These four Streets of Rage composer interviews were originally featured in the 1991-1994 issues of BEEP Megadrive, Megadrive FAN, and Marukatsu Megadrive magazines. Beginning with the first game, composers Koshiro and Kawashima discuss the influences and process of writing these beloved and seminal OSTs.

As the early 90s saw “traditional” chiptune music starting to give way to CD-ROM media and PCM music, the conversation occasionally veers into more conceptual “what is game music?” territory, with both composers eager to share their thoughts.

Streets of Rage 2 interview
Shenmue interview w/Koshiro
Ys interview w/Koshiro
Actraiser liner notes

 

Streets of Rage – Composer Interview Collection

originally featured in BEEP MD, Marukatsu, and Megadrive FAN

Yuzo Koshiro – Composer
Motohiro Kawashima – Composer

—To start things off, please give us the behind-the-scenes scoop on the making of the music for Streets of Rage.

Koshiro: I began writing the music for Streets of Rage at the end of 1990. I often go dancing at clubs, and at that time, the scene was moving on from eurobeat to house music. Because Streets of Rage is a fighting game, I placed a lot of emphasis on the music being energetic and exciting, so initially I thought about writing rock songs. Ultimately, though, once I tried house music it all clicked and I thought it sounded really cool.

—By the way, the sample ROM cart you lent us to do our write-up has music that differs in a few places from the final commercial cart. Stage 7 has a completely different song, too. Were these changes the result of revisions you made yourself after hearing them…?

Koshiro: Yeah. For whatever reason, I had many unused and rejected songs with Streets of Rage. For Stage 7, I actually selected the most fitting song out of three candidates. Those rejected songs then became tracks 16 and 17 on the CD. There were other songs that had to be shortened a bit due to memory limitations as well, which was preferable to the alternative of cutting down on the sampling. I didn’t want to do that.

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Yuzo Koshiro, 1991.

—Are you interested in the Mega CD (Sega CD) which is coming out soon?

Koshiro: Extremely. I’m so happy about it. It will be great to finally be able to create game music on my synthesizers at home, rather than using on-board sound chips. Actually, I’d like to write something using a real full orchestra sometime.

—What’s your next project, by the way?

Koshiro: Sonic the Hedgehog for the Game Gear. It will feature some of my own original compositions too.

—Thank you for your time today!

Streets of Rage 2 – 1992 Composer Interview

originally featured in Marukatsu Megadrive

—Tell us about the Streets of Rage 2 development.

Koshiro: For this game, my company (Ancient) was involved in all the programming and planning. We also worked with another company, called Shout.

—Since Ancient handled more this time, does that mean your writing process for the music was more closely intertwined with the game’s development as a whole, then?

Koshiro: Yeah, that’s right. Once the graphics were completed for a given stage or area, I’d work on the music for it. At least for me, the way I compose is that I have to see the visuals in front of me while I’m writing. Very often I get hints and ideas from the way the characters move. That and the overall atmosphere of the graphics. With those two elements as my basis, I try to find something new to express with the music. So much depends on if I find that synergy or not… really, whether the music matches the game or not, I think it all depends on that.

—How was it writing the Streets of Rage 2 music? 1

Koshiro: The sequel is sort of a “remix” or arrangement of the previous game, so the writing actually went very smoothly. In addition to house, the songs also feature some of the latest styles in electronic music, the most notable being the addition of some death techno elements.2 Of all the game music I’ve written so far, these are the songs I’m most proud of and pleased with. Combined with the music from the previous game, I feel it’s opened up a new world of possibilities for me as a musician.

—Are there any points you focus on particularly, when composing?

Koshiro: The overarching premise was to build on the image of the first game, while still finding something new to explore. Programming-wise, I tried to find places I could improve and add to the audio and sequencing programming. I wanted new programming for this game, not just new music. The increased complexity which that lent the sounds proved to be quite challenging to craft, but I worked with another composer (Motohiro Kawashima), so we were able to get a lot done. The game itself is quite long, you see, so it needed a lot of music. So the songs needed to be balanced, but there also needed to be variety.

