Sunsoft Famicom Music – Naoki Kodaka Interview
Naoki Kodaka, together with the sound programmers at Sunsoft, was responsible for some of the most memorable Famicom music. Here, Kodaka shares some fascinating anecdotes about the Sunsoft writing process and various gifted sound programmers whom he worked with. This interview was conducted by City Connection, a music label that specializes in retro game releases.
Sunsoft’s Famicom games are renowned for their high quality music. Undoubtedly, this reputation is largely due to the depth of the achievement of Naoki Kodaka, a composer who worked at Sunsoft since the early Famicom days. Kodaka has not made many media or public appearances since those days, but today we were able to interview him for the “ROM Cassette Disc in SUNSOFT” compilation disc.
Kodaka: After majoring in modern and classical music in college, I did television and radio commercial production. Around that time, one of my senpai in college introduced me to Sun Denshi: “I know this young composer who plays at the game center all day.” That was how I got started in the world of Famicom music.
So Kodaka met Sunsoft through his love for games–a natural, but still incredible start to his career there. But what was it like working for a company like that, a company that trusted people who loved games to make good game music?
Kodaka: As a composer at Sunsoft, I always worked together with a team. I’d write my songs on sheet music at home and hand them over to the sound team at work, and depending on the circumstances I might attach a demo tape too. Once the technology got to a point where we could do a little more with the music, I’d also listen to the sounds they had selected, and give feedback: “this should feel looser” or “this part needs to sing out more”, steadily working each song into a finished state.
Another example of this teamwork was my relationship with the sound programmers–it was often as if I was teaching them music lessons or something. So I didn’t refer to the sound programmers as engineers, but rather “performers” whose musical instrument was the computer.
Such words inevitably make me imagine a classical concert hall, with Kodaka brandishing a baton and conducting the sound programmers as they perform one of his pieces, such as the opening theme to Wings of Madoola or the ending of Ripple Island. I asked him to elaborate on his relationship with the sound programmers at Sunsoft.
Kodaka: The people working on the sound team at Sunsoft were all incredibly talented. They were a real group of pros-–not because everyone was so chummy, but in the way they inspired and challenged each other. They had it all: creativity, tenacity, good theoretical knowledge, and flexibility.
Amazingly, there were also several very gifted sound programmers working at Sunsoft then too. They loved music and had a good sense for it, while also having a passion for the hardware side. They trusted me as a composer and I trusted them.
The Sunsoft sound team also developed many programming techniques in order to go beyond the limitations of the sound hardware. As a composer I’d have some idea I was dying to try out, and the sound programmers would employ all sorts of tricks to solve the puzzle I had presented. This kind of thing happened all the time; it was an unforgettable time in my life as a creator.
As Kodaka says, the later Famicom titles like Batman, Raf World, Battle Formula, and Gremlins 2 feature astonishingly dynamic music. Re-listening to them gave me shivers as I thought about the sound programmers’ seemingly inhuman work.
Kodaka: We always had the ambition to create sounds that no company had made before. We were the first to experiment with many ideas, following our motto “Make the Famicom sing!” For example, we experimented with combining triangle waves and noise waves to make a drum sound, or we’d try using delta-encoded samples for bass. We also created a “fake” reverb effect through software coding. The Famicom wasn’t the kind of “anyone-can-do-it” programming common with MIDI instruments; the level of craftsmanship in a song was easy to hear. From my perspective as the composer, the sound programmers at Sunsoft then were like artisanal crafstmen with awe-inspiring abilities.
Kodaka then began to tell me about one specific sound programmer at Sunsoft.
Kodaka: Nobuyuki Hara was the main sound producer for Batman, Battle Formula, and others. He later left Sunsoft, but he was an exceptional sound programmer. His early death in his mid-20s from a sudden illness was truly a tragedy. He would say to me, “Kodaka, wait till you hear the great sounds I’ve just created! Please write a good song for them!” Then he’d wait patiently at my home office until the dawn as I composed, and when I handed the sheet to him he’d take it and say “leave the rest to me!” as he raced back to the office. I have many wonderful memories just like that. When he showed the finished song to me and I gave my seal of approval, a huge expression of happiness welled up on his face.
Naohisa Morota, Shinichi Seya, and Nobuyuki Hara. The legend of the revolutionary Famicom music they created has long been fodder for conversation among diehard Sunsoft fans, but this anecdote is proof positive of their achievements. Today Kodaka has drifted far from the world of composing video game music. I got right to the heart of a question that I had long wanted to ask: would he ever write game music again?
Kodaka: Game music gave me the chance to write music for all sorts of genres, and I’m very glad for the experience. I even got to work with international orchestras and musicians. It’s been awhile since I did any game music, but if I could work again with staff as passionate as I did then, I would love to write again.
And there must be many fans who would love to hear Kodaka’s music again–all we can do is hope that those words come true. Finally, I asked Kodaka about the music he wrote that is recorded on the “Rom Cassette Disc in SUNSOFT” release.
Kodaka: With the evolution of computers, game music has also evolved a great deal since my time at Sunsoft. Though sometimes I wonder to myself if, amidst all this technological progression, game music hasn’t lost that “special something” that lets you know game music is game music. Game music is a kind of music born from the unique media of video games. So I think you can find something in older Famicom music that you don’t find in music for modern games: that special essence of game music and sounds. As you immerse yourself in these songs, hidden within the music you can hear the souls and dreams of the many sound programmers who worked on them.
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THANK YOU FOR THIS! I played these games a boy and their music introduced me to possibilities of music and many other things. I am an aspiring music producer and I’m looking for inspiration since I was feeling discouraged. This interview was inspiring !!
“As you immerse yourself in these songs, hidden within the music you can hear the souls and dreams of the many sound programmers who worked on them.”
I don’t think he could have said it any better. That’s exactly how I feel when I listen to NES game music. Outside of nostalgia, I find something about the technological limitations, the complexity of the music programming, and the small team of people involved very endearing. I also came to the realization that it’s those limitations that made me appreciate old games so much because my imagination would fill in the holes that the consoles otherwise couldn’t display.