R-Type – 2014 Composer Interview

R-Type – 2014 Composer Interview

This lengthy interview with designer and composer Masato Ishizaki was featured in Shooting Gameside #9. In between relating his personal history and the details of the R-Type sound and music development, he offers a rare glimpse into the world of Irem in the 1980s and 1990s. There is also a companion interview to this piece with fellow Irem composer Masahiko Ishida which we translated here.

—To start with, please tell us about your life before you joined Irem.

Ishizaki: I was just your average college student focusing on finance and economics. I hadn’t touched a synthesizer or computer, and Pong, Arkanoid, Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Donkey Kong was the extent of my games knowledge. As for music, I began learning guitar in middle school because I wanted to learn to play and sing folk songs. By my first year of high school I was listening to blues musician Otis Rush. I loved the way he played lead guitar while singing. “It would be so cool if I perform and sang like this when I’m older,” I thought. Western music was all I listened to back then, and before long I was dreaming of being a pro musician.

Later in life, when I was looking for my first job, I interview with about 50 companies, but didn’t get chosen for any of them. Just when I was starting to think I wouldn’t be able find normal employment, I saw a job ad for Irem. The ad said it was for a “software developer”, but I didn’t know that Irem made and sold games.

At the interview I realized they were looking for a game designer. I was bad at drawing, so I answered that I couldn’t do design. I thought that was it for me, but then the interviewer asked if I liked music. I said that I played guitar, and he asked if I also composed music. I said I had never composed, but that I knew how to improvise, to which he replied “well, then I’m sure you can compose too. We need music and sound effects for our games. Are you interested?” Without my even trying, I had landed a job doing music.

Masato Ishizaki

I joined Irem in December 1983, right around the time 10 Yard Fight was released. At this time the planning and design were both done by the same section. Neither was strictly segregated, and everyone did both game design and planning. I was assigned to work on sound. At that time there were about 20 of us, and the programmers were in another section.

—Wow, that’s not how I expected it would be. After you were hired, was there a lot you had to learn?

Ishizaki: Yeah. As a new employee, the first thing that struck me was just how incredible the work of the game designers was. There was a senior designer who sat across from me, and one day he showed me some pixel art he had made of sea spray for the waterskiing game Tropical Angel. Back then we still didn’t have graphics tools, so he had to plot everything out by hand on special A3 sized graph paper. He had drawn only the sea spray art, and when he first showed it to me I couldn’t tell what it was. Yet the moment I saw it animated in the game, I was shocked: it was the totally smooth animation of a wave. I thought this guy was on the same level of genius as Katsushika Hokusai or something.

Hokusai worked in an era without cameras, and he created an image of Mt. Fuji with a still wave (that no one had ever laid eyes on) in the foreground. To me the graphic designers’ work was just as impressive. Later, this designer also did the character design for Lode Runner. I’m glad we had a craftsman with such strong talent in drawing working at Irem. However, this also put huge pressure on me to create sound that would be at the same level of quality.

The Battle-Road, Ishizaki’s arcade sound debut.

The first project I did sound for was The Battle Road. After that I worked on Lode Runner: Revenge of the Bangeringu Empire, from the initial planning stage onwards (I also did the music for it).

—And before you worked at Irem, I believe it was Ichirou Takagi who did the sound? For Moon Patrol and Zippy Race…

Ishizaki: When I joined, he was no longer at Irem. So I never got to work with him. There was another senior sound staff though, Morita, who did sound for Youjuuden, Kaiketsu Yanchamaru, and Battle Bird… but he just told me to do things however I liked. I researched the PSG chip and sound creation, fumbling along as I went.

Sound is created through vibrations (waves), as you know. The length of the waveform determines the pitch of the sound. And the height of the waveform determines the volume. I had to learn that very basic knowledge as a foundation before I learned about actual sound creation. At the beginning we didn’t have sound creation tools, so you wrote out the notation for both the sound fx and music, then manually programmed that data in.

For sound fx, we’d take the fastest tempo possible and then program the beat for 32nd or 64th notes, creating an octave effect. Later when we could use sampled sounds, we wrote down the pitch and length of the notes but passed on the actual data input to the programmers. Then, by the time I had finally learned PSG, arcade hardware switched to FM sound chips… it was like starting from square one all over. But I like researching this kind of stuff so it wasn’t a burden.

When I make sound effects, my reference point is always the animation frames of the graphics. Take an explosion in a STG for example. Consider the animation used when a player shoots an enemy: first, the enemy starts to break up; second, there’s an explosion; third, the explosion dissipates. The first thing I do is watch those animation frames over and over, imagining sounds in my head that would match: KRKK! BANG! BLAM!, etc. Next I would calculate the timing of each animation frame, and finally match a sound to each frame.

I taught this method to the new employees at Irem, too. Irem soon started to use sampled sounds, but at the time we had little control over the waveforms, so it was easier to match sound effects to animation this way. The reason I keyed the sound effects to the animation frames was that I thought it made the player feel like they were at one with the controls. That was something I realized with the games Lode Runner and Spelunker II.

