made up of original compositions?

There’s a lot of completely original material in BCR2, and it was a big challenge for me to write melodies and harmonies that would sound retro, as if they had come from the NES era and were now updated in a more modern fashion. If you play the game, you notice there’s the main theme from the NES game and a few other tracks that I've reinterpreted. I see those as characteristic melodies of the franchise. The soundtrack is a blend, but it’s mostly new stuff.

There’s a retro quality to the first part of the prologue music track, before transitioning into modern-sounding electronic instrumentation. Is that meant to bring to mind NES games like Bionic Commando?

The idea behind that track is similar to the announcement trailer for Bionic Commando Rearmed, which moves from the 8-bit NES visuals smoothly into the modern graphics. That beginning to the track was done with an NES VST plugin called Peach, written by Aaron Rutledge. I used Cubase as VST host and that is the only part of the soundtrack that is done outside of Buzz.

I do have a lot of love for the sound of the NES sound chip, so I did want to use that at the beginning of the game. I think it fits as the prologue starts off in the past and then goes on to tell what has happened more recently, so then the music starts off with NES sounds and kind of morphs into the more modern "Rearmed sound." I take a lot of inspiration from Capcom games like Gun.Smoke, Mega Man and DuckTales. The company has a history of having great music in their games, which I’ve had fond memories of since my childhood.

What do you see as the strengths of applying an electronic music approach to a game like Bionic Commando Rearmed 2?

Electronic music is not like symphonic music in that it’s difficult to convey as wide an array of emotions with it, but there are a few emotions in particular that I think electronic music conveys extremely well: The feeling of being cool and awesome — driving action music — can be conveyed very effectively through electronic music.

In Bionic Commando Rearmed, there are enemies everywhere, you’re swinging from your bionic arm, and there are few pauses during the gameplay. That means the music needs to be pulsating all the time. To get that feeling of intensity and rough texture to the music, distortion is a wonderful effect. People who enjoy music like The Prodigy are used to that distortion in the synth. It’s also bridging the gap between electronic music and rock, so I think it makes the music a lot more appealing for a larger audience.

In a magazine interview with The Controller you singled out several electronic music groups. Does it interest you more than, for instance, listening to contemporary chiptune music?

I’m not looking so much at people making retro music today, but rather listening to actual retro tracks from NES games or similar consoles. Then of course I also listen to modern dance acts like Crystal Method, Justice and Plump DJs, and my particular Rearmed "sound" comes from a blend of those two sources of inspiration.

Could you describe some of the advantages of the music software you've been utilizing to create the sound for the Rearmed series of games?

All the music for BCR and BCR2 (outside of the NES sound chip emulation in the prologue track in BCR2, as mentioned earlier) is done with a program called Buzz. It’s a freeware program written around 2001 by a Finnish guy and has a cult following from people who program plugins. It’s not a conventional program, but it’s one that I’ve learned to use and can exploit its strengths to create something unique. Most of the effects and “generators” are done by the community surrounding Buzz, made particularly for the program.

I started out doing electronic music on FastTracker back in ’95, so I feel very familiar with Buzz: Whenever you want to do something with a sampler in Buzz, they work like trackers. The synth generators are perfect for the kind of primitive sounds that you want as a base for a game like this, which can then be filtered through the program’s flangers, phasers, distortion, reverb and delay to make the sound more modern. In a weird way Buzz is primitive, yet powerful. It has the right strengths for the kind of music that I wrote for the BCR games.

Are there recurring musical motifs that you could point to that serve the soundtrack by providing thematic continuity?

The first level of Bionic Commando on the NES starts off with a snare drum. Although it’s iconic for that track (and the soundtrack as a whole, I'd say) I skipped that intro entirely in my BCR remix. So for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 I thought the first level should have music that starts off with only drums, as a kind of nod to the NES game, making up for not having that in BCR. Since BCR2 takes place on a tropical island, I replaced snare drums with congas.

I used the military-themed snare drum rolls in the prologue track as a way of linking back to the NES game, but other than that there's not much of that military atmosphere in the BCR2 soundtrack. Both the Rearmed soundtracks are of course based in electronica, but BCR is a little heavier and "rockier", while BCR2 is a little "poppier" and leans more towards house.

I also used the movie scoring technique of having a recurring main theme in BCR2. It is the prologue melody that is intended to be the main theme for the game. You hear a fanfare version of it when you complete a level, and you hear an "oops!" version of it when you die. The chord progression also returns in the main menu music and the level select screen. It’s in the end credits as well: the melody is the same, while the harmonies have changed to give it a less ominous atmosphere.

When you first began work on composing the score, what kinds of production materials or assets did you have to work off of?

I started very early on, back in 2009, before we had any new art direction or story in place. At the start, I was writing BCR style music mostly to see if I “still had it.” The first Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack had been a success, so of course I was under pressure to have the music for the sequel be good as well.

The first few songs that I wrote are not in the game and they were pretty horrible, but I eventually got into the zone and wrote some tracks that have a mark of quality, production-wise as well as in terms of the melody. It’s easy for me to understand why people would enjoy the music tracks from the first game more because they’ve heard them in the original NES title. But in case it's not a matter of liking the heavier production of the BCR music more than the "poppier" production of BCR2 music, I think the BCR2 soundtrack can be just as enjoyable and the melodies just as catchy.

Do you have any exercises that have proven constructive in writing original melodies for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2?

The writing process for me was simply a matter of coming up with a strong melody and then experimenting with exciting and sometimes awkward chords to support it. Usually I sit with my acoustic guitar, humming melodies and trying out different chord progressions. But the melodies could come to me while I was on my way home from work—then I'd have to record myself humming the melody on my iPhone in order to remember it.

