In 1999, a small chain of restaurants called Yasai Donburi Vegan Ramen began opening stores in the midwest United States. To try to drum up business and compete with other national chains, they began offering a free demo disc of an in development Playstation game called ‘Devil Cartridge.’ Little did they know the game would get cancelled, and eventually lost due to rumors of satanic content. The backlash from this, led the restaurant to file bankruptcy in early 2001 and disappear shortly after.
We at Frogazi Studios have unearthed a copy of this lost and fabled game and have compiled its eccentric soundtrack through vigorous restoration for release later this month.
So reads the back story for Devil Cartridge: Demo Disc, a 6-song EP that purports to be a soundtrack from a Japanese videogame that ended up stuck in development hell.
What is this strange release, and is there any truth to the tale?
As it turns out, Devil Cartridge is the work of two producers. One of them is 30-year-old Ryan Naglak, a musician and optometrist living in Philadelphia. He creates music under the name My Sister’s Fugazi Shirt; as implied by that moniker, he grew up listening to indie rock, recording “lo-fi bedroom music” and playing in various bands in high school: a noise-rock band at one point, a ska band “for a long time, which was fun,” he laughs as we chat via Zoom.
Naglak also has a keen interest in video game soundtracks, something he became more focused on during the pandemic, when he found himself with a lot more time to game. It was the recent remake of Final Fantasy 7 that motivated him to merge his passions for gaming and music production. “It just hit this nostalgia note in me. That was what kickstarted me — okay, I want to try and make some videogame-inspired music.”
He had toyed with electronics before this, but this was his first entirely electronic project. He found himself coming home from work and producing music for hours on end, operating at a song-per-day tack. This resulted in Nautilus, a full game-inspired album that took inspiration from Final Fantasy 13, a divisive game in the FF series. “I really, really love that one, I love the music in it, and the scenery and the setting,” he tells me, recognizing it is a controversial pick amongst gamers.
Nautilus, like many of Naglak’s recent releases, can be considered vaporwave-adjacent. “I was aware of vaporwave, I knew some of the classic albums. But I wasn’t heavily into the scene or the genre. I was more into videogame music: Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts. And I was into experimental music and electronic stuff; I’ve always been a fan of Aphex Twin and Xiu Xiu and stuff like that. And so that kind of bridged the gap moving into the vaporwave scene, which was a very open scene to newcomers. They’re always ready and willing to check out somebody, even if they’ve never heard of them.”
Nautilus was a hit on the vaporwave scene that uses Bandcamp as a main outlet, successful enough to warrant a cassette release, a vinyl edition on multi-coloured “splatter” vinyl, and even a limited edition LP that is filled with liquid and glitter. There have also been two sequels.
Months after Nautilus, he put out God’s In His Heaven, All’s Right With The World, a tribute to the video game Neon Genesis Evangelion; it, too, attracted many fans and warranted cassette and vinyl versions. “Bandcamp is where I really seem to do well in terms of tape releases. I sold out of 50 tapes in about two hours, and then the vinyl sold out in about an hour and a half — a hundred copies. I was nervous to release the vinyl, because I didn’t know if anyone’s going to buy it. But I should have pressed more. I’ll be repressing it in the spring as well, for more copies.”
The other individual behind Devil Cartridge is Britt Guynes, who produces music under the name Frogmore. Guynes is 20, lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and recalls becoming interested in music through a local classic rock station. He discovered vaporwave at age fourteen, after encountering the music video for Yung Lean’s “Hurt,” which copped the genre’s visual aesthetic.
At 16, Guynes started making music, shortly after a move from Mobile, AL to Tuscaloosa. He discovered Ableton and started experimenting in order to make music that sounded like Aphex Twin. Since a lot of his classmates liked to rap, he started producing trap instrumentals for his friends to rhyme over. “As I got older, I started getting more into vaporwave and electronic music,” he says. “That aesthetic, I couldn’t stop enjoying it.”
After high school, he entered college for graphic design. In 2020, because school went online for the pandemic, he found himself with more free time which he spent playing videogames and making music. He released his first entry into vaporwave, an album titled Midnight Excursion, released under the name Golden Joe. Sick of vaporwave’s often rote formula, he sought to impart a greater degree of craftsmanship to his productions.
