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Boss Tunes: Jonny Atma and GaMetal

Does life get you down sometimes? Do you ever just feel like listening to some cheery tunes from Kirby’s Epic Yarn or something relaxing from Journey or Braid?

Well this isn’t the article for you. Strap on your horns and get ready to rock out with Jonny Atma.

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Welcome to Boss Tunes, one of our new features for 2016. In this series of articles we’ll be spotlighting video game cover artists from around the internet that take the favorite tunes from our childhoods (and adulthoods!) and do something new and exciting with them. This month’s Boss Tunes will be featuring Jonny Atma, a musician primarily featured on his Youtube channel, GaMetal (and his website jonnyatma.com), who does metal remixes of various video game tunes.

As a Musician

“My first real interaction with music (not that corny recorder in second grade music class stuff) was in fifth grade,” the Nashville native Atma (his stage name; he describes his real name as “long, German, and very unsexy”) says. “I joined the strings band and played violin. It was hard as hell. For a fifth grader, I was rather average at it. My teacher kept saying I was holding the bow wrong. Well it felt right to me dammit, but I guess that’s why I wasn’t very good at it.”

Atma said that he continued in middle school and high school music primarily because it came down to a choice between that or gym.

“When they were doing my paperwork or whatever, they asked me ‘would you rather do gym or band?’ Well I was a fat kid then. Obviously I didn’t want to do gym, so I chose band,” he jokes.

Even then, Atma was drawn to video game music. Like many students in America, going into sixth grade, Atma was given the opportunity to either continue playing stringed instruments in orchestra or move onto wind instruments in band. Like any good video game nerd, Atma’s first choice was the trumpet “because I wanted to play the trumpet melody from the Final Fantasy VI battle theme.”

While Atma didn’t actually play the trumpet (he describes a “hipsterish” desire to play instruments no one else played, so he opted to play tuba and trombone), the love of music – and of video games – stuck with him throughout his youth and into adulthood.

“Brass wasn’t necessarily my thing but I knew music fit me like a glove,” he said. “It just came to me naturally.”

So while he fell away from orchestra and band, in eighth grade, Atma began to learn the guitar from an older friend. He got his first guitar — an Austin brand Stratocaster ripoff — for Christmas and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Love that Boo guitar!

Throughout the years playing in small metal groups, he began to pick up other instruments as well. The bass, he said, was an easy transition after learning to play the guitar. He describes learning to play drums on his friend’s kit, which he would leave at Atma’s house so he wouldn’t have to cart them back and forth for practices. He also picked up the keyboard, which he played primarily in lieu of the guitar during a funk/R&B phase.

“I feel like if I’m not doing something music related, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s one of the things I love the most and do the best, so I’m continually striving to make a career out of it.”

As a Gamer

Through this time, Atma’s love of video games rivaled his growing love of music. And they’ve been a part of his life even longer, back so far that it could truly be called old school.

“The earliest systems I remember having were a ColecoVision and an Atari 2600,” Atma explains, joking about “showing his age” (though many of us at OSP could “show our ages” just as easily, including yours truly). “I vaguely remember playing games like Pac-Man, Pitfall, and that one game with the prisoner guy that dropped bombs and you had to catch them or something. I think it was called Kaboom.”

It was indeed.

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Atma says he’s “fortunate” to have been able to participate in just about every generation of gaming, from those early ColecoVision and Atari 2600 days to the NES days – where he gorged on classics like Mario, Castlevania, Kirby, Zelda, Megaman, and Final Fantasy, as well as lesser-known titles – and, to a lesser extent, the Genesis classics like Sonic, Ecco the Dolphin, Mortal Kombat, and Chuck Rock.

From there, he went on to the SNES and eventually the N64, where he marveled at the technical wonder that was Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, and, of course, one of his favorite franchises of all time: Super Smash Brothers.

“I recall seeing the commercial for Smash 64 for the first time, that one where they’re dressed up as the characters and are dancing around to that Turtles song ‘Happy Together’ and then they start fighting each other,” he remembers. “I was stoked about it, thinking it was the greatest idea ever.”

While his love for Nintendo franchises is obvious from his track list, he also had his time on Sony and Microsoft’s various systems as well as some PC titles. He followed Final Fantasy onto the Playstation (though he played FFVII on the PC) and remarked about getting lost in the world of the Elder Scrolls like so many of us.

“In short I’ve played through most of the obvious classics and a lot of other side games,” he summarized.

