Just two people are responsible for the Cosmic Star Heroine soundtrack – but Dan and Chris from HyperDuck SoundWorks are no newbies to the business of video game score composing. Find out more about the background of the soundtrack, the driving force behind their music and what they have planned for the future in our interview!
LEVELUP!: Let’s start this interview with some personal questions before we dive into your recent work on the Cosmic Star Heroine (CSH) soundtrack. Please tell us a bit about yourself and HyperDuck Soundworks. What is a Hyper Duck, exactly!?
Chris: Hey! So we are a two man team from Ireland, that basically have been writing music and making sound for videogames since 2008. As for what a HyperDuck is, well it’s hard to explain properly, but if you let a mallard loose in a sweet shop, you’re gonna end up with a HyperDuck. That’s the science! Seriously though, we just put the name together with some weird word jumbling games, and when we heard it, it kinda stuck!
LU!: You already collaborated with Zeboyd Games in the past, delivering the soundtrack for the final entry of the Penny-Arcade tetralogy. How did it come that you have been approached by them for the CSH soundtrack?
Dan: We did indeed! Well we had just finished working with Dean Dodrill on Dust: An Elysian Tail – and he was good friends with Bill & Robert of Zeboyd Games. He did us a solid favor by recommending us to them, and we were then approached to work with them. Having seen CSTW before, and seen Episode 3 of Penny Arcade’s On The Precipice Of Darkness, we loved their style and had a major urge to write music for an RPG. I mean it’s something we’d both wanted to do for a long, long time anyway. We worked on the DLC for Episode 3 as a type of trial run, and then did all of Episode 4. After that was wrapping up, they mentioned CSH coming up, and having had a great time doing Episode 4, we jumped at the chance to work on Cosmic Star Heroine!
LU!: CSH is very different from your standard RPG setting, as it does not rely on a medieval fantasy, but on a futuristic Sci-Fi setting. How was composing for CSH different from, let’s say, Dust: An Elysian Tail?
Chris: We pretty much threw out most of what we’d developed from Dust, and started fresh. Both of us researched 80s film, 80s TV shows, 90s cartoons and animes, and RPGs/various games throughout our childhood era, creating a plethora of rich influences to carry us to the starting grounds of this soundtrack. After that, it was really just a case of putting those influences aside, and letting our own ideas take form. It scratched a particular 80s itch that I had longed for, but at the same time, we didn’t want to just be doing some typical newsynthwave style – as much as I like that style, there’s a lot of sound styles from the 80s and 90s that I’m massively fond of too, so we had a lot of fun exploring our love for two massively influential musical eras in our lifetimes.
LU!: The soundtrack is very diverse, you can hear clear influences from Jazz, Rock, Funk and even some J-Pop. Was it an intentional decision to use these more contemporary styles of music instead of classical orchestral sounds which one mostly associates with RPGs?
Dan: It was yeah; we come from a jazz, rock, and even funk to some extent, types of backgrounds. I don’t think a serious orchestral approach to this game would have suited the overall palette, in my opinion. Everything was over the top, zany, and just kinda ridiculous, in a fun, awesome way. While RPGs we have been influenced have used these classic orchestral sounds here and there, the foundation of the music was what we were looking to, and from that we were learning what it is to emote significant parts of the games stories, and when to function for the game design as atmosphere.
LU!: The game itself was inspired by many classical games of the 16-bit era. What role did the soundtracks of these games play when you composed the soundtrack? Were you familiar with them when you started working on this album?
Chris: Some of them yes, Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star II & IV, even some of the YS series, it had been something we’d listened to before CSH was even a thing. Final Fantasy series too of course, but the list of influences was vast, and never really apparent to us, as in we didn’t seek to sound like any other game, the influences are kinda just baked into our DNA. When you live and breathe those games through your childhood, the sounds and styles in those RPGs resonate with a lot of people, so people hopefully understand our modern take on creating those same emotions that RPGs made them feel when they were younger.
LU!: I think it’s no understatement when I say that the OST is huge – featuring several battle themes and I think every main character has their own motif. I was reminded of a quote by Hiroshi Tamawari, who worked in the past at Konami on titles such was Vandal Hearts or Suikoden, but left the videogame music industry to purse a career outside of video games. He said one of the reasons he left the industry was that „RPGs have too many battle tracks“.  Would you agree? I guess that creating so many different musical themes, which have to be distinctly different and yet in a similar style, is quite difficult.
