Simon Viklund Interview: Reviving the Bionic Commando Franchise (April 2008)
Simon Viklund first made a name for himself with his music for racing game Ballistics, which received a pumping soundtrack that recalled genre pioneers Prodigy. Viklund followed this score with Bandits: Phoenix Rising, an atmospheric mix of techno, rock, funk and disco. These days, Viklund is working at GRIN as a sound director and composer on two big projects: Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando Rearmed.
Interview Subject: Simon Viklund
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: First of all, tell us about yourself and how you landed your current job at GRIN.
Simon Viklund: My name is Simon Viklund, I’m 28 years old and I’ve worked at GRIN for almost exactly eight years almost. I know Ulf [Andersson], one of the founders of the company, from art high school. When the company was just starting out and they were making prototype games to show investment companies in order to raise funding, I was the one who composed the music for these games.
Michael: We were wondering why in some game credits - for example on Bandits:Phoenix Rising - you're listed as "Simon Wiklund". Trying to hide from the fans, Simon? :)
Simon Viklund: Haha, nah… I didn’t know there were any fans to hide from… The thing is, a couple of years ago I found out that my family name is really “Viklund” and not “Wiklund”. My father always spelled it with a “W”, which had me believe that this was the correct spelling, but my grandfather spelled it with a “V”. When I realized this, I started spelling my family name that way instead.
Michael: When did you decide to become a composer? Have you had a formal musical education or are you self-taught?
Simon Viklund: My mother plays the piano and my father used to play a lot of instruments – violin, clarinet, saxophone, mandolin – so you could say I come from a musical family. When I was still in grammar school, I played the violin for a few years. Then I started taking piano lessons, but I quit that when I started high school. That’s when I copied the tracker program FastTracker II from a friend and started doing electronic music. I’d like to add that I’ve since paid the $20 or so fee that the program costs.
Michael: Which instruments do you play? Also, what hard- and software do you use to create music?
Simon Viklund: I don’t play the violin anymore, but I can still play the piano… not as good as I whish I could, but hey… In the middle of high school I got an acoustic guitar as a Christmas gift from my mother and I taught myself to play that. I also own an acoustic bass and an electric bass, and not too long ago I bought a nice Gibson electric guitar, but sadly I haven’t had much time to play it.
Which program I use when I create music on the computer depends on what kind of music I’m making. For Bionic Commando, I started using Logic on a Mac – it's actually my first professional encounter with a proper sequencing program. At the beginning of my career, I actually used FastTracker II to make the music for GRIN’s games – the music in both Ballistics and Bandits: Phoenix Rising was made in FastTracker II. For Bionic Commando Rearmed, I’ve actually returned to using a tracker – Buzz – because I feel so at home with that type of program and it has all these nice software synths that give the music the right sound.
Michael: Let's talk about Bionic Commando Rearmed. Will the music be a remake of the original NES tunes or will we hear new compositions?
Simon Viklund: The music in the original is so great that I wanted every melody – from the music you hear when you’re on the overview map, to the jingle you hear when you’ve lost all your extra lives. Of course, to make the songs longer than 40-60 seconds (which is the length of the songs in the original game), I've added added some melodies and harmonies of my own – but everyone who knows the original music won’t be disappointed, that much I can promise.
Michael: On the Bionic Command Rearmed official website, there's a music player with tracks from the game, written in 8bit chiptunes style. Will we hear that kind of stylization on the game's other cues as well?
Simon Viklund: Yes, that is the style of the entire soundtrack. When you listen to the music of the original game, you can make out two things: 1) the soundtrack is made up of beep sounds, and 2) it is probably meant to sound like grand orchestral music with drum rolls to give it a military feel. For Bionic Commando, we based the style of the soundtrack on point 2. The music for that game is orchestral with a military feel to it – very cinematic and atmospheric. Since the story revolves around many concepts that are more or less science fiction – robots, biomechanical limbs – we decided to add a little electronica to that soundtrack too, but not too much.
For Bionic Commando Rearmed, I based the style of the soundtrack on point 1. The music for that game is very “electro”, with references to a few artists that I like, such as The Prodigy and Daft Punk. I’ve basically taken the melodies and harmonies of the original songs, filtered and distorted them, and added some heavy looped breaks or techno beats to them. I think it works very well, fits the game and does the original music justice. It becomes an homage not only to the music from Bionic Commando on the NES, but to old game music in general.
Michael: Bandits: Phoenix Rising - one of your best works - simply NEEDS an album release. Do you have any plans to release the music for the game at some stage, maybe as a commercial release or with the game's collector's edition?