Oh, and before I forget! I should mention the sound effects (in terms of things we put time into). We had 16 mbit of memory this time, so we used lots of sampling. Vocal samples, samples for the punches/kicks… they pack a lot of “punch”. We wanted to impress listeners, to make it sound like something you wouldn’t expect to hear from Megadrive hardware.

—Sound effects really are the lifeblood of action games, aren’t they.

“Dreamer”, the stage 3 bgm. Koshiro mentioned it was a favorite of his in the 3/93 issue of Megadrive Fan.

Koshiro: They are! If you play stuff like Street Fighter II you realize that right away, but we really wanted the sounds of the fighting to feel good. If the sounds themselves don’t psych you up, everything falls flat.

—How did you end up making game music for a living, by the way?

Koshiro: I’ve always liked video games. And maybe it’s because I’m a musician, but I’ve always paid particularly close attention to the sound effects.

Back then, game music was more a collection of sound effects than proper music. As I immersed myself in those sounds, I slowly began to copy and play them myself. Eventually I started copying arcade game music by ear and transcribing the music, and a certain game magazine published many of my scores. Those were really popular, and at the time, no one else was doing that kind of work.

—It’s kind of like there’s two ways to enjoy a video game: just playing it as normal, and then just enjoying the music.

Koshiro: That’s true, you can appreciate them for the music alone. When I’d play a mahjong game or something, if the music was cool, I’d go home and try and play it on my own synthesizer. I used to do that all the time.

You know, people who are buying game music today, I bet when they listen to it they’re sort of “simulating” the game in their mind. I bet a lot of people who buy game music are seeking out that experience, a kind of “mental trip” if you will. I’ve had that same mindset myself for a long time now—hearing the music on its own gets me all fired up to play the game. You have to remember too, at that time, there were no home consoles like the Famicom either… Game & Watch was about all we had.

So anyway, when I graduated high school I started going to college prep classes, and that summer I started writing my own original songs. That was the starting point for me. I had a whole stock of songs I wrote from that time, but I wasn’t really thinking I’d do anything with them… until one day, I happened to be looking at this game magazine, and there was a job ad for Nihon Falcom. It was close to my house so I went down there and showed them my music, and somehow I ended up getting hired! The thing is, I was a total amateur, and these were the first songs I’d ever written, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to like them. But they did, and I was hired!

—When you went home and tried to copy the game music you had heard in the arcade, did you ever try to “remix” it or create your own arrangements?

Koshiro: No, I played it straight. It was a very good experience though, trying to re-create those sounds from the game center on my computer at home. I even tried to re-create the specific synth textures by ear. Ah, and sometimes I made cassette recordings at the game center too. That way I could model the synth patch or texture of the sound exactly. There weren’t game music cds or anything back then, so as a game fan, it was a pure delight to recreate those sounds.

—Wow, you made recordings at the game center? That sounds amazing.

Koshiro: Yeah, I did. In most games, firing your weapon produces a sound effect, so I would just try to dodge and avoid everything to get a clean recording of the music. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! But it was also very fun.

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In 2018, Yuzo Koshiro released some of his PC-8801 FM sound programming tools, titled “Mucom88”. While it’s certainly not the most convenient way to work with FM sounds today (as Kawashima remarks below), it offers a good window into Koshiro’s writing process and is a neat testament to the “programmer/composer” role seldom found outside of game music.

—You have to be pretty good to pull that off!

Koshiro: Hah, yeah. I’d always been a big gamer so I was able to make it work. Nowadays every hit game gets a CD release pretty quickly, and you can enjoy the music without waiting. Things weren’t like that back then though, so for games that would never have a chance of getting a CD release, I had no choice but to go to the game center and record them directly. My friends had their own requests too, which I’d also go and record for them.

