And then I put a ROM cartridge into a console’s slot and traveled in time to the retro-pixel world of Eastward. There’s a lot of the 80s’ and 90s’ pop culture with roots in Eastern Asia, a bit of anime (or its Chinese equivalent, donghua) and simplified 8-bit music. That culture and Eastward, created by Shanghai-based developer Pixpil, share their origins. There’s also a tiny bit of The Last Of Us’ flavour deep under the surface. Literally. The story follows Sam, a little girl and John, a digger who live both underground, in a post-apocalyptic mining community and try to exile to the outside world that had been corrupted.

Joel Corelitz walks the same forest of retro game music as former masters.

Pixel art has never lost its fanbase, but it’s become sort of a trend in recent years with games like Children Of Morta, Dead Cells or Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster released a few months ago. For 16bit games lovers it’s like going down the memory lane to the world of mosaic video games built of little squares and simplified sound and, first of all, to their childhood or teenage years.

That’s where Joel Corelitz, Eastward composer, started his work on the score. To capture the retro look, he went for the retro sound. However, as he said in his interview for the game’s publisher Chucklefish, he “wanted to spread those influences around though, because Eastward isn’t just about nostalgia”. So the chiptune jumps in and out and is perfectly stitched up with modern sound like a singular thread in a fabric. It brings the nostalgia’s echo, glimpses of old times but, at the end of the day, Eastward is much more.

There are over 70 tracks on the album. Mostly short, with juicy themes squeezed like an orange. This amount partly comes from Corelitz’s approach to describe individual characters and places with their own tunes. It reminds of him writing additional music for Death Stranding when he and a main composer went to a home improvement store and played on the tools to find an organic yet unique vibe. Different gears and genres, but both then and now have been about creating a functional sound that can be generated by anything, only if it conveys the mood and supports the story. Seems like that’s where chiptune comes from.

There are some tunes definitely associated with retro games (like School, Battle or Heretic Frypan). But here comes that other side I mentioned before. While chiptune sounds roughly, greedily and direct still being a little bit thin, there are modern electronic instruments that bring a soft, gentle space of Lo-Fi music (tracks like Tale, Night or enigmatic Relax). Some others are really massive and fresh (Dark, Silent Mist or Legacy). On the other hand, Eastward has a few ’80s funk moments (Johnny’s, Monkollywood or the piano in City Night). Funk is mostly about rythme, so speaking of having fun with rhythms, Corolitz once sails on long passages typical for ambient music, then he goes for dynamic, lively short notes or sets the drums as a driver (Saka No Machi is a good example of playing around with rhythm). He uses different styles and combines them under an old-school music label.

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Among the instruments there’s the electric piano that stands out. It seems like a bridge between the old and the new sound here. It’s retro-melancholic (Greenberg, Confession, Peak), but it’s rounded sound remains contemporary. Especially, when we think about how much modern music’s takes from the 80s now. Once upon a time there were The Legend Of Zelda, Donkey Kong and the whole game music was sprouting. Joel Corelitz walks the same forest of retro game music as former masters and he passes the same trees, but while holding the map from the past in his hands, he treads new paths.

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Maciej Baska

In the games he happens to stand around at a random location only because there is a great music. For over a decade he's composed, written, recorded and mixed.