Soundtracks You Know, By Composers You Don't
To quote famed Kuwaiti Electronica artist Fatima Al Qadiri, “Japan’s video game music is the most successful musical export, because [it is] the one genre that has touched the hearts of the global masses”. After a certain point in time, it became a simple fact of life that some of the first music we would grow attached to was the music pumped out by our favourite video games, be they console affairs, PC experiences, or even Arcade machines.
Another simple fact of life (and a far sadder one) is that the people behind the music remain nameless to all but the hardcore fans, sometimes decades after their work has become intertwined with pop culture. In this article, we at VGDb have taken it upon ourselves to shine the light on the folk behind some of the most notable and culturally significant video game soundtracks, in the hopes they get the credit they deserve.
Pac-Man [Arcade, 1980]
Of course, we had to start with perhaps one of the single most iconic video games of all time. To say Pac-Man was a cultural phenomenon in the early 80s would be an understatement; cereals were made in he and his friends’ likeness, cartoons were made documenting his adventures, pop music was written about him. Any and every possible cynical tie in product you can imagine, Pac-Man almost certainly had it. And it’s not hard to see why; Pac-Man was one of the very first “characters” in video gamedom, with more charm and individuality applied to his basic pizza-with-a-slice-missing-style sprite then any playable thing in his contemporaries.
The ghostly enemies he faced- Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde- were also not without their charm, from their big cutesy eyes to the horrified expression they would sport after Pac-Man gobbled up those legendary cherries. It helped, of course, that the same amount of effort that went into the marketability of the game and it’s aesthetic also went into it’s gameplay- Pac-Man is as addictive an early, endless-play 80s arcade game as you could hope for, with some for-the-time incredible enemy AI making for an experience far more devious then that of, say, Space Invaders.
Much has been written and said about the games’ core designer and project head, Toru Iwatani, but a lot less has been said about the other creators of the game (who, per the stifling standards of the Japanese video game scene at the time, went uncredited for their hard work within the game itself). Indeed, very little has been said about the two people responsible for one of the most iconic aspects of Pac-Man; the little jingles and musical stings throughout the game. Pac-Man existed in a time before games were truly “scored” in the way we’d come to know- Xevious was still a little ways off- so if they had any sort of music at all, it was usually small, five-to-ten second musical cues that signified the start of a level, or achieving a bonus of some sort. Finding credits for the two individuals responsible for Pac-Man’s work proved a little difficult, but I was able to track down two names; Toshio Kai and Shigeichi Ishimura.
Something to bare in mind with older games that used chip based music is that music had to actually be programmed into a games’ code, and this required everything from designing the actual sounds the (often very primitive or cumbersome) hardware was going to be making, to actually sequencing the notes. You couldn’t just write a MIDI file and run it through a sound card back then, and oftentimes the processes of actually writing songs for the hardware required a decent amount of programming knowledge.
As a result, games often employed both a composer AND a sound designer/programmer, if the composer didn’t serve that role as well. We bring this up not only as general information, but because sometimes it’s difficult to discern exactly who did what, depending on how a game credits it’s sound team. In Pac-Man’s case, all available evidence seems to suggest that Toshio Kai handled the job of writing the melodies, and Shigeichi Ishimura handled the actual sound hardware (and possibly programming duties as well).
As far as further credits go, Shigeichi Ishimura seems to have the larger number of credits, although only one of those is specifically music related (Galaxian, which appeared to be a solo job). They have both a hardware and programming credit on Gee Bee, one of the first arcade machines Namco ever produced, and their most recent credits are as Executive Producer on Tales Of Phantasia and Soulcalibur III. They primarily seemed responsible for handling the hardware side of a number of Namco’s early arcade titles, including Navarone, Tank Battalion, and Dig Dug. MobyGames mentioned that they sometimes went under the name “Sigechi Ishimura”, but Google tosses absolutely zero results back for that name.
Sadly, Toshio Kai’s credits are far more threadbare- as is any information on him beyond his gender. The two I could find were the credits for their work on the original Pac-Man, a credit for the sound work on Rally-X (another of Namco’s arcade titles from 1980), and a possibly-incorrect credit tied to Sega’s Altered Beast.
