Capcom’s original Strider arcade game is one of the most important games of my entire life. It marks a very personal point of change in my own history, as well as what I consider to be the birth of ALL modern gaming up to this point. Strider to me, however goes beyond the applications of its ROM or cartridge. I have been known to get wildly emotional about it. You can ask my lifelong friend Joseph Villescas – he has seen my outbursts and was there the first time I ever laid eyes on the arcade machine… Strider is a very BIG deal.
When I heard Capcom and the development team at Double Helix were in the midst of creating a new Strider title I could BARELY sleep, and I made sure to tell you about it. One of my main curiosities lay within the new game’s musical foundation. How would Strider Hiryu sound in 2014? This thought stewed in my brain for months. When I finally heard the snippets of material recorded by Strider’s brilliant composer Michael John Mollo, I immediately felt the absolute NEED to reach out to him. Mollo’s visionary mixture of emaciated mountaintops, steely chrome and Strider Hiryu’s dizzying kaleidoscopic sprint make for one of the most radiant and exciting scores of this year. It is also my first nomination for video game album of the 2014. My conversation with Michael here took place on a very cold and grey January evening. A cold so chilling, I suspect Strider Hiryu would approve. I took it as a sign of fate.
Composer Michael John Mollo
Geno: Strider HD’s audio absolutely glows! What’s rather amazing to me is how you managed to bring out the old spirit of the series past musical themes. What’s even more incredible is how you expanded on them sonically without the songs losing their identity. I’d like to talk about the original NES Strider music in particular, which is fairly threadbare in its arrangement. There is very little to go off of. Tell me what sort of challenges you faced when translating these older 8-bit NES sound materials?
Composer Michael John Mollo:
The original 8-bit chip tunes of the late 80s and early 90s didn’t have a lot of real estate to work with in terms of timbre. They compensated by creating really cool melodies, advanced harmonic structures and incredibly funky rhythmic elements. The original Strider melodies are immediately catchy and hummable while still being harmonically complex. My challenge was to keep the integrity of each tune intact and adjust the musical arrangement to bring the sound forward into the 21st century. Once we decided on which original Strider materials to arrange, it was just a matter of breaking down each tune to its bare bones and building it back up again against a new backdrop. I listen to a lot of electronic music. Early game music is a precursor to a lot of the EDM you’ll hear today. So once I boiled the original Strider tunes down to their core elements, the arrangement of each tune just sort of presented itself in a logical manner. It was truly a fun and educational process!
Listen: The sound of Strider’s old-time religion
Geno: The rearranged sound material is only a fourth of this project though. Did you ever feel any desire to take the music in Strider in a vastly different direction than what will be heard in the final version of the game? For example, something much more sparse and ambient, or maybe all rock guitars and no synth?
When I was first brought on to the project, Double Helix already had an idea of how to approach the music. It was very important to them to pay homage to the original sound of Strider. His tunes are iconic and very much a part of the game play experience. Severing that aural connection was never something we considered. That said, I knew that I could also bring a fresh perspective to the game and approach the classic sound from a unique angle. I’m a guitar player so yes, I included a bit of that in the score, but for each new tune my goal was to maintain a sound palette that would support the arrangements of original material as well a pushing the sound forward in time. Also, in terms of ambience I was encouraged by the team to explore a sense of space and depth. The 2.5D landscape, which serves as a visual backdrop to the game, really supports long textures. So I tried to make sure each tune had a solid yet evolving bed of sound that could support the low level game play states but also would help give size to the heavier action elements. In terms of the new compositions, for each level area and each boss, I was given a host of materials: buzz words, color palettes, sketches, 3D renderings, maps etc. These loose instructions helped me to give each new piece a sense of individuality. It was also important that my materials fold into the Strider catalog and not sound diametrically different, so I tried to craft the melodies in short catchy fragments with similarly cool harmonic and rhythmic elements as the original tunes.
Watch: Strider in all its console-conversion glory
Geno: I have always thought that direction would be the hardest thing to establish when scoring for a video game. On the one hand you have an established world, character design and number of objectives to complete, but what about motivations of the character? What sort of person are they? What’s going on that you can’t necessarily see outright? I have always felt Strider Hiryu to be a bit like a chameleon. How do you balance his temperamental darkness with playful light and resolve? How did you dissect his character musically? Where do you feel he’s coming from personally?
That’s a fun question. On the one hand he’s an assassin. You know, the badass ninja type. On the other hand, he’s Kazkh’s only hope to escape from the evil grasp of Grandmaster Meio, so he’s got to have a soft side as well. I think personally, he’s probably a weird dude to be around, not much of a conversationalist, but when you have a cypher like he does, you don’t need to say much. I think his actions in the game speak for themselves. From the beginning we wanted to let Hiryu kind of speak for himself so I focused my resources more on the original adaptations, the level areas and the bad guys.
