Yukio Kaneoka was one of Nintendo’s earliest sound engineers/composers, working at a time before those two jobs were separate. In the west he would be best recognized as the composer for most of Nintendo’s early hits, including Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Punch-Out!!

In this short but fascinating early interview from 1985, he explains Nintendo’s approach to game music, drawing a comparison between the aspirations of game music and animated film music.

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Yukio Kaneoka – 1985 Developer Interview

Originally featured in August 1985 edition of BEEP!

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Yukio Kaneoka, early Nintendo
sound designer/composer/programmer.

—To begin with, please explain some of the background behind how sounds and music are created at Nintendo.

Kaneoka: Our work at Nintendo is sound creation, and from the standpoint of the game production process as a whole, our work is always done in the latter half of the development. Naturally, once the story has reached a certain point, we start getting requests from the designers for sound effects and music. At that stage, we prepare as much material as best we can, but it always turns out to be the case that until you actually see the game on-screen, it’s very difficult to get a clear image of how the sound should be.

I don’t think there’s ever been a case of someone preparing the music in advance and then having it perfectly match up with the game’s visuals. So our work is a kind of process of refinement, revising again and again. Finally, in the last month before the deadline, everything starts getting really crazy! “Victory or defeat, everything will be decided in this one month!” is how it feels.

When writing the music, the typical workflow is: first, compose on the keyboard, then write out the sheet music, then code that notated music into the program.

Here’s some behind-the-scenes info: at Nintendo, there’s often clashes of opinion between the planners/designers who write the story and the musicians. For example, the designers might be hoping to have comical music for their comical game, but the musicians might feel like a pretty melody is actually more effective. Take Disney movies, like Peter Pan, with the pretty melody in “Wish Upon A Star.” I bet there was a lot of resistance to adding that song at first. At the time in animation, you had stuff like Superman and Popeye, and the main styles of music were either dramatic or comical. Deciding to add a pretty melody to an animated feature must have been something of an adventure, I think. But it turned out to be really fitting, and it opened new vistas for music in animation.

Likewise, with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., I wanted to embark on a similar kind of adventure by adding a pretty melody, but there was a lot of resistance at first from the designers. I ended up making them put it in though. (laughs) Later, many people came up to me saying how much they liked that music, and how it sounded different from other game music. That made me happy.

—Nintendo’s games are interesting in their own right, but the music alone is also very catchy, and you often hear kids humming the songs. Given the popularity of Nintendo’s games, during the creative process, do you ever deliberately try to make things that will sell well, like “oh, this sounds good, I bet this will be really popular”?

Kaneoka: We don’t really have the free time or energy to be thinking about it like that. Even when you’re creating something as simple as sound effects, you often try out sounds thinking they’ll be really good, only to find out it’s rather bland. Or in the opposite sense, sometimes the program will cause the sound effect to playback in a really weird way, which actually turns out to be cool. You’ve got to do a lot of experimentation when creating music, and once you’ve found something that you like and are satisfied with, other people will probably also feel the same way. That’s how we think about it. Though I realize it sounds extremely self-centered. (laughs)

Kaneoka’s music for Donkey Kong Jr.

But the positive tradeoff, you know, is that we won’t stop working until we’re satisfied ourselves. There’s many people at Nintendo who won’t be satisfied until things meets their personal standards, even if someone else says “oh, I think that sounds good enough.” When I hear people say that Nintendo’s games are fun, or they’re very high quality, I think it’s owed to the fact that we have such perfectionists working here.

—Finally, please tell us what kind of dreams you have for the future.

Kaneoka: As for what I want console games to aspire to, one possibility would be animated movies. But I think the big difference between an animated feature and a game is that in the game, you take on the role of the hero/heroine, and you create the story as you go. In a movie you merely watch the pre-determined drama unfold. Although I have to say that writing music for a game with no predefined story sounds extremely difficult. (laughs)

As for my dreams as someone who creates music, first I’d like to see the status of game music elevated a bit higher. One of my big dreams is to create songs that remain in people’s hearts forever, just as some famous songs from animated movies have.