Christopher “Chris” Huelsbeck, 46, is a well known musician who became famous because of many legendary game title themes he composed on the classic Commodore C 64 and Amiga. His most recent work, the Piano Collection, was successfully sponsored by a big loyal fan base. We met Chris for an interview to talk about his early years and legendary tracks like his themes for R-Type, Turrican and Great Giana Sisters.
Mr. Huelsbeck, please tell us about your memories of the Commodore C64 and Amiga 500.
I was still at school and had no idea what to do regarding my future profession. I wasn’t interested in further studying or any regular job and asked myself: What do you want to be one day? Through my experience with computers all of a sudden a professional career was possible, that was a huge step for me personally. I always remember this time with great, nostalgic feelings.
How did you start as a musician?
Originally I wanted to become a game designer and programmer. Video games were always fascinating to me. Today, huge teams with many specialists are involved in creating games. Back then, game developers were true jack-of-all-trades. Teams often consisted only of one or two people. I wanted to be one, so as a first step I had to learn how to program. First Basic, then Assembly code. But it turned out that I really wasn’t that great as a game designer. Then I started combining my hobby, creating music, with my programming skills. Suddenly I was able to add a real value to things.
To what extent were coding skills required to be a musician back then?
I even think being a coder was the main thing! I would say I was 70 percent a coder and 30 percent a musician. I am self-taught and never studied music. But the mix of passionately composing music as a hobby and coding on the highest level, so you were able to get the maximum out of the hardware, that was a winner.
Then you started working at Rainbow Arts. How did it happen?
Getting to work with them turned out to be actually quite simple. I just gave them a call and the boss listened to a few of my tracks over the phone. He offered me a full time job right on the spot.
The sound chips in home computers back then were pretty limited in terms of possibilities. How did you manage to compose such a good music?
The C64 had three voices, and with a hack I was able to use a fourth sample based channel for bass and drum-samples. Through smart switching between the instruments it even almost sounded like five channels. The Amiga originally supported only four channels. I was able to use seven. The trick was to mix four software channels into only one of the Amiga hardware channels. I managed to do that with some coding help by Jochen Hippel who already did similar things on the Atari ST. As a result, I was able to use the remaining three high-quality hardware channels for instruments with higher frequency content.
How many of these possibilities were documented by Commodore?
Today you would call it homebrew! Commodore wasn’t involved at all. I guess the original hardware developers were probably blown away when they realized years after what people were able to do with their hardware… it was a very interesting time.
Amiga or Atari ST, back in the day that was almost like choosing a religion. Your thoughts?
The Atari ST was weaker in terms of onboard sound and graphics, but it had a slightly faster processor. Thanks to the integrated MIDI-interface, the ST was a machine for professional musicians doing studio recordings. Pretty quickly I had both: an Amiga as a gaming machine with great multimedia features and an Atari ST for professional sound studio work. To me, the Atari ST is definitely also a milestone in computer history.
Apidya, Katakis, R-Type, X-Out, Z-Out: from A to Z almost every famous shoot ‘em up on the Amiga had a great title theme from Chris Huelsbeck. Why?
Most of these games were German or European productions. Rainbow Arts was the number one developer in Germany back then. The Japanese video games were always our source of inspiration. R-Type is a good example: the game was amazing; all of us played it for ages at the arcades. And we wanted to create something like that on our own.
The conversion of R-Type for the Amiga was trend-setting, a lot of people consider it to be the best shoot ‘em up on on this machine. How did it happen?
Our game Katakis got us both into trouble and turned out to be lucky at the same time. It was so closely inspired by R-Type, that Activision were really pissed off as they had secured the license from Irem to port R-Type from the Arcade to home computers. But Activision was struggling with this task and weren’t able to deliver a good conversion on time. So they offered us a really cool deal: we would rename Katakis to Denaris (including making changes in the game to remove some of the similarities) and have our team port R-Type for them to the Amiga and C64. Lucky for me, the arcade version of R-Type didn’t have a title theme – so I was able to compose something brand new for the home computers.
We have to admit: we are true fans of yours, the title theme from R-Type on the Amiga is one of our all time favorite tracks. How did you manage to compose such a great piece of music?