“My favorite game is Final Fantasy VI,” Atma says…surprising no one, given his name (the Atma Weapon is one of the iconic boss fights from that JRPG classic). “I just love everything about it: the gameplay, the storyline/characters, and of course the music.”

“It greatly offends me that FFVII has gotten a million remakes and spinoffs and FFVI gets hardly any love aside from a few ports,” he quips. “VII is undoubtedly a phenomenal game as well but damn, come on now!”

Couldn’t agree more, Jonny. Couldn’t agree more.

“But my favorite game series is Smash Bros,” he goes on. “I’ve played all of them religiously since Smash 64.”

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“After that it gets sort of mixed up,” he goes on. “The games I remember playing/enjoying the most off the top of my head are Kirby Superstar, Zelda (the original on NES, OoT, and all the Gameboy ones), Super Mario RPG, SM64, Goldeneye 64, and I’m sure others I can’t think of right now.”

“So I guess you could say the SNES and N64 eras held a majority of my favorites. The older you get the less time you tend to have to be able to play games all day,” he jokes.

The Birth of GaMetal

So really, GaMetal was a natural evolution of Jonny’s love of video games and music combined.

When I was initially learning how to record, one of the first things I put together by myself was a cover of the ‘Jungle’ theme from Contra (which you can hear on my site), way back around the mid-2000’s, just for fun. I didn’t use any keyboards/synths, and the drums were programmed. I eventually went on to record almost the rest of the Contra soundtrack, plus the Super Mario World Ghost House and Vs. Bowser themes, and Hyrule Temple from Zelda II.

But GaMetal really got started in 2009. My friend played me a Youtube video of some guy playing the Tetris A theme, and I was like, ‘I can do a better one.’ So I recorded my own version. Whether or not it was actually better is up for debate. It probably wasn’t [he laughs] but I had a lot of fun doing it so I started doing some other songs as well.

After I had about eight or nine, I uploaded them to Youtube. Slowly I started getting a small following, so I continued to make more songs. They weren’t very good but I still had that small fanbase that liked them, and since I was having fun I just continued making songs and everything grew from there.

Today, Jonny has surpassed 20,000 subscribers on his Youtube channel and has a huge selection of songs with over 60 covers from dozens of games from Mario and Zelda to Splatoon to Final Fantasy to Earthbound, Sonic, Mega Man, Pokemon, Castlevania…the list goes on and on.

Atma’s GaMetal music is classified by strong guitar leads and driving bass lines and percussion (all played by Atma himself). However, many of the songs also have a synth line (also played by Atma) beneath it all that can sometimes give the tunes a familiar, almost nostalgic feel beneath the wailing guitar and thrumming rhythm. So while Atma will sometimes go off the handle with a bombastic guitar solo (which I think we can all appreciate), the pieces are remarkably respectful to the source material and rarely feel like they’re trying to fix what isn’t broken like some remixers will (not that there’s anything wrong with doing something different).

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In short, the tunes are recognizable and unmistakable all while adding Atma’s own head-banging metal twist.

“I have a lot of little mantras I follow when I’m working on a song,” Atma says. “A lot of GaMetal songs I’ll go into thinking ‘what would this sound like if it were a Smash Bros remix? Or if it were a Xenoblade Chronicles song?’, stuff like that.

“Also, if I plan on doing a certain song, I don’t listen to anyone else’s remix of the song until I have mine complete and posted. I only listen to official versions. I do this so I don’t end up ripping anyone off on accident, a common problem that you can end up doing subconsciously when you’re composing/arranging. So I do it both out of respect to the other remixers, and to help set my remixes apart from others.”

Atma mostly takes requests from his viewers and Patreon supporters, but occasionally he’ll do his own thing. For his birthday, for example, he did a great remix of Fierce Battle (his namesake, Atma Weapon’s, theme) from Final Fantasy VI as a gift to himself. And for April Fools Day last year, he remixed the final boss theme from McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure.

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“I make an effort to listen to the vast majority of every request that gets made, especially if I see it multiple times,” he says. “It’s what keeps things mixed. If I did only songs I wanted to do, we’d end up with a bunch of retro songs from a select few titles.”

“There are a lot of awesome game songs that I just haven’t heard because I haven’t played every game ever,” he goes on, “but because people request them I get to hear them. I just did ‘That Person’s Name Is’ from Bravely Default, awesome song. If it had not been requested before, I would’ve never known it existed.”

