1986 Game Music Round Table Interview

1986 Game Music Round Table Interview

This candid interview with several early game music composers was first featured in the 6/86 issue of Beep Magazine. It features an extremely young Yoshiki Okamoto and Capcom’s early composer star, Ayako Mori (of Ghosts and Goblins fame). The phenomenon of game music was just starting to take off, and popular songs like the Mario theme feature in the discussion. I’ve also included several of the comical illustrations that Beep included in the original article.

Yoshiki Okamoto (Designer)
Capcom, game designer. Works: SonSon, 1942, Exed Exes, Gunsmoke.
Ayako Mori (Composer)
Capcom, music composer. Works: Ghosts and Goblins, SonSon, 1942, Gunsmoke, Trojan.
Kenji Yoshida (Composer)
Nichibutsu, music composer. Works: Terra Cresta, Mighty Guy, Seicross.
Hiroshi Tsuji (Designer)
SNK, character designer. Works: ASO, Marvin’s Maze, Gladiator 1984.
Kasatoshi Yoshino (Composer)
SNK, assistant planner and composer. Works: TANK, ASO.

—There’s been four different Mario records released recently, and it seems like game music is really starting to take off. What is some of your favorite game music?

Yoshida: I like The Tower of Druaga. I like the melody lines.

Yoshino: Lately I’ve really been into Fantasy Zone.

Mori: With the hardware limitations we have today, nothing is really that good. Though I do have to recognize Namco’s work.

Tsuji: Even with the development of FM sound, and the ability to have 10 channels playing at once, from our perspective as the creators, today’s hardware is still very lacking.

If it’s a question of who is doing their best, then I would say Namco’s Xevious, maybe. Normally you get two or three arcade cabs together in the same space and the sound starts to get really muddy, but that doesn’t happen with Xevious for some reason.

Yoshiki Okamoto

Okamoto: My favorite game music all comes from my favorite games. Mappy, Space Harrier, Gradius. There’s been times where the music from Mappy is stuck in my head all day.

—Music is a part of video games. If you like a game that means you’ll probably like its music too.

Okamoto: In one sense, when a game is boring it’s all the fault of the game design itself. But if the graphics and music themselves are bad, I personally don’t get very excited to play it. Music is definitely of no small import.

Mori: But we’re always getting bossed around by everyone else, so wouldn’t you say that game music has a pretty low position on the totem pole? (laughs) And if you piss off the planners, you’ll live to regret it. (laughs)

Okamoto: I never just say “Fail” to our musicians when they bring me a piece of music, at least not voluntarily….

Mori: Either way, each month we have to write a lot of music. And what does get selected from there, you still hear grumblng about later… at least in my company that’s how it is, the game designers occupy a higher plane compared to us. What’s it like at everyone else’s work?

Tsuji: SNK doesn’t have a lot of employees, so everyone is pretty much entrusted with their own responsibilities. Everyone is always exchanging feedback… which is cool, but also rather disorganized. (laughs)

Ayako Mori

Okamoto: To speak from the planner’s perspective, we just want our image for the game to be understood.

—But aren’t there are also times when you’re totally inspired by what the musicians bring you?

Okamoto: Definitely. Then it’s like, yes! yes! this! do more of this! (laughs) But sometimes the music just doesn’t match, or the image is just a little different, and the musicians do get blamed… (laughs) It’s all a part of our subtle plans.

Mori: To be honest (laughs), the designers aren’t people who understand musical terminology, so they don’t know how to say things like “this is in the wrong key” or “the rhythm shouldn’t be triplets here.” Whatever it is they want, we have to work really hard to pull it out of them. The relationship between the designers and musicians has to be more than your typical office relationship. You practically both need the mentality of two lovers in a suicide pact (laughs) At least that’s how it is for our music team at Capcom, I think. Whoa… that sounds cool. (laughs)

Yoshida: At Nichibutsu the other designers just neglect us. (laughs) We make a bunch of songs, and they select the ones they like.

—It sounds like they must trust you. (laughs) For a single game, how many pieces of music will you compose?

Mori: If I’m really confident it fits the game, I’ll only do one. As for musical phrases, I might compose 100 or 200 in a month, but they never get past the stage of just being a riff/phrase. They don’t get made into songs.

Okamoto: Sometimes a song is good but it just doesn’t fit the game. Even if the song itself isn’t as good, we really want it to fit the game. For a STG, it needs to have that “shoot! shoot! shoot!” energy. Even if the quality takes a small hit, it’s also good to have songs that make the listener go “oh, I feel like I’ve heard this somewhere before…”

—In what way do the designers communicate what they want to the musicians?

Okamoto: Sometimes we write them short one-liners with the image we want.

Mori: Yeah, “Sea.” or “Wide Feeling”. I see these and it’s like, argh, not again!!