Even when we got FM sound, I used the same methods in our next game, R-Type. The R-Type explosions have a unique sound, don’t they? That’s because the explosion animation was unique, you see. It’s the same with the reflect laser and anti-aircraft laser (we called it the “candy laser”). I think if you just used sampled sounds, it wouldn’t sound so tightly matched. Even if I were to make another game today, I think I’d use the same method.

—Have you not worked on game music in recent years?

Ishizaki: No, not at all. Right now I don’t have a computer setup for making music. The golf game Major Title was the last game I did sound for.

The Muura enemies that inspired the st5 BGM in R-Type.

—When you were at Irem, did you listen to the music and sounds of other games?

Ishizaki: Yeah, some of the ones I thought were wonderful: Gradius by Konami, and Namco’s Xevious, Mappy, New Rally X, Galaga, and Pacman. I thought Taito’s Darius and Ninja Warriors, which came out a little later, were really cool. Also Sega’s After Burner and Outrun.

However, at a certain point, I felt game music started to change, and the trend was towards more of an “anime theme song” type of style. My conception of video game music was more cinematic, you see. For instance, after you watch a movie and think back on a moving scene, you don’t remember the exact melody or song. But the music was nonetheless required for that scene to be memorable.

Since I did the initial planning and design for many games, my perspective was that the special appeal of games lies precisely in the link between music, controls, and visuals. Focusing solely on the sound creates game music with a whole different perspective, I think.

—Having the sound and design so tightly linked was a very rare thing for games back then.

Ishizaki: Since the design and planning staff worked in the same section with me, I got a lot of ideas from them. These ideas were really interesting. For example, when I was designing and composing for Lode Runner: Banguringu Teikoku no Gyakushou, I was also writing music for Kung Fu Master at the same time. The designer/planner for Kung Fu Master was Takashi Nishiyama, who is currently the director of Dimps Corp. He also designed Moon Patrol. As a game designer he knew how to make games with a charismatic, well-designed presentation.

At first, with Kung Fu Master, he was saying: “This game doesn’t need any music. Martial arts and Karate are all about two things: stillness and movement. I want to show that with this game. When you land a punch or kick on an enemy, you’ll just hear the PISSH! PASSH! sounds of a hit. This going to be cool.” But I already had that melody for Kung Fu Master playing clearly in my head. So I suggested to him that I create two versions, one with and without music, and he could decide which he preferred. After I prepared the versions and showed them to Nishiyama, he promptly replied “Let’s go with the music version.”

Kung Fu Master gameplay.

It was a quick decision! And it had only taken me 3-5 minutes to write the melody. (laughs) It wasn’t that I was being lazy; I just thought that the idea in my head would fit the mood of the game precisely as I had imagined it. I wasn’t trying to make a long song, or something especially melodious. I had the Xevious music in mind. I set the tempo at the speed the character walked, and I wanted the music to evoke the feeling of someone walking in a stately way towards a battle.

—Please tell us how R-Type got started.

Ishizaki: R-Type began with our parent company, Nanao, designing a new pcb hardware. They wanted us to create something to its specifications, and R-Type was the game design we came up with. The development team was very young, and this was both the designers’ and planners’ first game. I think it was the programmer’s second game? The average age of the team was 23-24. I, who was much older and had been at Irem a lot longer, played a kind of leadership role, but their creativity and abilities were really outstanding.

—I’ve heard the R-Type development team was very conscious of Gradius when making R-Type, but how about you?

Ishizaki: I was too. It had good sound, and the music changed every stage, which was innovative. I really liked its echo-y, spacey sound effects too.

—R-Type was your first encounter with FM sound, wasn’t it?

Ishizaki: I first studied FM synthesis on the Yamaha MSX computer, actually. I couldn’t get anything to sound the way I wanted! This is kind of pathetic, but the reason R-Type’s music doesn’t have drums or percussion is because I didn’t know how to make those sounds with FM. If I had known how I probably would have added them.

There was another problem that came up later with FM sound: because the FM waveform is more subtle and complex than PSG, it was easy for the details to get buried in a noisy game center environment. I came to realize that the more interesting I made a sound, the less it would be heard!

For R-Type’s music, the graphics again became my inspiration. The first song I wrote was the stage 5 theme (the name of the song for the CD release was just something I came up with myself later). I stared and stared at the twisting, writhing movements of the Muura enemy, wanting to create something that represented that visual image, which is how I came up with the song’s ascending and descending melody. I wanted it to be like the soundtrack to a monster movie. The first time everyone heard the music in-game, they all exclaimed “Ooo!”

—Is there a story behind the sounds you used in stage 3 for the battleship?