In those pre-FM days, we were fascinated with the sounds themselves. It was a purely analogue era, where you could make sounds just by putting circuits together… stuff like Space Invaders and the like. I loved the music and sounds from that era. They remind me of the sounds from the “techno boom” today—from a young age, I was infatuated with those kind of cheap, weird electronic sounds.

—Bleeps and bloops, as they say. But today, with games starting to utilize the CD medium, we’re seeing game music with more lush and realistic sounds, aren’t we?

Koshiro: Yeah. I don’t usually like those kinds of sounds for video games. It’s fine and all, and a good development in its own right. But I don’t like it personally.

—There’s still something weird about hearing CD quality music in a video game, right? Like when you hear orchestral music or something. Though it might just be that we’re used to the older, electronic sounds…

Koshiro: Well, I think video games themselves are still very new. They don’t have a long history yet. Music, on the other hand, has this deeply layered history, so developers now are sort of trying to force different styles of music into games… but I do think that as video games become closer and closer to movies, that kind of music will blend more naturally. As a medium games are trying to catch up to movies, and I think that’s a positive trend.

—I understand you studied and played classical music as a child.

Koshiro: Yeah, I played piano since I was 3, and then cello, and violin…

—Taking lessons for that many instruments must have been painful.

Koshiro: Yes… when I was young I hated it. But my own mother was the teacher, so it wasn’t so bad.

—Amazing! You were really blessed to grow up in such a household.

Koshiro: Hah, well, because of that I had lessons almost every day. I was her pupil, but also her son, so it was very strict. My knuckles recieved many a rapping. I loved video games then too and wanted so bad to go play them, but my Mom always made sure I got my practice in.

—But during all that, you still managed to find time for the game center?

Koshiro: Of course. My local game center was a really small, one-room affair, and they only had Space Invaders. When my friends told me about new games, I’d have to take the train down to Shinjuku and go to the game centers there.

—I’m picturing you on the way home from a lesson, violin case in hand, stopping by for a quick game…

Koshiro: Ahh… that probably did happen! With the violin case set down by my side while I played. Actually, yeah, I remember now. My violin teacher, Joe Hisaishi, lived in Koganei, and they had a huge game center there. I would often leave early for my lessons and stop by the game center, and usually do the same on the way home.

—I can totally picture that. By the way, don’t you think that the house music coming out lately sounds very similar to video game music?

Koshiro: I think so, yeah. The way the phrases loop and so forth. There’s a lot of similarities I think. When you listen to dance music, its supposed to evoke the joy of movement and dancing in you, and likewise, I think game music reminds us of the joy of actually playing these games. Simply put, dance music makes you want to dance, game music makes you want to play. Yeah, I think they’re the same in that sense.

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Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima circa 1993.

Streets of Rage 2 – 1993 Composer Interview

originally featured in Marukatsu Megadrive

—Are you still using the PC-8801 to write your music?

Koshiro: Yes, when I write songs for the Megadrive. It’s the speediest route for me, and what I love about the PC-8801 is that I can access features of the onboard sound chip with greater control and precision, beyond what MIDI allows. That’s a big part of what makes it so fun for me.

—How about the vocal samples and sound effects?

Koshiro: I use a lot of PCM and sampling. I’d grab my mic in the middle of the night and yell out the special moves. (laughs) I used an Akai S-1100 to sample, then I transfer that to my Mac for gain adjustments before uploading it back to the S-1100, where I use MIDI to transfer that to my PC-98, and then using some of Sega’s proprietary tools, I finally convert it to ADPCM format for the Megadrive. Then I send that over the net to our programmer.

—So it sounds like you’re a big net user, then.

Koshiro: Yeah, I set my own computer up as a host, and then I can connect to Sega and four other locations, which makes transferring data between everyone so much easier. It’s really increased my work efficiency. This is your real behind-the-scenes game development secret right here. (laughs)

—What music influenced you when writing the Streets of Rage 2 songs?

Koshiro: I started writing the music last Spring, which was right around the time The Orb was coming to Japan, and everyone (myself included) was super excited about that. I was listening to Prodigy and Eon too, stuff with weird lyrics.