Overall, he says that he puts about 24 hours of work into every GaMetal song – from charting out the melody on keyboard to recording the percussion part to the bass/guitar rhythm section to lead guitar, solos, sound editing and re-recording, etc. — or double for one of his many medleys, which allow him to tackle a number of songs at once. They’re more work in the end he explains, but they tend to be more popular. 

“It might not sound like a ton but when you throw in working a day job and spending time with your family, those hours can be hard to come by,” he says. “On average I get a new song up about every 10 days or so.”

Currently Atma works a day job and does GaMetal stuff in his free time, but he hopes that will change eventually.

“I don’t make a living off of GaMetal yet, but I’m working on it! We’re about halfway to my ‘official part time job’ goal on Patreon, and about 20% [towards] my ‘official full time job’ goal. I’ve worked a few different actual jobs. Currently I work at a restaurant like most broke-ass musicians do.”

“Right now my plan is to be able to make music for a living,” he continues, saying he’d like to start producing albums or even perform a live show someday. “I’ll be doing GaMetal for a while, it’s what has gotten me the most support and I really love doing it. I have other musical projects, both GaMetal and non-GaMetal related that I’d like to get to, but first I have to get GaMetal to a level where I can treat it as a full time job.

“When all that is said or done, I’d love to be a teacher or professor in some sort of music field.”

I like to ask my interviewees some basic questions about the state of gaming, and Atma had this to say:

 I think we’re sort of in ‘where are we going from here?’ state. Not that we’ve reached a peak, but probably more of a temporary plateau. A lot of things now are just rehashes of their previous versions, but I guess when you stop and think about it, it’s always been sort of like that until a game changer (pun intended) is developed.

The current production costs for a lot of new games is problematic. This is why we have things like paid DLC and micro transactions. They’re a necessary evil, and they probably won’t ever go away now. I don’t think DLC is necessarily always bad though, sometimes the content can turn out to be pretty cool. I think companies just need to be cautious to not go overboard with it (unless it’s free, ’cause who doesn’t like new free things?), or you end up with people shouting about having an unfinished product. The financial price of gaming hurts a lot more than it used to, I still don’t have an Xbox One or PS4 because of that yet and I really I only got a Wii U because I got an insane deal on it.

But gaming is always going to be around, I feel like we’re just waiting for that next big thing to happen at this point that isn’t just improved graphics. It could be some sort of breakthrough with VR, but who knows.

And his feelings on the state of video game music:

It feels to me that, as a lot of game devs are pushing for more of the ‘immersion’ thing. A lot of the music has gone towards more of a film score sound. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The compositional structure of traditional game music is a lot different, though.

In the early days, the NES for instance, they had to work with ‘beep’, ‘boop’, maybe ‘bap’ for drums. You had to make a memorable/enjoyable/awesome song with just that, and you got about 30 seconds, maybe up to a minute, to do it. Then it most likely loops, forever, without making us want to blow our brains out from hearing the same thing over and over. That takes a ton of creativity if you ask me. Tim Follin (Silver Surfer, Solstice, etc) did it to the extreme. A lot of the guys that are still making awesome game songs today were composing around that time too (Uematsu, Kondo, etc).

Yet, that doesn’t mean a great game soundtrack can’t be made with an orchestra or live band in today’s era. The soundtrack to Kid Icarus: Uprising is phenomenal and still has a strong VGM sound using orchestra, guitars, drums, occasional chiptune stuff, a little bit of everything. Then you have the games like Shovel Knight that are still making great game songs with the chiptune sound, or a chiptune hybrid like Undertale.

But it’d probably sound pretty silly (or potentially awesome) if Call of Duty had Mega Man sounding music in the background, and with a lot of modern games striving for realism/immersion and/or being shooters, you end up with that film score sound I just mentioned. It, by default, works better for those kinds of games, but to me it makes the music a lot less memorable. They might have a great title theme and another good song or two but that’s about it. The last serious FPS I can remember that had an all around great VGM style soundtrack was Goldeneye 64.

So to put things simply, game music is definitely changing in regards to certain types of games, but there are still plenty of modern games that have amazing soundtracks that are composed like they were from the retro era. That’s the main reason why I feel Nintendo is winning in regards to the VGM department compared to Sony or Microsoft. Their game soundtracks tend to have more of that classic VGM feel to them, even if it is orchestrated.

Boss Tunes’ Picks

It’s hard to pick favorites out of a selection of 60 excellent songs, but as far as Boss Tunes is concerned, I consider it my professional duty. Also a personal delight. Because who doesn’t like picking favorites and making lists? Someone without a soul, that’s who. (I’ll make it an arbitrary rule to pick three favorites from every artist featured in Boss Tunes. If you don’t like it, get your own feature article!)

