A mere 2 weeks after pitching my game idea to Blyka and SnoruntPyro, I got to work on the music. Again, as was the case with programming, I wanted to get all the difficult stuff with the highest learning curve out of the way first. I knew I wanted a traditional NES sound, so I downloaded a popular program called FamiTracker and began to teach myself how to use it. During the day, I composed music in my head, occasionally using the voice recorder feature of my phone to capture myself humming a melody I was afraid I'd forget. During the evening, I figured out how to put those tunes into FamiTracker.
Over the course of a week, I hammered out a title theme and three different stage themes. I definitely don't remember having plans for more than one stage at that point (I hadn't even started the level design), so either my memory is faulty or—more likely—the completionist in me felt compelled to compose a Stage 1 and Stage 2 after titling my first composition "Stage 3."
However, my compositions didn't sound much like Mega Man...or anything else on the NES, for that matter. I was happy with the note progression and overall feel of each track, but something major was lacking. Everything sounded a bit hollow, and the instrument set I was using did the music no favors. Even after tracking down some FamiTracker files with instruments supposedly emulating the ones used in a few official Mega Man games, I couldn't get the authentic sound I wanted.
For posterity, here's a sample of what might have been—Stage 1 is incomplete (probably for the best), Stage 2 is a medley of fortress themes from the official Mega Man games (also incomplete; pretend you can hear the beginning portion of Mega Man 2's first Wily stage during the longer notes in the Mega Man 9 section), and Stage 3 is pretty much the best I could ever hope to achieve on my own in FamiTracker:
Getting a little programming guidance was one thing, but formally recruiting a composer was another thing entirely. I've had numerous bad experiences with collaboration over the years, stretching back at least as far as high school. People have a tendency to disappear on me without explanation. Heated debates and irreconcilable disagreements have soured whole projects for me. I was wary of letting other people into the project—also because it would be one step closer to having a team of developers, and I explicitly did not want the game to get big enough to require a team.
By September 2016, I was far enough along with the level design and had warmed up enough to the idea of collaboration to reach out to CosmicGem and Jasper Valentine, two chiptune composers. I didn't know either of them particularly well, but I had been impressed with Cosmic's Cut Man remix, and I liked Jasper's work for Mega Man Eternal II and was a big fan of his spin on the Air Man theme from Mega Man II for Game Boy. They were amenable to the idea of composing a few tunes for my game, and we began coordinating the details on Discord in a group chat.
Although this was a casual, volunteer project, I felt it was important to request and document the composers' agreement to the terms and conditions I laid out—essentially, they'd keep the rights to their music, and I'd have permission to use and redistribute the music as I saw fit, provided I wasn't making a profit off it. In both my personal and professional life, I've seen how much of a hassle copyrights and permissions can be when left vague; I wanted to ensure things were clear from the start.
Here's a sample of the musical guidance I gave my composers:
The whole game is very self-aware, so the music I'm envisioning is either light and fluffy or intentionally way too serious for its own good.
For the ending, I'd like to start with the actual credits music from MM10 and have it melt away after a couple seconds into something incongruously happy—sort of like the musical transition between the opening cutscene and the title screen of MM2 (this will make more sense once you see the credits roll).
The game over screen is going to be some sort of sight gag with a defeated Proto Man weeping for his irrecoverable Proto Shield. The music can be short and a little ridiculous, with a hint of any music related to Proto Man from the official games (so, his whistle being played as usual and then going horribly flat and dissonant, etc.). Alternately, it can be so utterly melodramatic that you can't help but laugh at how much it clashes with the background image. I'm aiming for a fun-loving soundtrack full of lighthearted adventure, but I can also picture the soundtrack taking itself so seriously that it's absurd when paired with the silly premise.
Given their specific styles and strengths, I knew I wanted Jasper to compose the stage theme, and I knew I wanted Cosmic to jazz up the title theme I had composed previously. However, instead of assigning the other tracks in a similar fashion, I left them up for grabs. Cosmic claimed all of them, and within 24 hours I had perfect intro cutscene music, title screen music that no longer sounded hollow, and game over music that conveyed the vibe I wanted. Over the next few weeks, the main stage theme took shape, and even the rough drafts sounded great. I provided some feedback along the way, but I didn't want to steer the creative process too hard; as long as everything fit the overall sound I had in mind, I was usually content to let the composers take the lead.
Things got messy when the game started to grow beyond its original scope, and that's largely my fault. Suddenly I needed an intro stage, and maybe boss music, and now maybe yet another stage, and hey wait let's add one more stage. Composer MiniMacro had previously volunteered to contribute to the soundtrack, and toward the end of November, I took him up on the offer. Jasper and Cosmic had been getting progressively busier, and I was pushing to get the game released soon. Though I failed to explain this clearly to the group, I also had grown to like the "collaborative" feel we had going, and I wanted to use the larger soundtrack as an excuse to get more people's names in the credits of a fangame. Poor communication coupled with my overly optimistic timetable for the game's release led to some confusion about what was actually happening.
Things ultimately got sorted out, and the soundtrack continued to develop in fits and spurts for the next several months. A full year after work began on the soundtrack (not counting my preliminary efforts), all that remained were the credits music (which had been on hold until I finally designed the credits sequence) and an alternative for the current Stage 3 music (Cosmic's updated version of Jasper's Stage 2 theme, which worked when it was still the last stage of the game but didn't work as well as the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 4). I reached out to RushJet1, whose work I had casually followed for some time, and who had previously gotten in contact with me to share his Mega Man 4 soundtrack cover after watching some of my Mega Man videos on YouTube. I thought his style would be a great fit for the soundtrack, and he agreed to contribute.
Here's a sample of the guidance I provided:
[Stage 3] is full of branching paths, and each one reintroduces a gimmick you saw in the last stage, then another gimmick you've already seen, before smashing them both together. I thought it might be neat to have the music mimic the gameplay; something along the lines of two different melody lines (or a melody and a harmony) that keep weaving in and out, with a steady percussion line to hold everything together.
That could go a couple ways. One possibility is to start off with melody 1, then switch to melody 2, then intertwine melody 1 and 2 together. Another possibility is to have a melody and harmony going simultaneously, but occasionally one or the other drops out for a few measures. I'm not sure exactly how it should sound, but I want to give the effect that the song is kind of broken into pieces that are being put together as the song unfolds, culminating in all the parts finally coming together, and then breaking back apart when the song loops.
I've hammered out a rough melody [for the end credits] that I'd like you to use if you think it's salvageable—I know it's the default instrument set and the rhythm is a little sloppy, but hopefully it's a decent starting point. The vibe I'm going for is a riff on the Title Screen theme, which itself is a riff on Proto Man's whistle. Definitely needs to be upbeat and fun, and feel free to channel a little bit of the Mega Man X series; the credits have a sense of humor, and the visual design is directly inspired by X1-2.