Like all Dragon Quest fans around the world, I was deeply saddened to learn of Kouichi Sugiyama’s recent passing. I wanted to do my part in celebrating his work with these three vintage interviews. Two of them cover Sugiyama’s personal history and approach to game music, in which he advocated for game composers to learn the fundamentals of music theory as he felt this would elevate both game music and video games as a whole.

The interview with Satoshi Tajiri, while focusing more on Tajiri’s career, exposes a side of Sugiyama which has not often been appreciated in the West: that of the tireless promoter, facilitator, and communicator of gaming culture. Indeed, there are many more interviews in my archive between Sugiyama and other legendary developers/composers, and I hope to continue translating these for all to better appreciate his legacy.

DQ 30th Anniversary interviews
Kouichi Sugiyama interview (1989)
Kouichi Sugiyama interview (1994)

Quinty interview (2014)
Game Design feat. Tajiri (1996)
Pokemon interview (2000)

Kouichi Sugiyama – 1988 Developer Interview

originally featured in BEEP magazine

—Sugiyama, in your career you have written a great deal of music for television dramas. Could you speak a bit on the relationship between that work and game music?

Sugiyama: Up to now, the music for video games has been overwhelmingly “game-like”, but I wanted to try and overturn that image and create game music that felt more like something you would hear in a tv drama. Maybe I was aiming for a “revolution” in game music… and I also think RPGs are really a kind of drama. That’s why I’m writing game music in the same way I write drama music.

Sugiyama then went on to further explain to me what he meant, using cinema as an example. Long ago, in the era of silent films, there were benshi who read the intertitles for the audience, as well as an orchestral band who would always play “Heaven and Hell” whenever there was a chaotic scene. But then came Prokofiev and Eisenstein, who created a revolution in film music with their scores. Their music was initially met with skepticism from some, who felt “this doesn’t sound like film music!”, but today we consider their scores to be the foundations of film music as we know it. Sugiyama feels that game music is going through a similar transitional period.

Sugiyama: It was a small twist of fate that got me into game music to begin with, but the pioneering work I’m doing in this field makes me so happy, and I can’t imagine a more fulfilling line of work to be in right now.

—As a game sound creator, how much of the process are you involved in?

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Kouichi Sugiyama, 1987

Sugiyama: I create demo tapes on my own, and if the team signs off on them, I have a music programmer do the sequencing.

In other words, it’s similar to the relationship between a composer and performer. It’s the performer’s job to decide how best to interpret the music the composer has written: and in this case, the “performer” is the music programmer.

Sugiyama: That’s why I think we’ll start seeing “duos” of music programmers and composers, or music programmers who are stars themselves.

—I understand that your love of games isn’t confined to Famicom or computer games alone. How do you feel about game center (arcade) games?

Sugiyama: Of course I love them! (laughs) I’ve been playing since the days of block-breaking games like Breakout. I was especially obsessed with Space Invaders. After that I liked Head On, Pac Man, Scramble…

Sugiyama apparently loved Sega’s Deep Scan so much that he finally had to buy the cabinet for himself. That purchase became the first of what is now a large arcade pcb collection owned by this amazing “gaming grandpa” (I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining Sugiyama hunched over an arcade cabinet in the dim light of a game center, sweat dripping from his brow…!)

—Final question: how do you think game music will change as the hardware continues to improve?

Sugiyama: Without a doubt, as the quality of the sounds improve, and we have more polyphony to work with, things will get easier for composers. However, I don’t believe anything fundamental will change. A boring melody with better sound quality is still, in the end, a boring melody. By the same token, even if your game only has PSG sound, if it’s a good melody, it will still be interesting. I do think it’s easy to get caught up and led astray by the hardware, though.

Sugiyama then told me about his experience seeing the music industry transition from monaural to stereo sound. Up to then stereo sound had been very rare, but now there was a flood of songs with gaudy stereo effects, with sounds moving all around the stereo field in an obvious and distracting way, as if to broadcast to listeners “THIS IS STEREO!” To Sugiyama, it seemed as if everyone had suddenly forgotten and abandoned the fundamentals of music.

