Charlotte Seeker is an upcoming game from Bearcowboy that has narrowly dodged some some of its own setbacks just like the bullet-weaving heroine. After an unsuccessful Kickstarter in 2014 and a slipped release in 2015, the tiny team has forged ahead through Steam Greenlight and are now aiming to launch in Q2 of this year.
Described as a 16 bit-inspired, lo-fi melange of twin stick shooters and roguelikes, Charlotte Seeker wears its influences on its sleeve. Bearcowboy sites The Binding of Isaac, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Resogun as inspiration behind its brand of mesmerizing “bullet heck” gameplay and vibrant pixelart visuals. Accompanying that is Spencer Riedel’s soundtrack that’s full of boppin’ chiptune interwoven with modern synths all chopped up with break beats, acoustic drums and thick bass. Just how the action puts its own spin on familiar gameplay, the music also mixes old and new. The combination evokes some very specific old console sounds — at least for me — while peppering everything with fresh melodies and unexpected rhythms.
The first track, “Menu Theme”, was designed to ease players into both the listening and playing experience. This is as calm as the album gets and it opens with pulsing bass and a deconstruction of the game’s main theme that wafts in and out as the layers build. Things drop out around 2:00 into a muffled drum beat that finally ushers us into the proper tune with dueling voices of tinny and grungy synths. It’s a perfect introductory track and things only get more interesting from there.
The next track, “Pistons”, sings with the same high synth voice but gets a whole new feel to evoke the engine room that it accompanies. Riedel adds a hint of Latin influence that can be heard in the opening percussion and the crisp syncopated drum and cymbal throughout. Just about halfway through a wonderful guitar solo leaps into the mix and is matched by the main synth. The pair lead us right into a breakdown of chippy drums before a new guitar solo wraps around for one final, glorious refrain. The song gets a great remix later in the album on the track “Turbines” where it accompanies a boss battle with double speed, grungier guitars and layers of extra harmonies.
Between “Pistons” and “Turbines” is the funky track “Cogs” which Riedel says is a “love letter to two early game music memories” from Spyro the Dragon and the Sega Genesis. Sure enough, the plodding little melody at the beginning reminds me of Spyro’s earliest adventures but quickly picks up speed with fast synth melodies. These are punctuated through the rest of the song by both shrill and crunchy sounds that thoroughly remind me of the Genesis’ unique sound.
The track “Thorns” maintains the album’s signature sounds with high synths and crunchy drums but takes a stylistic turn towards surf rock. The simple bass and lead synths at the beginning initially remind me of the Game Boy Advance hardware but once the choppy drum samples and guitar jump in it feels wonderfully unique. Another mid-track break simmers back down to the main synth before exploding with even choppier breakbeat drums and a cacophonous swell of melodies.
“Nettles” is spot on boss battle music from the get-go with its descending run and jumpy synth melody. It’s punctuated by droning backing sounds that also remind me of the Game Boy Advance and more punchy, syncopated drumming. Midway through is one of those great musical flourishes that always inspires me to make brash, boneheaded attacks when I’m playing a game. In this case it’s another out-of-nowhere descending run of main and bass synths that pops back into full swing just before the loop point.
The layers of synths in “Squids” all have that wonderful tremolo waver that calls to mind Amiga cracktros I’ve posted about before. It’s a unique sound for what is one of the game’s desert levels and it gets stronger after the intro when the pounding drums thump in. At the midpoint a pair of scratchy, abrasive synths pipe up adding to the harsh and chaotic sound of the track.
“Wind” is another song set in the game’s desert environment that opens with plucky synths and remind me of the NES. Before you have time to place the sound though, that crunchy guitar and percussion, with a nonstop cowbell, crash onto the scene, repeating the synth line. The contrast of chiptune and acoustic instruments is particularly strong here as the two voices take turns in the lead while those persistent drums move everything along at a great speed.
Setting the stage for one of the game’s wintery levels, “Snow” opens with fast drum and bass percussion and a low end synth that is quickly joined by a sawing guitar. The slippery sensation of ice and cold comes from the dual pair of frantic and twinkly synth leads. The pair echo trembling arpeggios back and forth and right on through the thumping bass break at the midpoint and back around for a final loop.
“Frostbite” is the tune used in the game’s trailer and, fittingly enough, it was the first thing I heard when I started this review. While this edited version now accompanies a boss battle and appears almost at the end of the album I’ve come to think of it as the game’s theme. It incorporates all the sounds we’ve heard elsewhere and has a bombastic sound that’s perfect for a theme song. The opening bass synth is backed up by chippy percussion that reminds me a bit of Bionic Commando on the NES. Seconds later the familiar high synth voice and acoustic drums burst in with a brash staccato theme that swells with the scratchy background synths of a Genesis game. The whole thing crescendos into a solo by that familiar high synth, echoed back by yet higher voices before flowing into a quick loop.
The final track I want to highlight is “Credits”. Calling back to the tune established on the very first track, and the game’s main menu screen, it’s a great wraparound with enough variety to sound familiar but new. The increases in speed and pitch give the song that triumphant “you beat the game” vibe and the bass keeps your head bopping along.
The rest of the album is honestly just as good as the tracks I picked to explore. In fact, it was hard not to write up every single song because they all have something unique worth hearing. The full album even throws in an extra eight tracks of demo tunes, alternate takes and unused material that are fun to explore after hearing the main playlist a few times. Accompanying the game or on its own, Charlotte Seeker – Games on Cassette is a wonderful, re-listenable aural spectacle. If you’re love of chiptune is waning or if you’re just looking for something fresh and exhilarating I definitely suggest taking a listen.