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.
Time Extension: 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.
This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Tue 2nd June, 2020.
Had this game back in the day I think it was hard x don’t actually remember the song, but just listened too, yeah very good! X x your move creep! X
One of my favorite Gameboy games. I need to play it again.
Iconic tune, awful game!
Ocean made some amazing music back in the 90s - Waterworld and Eek! the Cat have amazing soundtracks.
@Noid Ocean really were the British LJN. The fact there’s a Waterworld game on Virtual Boy is almost poetic.
That is quite unfair, they did devolve into a LJN type publisher but they were once really good at putting out quality games. US Gold however deserve all the ***** they get.
That track is oddly relaxing.
I still have my cartridge
First I've heard of this and it sounds awful.
I remember the re-writes of Martin Galway’s iconic Ocean Loader. I was blown away by the direction Jonathan Dunn took the music. Like Jeroen Tel of the time, I think Jonathan Dunn made sure the low end was catered to (this is all from the C64 though).
I heard the Overclocker remix of this just the other day.
Wow, that's one laughably bad commercial. Who ever came up with that, should have been fired, or thrown into the river Thames.
The way it is pronounced as well, with that infinitely boring tone...
@graysoncharles Ocean actually made plenty of good games, back in the day. I've got dozens of them on the Commodore Amiga.
I’ve been hearing a lot about Robocop lately. It’s quite odd. It coincidently all happened after I talked about him to my cousin. Then MK Aftermath happened. Then there was a sketch with Steven Colbert and now this article. Not that I’m complaining since I love the character and I badly want him to come back in a decent movie for once,
@ThanosReXXX I think the visible, kinetic action in the ad is cool, but the music and droning voice are a complete mismatch. It only half works.
Also the tune is nice but doesn’t at all fit Robocop.
The Waterworld "Diving" song is one of the best peices of music on the SNES and I do not say that lightly!
that advert was weird
@Antraxx777 Yeah, I can agree with that. It's just the song/slogan that I don't like, as well as the drone-like voice.
I loved Ocean games. Jurassic Park and Mr. Do! On the Game Boy were great.
We all need a 3rd person action adventure or open world rococop game! Would rule xx
Well, I don't recognise the tune and had no idea the music had some sort of legendary status, but it's nice to see this kind of feature on the site again.
I have a similar passion for stuff composed by Rob Hubbard on the C64. In particular the themes for ThunderCats: The Lost Eye of Thundera and Commando. The latter is my ringtone to this day. I'd boot Thundercats on my C64 just to hear the music, cause I sucked at the game (and loading that game off a cassette tape took forever XD).
I’ve never heard this before. But sounds good. To me it sounds like it has a Twin Peaks vibe
It's pretty neat that Robocop is suddenly cool again! Kinda makes me wanna check out some of the old games. I remember the Nes ones being rather awful though. I hear good things about the robocop vs terminator game but never actually played it. I think i rented it once.
Somebody needs to make a modern robocop game asap!
Oof Robocop on the C64 - unfortunately , the title screen music was by far the best thing about that game though it’s so good it was almost worth the price of the game on its own. Those garish backgrounds and invisible bullets argh.
Now Robocop 2 on C64 / NES - I’m in the minority but I love that game.
Nice so he did the Jurassic Park SNES music? I still listen to that every so often.
I always preferred the original Commodore 64 version of the Robocop theme. Nothing can touch the SID for 8-bit sounds.
What a nice tune! Never played the game. Just by listening to the so g I would never guess it's for RoboCop...
Oh damn! That Ariston advert! I haven't seen that in YEARS! lol!
Nostalgia hit there!
...and on, and on, and Ariston!
I had Commodore 64 during it's prime time.
I never heard it until now but I'm thinking there's a different reason that commercial was popular.
Thank you @Damo for another great article. I really enjoy these features and they're a big reason why I've visited NintendoLife every day for the past 10 years or so.
@ThanosReXXX Remember we're talking very early 1990s here. Most commercials were terrible. I remember seeing that on UK telly and thinking it was a really cool idea, and the 'on and on' thing was something Aritson had been using for a while.
@JJtheTexan You're welcome!
@Dragonslacker1 We got one on the Amiga (Robocop 3) and on the GameCube (but the GC one was terrible)
@Damo just checked out that GameCube one. Ouch!
@Dragonslacker1 Yep - such a shame
Love that ad. It’s like Michel Gondry or something!
@Damo I figured the slogan was already known, but the way it was pronounced, is still horrible, no matter which way you cut it. And not all commercials were bad in the early nineties. Over here, the worst offenders were, and to some extent still are, the dishwasher and detergent commercials, but other than that, I've never seen or heard a commercial as bad as this Ariston commercial over here.
First time I've heard his work and it really is something special. Wasn't expecting it to sound so warm and emotive, given the limited hardware.
Wow, don't remember that ad (although i do remember some of the other ariston ads). I also never played the game, but if I had I would totally have just sat and listened to the music with headphones on. I used to do the same with the final fantasy legend games - the title music was so haunting I just had ro sit and listen to it for a couple of minutes every time i booted up my gameboy.
Also just realised this guy did the music for Pugsleys Scavenger Hunt on SNES. I had that game sort of by accident, and the music has stuck in my head ever since. What a legend!
RoboCop for Gameboy was hard as hell, but I played it a lot only to hear the excellent tunes 👍
Actually, that YouTube link to the title theme is my own upload, recorded from my GameBoy (no, I don't get any money from YouTube for it).
He also did the tunes for Jurassic Park 2 for GameBoy which I really like.
Jonathan Dunn was one of the few that brought fast C64-style arpeggiated chords to the GameBoy. The technique just wasn't being used by Japanese composers, and in my opinion, it sounded better coming out of the refined GameBoy audio chip than the C64.
I think the style was even harder to find on the NES. Neil Baldwin was an NES composer that also used C64 techniques. Neil had a fascinating blog called Duty Cycle Generator where he talked about making music on the NES.
The tremolo of those Eurogame tunes makes my ears bleed.
This tune reminds me of Navy Seals music on Game Boy.
Only reason I still hold this game.
A cool track, sure, but it doesn't evoke RoboCop at all. Feels more like a high score screen song from a Lotus Turbo Challenge-style Amiga game, and I don't mean any of that in a bad way!
The SNES Jurassic Park game was real impressive for what they managed to pull off for the time. The audio was surprisingly good.
That commercial looks like a bad dream.
I personally prefer the Robocop 3 tune made by Jeroen Tel for the Commodore 64. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGqdQ1MX_xY
I've created an account just to comment on this! The Robocop theme is a real work of art. I know some people don't think it sounds very 'Robocop' but I think it absolutely does. The mix of the mechanical and the melancholy seems to me a perfect fit. It somehow finds real emotion from quite primitive technology. It's worth remembering also that the 'High Scores' screen on the C64 version had names like 'Angst' and 'Despair'.
I think the Ariston ad is terrific too - the contrast of the laconic voice and the energetic visuals really works for me, and the choice of music is absolutely inspired.
Thanks so much for doing this piece!
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