—I know it’s been a year now, but how has it been working with Motohiro Kawashima?

Koshiro: I like evocative music that stirs something in the listener, or transports them to another world. Kawashima has always had a talent for creating music like that. I think that kind of music is especially important for video game music, too. Basically, it’s not enough just to match your music to the graphics on-screen… you need to have a grasp of the worldview of the game when you compose, and to that, you can add your own ideas and worldview. You have to be able to feel that from the music.

Kawashima: Like Koshiro, I also felt totally comfortable working together. I wasn’t used to composing with these tools, but Koshiro helped translate the ideas I had in my head onto the page.

A wonderful, lengthy video interview with Koshiro in which he walks through a number of different pieces he’s written and been influenced by.

—MML (Music Macro Language) isn’t really common outside of the world of game music, is it?

Kawashima: Oh man, it’s very difficult to work with. When I first saw it, I was like… “can you really write music with this…?” There are many nuanced differences between writing music in MML and writing with a normal synthesizer, but I think it lends a charm and style to the music that is only found in video games. Koshiro knows all about that—I’d call him a master when it comes to writing this way.

Koshiro: If we end up doing a Streets of Rage cd, I can go even deeper, I think.

—Do you have any words of advice for our readers who’d like to get into this kind of work themselves?

Koshiro: Don’t just do karaoke—get out there, get active, and try making music with your own two hands. Don’t just listen to simple music or music that’s “easy” for you, either. There’s lots of people out there making music that, right now, you can’t fathom or understand. You should actively seek that out and listen to it, because it will help you mature as a musician and end up being a huge benefit for your compositional aspirations down the road.

—By the way, have you bought any new music-related items lately?

Koshiro: I recently picked up a Waldorf Microwave. It was 160,000 yen (approx 1600 USD). And that was after they gave me a discount! (laughs)

Streets of Rage 3 – Composer Interview

originally featured in Hippon Super magazine

—It’s been a year now since the release of SoR2. Does the music for SoR3 include any new musical influences?

Kawashima: One thing we wanted to explore was, to what extent can we incorporate rotterdam techno (“gabber”) into game music. We wanted to do something similar to that. People may hear it and think it’s just more trendy dance music, but for our part, we were having fun playing around with this limited set of sounds, and seeing how far we could go with a rough, noisy aesthetic.

Koshiro: Overall, there’s a lot of “crazy” songs in SoR3, so we also tried to make the vocal sampling match suit. I did lots of sample manipulation to that end. Sammy’s samples are crazy like that, I hear them and think, “hey—are you ok Sammy?” (laughs) Unfortunately, due to memory limitations, we had to cut out about 1/3 of the samples we’d recorded.

—Was it your intention then to do something that had never been heard before in game music?

Kawashima: I didn’t really know much about game music, but when I heard Haruomi Hosono’s “Video Game Music” cd, with remixes of game music, I thought that was pretty interesting in its own right. But when I heard Koshiro’s Streets of Rage OST, and the way it used rythms lifted right from club music, I felt an immediate kinship: ah hah, here is someone who’s aspiring to write game music that doesn’t fit so neatly into the “game music” box.

Koshiro: Kawashima is someone with a very stable musical “core”, if you will, in the broadest sense. He has a solid grounding and foundation in the roots of music. On top of that, his sensibilities tend towards exploration of sound. He’s listened to a lot of the same stuff as me, and I feel we share similar values when it comes to composing.

—You’ve both achieved an incredible sound with SoR3.

Koshiro: Thank you. In a way we really overdid it (laughs), it’s a very uncompromising sound that we went for.

The full SoR3 OST.

—Was that a deliberate choice, to create and use all these weird sounds?

Koshiro: Yeah. I even made updates and additions to my sequencing environment for that very purpose. It’s hard to appreciate but that’s the level of energy we poured into these songs. The original idea was actually Kawashima’s, and many of the sounds and underlying ideas were influenced by him.