Dan: It is rather large, haha! Possibly our longest yet I think, and it doesn’t even include all the cutscene music! Every main character has a theme yeah. While I understand where Hiroshi is coming from, I disagree. I personally wanted to have done more battle themes to chop and change between. I think there’s a lot of variety and emotions to be toyed with in battle themes, desperation, hopefulness, fear, sadness, determination, I could go on. And those basic feelings alone are great foundations for creating driving themes which act as forces to propel the player into new ways of thinking, feeling even when playing particular battles.
LU!: Were you able to play early versions of the games when you created the soundtrack or did Zeboyd Games just give you general outlines of the scenario?
Chris: We were able to see a lot of early footage, concept art, in game visuals, and a general outline of the story, and characters. It was enough to get us started, and we were able to revise as we progressed and evolved the soundtrack. Zeboyd were very accommodating when we first got started so we didn’t have trouble finding our feet. They also gave us a lot of creative freedom to do a lot of what we had in mind. They were supportive of our ideas while still managing to convey their own in ways that helped us with the music.
LU!: One of my highlights of the record is 言い返す のよ(Talk Back). When I listened to it for the very first time, it left me quite confused, as it is the only song with lyrics, but it’s so much fun to listen to. Why did you decide on including such a title? And how was your cooperation with Laura Shigihara established?
Dan: Haha, well we spoke with the developers about this, and it was their idea initially. Lauren is a singer in a band, but also has a darker other side, which is appropriate within the city she lives in, so with her being this lead singer, we thought it only made sense to have her sing her own theme tune. We have known Laura for a very long time, since we started almost. She gave us a lot of love and support for various work we have done, including Iji, our debut project. We contacted her about it, sorted out the details, and she basically took the lead on writing the lyrics and vocals. We wanted a blend between Japanese and English lyrics, which for me was kinda a way to nodding to the dialogue style in FireFly, a show I still adore. She nailed it, she absolutely nailed it, couldn’t have asked for better, and it’s great to see others enjoy Laura bringing Lauren to life. If Lauren had a surname, it would surely be Shigihara, no doubt!
LU!: This is less a question, and more a general remark. You did not limit yourself to the sound capabilities of the 16-bit consoles, but I think that would be a really cool idea. I would love to hear some songs rearranged in that classical way, using the sound chip of the Genesis for example.
Chris: We did not, but I agree, that would have been cool, and I am a massive fan of the 16-bit sound. I actually remade a few of the Penny Arcade Ep 4 themes in SNES style, a kinda demake. We may do it for CSH at some point, that would be cool!
LU!: On a very different note – while I played the game, my girlfriend, who just listened to the soundtrack, asked me if I was watching 70’s porn due to its funky character. Have you ever been approached to make film music or is that a field which does not interest you at all? Of course, I’m not talking about erotic movies …
Dan: Haha, well we definitely drew on a lot of different influences for this soundtrack, though I can’t say 70s porn was one of them! We have produced some music and sound for short films and animations before, but have yet to tackle anything larger than that. It would be great to be able to work on a film someday, but our main bread & butter is definitely in video game music.
LU!: You also announced a physical version of the soundtrack, a limited vinyl edition and some handmade mix tapes. Can you give us a small update on when we’ll be able to buy them?
Chris: We have partnered with Ship to Shore media, who have handled vinyl releases of video game soundtracks like Axiom Verge, and the Mother games. We don’t have a set date for vinyl release, though it shouldn’t be too far away. There are also plans for a physical CD release handled by Limited Run Games. We’ll be sure to post about it on Twitter/Facebook when the time comes. We’re producing a very small run of cassettes ourselves – each with a unique selection of tracks from the OST, but we haven’t yet decided how we will release these to the public, as they’ll be extremely limited!
LU!: Normally, my interviews end with the question about the interviewee’s favourite video games, but I think it’s more appropriate to ask you about your three favourite game OSTs. And while we’re at it, your favourite music album of all times!
Dan: My favourite OSTs tend to be the ones that I grew up with in my formative gaming years. They have made the most lasting impression on me personally; the music from all the Zelda series had a big impact, as did the Final Fantasy VII and VIII soundtracks. As for non-game music, I keep coming back to Jeff Buckley’s ‚Grace‘ album every year or two – it’s a masterpiece, but I listen to all kinds of music really.