Sugiyama: That’s why, when people praise the video game music I’ve written, I’m aware that it may be more the technology’s victory, and less the composer’s, that they are praising. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, when one considers the relationship between the composer and the music programmer. Which is why I think I have to continue to be mindful of that dimension of composing game music as everything moves forward.

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Sugiyama posing with a portion of his game collection, including PCBs and board games from his childhood (discussed more below).

Sugiyama Koichi x Satoshi Tajiri – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in The Super Famicom (jp) magazine

Sugiyama: Tajiri-san, in my sphere of colleagues and friends in the gaming world, you’re famously known as the “top gamer.” You’ve helped me out in the past too. (laughs) I remember wanting to see the graphics for R-TYPE, and you brought it over to my house and showed it off to me.

Today I’d like to ask you about your life, and the paths you’ve travelled to reach here. I’ve often seen you speak in gaming magazines, but I don’t believe any article has touched on these points yet. To start from the beginning: where were you born?

Tajiri: I was born in Setagaya. But we moved to Tada when I was three, so I don’t have many memories of Setagaya.

When I was in elementary school, console games were not yet popular, so I had other hobbies. I loved catching bugs and wanted to be an entomologist then. (laughs) I did a lot of my own personal research reading encyclopedias and reference books, like when I tried to learn how to keep the stag beetles I’d caught in summer alive till the next year. As far as games go, it was a Sunday tradition in my house to play board games like “The Game of Life” and “The Game of Billionare.”

Sugiyama: What year were you born?

Tajiri: 1965. That makes me 29 now.

Sugiyama: Then you must have played “The Game of Billionaire” in the 70s. I played a lot of board games as a kid too. The first one I ever played was Bankers. So after elementary school, was middle school your first encounter with computers?

Tajiri: Yeah. Space Invaders was very popular at the end of my first year of middle school. I’d seen Pong games and the like before that, but never played any of them.

So yeah, it was during that Space Invaders craze that I first played a video game. It was actually quite random: I was standing there watching someone play Space Invaders, and for some reason, he turned to me and asked if I wanted to play the last life. I had just been watching him, and had no intention to playing myself, but I said sure… and I died almost immediately. (laughs) Dying like that made me mad, and I thought to myself, “well, maybe I can improve if I play some more”, which ultimately led to me playing all the time. (laughs)

Sugiyama: Knowing you, I bet you came up with all kinds of strategies then too. 1

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Satoshi Tajiri, 1995

Tajiri: Yeah, after that I started going to the game center everyday, even on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I know it sounds strange, but I think I even went the day one of my parents died. (laughs)

There were a few other games at the game center then, but I was obsessed with the Invader-style games. At the time there was a big variety of different Space Invaders clones. The first one I played cost 100 yen per game, and you had a laser-style gun, with three lives. I also found hidden things, like how to get a free life, and in doing so, realized that all these invaders games each had their own little quirks and differences, and I lost myself in them for a long time.

Some had UFOs that came out, deployed the invader aliens, and flew away; others had UFOs that stayed on the screen and continually let invaders out like a pepper shaker… there were many different knock-off variations, but to me, they were all “Invader Games.” There may have been only one true Space Invaders, but as I just described there were so many variations, and when I realized that I became interested in finding more and exploring each of them.

Sugiyama: You’ve also been known for a long time now as a major collector of old arcade pcbs. Do you own a lot of those different invader clones?

Tajiri: Yeah. For example, during the boom, even the big game makers made their own imitations, and there’s lots of those. I love seeing them and noticing all the subtle differences. I’m still collecting those games today, but to be honest with you, I don’t collect as much as I used to.