I did the C64 version first, and it turned out a nice, powerful synthesizer theme, fitting for the SID chip. When I started working on the Amiga version, I just had received a new synthesizer (a Korg M1 Workstation) and was fascinated by the cinematic-orchestral sounds. Instead of just converting the melody from the C64 to the Amiga, I thought it would be much nicer to compose something unique to get the maximum out of the Amiga instead. Therefore the R-Type title theme on the Amiga was different than the C 64 version and it is still one of my most popular tracks as of today.
Only beaten by your work on Turrican II.
The title theme for Turrican II was the first song which showcased the seven voice system which I mentioned earlier. Thus, it was a milestone for me as well and is of course also one of my own favorite tracks.
Did you ever think that Turrican would be so successful in the end?
When we started working on Turrican we felt that everything was just right; it was a game that could have also been a huge success in the arcades. We did our job and had a lot of fun. By the way, I did the title theme in a hurry – two days before the mastering.
Documents prove that the creator of Turrican, Manfred Trenz, registered this trademark at the German Patent and Trademark Office. Factor 5 GbR by Eggebrecht, Engel, Schmidt registered the same trademark for all of Europe via OHIM. That’s a clear sign of legal trouble. Any chance for an agreement so fans see another sequel of Turrican?
Never say never.
The Great Giana Sisters is another hit which was involved in legal trouble. Pretty soon after it was released it disappeared from the stores again. Today this game is being sold for over a thousand Euros on eBay. Why?
(laughing) Giana Sisters was heavily inspired by Super Mario Bros. Even the name itself is a hint. Rainbow Arts had seen the success of the Mario Bros and I do remember the boss saying: “Hey, we could produce such a game in two weeks! Why is it so successful? We can do this too. And instead of “Super Mario Bros” we’ll call it “The Great Giana Sisters””.
For some time that was okay, but then the Mario Bros game started to be successful in international markets. When Rainbow Arts found a distributor in the UK, they changed the cover and added something like “Move over brothers, here come the Giana Sisters!”. That was the last straw and Nintendo did send us a very serious letter. I don’t think we were sued, but it was a stern warning to pull this game from the market immediately. That’s the reason why the “unofficial sequel” to Giana Sisters was called Hard N’ Heavy instead. All I can say: The music was always truly original! (laughing)
Another very famous shoot ‘em up is Apidya which you released on your own with your own company Kaiko. How did it happen?
Apidya was Kaiko’s biggest success and I am still very proud of it. Feeding our fascination with Japanese Video- and Arcade games, we used a system for levelling up similar to Gradius (a shoot ‘em up by Konami), where the player can choose which weapon upgrades to apply.
In Apidya the player controls a wasp flying through what seems to be a vegetable patch and shoots at slugs and dung beetles. A pretty unusual scenery?
This time we wanted to make sure that we will not get into legal trouble again. That’s why the idea was born to do something totally different graphically. The whole world of insects seemed to be very interesting from a game developers point of view.
Despite all the mega sellers, Rainbow Arts shut down after 15 years. Why?
Personally, I think they squandered their talented developers. I quit the company and started my own company Kaiko with two friends. Also the founders of Blue Byte and Factor 5 were former members of Rainbow Arts. These were the true talents who were behind all the great games. The management was only interested in making money. They did not realize that in order to produce these hit games you have to support your talented people and pay them an appropriate salary.
Factor 5 also did shut down in 2009/2010.
That was a very sad end. One reason was probably that Lair (a PS3 game) did not meet its expectations. That was really painful, since we had put a lot of hard work into this game. During the same time the whole economy in the US was going down and several publishers were forced to stop games which were already in the pipeline at Factor 5.
In 1998 you decided to leave Germany and go to the US. Why?
To me, it was a really important step. After the downfall of the Amiga, the whole game development scene in Germany came to an end. For some years I worked on boring multimedia projects. But then a new opportunity arose and I was being offered to participate in working on a Star Wars title (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron by Factor 5). And since I’m a big Star Wars and John Williams fan I took the opportunity.
What would be your advice to young professionals who want to become game developers?
I think these days it is quite important to have a solid musical education. There is now a lot of competition in the industry. Even movie composers have started creating music for games because of lack of jobs, and the pressure is high. If you want to be successful in creating game music you either have a lot of extraordinary talent or you have a rock-solid education in music and be able to compose a full orchestral score, for example. But most of all you need tenacity. Today, nothing is as quick as it was when I started.