Ishizaki: That was a special stage, so at first I wasn’t sure what to do for it. I began the intro with the sound of the giant battleship moving up and down. Then that opening riff comes in, right about when you see the cluster of cannons and guns on the battleship. All the songs on R-Type are similarly choreographed, with each sound/section corresponding to some visual theme. In that sense, the hardest theme for me to compose was actually the first stage, where there’s not a lot going on since it’s mostly just an intro. I tried to write something that made the player feel “something exciting is about to begin!”

R-Type stage 3 playthrough.

—Yeah, that first song is definitely filled with a sense of anticipation and dynamism.

Ishizaki: The intro sequence, where the R-9 flies in, was actually added at the end of the development after the rest of the game had been completed.

—When you wrote the theme music for the boss battles, which boss did you have in mind?

Ishizaki: Dobkeratops, the stage 1 boss. He had the most impact for me. I think you can say this song had an influence on later games, or at least that it was imitated by others.

After I had finished all the songs for R-Type, other people at Irem told me “we want you to make the songs more singable, with melodies that are catchy and easier to remember.” But I had made everything according to the imagery of the game, so I didn’t change it.

—When the R-Type music was recorded onto CD, were you concerned about people not experiencing the music alongside the visuals?

Ishizaki: No, that was different. This was our first FM release after all, and while making it I thought it would be great if this were someday released on CD. I was hoping some record company would ask us, and in fact, that’s what happened. By the way, we had wanted to include the soundtrack for Kung Fu Master on the same disc. It was the game that really sold people on the Irem name. However, due to copyright issues surrounding the game and the title of a certain movie, it would have been too difficult to include, so we just left it off.

—You used the name “SCLAP” on the cds that were released then; does that name have a special meaning?

Ishizaki: This is the first time I’ve told anyone, but the “S” is from the last letter of “BLUES” and the “CLAP” is from Eric Clapton. I love Clapton even today, and he’s the model guitarist to me. At first I was going to use “BLUESCLAP” as my pseudonym, but that felt a little too cheezy.

—After R-Type, we start to see the Irem sound team take the spotlight more frequently. For the next releases, new sound staff member Masahiko Ishida joined the team.

Ishizaki: He was introduced to me by my predecessor, Ichirou Takagi. I didn’t know what kind of person Ishida was, but the music he wrote that he brought to the interview was amazing. I thought if this guy joined Irem I could get him to work with me and have him do everything. (laughs) I also worked with Takushi Hiyamuta. And of course he too brought amazing music to his interview. Other than Major Title, the last game I did sound for was Vigilante. After that I moved to a different section doing planning and design, and I became the lead development planner for pretty much every game Irem withdrew from game development in 1994.

Vigilante, one of Ishizaki's last musical works at Irem.

—When Ishida joined Irem, the “game music band” boom was gaining steam. Were there similar stirrings at Irem?

Ishizaki: The only person working specifically in the sound section then was Ishida. And everyone else only played guitar or did vocals. (laughs) Morita and I were heading up planning, so yeah, it was a non-starter. Moreover, I and the rest of Irem really felt our energy should be more focused on designing and planning games anyway.

—After R-Type, the rhythm side of Irem’s game music became more developed. At that time other companies were starting to use sampling for their percussion, while Irem alone continued to use their highly individual, FM synthesized drum sounds.

Ishizaki: After R-Type we developed our own in-house sound tools. Ishida and I then experimented, coming up with our own tom, gated snare, and other drum sounds. They were well-crafted sounds so we decided we’d use them for awhile. Takushi Hayamuta also created some incredibly detailed sounds. As for sampling, we tried as much as possible to use samples only for sound fx. Using them for both sound fx and music would have eaten up too many channels.

—Around this time Irem also started doing more console ports; did you oversee these as well?

Ishizaki: I did, so far as it goes. But the memory limitations on the console ports were really severe. Especially for the PC Engine.

—For R-Type II and later games in the series, did you help out at all in the sound development, even a little bit?

Ishizaki: No, not at all. I left R-Type II entirely to Ishida, to do with as he liked. I trusted his abilities.

—Since Irem stopped making games in 1994, what have you been up to?

Ishizaki: I moved to Nazca and now work for SNK, but most of my work there was developing Pachinko and Pachislot games. Unable to keep up with the gaming world, I’ve pretty much retired from it. My activities as a pro musician began after that.

The things I studied in games are still helpful to me today. For example, when doing a live show I think of it like the flow of a game, with an intro, ending, and story. I approach remixes in a similar way. I don’t just focus on presenting my music well; I try to think about what the overall selling point is as I write.

—I don’t think you’ve performed any game music in your live shows, but if there were an offer…?

Ishizaki: I would. But I wonder, would it really be all that interesting? My music at IREM was composed specifically for those visuals. Well, maybe it would be interesting to take those themes and arrange them for a live band. Assuming there’s people out there who want to hear that!

—Finally, please give a final message to all the fans who, even today, still can’t get enough of R-Type’s music.

Ishizaki: I think R-Type was a really interesting game. Both the gameplay and the music have a quality that you can only find in the games of that period, and it makes me very happy that people haven’t forgotten it!

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