Listen: Strider vs. Strider
Geno: After having scored for television and film, what do you feel to be the greatest difference between that type of process and developing pieces of music for video games? Were you surprised by anything, methods, sequences, etc?
The actual nuts and bolts of composing music that is intended to be interactive requires and significantly different set of skills than that of film/tv music. In Strider, the music needed to be incredibly elastic and each piece of music I wrote needed to support many states of game action. The audio lead on the project, Andrew Dearing was a lifesaver in this respect. He handled all of the in-game implementation using Wwise, which was fantastic since it let me focus completely on creating the tunes and the arrangements. I delivered each piece of music in multiple layers, sometimes as many as 50+ and he sub mixed each piece so that the audio would seamlessly transition based on the various intensity levels of game play. I was brought onto the project incredibly early, so that was probably the biggest (and most welcome) surprise. I am generally accustomed to starting a film and having to deliver a polished score in a matter of weeks, or even days for television. Double Helix was building the game as I delivered score materials so we worked in tandem for many months. It was pretty much a dream experience. I can’t imagine that schedule being rivaled ever again.
Listen: A walk through Strider’s NES woods
Geno: Was there any collaboration with any other composers on this project? Can the music for this new Strider be performed by a live band? Do you enjoy playing in a live setting? These tunes certainly lend themselves to halls and stadiums.
I often use collaborators on my scores. I have a ton of really talented friends and I find it helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of other people. I also find inspiration from seeing how other composers tackle musical problems. For this game, I consider Junko Tamiya, the original composer of Strider my main collaborator. Her rad tunes and arrangements for the original games really inspired the music for the entirety of this game. I also had some help from a few talented friends who dissected and then transcribed the original Strider materials so that I could rearrange them. As to future Strider performances, the score is certainly not orchestrally driven, but I could imagine some of the tunes coming to life in a club environment. I began my career playing live so maybe in the future I’ll have the pleasure of playing some of the material live. For the moment, however, there are no plans for that. But who knows, with the right DJ anything can happen.
Geno: Do you remember the first time you played the original Strider arcade game? It’s still burned into my mind as the moment games as a medium went from child to full grown adult. Arcade music in general in the late 80s and early 90s was some of the most imaginative and seemingly unrestricted despite the walls erected by the hardware it was running on. Do you have any favorite arcade soundtracks that stick out in your mind from that period? For me, Strider of course, Konami’s Aliens, Street Fighter Alpha 3, and Double Dragon. Do you miss arcades?
I remember playing Strider on NES when I was 8 or 9 years old. A friend of mine had the game and we spent hours wielding the cypher (in between The Legend of Kage and Contra of course). My dirty little secret is that I never actually played Strider in the arcade. By the time I got into arcade gaming I was a little older and I was a Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat kind of a kid. Shortly after that I went down the music rabbit hole and 20 or so years later, I’m just coming out of it now. That said, later in my twenties I had a mini musical renaissance of sorts and discovered Yuzo Koshiro among a few other early game composers. His tracks from all three Streets of Rage games really broke musical boundaries and expanded the technological capacity of music for games. That kind of innovation doesn’t come around all the time, so that is something definitely to be revered.
Watch: Double Helix’s re-making of a video game legend
Geno: Strider HD is looking to becoming a benchmark, a signpost in how series updates should be done. No doubt achieved through unwavering, unflinching belief in what you and the team at Double Helix were doing with the source material. Why do you think Strider still resonates with audiences some 25 years after the original release? If you could put it into a single word what do you think Strider represents?
I think Strider remains so popular because his games combine exploration with a general badass approach to slaying bad guys. There’s also the whole yin-yang thing. On one hand you have Strider Hiryu, a hero shrouded in mystery and his polar opposite, Grandmaster Meio the consummate world dominating bad guy. As a player, the objective is always clear and you get to slash down mountains of enemies using a variety of awesome weaponry. It’s really a very simple concept but in the history of Strider, Capcom has always done so well at making the experience memorable. It doesn’t hurt that Hiryu is also a really iconic character in and of himself. For a ninja, he’s got a fairly hip sense of fashion and while he’s not exactly the most covert character around, his speed and agility is unparalleled and his fighting style is rather awe-inspiring. If I had to put it into a single word, I would say Strider represents ‘Liberation’ not only for the people of Kazakh but for stereotypical ninja assassins everywhere.
Watch: The fateful Strider Comic-Con panel
Geno: Strider is one of the most iconic characters in videogames, and while few could ever eclipse his stature, his enemies Grandmaster Meio, the Ouroboros, and Mecha-Pon among them have become almost as famous and well recognized. How did you tackle creating the musical templates for these villains? Does each character have its own theme, or specific audio cue?
