It's no surprise that parodies/homages of the games of my youth (those popular throughout the 80's) are starting to pop up in the shows I work on. In fact, they've been cropping up for most of my career. There are a few reasons for this. First (and most obvious) everything that is old is new again. Retro is always going to be hip, and we have been in a love affair with 'The Decade of Excess' for quite a while now. It's also true that a lot of the talent at the Executive Producer and Director level these days, those producing the content, land square in that age group where these are the things they love from their youth as well. Lastly however, you need to consider the style when adding a video game sequence into an animated program. Most modern games both look and sound entirely realistic. So if for example you wanted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to take a break and geek out over a video game together, what fun comes with having them play something that looks and sounds like a feature film? The fun is in the retro, both visually and sonically.

This is where sound design can really shine. Retro video games had very little memory to allocate to the visuals, let alone the sound. What ended up being produced is distinctly original in it's lo-fi wonderfulness. Re-creating this used to be a time consuming task. How do I throw away the book, tie my hands and step back 35 years? Fortunately, I recently discovered Bfxr, a retro game sound effects generator. Here are some tips on how I used it to create fantastic, period accurate retro video game sounds.


On the left hand side of the program, the first seven buttons are examples of sounds you may want for your retro game; Pickup/Coin, Laser/Shoot, Explosion, etc. While decent randomly generated effects can be created by simply clicking these presets, the real fun comes in the customization. After all, I may need some really long powerup sounds, some super gritty explosions or even a sound not listed like the death of a character (think Pac-Man eaten by a ghost). I suggest you repeatedly click a preset until you get something in the ball park of what you are looking for. If you're not quite finding the right feel, try out the different waveform buttons at the top to see if a Sine, Saw Tooth or any of the many other types of waves create the tone you're after. Now you are ready for...

The Paremeter Sliders (Synth Mode)

The beauty of Bfxr is just how much customization you can accomplish. You can really go down the rabbit hole with all of this functionality. That said, I'm going to concentrate on the few parameters I have found the most useful. I suggest you get these under your belt and then move on to the myriad of possibilities. Parameters affect the currently highlighted sound in the bin on the bottom left of the screen. 

Attack Time* - How quickly the beginning of the sound reaches full volume. Slide left for punchy sounds and slide right for a longer fading in for your sound.

Sustain Time* - How long the full volume of the sound will sustain. Slide left for short sounds and right for a longer overall playback.

Frequency Slide - Slide right of center for pitch to increase and left of center for pitch to decrease. 

Vibrato Depth/Speed - Use these functions to add a warbling effect to your sound. Depth will control just how much warble (how high and low the pitch will oscillate) and Speed will control how fast that change occurs. Best results come with longer sustained sounds.

Repeat Speed - This function initiates a repetition in the sound and controls the speed thereof. This is a great way to mutate your sounds and inject some of that glitchy retro flavor. Best with shorter sounds. 

Bit Crush - I consider this more of an effect than a parameter. If you've designed a bunch of high quality sounds but really want to crunch them down to sound even more junky and old school, this slider removes bits from your sounds, degrading it to truly reach its lo-fi potential.

*you can read more on attack, decay, sustain and release principles (ADSR) here 

The Mixer

Should you want to try your hand at creating sequential builds from your sounds, or even layer them for a more complex event, pop into the Mixer mode. Here, you'll find these same sounds available in drop down menus. Simply choose all the parts you need and then slide the waveforms around to make the perfect final product. You even have individual volume controls here to help you balance things out.


In the Synth view, you can choose to export the currently highlighted wav (in the bin on the left) or all waves in your bin. In the mixer view, you have the added ability to export your full mix (highlighted in the bottom center section). Lastly, you have the ability to save your Bfxr project so you can continue working your edits at a later time.

Final Tips

When designing sound for a specific project, it's tempting to create the exact sound you need, render and move on. However, if you're going to put all that work into making retro game effects, you might as well create a small library for yourself. After all, it's likely you'll come across the need for retro game effects quite often. Turning a handful of effects into a collection isn't as time consuming as you may think thanks to a few great tools in the Bfxr toolbox.

Duplication - You can duplicate both the Synth's you've created as well as the mixes, using the context-sensitive Duplicate button on the left hand side. Why would we want to do this? To take advantage of the Mutation and Randomize buttons.

Mutation - You're happy with a sound you've created, now make slide tweaks to it by simply highlighting your newly created duplicate and clicking on the Mutation button. This makes very slight adjustments (seemingly at random but within a very small range of motion) to a multitude of parameters, building on the essence of your original creation.

Randomize - Although more extreme than the Mutation button, you may find some fun results by trying this button which truly randomizes all parameters. At the very least, it's worth a few clicks to see if something worth rendering comes out.

Bfxr works as a flash plugin on its website and a standalone application for both Mac and Windows. Although Bfxr seems to have stood the test of time for a while now, I'd suggest you download the app just in case the site were to go down in the future. I know for my part, I'll be keeping this one in my sonic toolbox for whenever the need for retro game sound effects arises.

How do you go about creating retro video game sounds? Leave your ideas in the comments.


Credits: Bfrx, by Increpare Games is based on Sfxr by Dr Petter. Both programs are available for free download. If you like what you see with Bfxr, consider throwing them a donation here.