I’ve been collecting old pcbs for over 10 years, but back in the day, people were practically giving them away as if they were trash, and you could easily pick up older games for 1000 yen (10.00 USD). But now, a pcb of Space Invaders costs almost 50,000 yen (~500 USD). The prices just keep going up, so my collection hasn’t grown much in recent years. There’s lots of old games I’m nostalgic for that I’d love to own, but unlike new games there’s a limited quantity.

Sugiyama: Yeah, and with some of those illegal Space Invader bootlegs, there weren’t many made to begin with, so they’re getting more expensive…

Tajiri: Some people don’t know the value of these games and throw them away, or will give them away for free. Then you end up competing with and butting up against other collectors though.

…but to return to my middle school days, back then I was constantly playing all these arcade games, and my parents lamented this apparent turn to delinquency. The average person in those days, you remember, thought that if your kid went to game centers they’d become a juvenile delinquent, a “bad kid.” Perhaps I was in my rebellious phase then, but I remember feeling, “I don’t care if they tell me not to, I’m still going to go!” So for me, there were actually two motivations: I loved playing games of course, but the sense of rebellion I had, knowing that this “prohibited” and “bad” thing actually wasn’t bad at all—that also motivated me to go everyday, even when they tried to stop me. My parents knew, but they never told my teachers, thankfully, so it didn’t blow up into a bigger problem.

Sugiyama: You must have maintained decent grades. If you had been held back, I bet it would have been blamed on video games.

A great video comparing several different Space Invaders “clones” from the late 70s/early 80s.

Tajiri: My grades were in the upper half of my class. I mean, they weren’t amazing or anything, but they were good enough. My teachers gave me good personal marks too. My gym teacher though, he was the one person who I didn’t get along with. My gym grades were thus never very good… despite not being bad at sports.

Sugiyama: I’m sure your reflexes were sharp from all that gaming! (laughs) When you think about it, the game center was a kind of training ground for your future career as a game creator.

Tajiri: That’s true. Many of the winning ideas that would come to me much later, I feel I largely owe to my experiences playing Space Invaders and other games of that era.

I still play a ton of games, about as much as I did then, but unlike those older days, I feel so many games today resemble each other too much. Back then, it’s true that games looked cheap, but they compensated for that cheapness and differentiated themselves with unique gameplay ideas.

Sugiyama: Nowadays when a single game gets popular, it establishes a whole series of conventions that others then follow. At the dawn of video games, though, it was more like each game was composed of fresh, new ideas. Well then, if in junior high you were obsessed with Space Invaders, what about high school?

Tajiri: I wanted to use computers, so I took the science track in high school. I went to the Tokyo National Institute of Technology for 5 years, and during those days I played games like Deep Scan and Missile Command a lot.

Unlike today, the majority of games then were shooting games. I think the reason those games fell out of style is because they got too fast. And if you play nothing but shooting games for a long time, you could, to a degree, keep up with that level of speed, but for first-time players it stopped being fun, and eventually the player-base got smaller and smaller and everyone got bored with the genre as a whole.

Sugiyama: After finishing school, when did games become your actual work?

Tajiri: At the end of my second year of high school, I started the mini-magazine Game Freak. There weren’t any “game magazines” yet then, so it sold rather well. I sold about 30 issues, and thanks to my experience, while still in school I started doing freelance work writing for a computer-related commercial magazine (introductions for new games and such), and the money I got from that allowed me to keep publishing Game Freak.

Sugiyama: I remember how ravenous people were for information about games back then. In that sense and others, Game Freak was very much a forerunner of the Famicom magazine boom.

Tajiri: If you’re already dropping oodles of 100-yen coins on these games trying to figure things out by trial and error, wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper!) to spend 500 yen on our magazine and learn the tricks and techniques that way? (laughs) I think half of the readers who bought Game Freak were people who wanted to play better.

Sugiyama: If you’d kept doing magazines, perhaps you’d be the President of a Japanese gaming press empire now! (laughs) I’ve heard rumors that when you decided you wanted to make games yourself, you hired an aspiring programmer and rented out a room with your own money, where you lived and ate for several years. Is this true?

