Composing Double Dragon Neon

by Bryan Vore on Sep 07, 2012 at 07:43 AM

Jake Kaufman rose to prominence on the chiptune scene under the name “virt,” remixing classic game themes and composing original music. He scored his first freelance composing gig in 2000, working on the Game Boy Color port of Q*Bert. Regular client Wayforward Technologies recognized his outstanding work on projects like Shantae and Contra 4, and eventually hired him as the “Audio Guy.” Kaufman has since worked on such titles as the Mighty series, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, and BloodRayne: Betrayal. As we approach the release of his latest project, Double Dragon Neon, Kaufman reflects on past and current projects.

Does Wayforward have a team of composers or is it all you?

I’m still the only composer on staff, but we’ve actually sent out a couple of projects such as [iCarly: Groovy Foodie!], which just shipped to external composers. I tend to do most of the big titles and most of the stuff like the Mighty series that has to have that Wayforward sound to it. Anything smaller scale, it is still important that it is done right, but we have a number of composers we can choose from if I’m overworked or swamped.

When do you start writing music in the development process? 

Usually the way it works at Wayforward is I'll do maybe one or two concept tracks, the same way they do concept art. The programmers and artists, I find, a lot of the time come up to me and say, "That concept track you made is totally pumping me up for the game! I'm modeling my characters while listening to your music, and it's totally getting me psyched!" So I try to do stuff like that to get people motivated. 

But, as far as actual material for the game, I try to come in a little later, once things are more mature, so I get more of a sense of what the game actually feels like. That, and the earlier in the process that I start composing, the more everybody who's working on it will be annoyed by it by the time it's shipped. I try to give them a lot of stuff at once to work with so they don't get tired of it. That happened on Double Dragon. I came in a little later than even I usually do. Basically, once everybody was freaking out, like, "Where's the music? We need music in this game!" then I just dropped it all on them at once.

Which came first – the mission complete theme or the air guitar that Billy and Jimmy perform at the end of the levels?

It started out as sort of a joke. Sean [Velasco, Double Dragon Neon director] is like, "It'd be funny if they were to air guitar along with it, you know [guitar noises]," and then I did it. He was like, “Yeah, all right.” Then the animator actually spent time made the air guitar animation. I love these guys, because most of our best ideas start out as, "It'd be hilarious if…" and then they do it.

A lot of the tracks have vocals. Do you do a lot of those yourself, or are there friends of yours that you work with?

They are Wayforward employees.

All of them?

Yeah. The guy who sings "Glad I Am" and "Firebird" – the ones that are actually sung by Billy and Jimmy – he’s also the voice actor for Billy and Jimmy. I guess this is non-canon, so it's not really official, but in my mind, Billy and Jimmy have started several different bands over the years, trying to strike it big as rock stars. This is the result of their efforts. 

[Jeff Luke is] a level designer at Wayforward. He just happened to come over to me one day and say, "Hey dude! You need any totally radical singing in your game?" I was, like, "As a matter of fact…" 

The Mango Tango track “Neon Utopia” is the same voice actress that did BloodRayne and Linda. That's Jessie [Seely], one of our artists and now designers. We have many multi-talented people working in that warehouse. It's crazy.

A sample of "Firebird" from Double Dragon Neon

Are those two the ones responsible for the brief mixtape clips or is that a hodgepodge of a bunch of different people?

It's those two and me. Sean does the Depeche Mode-sounding one, "Desperation." We found out he could do a perfect Depeche Mode imitation. I was, like, "Uh, yeah, we're using that."

It was perfectly on. I liked the Rick Astley as well. 

That was me.

You wrote the original Shantae soundtrack and then came back for Risky’s Revenge. Was it fun to return to?

That was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. It was like full circle. Not just full circle in an artistic sense, but also, I was a kid when I made the original Shantae. I was really, really, musically naive. I had a lot of ideas about what sounded cool at the time. Some of those have evolved a little bit. I’ve gotten a little less adventurous in some things and a little more adventurous in other things, but overall I’ve really grown up as a musician and getting the chance to revisit my old stuff and do new things with it in an official capacity, not just as a fan, is really awesome. 

You did BloodRayne: Betrayal with a great medieval, Castlevania-style…

Love letter to Castlevania, maybe?

Then you did something completely crazy and reinterpreted the whole thing in chiptune/8-bit.

Us baka gaijin (idiot foreigners) in the States weren’t deemed sophisticated enough to appreciate the extra sound that the expansion port in the Famicom granted to developers, so the Nintendo Entertainment System did not have access to these extra chips. If you listen to the Castlevania III soundtrack, it sounds nothing like Akumajō Densetsu, the Japanese version. It is much simpler because it doesn’t have the VRC6 expansion chip on board. 

What you’re dealing with in the hobbyist scene, you have people who are making all of these Nintendo sounds and they’re like, “Whoa, we can access these expansion chips. That’s awesome!” So you hear Nintendo music that has 15 voices of music happening at once, it is super layered and it doesn’t sound anything like the Nintendo as you know it. I wanted to shoot for authenticity for the Japanese version of Castlevania III, specifically. I used the VRC6 chip and it pretty much is the only full-length soundtrack I know of, other than the ones that were officially released, to use that chip.

Why essentially double your workload since you already had completed a modern version of the soundtrack?

Yeah, it was kind of masochistic. I was already dramatically overworked just doing the soundtrack, but it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. The chance to do my own actual Castlevania soundtrack with the real hardware and actually get paid for it? I couldn’t say no to that. 

I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to do an 8-bit version.” Sean thought I was just going to do the main theme or something, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to do the whole thing.” At first the programmers thought it was going to be a little tough to implement, but then I showed them a way it could be done simply using the middleware that we use. They were like, “Alright, fine.” 

I was working 20-hour days, seven days a week for about three weeks in order to pull this off. I’m really, really glad I did because I recovered after my trip to the hospital and everything is good. Look, the things you do for passion… there’s no bounds. If you really believe in something and you really love doing it, nothing is going to stop you.

Read more of our interview with Jake Kaufman in the latest issue of Game Informer Magazine (#234). Digital subscribers can also listen to songs from Double Dragon Neon, which releases on September 11 (PSN) and 12 (XBLA). Listen to both versions of the BloodRayne: Betrayal soundtrack and many other Kaufman compositions here.