I got to create new music for a good number of Hiryu’s enemies. My main aim was to give each enemy a unique sound palette and set of musical motives. I superimposed these elements over a variety of amped up electronic accompaniments. The combination of these elements was designed to accent the sense of freneticism and chaos for the player as Strider attempts to beat the enemies into submission. With these tracks I also tended to favor odd meters or odd combinations of beats so that the experience of engaging the enemy is always slightly aurally off-kilter. For the sound of the ‘Mechanical Dragon’ I used a series of big heavy stabs with electric guitar but accompanied with lots of clanging metal. For ‘The Four Winds’ or the ‘Tong Poo Sisters’ as they are called in other games I drew on what I learned from working on the first two ‘Kung Fu Panda’ films. I used a number of ethnic Asian instruments in the studio including Guzhengs, Pipa, blown dizis, tuned bowls and Chinese gongs to color their tracks. But probably the most fun was creating a sound for Grandmaster Meio himself. For him, I went serious drums and bass but in a 7/8 meter. I also added a good deal of my own voice screaming and chanting which I ran through a bunch of guitar amps and plugins (I was hoarse for days). Overall I would have to say, outside of doing the arrangements of the classic Strider material, the bad guy music was probably the most fun part of the project.
Watch: My enemy of my enemy… is my enemy!
Geno: One of the most awesome things in the original arcade Strider game was traversing the levels. The music though, would mutate as you progressed further down the gauntlet of enemies, some pieces lasted around half a minute, and would then make way for something else. Strider HD has placed much importance on the aforementioned level exploration, which is fantastic! Will each level also incorporate that same sort of free-flowing composition or will each level have one definitive track?
From the get-go, Double Helix knew that the main focus of the game was the player navigating the game environment. Strider Hiryu is on a quest to save the people of Kazakh and this game is built around his exploration, unlocking hidden passages, upgrading his weapons and kicking some serious ass in the process. So I spent a good amount of time crafting music for the physical spaces he navigates. There are tunes for each individual environment of the game: Kazakh City, The Military Zone, The Research Facility, The Underground, The Transit Area, and Balrog. We wanted each zone to have a character unto itself, so like the bosses I tried to give each its own unique signature. For instance in ‘The Military Zone’, the main pulse is a series of military snare drums that pound both in the foreground and background. The music for the ‘Research’ area, where Meio’s experiments occur, contains a ton of small ticking pulses and even a little theremin since there is an otherworldly quality to this level. And for the ‘Kazakh City’ zone I wanted to create music to represent the oppressed people of Kazakh. For inspiration, I studied the former Kazakhstan’s national anthem and once I had the tune worked out, I had my good friend, Victor Chaga translate the text into Russian (his native language). Then I recorded the tune with singing and chanting like a Russian make choir. The whole process of creating music for that zone was quite fun.
Strider score: A complete tracklist
Geno: Going back through the catalogue of music for the series, which would you consider your personal favorite? I always held the mountain rush theme in the original Strider close to my heart, but these days it simply depends on how I am feeling at the moment. Is it similar for you? Also, which were your favorite pieces to re-work for the new game?
It was actually kind of difficult to decide which tunes we wanted to include in the new arrangements. There was plenty of talk about getting a good cross section from both NES games, the arcade and the original PC game but at the end of the day it came down to which tunes we thought would be the most memorable. Both Andrew Dearing and myself had some ideas on which tunes we wanted, but the main decisions came from the design director on the project, Tony Barnes. He was the most familiar with the back catalog. For me, the most iconic of the tunes is ‘Raid.’ That was the one we all agreed on first. That tune leads you into the game and that is the first bit of music Capcom and Double Helix showed to the press. I would say though that my favorite tune to arrange was probably the original ‘Kazakh Theme.’ The tune is so fast, fun and funky. It really leant itself to an updated arrangement.
Watch: Capcom’s 1999 arcade sequel to Strider
Geno: Thank you for sitting down with me today Mr. Mollo. Your contributions to the legend of Strider are absolutely outstanding. Is there anything else you would like to share with the fans before heading back to your studio today?
You’re most welcome. It’s truly been an honor both to work with the team at Capcom and Double Helix and to be a part of the Strider legacy. The process of putting this music together was an incredible learning experience for me, especially coming in from film. I am humbled to have gotten to work with such patient and talented people on this project. I hope to have the privilege of doing more music with them again soon.
Strider hits multiple console fronts via download today February 18th on PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox360, Xbox One. Want to grab a digital copy of Michael John Mollo’s incredible Strider score? Pre-ordering via Steam will guarantee you a copy.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.