Tsuji: Wow, now that’s amazing.

Mori: I might write 7 or 8 songs trying to match that image, and almost all of them will be rejected. “How about making it sound like this…?” I just want them to stop making music requests like that! It would be better if they just told us exactly what they wanted.

Yoshida: At Nichibutsu they send us screenshots of the game in a nearly completed state, and we look at those while we compose.

Kenji Yoshida

Mori: It sounds like we musicians at Capcom just get the short end of the stick. (laughs) If the design plans are late, or the programming is late, then there’s reasons for that, but if the music is late no excuses are allowed.

Yoshida: Actually that’s the same for us, too.

—How do you come up with your songs, and what tools do you us?

Yoshida: I use a synthesizer and keyboard to compose when I’m writing game music. Then, when it’s time to actually put it all together, I sit next to the programmer while he works, and we hash out the details and polish the song. For some reason, I have to work on game music with a screen in front of me. If I try to compose in a different environment, most of the time my image is off and the song ends up being rejected.

Mori: I get many of my ideas at night, just before going to sleep. Then there’s being pestered to death and made to work like it’s a five-alarm fire… it’s probably about 50/50. My colleague says she gets most of her ideas while commuting. Then she rushes into her office and starts fiddling with the software tools.

Okamoto: Capcom Game Music—born on the train and the futon. (laughs)

Tsuji: At SNK we tell the musicians our ideas for the game and the characters, and we try to give them tapes of any music that fits what we’re thinking. I might hand them a Queen or Kazumi Watanabe tape, for instance—”like this, this!” Then the rest is up to them. Their process is along the lines of: write something on guitar, write out the music, then play around with the tones and patches in the software directly.

Hiroshi Tsuji (L) and Kasatoshi Yoshino (R) of SNK.

—Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories or struggles to share?

Okamoto: The very end of the Gunsmoke development was truly insane.

Mori: Yes, I had to finish 10 songs in one week. The things they were just casually asking for were crazy: make this theme change each time there’s a new pattern! oh, and please make this BGM longer! (laughs)

Okamoto: Let me just wave my magic wand here. (laughs)

Mori: I had to write the music without any real instruments. I took a business trip to write it, but the place they sent me to didn’t have any musical instruments. (laughs) Gunsmoke was all directly programmed in, so no data or notes remain of it now. Not even any sheet music.

Tsuji: When I was looking for sound effects (the ship combination sound in particular) for ASO, I asked the musicians to make it like the transformation sound and the “chudoo~n!” explosion sound from Ultra Seven. After hearing that the musicians got that I was going for something anime-ish.

—Do you guys write sound effects too?

Yoshida: I do. Compared to writing music the process is more trial and error, it can be surprising what you come up with.

Mori: I’m not directly involved in making sound effects, but it seems they make a lot of accidental discoveries. It also seems like those guys get to reuse a lot of their work too. I’m jealous.

Dreaming of the perfect ‘score’. Note that she is sleeping in the office. The text reads: “This song I wrote is great! zzz zzz…”

Okamoto: I’ve been told the explosion sound for Gunsmoke resembles the credit sound for Xevious, that one that goes “zukkyuun!” (laughs) With today’s hardware there’s a limit to what you can do with sound effects though, I think. If it doesn’t take you out of the game, that’s good enough. Taito’s Gladiator did a really good job.

Tsuji: Yeah, Gladiator is wonderful!

—That’s funny, I’ve been hearing that the arcade hardware is getting better and better…

Mori: Eh, I don’t think so.

—Do you feel like there are certain things you just can’t express with today’s hardware?

Mori: Yes.

Tsuji: Many, many things. In our first version of ASO, the music was just drums. I wanted it to be one long drum solo, but unfortunately it just didn’t sound good enough. It was too stiff and mechanical, like you were hitting your head into concrete. Too bad, I liked the idea.

Mori: If the hardware sucks it really constricts your expressive possibilities. Even if I only make a song with 8 or 6 parts, I would love for the hardware to be capable of playing back 10 tracks. I want the hardware to assist me; I think that’s how creativity works, you know. Although maybe I’m spoiled compared to other game companies, I don’t know…

Tsuji: It’s interesting how even with the same IC chips, the way they’re arranged on an individual PCB can entirely change the sound. It sucks for composers when they get screwed by that and have to hear players complaining that the music is bad.

Mori: Yeah, every game has a different hardware layout. The music can end up sounding low-quality and thin.

—What do you think of game centers as a listening environment for music?

Yoshida: I really wish they’d install headphone jacks.

Everyone: Yes!

Tsuji: Don’t you think it will be harder to play the games with big headphones on, though?

Every early arcade composer’s dream: headphone jacks for cabs.