If you go back to the original NES tracks, the chord progressions are quite complicated. It’s easy to characterize it as simple music because the sounds are simple, but the harmonies that those sounds create together are not simple at all. It’s fairly advanced stuff.

There’s a lot of similarities between progressive rock and the old NES music... for instance the Mega Man soundtrack. The original Bionic Commando I tried to completely reverse engineer so that I had all the chord progressions written down. Looking at those notes, you realize it’s really difficult to write something like this from scratch. That’s what I had to do in sitting down to write the BCR2 soundtrack. It sure was a challenge!

For BCR2 I also experimented with some new rhythmical concepts that I hadn't explored before in the Rearmed series, such as the shuffle version of "Leap of Faith," and the boss music that doesn't have a kick "on the one," which is fairly unorthodox for electronic music.

You've mentioned that you paid musical homage to Commando's protagonist Super Joe on the Rearmed track “Meet the Enemy and Descend,” which emulates the arpeggiation found in the NES game. How were you looking to characterize Super Joe in Rearmed 2, seeing as his character arc undergoes some profound changes in direction later on in the timeline?

Since the top-down levels don’t make a return in BCR 2, I didn’t feel the need to reinterpret that song. Also, because it didn’t appear in the original Bionic Commando, I didn’t feel it was characteristic of the franchise as a whole. I wasn’t involved in making Super Joe the way he was in the 3D Bionic Commando, GRIN’s game from 2009, but since that’s been established as part of the canon I did think that the story should bridge BCR with BC09.

The public eventually turns against the bionics. Was that something you wanted to allude to in Rearmed 2?

Yes, the main idea behind the story in BCR2 was to introduce the events that preceded the Bionic Purge. I had the ambition to make a more complex character-driven story too, and not just have "evil guy wants to take over the world simply because he is evil" as the story went in the first game. I know a sidescroller game franchise with the cheesy '80s touch may not be the best vehicle for that kind of story, but I thought, "Hey, if people don't want to follow the story, they can just skip it".

What happens on the island of Papagaya isn’t what triggers the events of BC09. I wanted to start off there and end up in a city in the FSA where everyone can see a bionic fighting. You can spot a news helicopter circling overhead during this sequence, which I thought was a nice way to convey that now everyone will see that bionics can't always be controlled. The situation with the bionics could get out of hand, which leads the public to question bionic technology. By the end, the military can’t hide anymore the darker side of the technology.

You’ve mentioned that you were interested in creating the atmosphere of ‘80s action movies in the Rearmed games. Was the concept of tuning into the vibe of this style of film (perhaps Commando-Meets-Robocop?) taking the writing in a particular direction?

That atmosphere I think is definitely a part of the Rearmed franchise, but it was toned down a little for BCR2 in order to bridge BCR and BC09 in terms of both story and overall atmosphere. To riff off of your movie references, I'd say BCR is more cheesy-and-that's-that like Commando, wile BCR2 is more cheesy-while-also-trying-to-say-something like Robocop. I love Paul Verhoeven (the director of Robocop). He does these brutal action flicks that always have these undertones of social and political critique and satire.

Do you see there being room for a third installment of the Bionic Commando Rearmed series, potentially bridging the events of the 2D and 3D titles?

BCR 2 already kind of bridges the 2D and 3D titles, but I do think there is space for more Rad Spencer adventures in general. You can always find threads that you can pull and see where they lead, unanswered questions. We know that Groeder lives on and is not in BCR2 at all. He can make a return.

I love Groeder, partly because I came up with turning that anonymous NES boss into a real character for both BCR and BC09, and partly because the voice actor who portrayed him in BC09 (Scott MacDonald) did such an awesome job. I got to attend that recording session in LA and it was glorious!

You’ve stated on your website that because Capcom fully owns the rights to the Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 score, they would be responsible for publishing a soundtrack album. Do they have a mastered soundtrack that they could put out there in some form if they so chose?

They don’t. If the music were to be distributed, it’s the kind of thing that I would like to be nicely presented. However, I haven’t been contacted by either Fatshark or Capcom and asked to send them tracks which are edited and mastered for commercial release. I haven’t taken the initiative either because I feel it would be kind of self-obsessed. But I do encourage those who ask me if there will be a BCR2 soundtrack to contact Capcom. Really, it's up to them.

The Bionic Commando main theme appears in the Marvel vs Capcom 3 Spencer reveal trailer. The background track is arranged by Hideyuki Fukasawa, the Street Fighter IV composer. Have you heard it and do you have any thoughts on the execution?

Yeah, I saw that trailer when it was first released on the internet. I think it does the job well and has that high-tempo fighting game quality to it.

Capcom Unity organized a remix promotion, requesting arrangements of music from the game. How were you involved in this contest that led to the winning entries by A Rival and Tony Dickinson?

I was asked to say what I thought about the contest submissions. I wound up writing comments for all of the entries — like twenty of them. What I had to say about the winning submissions was that I think it's a cliché at this point to bring in the electric guitars on interpretations of old NES songs, and yet it’s always nice to hear that (or any) cliché actually done well. Those two guys both did it really well. The tracks were well produced, professionally mixed and the sounds were thick. I really enjoyed them.

In closing, what can you tell us about what you are currently up to in the realm of game design?

Since GRIN went down, I’ve been working together with a few core people from that company. That's including the Andersson brothers, GRIN's two founders. We don’t have a website, haven’t shown up at the trade shows and are staying below the radar, but we’re working on something that we’re totally excited about. I’m doing the sound design and music on this team, along with a little bit of creative direction together with Ulf [Andersson], the head creative director at GRIN. It’s definitely something to look out for!

To find out more about the music of Simon Viklund, visit the artist's official website. Images courtesy of Capcom.