“It was kind of a response to how stagnant the classic vapor style had gotten,” he explains. “It just kind of had degraded over time, people were just slowing down some eighties ballad with a little bit of reverb on it, and they call it a day, and then they try to bug some label to do a tape release. Whatever, that’s what you do I guess. I was really sick of how there was just no craftsmanship to it. So I tried to applied the same sort of beat-making ethos as Madlib and J Dilla. I try to chop it up as much as possible, I want to make sure you couldn’t really tell what the sample was originally when you’re hearing it.” That album — produced in around three days total and released digitally at first — ended up getting put out on tape by the Kentucky cassette label Hairs aBlazin’, increasing Guynes’ profile.
Guynes messaged Naglak after enjoying the My Sister’s Fugazi Shirt album In the Capital of Consumerism, billed as “a study on tourism, over-saturation and exposure to advertisements and products.”
“I thought it was amazing, it was so cool,” Guynes says. “So I followed him on Twitter and he followed me back, and I messaged him and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to work on something together?'”
The two found common cause in video games; both are enthusiastic gamers, and as they chat with me they discuss the finer points of the Final Fantasy series. Most of it goes over my head. When it comes to Devil Cartridge, they cite a few proximal influences. Shin Megami Tensei, a multifaceted RPG series popular in Japan, is one important reference. They also talk about the “real-life simulation” of the Persona series of games, particularly Persona 5. In 2020, this game was a necessary simulacrum of “normal” for an era of isolation and stay-at-home orders.
“[Persona 5] was very fitting during quarantine. You could go out and get coffee in it, go out to the movies and stuff like that,” Naglak says. The two also remark on the “full band sound” of that latter game’s soundtrack, jazzier and looser than many other classic RPGs.
These games are noteworthy for the flexibility of the stories and the multiple settings contained within. “There’s a lot you can do with the narratives in those stories,” Naglak says, “There’s the romance subplots, there’s the different locations — your house, the medical shop — there’s tons of stuff you can do with it. We just made it long because those soundtracks are long, too.”
Indeed, Persona 5‘s soundtrack is five hours long, spanning over 100 tracks. “And they’re all amazing,” Guynes enthuses. The game itself last over 100 hours, another experience made possible by the quarantine.
As they worked together, discussing games and bouncing musical ideas back and forth, Devil Cartridge gradually emerged as a concept. The “Demo Disc” version was six tracks long; released first, it served as a taster for the full product, which was a 34-track omnibus designed as the official soundtrack to a fictional game.
The entirety of Devil Cartridge was assembled remotely in 2020 and 2021. They would send each other partial tracks, iteratively fleshing out ideas. Even though they were using different audio production software — Guynes used Ableton while Ryan used Logic — their collaboration felt seamless.
“One of us would send the other one a basic skeleton of a track — a loop or two with maybe a verse and chorus type beat, and then the other person would add on to it, and flesh it out into the full song, and then send it back to the original person who would put the final touches on it,” Naglak explains.
Unlike a lot of vaporwave and vaporwave-adjacent music, Devil Cartridge was not sample-based, apart from a single sample Guynes pulled from the online RPG, Phantasy Star Online. Naglak uses royalty-free loops, digital synths, and drum machines through Logic, and a couple tracks also feature guitar and even vocals courtesy of Guynes. Guynes also uses an open-source synthesizer app called Synth One as well as “sound fonts” from old videogames.
This commitment to craftsmanship is not unique to Devil Cartridge. Guynes tells me about a growing movement within the vaporwave scene that is actively moving away from a sample-driven approach. He is particularly fond of the producer Equip, and in particular that artist’s videogame-inspired record, CURSEBREAKER X, which he considers a seminal album. “Non-sample stuff is kind of on the rise right now,” Guynes says, explaining that some producers will advertise their records as sample-free as something of a “flex.”
Devil Cartridge‘s high concept is one of its most appealing attributes, and the two producers tell me about the origins of the idea. As they bounced ideas and back and forth, they eventually settled on the concept of creating a soundtrack for a fictional video game. Guynes was immediately inspired to create the cover and write up a plot outline for the game. “We had a whole template for what type of tracks we want,” Naglak tells me. “We needed to have the dungeon themes, the boss battles, the save room theme.”