Tajiri: I knew some very talented programmers with enough skills to program arcade pcbs. While they were attending technical school in Tokyo, I sent them some of my ideas, and we decided to work together and make something at Game Freak.

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The board games mentioned above (“Game of Billionaires”, “Bankers”, and the familiar “Game of Life”), and Game Freak’s inaugural creation Quinty. Tajiri and Ken Sugimori discuss the making Quinty in greater detail in this interview, but it’s interesting to note some of aesthetic similarities between Quinty and these older board games.

Sugiyama: You were still a student then, as well?

Tajiri: I was, and they were also going to technical school. From the money I was making off Game Freak and freelancing for that commercial magazine, I knew I could cover the development fees. I mean, I wasn’t talking about a lavish development of course, just doing something simple wherever we could.

We started by investigating the internal workings of the Famicom, and by the time that was done, 2 years had passed. (laughs) They also graduated then, and had to go look for employment. They ended up finding jobs, but everyday at 7PM they came to the Game Freak office, and programmed there until it was time to catch the last train of the night. They lived that double-life for quite awhile. Later, when our work was getting down to brass tacks, I had them quit their jobs, and I paid them a salary at Game Freak; they worked as programmers, mainly implementing the ideas I had for games. From that point, it took us about 1 year to finish our first game, Quinty.

Sugiyama: I remember certain people talking about how good Quinty was, the character animation and all. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment when you consider the size of your staff, too. If you could sell that many copies with a staff of just 2 or 3, I imagine with 50 people you could probably break the 1 million mark.2 What did you do after Quinty?

Tajiri: I was busy trying to get the company off the ground, so I felt like making another game with this same team would be rough-going. So I had the idea to split the programmers off separately and have them work only on programming, on two titles at once. However, it didn’t work out very well. Compared to our original format, where you’re working with people you get along with from start to finish… well, various problems arose.

Later, after getting the company on solid footing, Nintendo asked us, through APE, to make “Something simple but fun that uses Yoshi.” (laughs) As far as requests go it was a bit vague, but I wholeheartedly agreed with the underlying notion of “simple but fun”, and the game we made was Yoshi no Tamago (Yoshi in the US) for the Famicom.

Yoshi sent the message that Game Freak was a company who could be counted on to develop “simple but fun” games, so it was very good work for us, and on that point I’m extremely satisfied with it.

Sugiyama: Do you think “simple but fun” will come to be associated with Game Freak as a matter of course, then?

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A very young Satoshi Tajiri, from his days attending the Tokyo National Institute of Technology.

Tajiri: Well, it’s one of our basic premises when coming up with game ideas, to be sure. I want as many people in the world, normal people, to experience video games. And the basic criteria we have to consider there, is whether it’s easy to understand—whether it’s something that even our parents’ generation would want to play.

Sugiyama: In that sense, I think now that Game Freak is an established company, what you’re aiming to do is something fundamentally different from what companies like Square or Koei are aiming at. Do you have any advice for future aspiring game creators?

Tajiri: Be selective and only play good games. I believe that experience will breathe life into your own game creations. There was a time in my own life, after the Invader Boom, when I realized how many boring, bad games were out there, and it actually made me kind of mad.

But on top of that anger, I remember thinking “if it was me, I’d make it like this”, and wondering why they didn’t do X instead. That feeling of wanting to go against the grain, against the fashionable—it also informed the making of my first game, Quinty. My anger with a world of conformity gave me the strength to give birth to something new. If you’re perfectly satisfied with the present, after all, you’ll never create anything greater.

Sugiyama: Never get complacent, and keep challenging the status quo. That’s good advice. Thank you for the inspiring words today!