I asked Atma what his favorite of his songs were and though I feared putting him in a sort of Sophie’s Choice scenario, he surprised me by actually being able to pick several:

“I think every parent has a favorite child, they’re just ashamed to admit it,” he jokes. “Occasionally a song will end up feeling just about perfect when it’s done. Like, everything just clicks.”

Some of his favorites include: Hyrule Temple (The Legend of Zelda II: Link’s Awakening), Punch-Out!, Dark Star Core (Bowser’s Inside Story), Deoxys (Pokemon Fire Red and Leaf Green), The Legend of Mario (Super Mario Brothers and The Legends of Zelda) and Fierce Battle (Final Fantasy VI) and a few others.

Now, while I agree that all of those are excellent remixes (I downloaded many of them from his website as a matter of fact and am listening to them as I type), I have my own picks for my favorite GaMetal arrangements. So, without further ado:

#3: Mega Man X Maverick Melody (Mega Man X series)

I make no secret of the fact that I vastly prefer Mega Man classic to the Mega Man X series. The only real reason is narrative, however. I much prefer the more simplistic, more wholesome, story to the original Mega Man series than the darker, more angsty child of the 90’s that is Mega Man X. Mechanically, the series has been polished to a mirror sheen. The character designs are great (if not a bit 90’s extreeeeeeeme in places) and, more relevant here, the music is spectacular – as good, if not better, than the classic series.

I actually don’t prefer Atma’s medleys to his more focused pieces, but this one may be an exception. Not only is the Mega Man X soundtrack practically made for Atma’s metal styles (one of the reasons I prefer this to the also excellent Mega Man Medley), but the medley itself is cleverly arranged. One problem I have with medleys is when the artist basically just slaps one song after another, but there was some effort by Jonny to transition from one piece to the next in a fluid and cohesive way. This one definitely hits the high points of the Mega Man X series and it’s a great listen.


#2: The Legend of Mario (Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda)

I hemmed and hawed about this one for some time (oddly enough not about my third or first favorite…go figure). My general dislike of medleys made my “least favorite favorite” pretty obvious to me and my favorite pick was decided months ago. So all I had left was to pick a favorite non-medley, non-boss tune…which was not an easy proposition. But I think out of several options – most notably Beginning/Vampire Killer (Castlevania) and Dragon Roost Island (the Legend of Zelda: Windwaker) – I have to go with this one: The Legend of Mario.

This one may seem a bit like a medley, but I consider it more of a mash-up. Atma doesn’t simply play a series of songs from the games (well, he does, but it’s more than that), he expertly blends the classic main themes from each game and the “underworld” themes from each game into a cohesive piece of music. As I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of medleys that basically just play a few songs back to back and this one cleverly merges all the covers into one complete, enjoyable piece. And the meeting of Mario and Link certainly tweaks my nostalgia senses.


#1: Meridian Dance (Secret of Mana)

Let’s be perfectly honest here, as great as Atma’s entire catalog is, the real reason you listen to metal remixes is for the remixed boss tunes. And as you can probably tell from the name of this series of articles, boss music is hands down my favorite kind of video game music. And Atma has some great boss tunes. From Fierce Battle to Revenge of Meta Knight to Megalovania (SPOILERS for Undertale, follow the link at your own risk). And I only wanted to pick one “boss tune” because I easily could have made all three “favorites” from this genre, but I wanted some variety. And this one is, in general, one of my favorite boss tunes of all time: Meridian Dance, the battle with the Mana Beast at the end of Secret of Mana. And Atma’s arrangement of the piece is absolutely perfect.

When I mentioned before that Atma respects the source material, this is one of the perfect examples of it. Too many remixers are too eager to let their desire to show off dominate the original piece. There’s certainly something to be said for putting your own spin on a remix – after all, why bother remixing if you’re going to just play the exact same song? – but at the same time, we don’t exactly listen to remixes to listen to something completely new. It’s a delicate balance…and one that Atma’s Meridian Dance hits perfectly.

GaMetal’s Meridian Dance is immediately recognizable as the tune it’s remixing. It starts with the melody and after a bombastic guitar solo from Atma for the second “verse,” he returns to the melody for a thrilling, heart-pumping reprise that drives the whole thing to the end like a runaway freight train. It’s everything a boss tune should be and it’s quickly become one of my favorite remixes of all time.

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