Simon Viklund: Wow, I’m just amazed that anyone knows of Bandits: Phoenix Rising – let alone knows me for the music of that game, haha. I guess the sheer quantity of music that I wrote for that game (around two hours and 20 minutes) ensures that at least some of it is good… It has some good tunes, without a doubt, but the mixing and production on most of them is horrible… Whether the soundtrack for Bionic Commando Rearmed will be released on a separate CD is up to Capcom. The music has certainly generated some positive buzz, so we’ll see. In the latest podcast on the official Bionic Commando website (podcast #13), Ben Judd (the producer of both Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando Rearmed) mentions the possibility of a soundtrack. Check it out at www.bioniccommando.com. If you let Capcom know that you’d like such a thing, maybe they’ll listen!
Michael: We know that Jamie Christopherson wrote most of the score for the new Bionic Commando - any chance that we'll get to hear your music for the game as well?
Simon Viklund: Yes, I composed the orchestral music for the protoype of the all new Bionic Commando (or 3DBC as we call it to spearate it from Bionic Commando Rearmed and the original game for the NES), and some of that will probably survive all the way to the final version of the game. With the help of Jamie Christopherson and our newly employed sound designers, we’ve raised the bar quite a bit, so I don’t know if my creations still meet their quality demands, but we’ll see. I’m better at producing electronic music than orchestral music.
Michael: How long will the 3DBC soundtrack be? Can be expect some sort of album release?
Simon Viklund: At this point I don’t know how much music we currently have for the game, but I’d guess it’s around 40-50 minutes. Again, if you want an album – let Capcom know! There is a “post a comment” section on the www.bioniccommando.com website. Tell them you want a soundtrack and they’ll probably address that in the next podcast. If enough people ask for it, it’s bound to become reality, right? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Michael: Have you ever listened to works of other game composers and if so, can you highlight any favorites of yours? Where do you get your inspiration from?
Simon Viklund: I actually don’t play games that much… I have a Wii, but I’m never home to play it. I have all the great games for it – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Mario Kart Wii, Super Mario Galaxy – but I haven’t had the time to complete any of them. Around Christmas I bought Super Paper Mario, but I haven’t even opened it yet – it’s still shrink wrapped! So anyway, I’m really not that aware of other game composers – apart from maybe Koji Kondo. I take most of my inspiration from album-releasing artists. As mentioned before, I took inspiration from The Prodigy and Daft Punk for Bionic Commando Rearmed. Two other acts that inspired me for that soundtrack are The Crystal Method and Justice. Check them out – it’s great electronic music!
Michael: What are your plans for the near future?
Simon Viklund: I hope I can take a week off and recharge my batteries. Just not sit by a desk for a few days, breathe some fresh air, maybe go to the north of Sweden and spend some time out in the wilderness. Then I’ll come back to the office with fresh energy and dig right into the next project – whatever that might be. It might be helping out during what’s left of the development of 3DBC, but it might also be something completely new…
Michael: What advice can you give to aspiring composers?
Simon Viklund: I don’t know about other businesses, but if your ambition is to get into game development, just keep honing your skills – listen to music that you like and try to learn from those that have already succeeded in the trade, but also take inspiration from non-musical aspects of your everyday life; nature, romance, anger. Technically, try to be versatile, but also know your strengths and make sure that you use them to the fullest. If you’re making a show reel to apply for a job, I’d say this: rather than focusing on showing off a lot of different styles of music (electronic, orchestral, folk music, whàtever…), focus on showing off a lot of different emotions. You may not be clasically trained and know how to create grand orchestral music, but if you can evoke emotions with whatever style of music you have mastered, you will impress people nonetheless.
Michael: You have the unique opportunity now to say “Hello guys!” to all people in snowy Russia, whose main purpose in life is to drink vodka with the accompaniment of balalaikas and garmoshkas :)
Simon Viklund: I’m sure you’re just joking about the world’s preconceptions of Russians. At least I hope you are, haha. Well I’ll take this opportunity then to say that Russia is one of two countries (the other being Poland) that will get its own physical CD-ROM version of Bionic Commando Rearmed (with all text translated into Russian). I don’t know if it’s because broadband internet connections are rare in Russia or if Russians demand physical property (I know I’d like physical copies of stuff – I rather buy a CD than download mp3s), but I think it’s pretty cool! I hope Capcom sends a copy to our office so that I can see how it looks. I envy you guys. Make sure you show your love for 2D gaming, blip blop music and all that is retro by buying a copy!
Michael: Huge thanks for letting us interrogate you!
Simon Viklund: Thanks for having me!
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