Mega Man

This is just the beginning of my look at the sounds in the NES Mega Man games. I want to break down a lot more of the Special Weapons to see all the different approaches they used. But first, I’ll go over some of the simple sci-fi techniques the games use.

Landing

Landing

One thing in Mega Man’s favor is that square waves are already somewhat metallic. In fact, metal samples can often be heavily distorted without losing much of their original character – it’s a great way to make metal impacts harder and more intense.

I don’t always find landing sounds necessary in 2D platformers, but in Mega Man you have to jump so frequently and the frame rate is so erratic that it helps to have an audio cue to let the player know exactly when they can jump again.

It uses the brighter quarter-pulse-width, and the major 9th works well because of its dissonance. Any other dissonant interval would work well, but consonant intervals are strange for this kind of realistic sound imitation.

Pause

Pause

A simple A Major triad made a bit synthetic sounding by a change of direction using a massive leap.

The Pause and the Select sounds use both square channels with one significantly detuned (about 0.3 semitones down), giving a chorus-like effect that works well for sci-fi.

Select

Select

Neutral perfect fifth. Simple but effective.

Hit EnemyEnemyHit

There’s a lot going on in this MIDI file. Channel 1 has a quarter-pulse square, channel 2’s the triangle, and channel 3 uses the noise channel’s short loop setting.

The noise channel is what gives the sound most of its character. The NES’s short noise setting sounds very buzzy and electrical, which perfectly suits a game filled with exploding robots. The Hit Enemy sound holds nothing back, running through every pitch the noise channel can produce in rapid succession. I usually look down on such an extreme approach in sound design, but it’s hard to argue with the kickass result here.

The other two channels play supporting roles. The triangle mainly provides a bass punch. It also uses an odd feature of the NES’s triangle wave – when the note length is set to 0, the oscillator spits out percussive half-cycles. It’s kinda wasted here, though, since it’s too quiet to contribute much.

The square channel is the only one I’ve notated, though honestly even that sorta defies musical notation since there’s no musical logic to it. And there doesn’t need to be! Even if we snapped all the notes to some coherent tonality, the line’s too fast and covers too wide a range for that tonality to be audible. Which gives us a useful technique – by keeping the first and last notes the same but changing everything else a bit, we can create variations that allow for a slightly modern take on retro sounds.

(MIDI Note – The square channel uses a 5-semitone downward pitch bend; the triangle wave uses a 2-octave downward pitch bend)

One-Up

OneUp

A simple C# Major scale made more interesting with a quarter-pulse square, very short staccato, and echo. For the best recreation, use a synth with extremely short (i.e. instantaneous) attack and release.

-Weapons-

Mega Man 1

Shooting Lemons

Lemons

Your basic shot is a lot like the square channel in the Hit Enemy sound, but with the contour reversed. It’s a wide, atonal sweep with a quarter-pulse square wave.

A lot of Mega Man sounds (at least in 1 and 2) use this technique instead of using the NES’s sweep function. I’m guessing they liked the increased control it gave them over the contour. It makes transcribing them suuuuuuper tedious.

The MIDI file has a pitch bend to approximate the NES’s out-of-tune upper range. It’s based on a synth using a 1-semitone upward pitch bend range.

Super Arm

SuperArm

This is actually the sound of bricks breaking – it plays if you break them with Thunder Beam, too. It looks like simple chromatic counterpoint, but at this speed the G-D fifth is all you perceive.

I’m surprised they didn’t use the noise channel here. It’s used a lot in Mega Man for “realistic” sounds, and would suit the exploding bricks. Without it, the pitch drop gives a sense of the blocks flying away, and repetition is used simply because the bricks explode into 4 tiles.

(MIDI – Channel 1 is the square, Channel 2 is the triangle)

Rolling Cutter

RollingCutter

The noise channel alone does a good job of creating the sound of something spinning through the air, and the eighth-pulse-width square channel (which is what I notated) adds a high-energy feel (and doesn’t sound at all like F# minor – this is another of those high-speed “pitch bend” lines).

It’s a little weird that the sound has three repetitions. If you fire while standing still, you’ll catch the boomerang before the second repeat finishes. But, the boomerang can be out longer when you’re moving around, so always playing three is a compromise (of the kind that we no longer have to resort to.)

(MIDI – Channel 1 is the square, Channel 2 is the noise)

Magnet Beam

MagnetBeam

The quarter-pulse square wave is tuned up 20 cents, and I set my synth to bend every note up a semitone in about 30 milliseconds. The 32nd notes are too short to bend all the way, lending some variation to the sound, and I like the short-long rhythms for a laser better than a string of equal sixteenth notes, which come off more alarm-like.

There’s a short-noise punch at the start of the sound. The Magnet Beam is a tool that creates platforms, and I think the noise is meant to indicate that you’ve placed something.

(MIDI – Channel 1 is the square, Channel 2 is the noise)

Thunder Beam

ThunderBeamSquare

ThunderBeamTri

Top line is a quarter-pulse square, bottom is a triangle.

These two lines seem inspired by the look of the weapon’s attack, which moves in a wave-like pattern.

There’s some short-noise to add a crunchy electrical quality, though I much prefer the way they used the short-noise in Mega Man 3’s Spark Shot to imitate electrical sounds.

(MIDI – Channel 1 is the square, Channel 2 is the triangle, Channel 3 is the noise)

Ice Slasher

IceSlasherSquare

IceSlasherTri

Top line is an eighth-pulse square, bottom line is a triangle.

Here’s a rare sound where the triangle part is higher than the square. At this range, a triangle sounds very close to a sine, and it lends a sorta glassy quality, which is still common in modern sound design – most ice sounds today use glass samples in some way.

There’s also some long-noise that provides an ice-scraping sound. It fits really well, and gives the sound most of its cold, icy character.

(MIDI – Channel 1 is the square, Channel 2 is the triangle, Channel 3 is the noise)

Fire Storm

FireStormSquare

FireStormTri

The combination of the eighth-pulse square (top line) and the second lowest long-noise setting make a great fire sound, and the triangle wave (bottom line) adds a nice bit of low-end.

Hyper Bomb

HyperBombSquare1

HyperBombSquare2

More notated pitch bends.

Long dive-bombs like this are often used for heavier impacts and explosions. Using two squares gives it a nice layered sound.

The quarter-pulse part lines up with the last flare of the explosion animation before it disappears. I love that attention to detail – looking for small aspects of animations to add unique sounds to can often mean the difference between something memorable and something uninteresting.

Mega Man 3

Spark Shock

SparkShock

I’ll do this Special Weapon now since I’ve heard it so many times in Smash Bros lately. Quick staccato notes at a single pitch emphasize the sparky electrical quality of the short noise setting.

One of the best things about the noise channel is that its sound is slightly different every time it plays, giving this sound nearly infinite variety when emulated correctly.

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