Koichi Sugiyama – 2003 Developer Interview

taken from the GSLA archive

I believe my earliest encounter with music was receiving a record for my 4th or 5th birthday. I also remember my parents buying me a toy piano, but I know that since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to make music. When I was in 4th grade, World War II began, and all my classmates were saying how they wanted to be army or navy generals when they grew up, and alone among them I said “I want to be an orchestra conductor…” and I remember they all looked at me disapprovingly. (laughs) But from then onwards, I really did have that desire, to become a composer, and both my parents could read music, so I quite naturally learned to read and write music too. When it came to things to do at our home back then, it was pretty much play mahjong or practice choir singing. (laughs) Growing up in an environment like that, I suppose I couldn’t help but develop an interest in both music and games.

As someone whose love of games goes way back, I owned all the game consoles released in the early 80s, including Casio’s console and the Tomy Tutor. But in terms of graphics, games, and music, the Famicom was the only truly satisfying machine then. I thought it was amazing that you could play Mappy, which I loved, on a home console. When Space Invaders first came out, I thought the way sound was handled, how it was linked with the gameplay, was quite interesting—like the way the tempo would get faster when there were fewer enemies. But I would say the sound then was still in the realm of “sound effects” rather than music. The first game that I really felt had “musical” sound was Mappy.

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Kouichi Sugiyama in his natural element, conducting game music for orchestra. In 1987 he began doing the now famous Dragon Quest and game music concerts, which today are regularly held all over Japan.

The way I met Enix was… I sent them a feedback postcard about their computer game Morita Shogi. Someone happened to see it, and they contacted me and asked if I wanted to make game music for them. That request led to me meeting Kouichi Nakamura and writing the music for Dragon Quest. In our first meeting, Nakamura said to me, “If I had to describe it, Dragon Quest is a medieval European knight’s tale.” Hearing that, I thought to myself, “I’ve got this—if we’re talking medieval Europe and knights, then I can use the grammar of classical music as a base.”

I personally felt that game music had to be treated as a serious “composition” (a conviction I had held on the previous projects I worked on, Wingman 2 and Gandhara, as well). It shouldn’t just be there to provide sound, but should be something you can appreciate on its own merits as well, and when I wrote the music for Dragon Quest, I challenged myself to live up to this belief. However…! Nakamura soon informed me that “we’re running out of time, so you have one week to write the music.” (laughs) I had him show me some of the graphics, which were partially completed at that point.

The first songs I wrote were the opening theme and the overworld music. Somehow, I’d managed to write them in a week as requested. It seemed Nakamura had been imagining something more upbeat for the overworld music, something that would give the players a “Let’s Go!” kind of feeling, so initially he showed some disapproval for what I’d written. But after the debugging team played the game for several hours they apparently became enamored of it, and when they played the finished game they felt it fit perfectly.

I used three sound channels for the opening and ending themes, but for all the others, I only used two. There wasn’t a lot of memory to work with, so Nakamura had asked me to not use 3 tracks for every song. I decided, therefore, to use an arpeggiated line (behind the main melody) to convey a feeling of harmony, rhythm, and bass.

These days it’s not uncommon to see professional musicians working in game music, but in my opinion, a real pro should be able to make music even with three voices only. In my head, within those two or three sounds I can hear a whole orchestra. (laughs) In the opening theme I hear horns very clearly. When I was a child, I sang three-part choir pieces with my parents, which is the same as the three-channel PSG sound chip on the Famicom. So I didn’t feel that the hardware was limited in that way.

A full orchestra concert for the music of Dragon Quest IV, conducted by Sugiyama himself in 2015 in Sapporo.

Even though it’s 2003, the Famicom and Super Famicom are still set up in my house and are played regularly. In fact, I play them so much, I feel I should probably buy another one to keep in stock for the future. I feel a connection to this console, you see, because it was my encounter with the Famicom twenty years ago, and then my encounter with Dragon Quest, that started my career as a game music composer. And I feel it marked a new chapter in my life as a musician, more generally, as well. For that reason and much more, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to it.