“And also the life simulation stuff, like the romance theme, your house’s theme,” Guynes adds. “We even took in to consideration like, there’s a cutscene, there’s a cinematic song that would play during a cutscene, what that would have to sound like, what it would have to be called in the context of the game.”
The idea for the “Demo Disc” edition — a titillating post-modern morsel, in my opinion — was inspired by reality. “In the early 2000s, Pizza Hut put out demo discs for the Playstation 1,” Guynes says. “They had like Metal Gear Solid, and Spyro, and Tomb Raider.” Naglak tells me he, in fact, owned several of these demos games.
Britt, a vegan himself, thought the idea of a plant-only ramen restaurant in the Midwest was uniquely clever. And the notion that disc was a demo for a game that never came out was inspired by numerous games that fell into development hell. “I’m really interested in the stuff that was in development and got cancelled,” Naglak says. “The conceptual things that could have been, where a studio went under or they cancel it for whatever reason.”
They bring up Mother 3, a game that was in development for an obscure add-on to Nintendo 64 but never came out on that console; instead, the game was cancelled and released three years later for the Gameboy Advance in a completely different form. Yet before it was cancelled, little segments of the game were exhibited in demo format at industry conventions. (It has been estimated that 30% of the game was completed before it was shut down). Now, looking at screenshots of those early demos evokes the sensation of peering into an alternate universe: unlike the Gameboy’s two-dimensional cartoon graphics, the original version was set in a polygonal universe.
“I find it so interesting,” Naglak says. “It even still happens now. There’s games from a couple years ago that we haven’t heard anything about, that they showed off gameplay or trailers for. And it’s such an intriguing thing in such a big industry, that that happens even still.”
Like other games that simulate the “real world,” Devil Cartridge is set in a real city — namely Chicago. This was chosen as the setting after Guynes visited the city, one month before COVID erupted, for an art conference. (His father is the chair of the art department at the University of Alabama.) “I loved Chicago,” Guynes recalls. “I thought it was the coolest place I’d ever been to…. I’d never been to a metropolis city like that before. I loved the way it felt when you’re there.” The experience of stepping into a “real” record store — including one that carried a record by Equip — was a real eye-opener for him.
In Guynes’ plot outline, the story starts when the main character moves to the big city for college. This plot devise is inspired by Japanese games. “Most Persona games, you’re parents are like hey get out of here, go to Kyoto and leave us alone,” he explains.
Artwork is a big component of the Devil Cassette mythos. Naglak tells me that packaging “half the battle” on the vaporwave scene, and fortunately, Guynes, who is studying graphic design, has made it a major priority. As they were working on the record, he drew up sketches of the cover. The final product includes illustrated versions of the two producers, plus two other characters he derived from stock photos.
Using Adobe Illustrator for the typography and Photoshop for illustration, he assembled the distinctive artwork. The demo version even features an image of a dinged-up price sticker.
The Devil Cartridge: Demo Disc edition was originally released online and was also issued as a CD (which sold out quickly). When the full, 34-track record was released, it was supplemented by a special, 50-copy double-cassette edition, which also disappeared as quickly as it came. (They had to limit sales to two copies per customer to avoid hoarders gunning for the secondary market).
Naglak and Guynes tell me that this collaboration has been so fruitful that they are already looking forward to their next collaboration. “We have some ideas for a second release that is very early stage right now,” Naglak says. “We have a couple ideas and some tracks we are throwing around. But I think we want to get this out before diving into the next thing.”
“As opposed to having a really long album where we’re doing tracks really fast, we want to have a really tight, concise experience where the tracks have a lot of workshopping done,” Guynes says. “It’s a lot more experimental this time, with more of a drum and bass influence as well.”
“We kind of wanted to go inward on the next thing as opposed to outward,” Naglak adds. “And make it very focused. And more complicated I’d say.”
Thanks to Ryan Naglak and Britt Guynes for the interview. Devil Cartridge OST can be streamed and purchased here.