Yoshida: I think inner-ear headphones with independent volume adjustment would be best. The cord can just dangle from behind your head.

Okamoto: Namco should sell those. They could put their Dig Dug logo on them. (laughs)

I’d also like them to make more cockpit style cabinets. Personally I don’t like to have others watching me while I play, it’s like they’re using my money. Cockpit cabinets also allow you to hear the music better. And it’s annoying when the fluorescent lighting in game centers shines on your screen… they’d protect against that too. Sound and graphics—that’s what games are, after all.

Mori: The quality of the music depends a lot on the maker of the pcb hardware too. I can always hear the music clearly in games made on Namco hardware.

Tsuji: I was looking at an Xevious pcb earlier, and yeah, it does look like the way they handle the sound circuitry is different.

Mori: Some companies will make their own hardware and stick with that, too. You can tell a Namco game just from the way they sound. Some companies also have a particular stance with regard to the type of sounds they use. Capcom is known for their simple FM sounds. (laughs) Not that I’m complaining, of course.

—Game Music is starting to get mainstream recognition. What do you all think of the Famicom’s music?

Yoshida: The Famicom can only put out three channels of sound I believe. Right now we’re porting the arcade version of Terra Cresta to the Famicom, and it’s giving me a headache.

Tsuji: The Terra Cresta hardware was amazing, it sounds like a lot of work. (laughs)

Mori: With the limited memory of the Famicom, to an extent there’s just nothing you can do to make it sound good. I have a half-resigned attitude about it.

—But take something like Super Mario Bros. Don’t you feel the melody compensates?

Yoshino: You don’t think that music is popular because the game itself became famous?

Mori: I think it’s the samba feel that really makes it… it was a good genre to select. STG and fighting games feel played out now, so it feels really fresh.

Okamoto: Yeah, even if you’re in the middle of working, hearing that music playing next to you doesn’t bother you.

Tsuji: The use of music in Mario is different, isn’t it.

Writing music on the train: “I’ve got one! Let me off!!”

—Are you saying that you think Mario’s music is sort of neutral and inoffensive?

Okamoto: I’m saying that you can ignore it while playing. It functions like real “background” music, which I personally like.

Tsuji: The “Game Over” melody is really good too. If you think about music like a carrot and stick, then the normal BGM is the carrot, and the game over music is the stick: you died because you suck, learn to play!

Mori: Well said. You understand how game music works!

—What should someone do if they want to become a game music designer?

Tsuji: I would tell them: it’s not just about music, and it’s not just about games. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in a player’s shoes and think about things from their perspective.

Mori: You need flexibility. Oriental/Chinese melodies, Indian rhythms, classical, rock… you’ll have to use all those styles depending on the needs of the moment. Study up!

Also, this is the kind of work where you can’t take forever, slowly perfecting your creations. You’ve got to be able to get your inspiration out in quick bursts. Talent, of course, is also important; you work will end up as a commercial product after all. If you’re a composer, people who play other instruments or sing can help you. But the computer is not going to help you. It’s just a lifeless machine, and it’s our job to see how much life we can breath into it.

I always tell these things to our new hires, but for some reason they all end up quitting… (laughs)

Okamoto: Mori is famous for nipping talent in the bud. (laughs)

Yoshida: You should be able to write good melodies. Listen to a lot of good music: everyone starts off by imitating others.

—What is the shortest path to becoming a game music designer, then?

Tsuji: Become Mori’s apprentice. (laughs)

Apprenticeship at Capcom. The text reads: “Hey, pupil! Get me a coffee!”

Okamoto: Just sneak your way into some game company. Once you’re in, you’re golden!

Mori: Yeah, we’re trying to sell these games, so we’ll teach you the necessary know-how. But you will need a lot of patience. People who get into game music mainly because they want to write music, often end up getting dissatisfied and quit. Although people who just love games, but have no talent, also quit. (laughs)

Okamoto: As you might expect, writing game music is different from writing other kinds of music. You’ve got a really small space in which to create something good. There’s a period of training during which you need to learn that idea heart and soul. If you can weather that storm, the rest is easy.

Tsuji: I suggest you start by imitating others.

Mori: Game Over music, BGM, start screen music… it doesn’t matter, just try composing 10 songs on your computer, and send them in as a demo tape. We will, with all sincerity, reply to you. The key is having your own unique appeal and talent!

Tsuji: The gates are wide open at SNK too, come on down. (laughs)

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  1. Very eye-opening article. I appreciated hearing from the perspective of the composers what it was like to communicate with game designers. Thank you for translating this!

  2. Thank you for the great translation! Really interesting hearing their impressions on working with limitations. Dreaming of 10 track hardware!! And how the samba from the Mario theme felt fresh at the time. It’s so ubiquitous today, I didn’t even consider the influence of genre and style on the theme!

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