Actually, at first Kawashima was the main one writing the music for SoR3, and he was initially writing in a style that could be described more as a refinement or consolidation of the style in SoR2. At some point I joined in, and then it was like, hey, if we’re going to go in a new direction, let’s go wild. (laughs) But by the latter half of the development, Kawashima too started writing crazier and crazier pieces, so that in the end, the whole collection of songs came out like that. (laughs)

—(laughs) Kawashima, how was that process for you?

Kawashima: Honestly, part of me thought we were overdoing it a bit, but on the other hand, it was like… if we’re really doing this, we might as well go all-in. I hadn’t had a lot of experience with MIDI then, so for myself, partly it was about wanting to challenge myself and really apply what I’d learned about music programming. Seeing what I could create within the limitations of this sound chip was a big theme for SoR3… but that said, what we came up with was nothing but crazy songs, so now it’s more like, maybe I should be worried about my own sanity? (laughs)

Koshiro: (laughs) Yeah, going this far actually made the more conventional SoR2-style songs no longer fit in. In a weird way it destroyed the balance.

—”Working within limitations”—that’s a notion that’s always accompanied game music, I think. Recently, however, with the evolution of hardware, those limitations have been getting more and more relaxed. How do you feel about those changes?

Koshiro: I think it’s a good thing, and it expands what’s possible for game music. However, for SoR3, as strange as it sounds, it didn’t feel to me like we were working that way, “within the limits”, as it were. It’s quite the opposite actually, where it felt like we were really fully utilizing, making the most of what the Megadrive chip can offer. We were able to pursue the pecularities of this synthesizer in a very pure way. Of course, whether that will be appreciated or enjoyed by listeners, I can’t say.

—Up to now, I think my image of you as a composer, Koshiro, has been someone who packs their songs with lots of melody. These songs feel like something of a betrayal of that, or perhaps an attempt to overturn listener’s ideas about what you’re all about.

Koshiro: The more overtly melodic pieces this time probably belong to Kawashima.

—In terms of your own music taste, by the way, what are you into lately?

Koshiro: Right now I’m only listening to club music and classical. Originally I got into classical music through pop, and learned the basics of music that way. Kawashima, however, studied 20th century classical music in college, so he took a completely different path from me. Interestingly, though, we’ve ended up in a similar place.

—Modern classical, that makes sense. I can see how that would lead to a more confrontational, provocative sound like that of SoR3.

Kawashima: There’s some points of intersection between the two. Modern classical music is less about listening for simple enjoyment, but rather asks you to contemplate why a certain sound is there in the first place. There might be a really interesting idea hidden beneath an ugly or dissonant sound, and exploring that is part of the appeal. Its basis is not in traditional harmony, but in taking the sounds around you as they are and exploring the intricacies and nuances there.

However, one thing I don’t want to do is just clumsily apply those modern classical ideas in game music. Take jazz, for example… the heart of jazz is improvisation, and that essence can’t be fully expressed in sequenced music. I love jazz, but I’m not interested in trying to force it into game music. In that sense, though, techno is really an ideal midway point—its a genre that manages to take these weird, cheap sounds and somehow legitimize them. I think that conception was probably the biggest influence on the design of SoR3’s music.

Koshiro: I agree, though I think the public still has a lot of misconceptions about what techno is, which does put up something of a roadblock. Even with these SoR3 songs, I suspect a lot of people will just write them off as throwaway club tracks like you might hear at Juliana’s. (laughs)

—To close, what are some of the things you most want players to hear, when they listen to the music for SoR3?

Koshiro: Well, I know some people will think it’s probably the worst music ever put to a video game. (laughs) But personally, I think we used some rarely seen, even revolutionary techniques in putting this all together, and overall I’m really pleased with how it came out.

Kawashima: There are probably people out there making video game music who are holding back from making the game music they really want to make. We didn’t hold anything back for SoR3, and if people like what we’ve done here, then I hope it can inspire other composers to make the music they dream of. Definitely give it a listen.

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Motohiro Kawashima and Yuzo Koshiro, 1994.