It’s worth noting that some of the sources we used for information on Toshio Kai claimed that Pac-Man was the only game he ever wrote any music for.
Whilst a lack of accreditation doesn’t always indicate a lack of presence or work in the industry, it does indeed seem that Toshio Kai has ultimately had little to no involvement in video games beyond those three jobs, of which one is unconfirmed. His legacy does live on, however, as the jingles and stings from Pac-Man have not only been sampled and remixed many times outside of video games, but even within them- a notable example being MotorPacCity5 from Ridge Racer V, which was arranged by company mainstay Yoshinori Kawamoto under the alias “Kisaburo”.
Castlevania [NES, 1986]
A fan favourite from the NES’ Golden Age, Castlevania wowed players at the time both with it’s Gothic Horror atmosphere and theming, and it’s brutal difficulty. A combination of intricate enemy placement throughout the levels, jumps that you’ve no choice but to commit to once you’ve made them, and a primary means of defence with a noticeable windup make Castlevania a game many have played, few have beaten, and most everyone loves. For the longest time, though, nobody really knew who was actually responsible for pretty much anything in the game.
We briefly alluded to difficulty with credits in games above, particularly when it came to Japanese developers, but we’d like to expand on that point here a bit more. From practically the very beginning of the video game scene all the way up until the mid-to-late 90s, there was a very real fear among Japanese development houses that, should their games list the actual names of the people that created them in their credits, rival businesses or companies could potentially snap them up (likely by offering them better salaries for their hard work). There was never a hardline “law” put into place that outright banned the ability for people to be credited for their work, but a number of companies engaged in a number of workaround to solve the “problem” of potentially disloyal staff by stipulating that a games’ credits could only list the staff members under nicknames. That is, assuming the game even HAD credits at all; many games, both from the period where they were largely all endless (beyond Game Overs, of course) and many that did eventually end, just straight up didn’t have any credits within them at all.
As frustrating as this was at the time (and even now), developers would oftentimes have a little fun with the credits in their games as a result of the “no real names” measure. The team behind Castlevania did this in spades; the credits that roll after the games’ ending are a deliberate send up of movie credits, assigning fake actor names to the games’ player character and it’s various enemies (including “Christopher Bee” and “Belo Lugosi” for Dracula and Death, respectively), as well as the actual dev staff being credited under names like “Vram Stoker”, “Trans Fishers”, and “James Banana”. The keen-eyed movie fans among you will notice a number of them are deliberate references to names that have ties with Dracula in some form, from the original novel itself to the various adaptations of it in the years since it’s publication. Cute, definitely, but it made figuring out who did what a mighty pain years down the line.
Thankfully, today, we do have concrete credits for the staff responsible for the original Castlevania title. Though the credits only list one person responsible for the music, it turns out there were actually two; Kinuyo Yamashita, Satoe Terashima.
Of the three, Kinuyo Yamashita served as the primary composer/SFX artist (she is the person to who the “James Banana” music credit in the game belongs), and was the one responsible for actually programming the music into the game. Across several interviews, she recollects that the actual process of composing for Castlevania consisted of her playing melodies that came into her head to her boss on a Keyboard, and whatever said boss liked was expanded into a full song and programmed into the game by Kinuyo- specifically, by converting them to Hex numbers and programming those numbers into the game via PC.
According to an interview with Legacy Music Hour specifically, she was responsible for writing the music for stages 3-thru-5, the Boss music, and the two songs that play for the Dracula encounter at the end of the game. Notable credits of hers include her work on Mega Man X3, where she served as the sole composer and sound programmer; two of the various MedaBots games, specifically MedaBots: Metabee and MedaBots: Infinity; and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers title that came to the Super Nintendo in 1995. Yamashita very sadly suffered two brain hemorrhages in 1998 barely a week apart from each other, but thankfully she not only survived her brushes with death, but continues to work on music- both for games and entirely dependant of them- to this day.
We could find far less information on Satoe Terashima, and what little we where where able to gleam we found through a combination of MobyGames and the aforementioned interview Legacy Music Hour conducted with Kinuyo Yamashita. We do know she was the composer for Stages 1, 2, and 6, as well as the Ending music specifically, although whether or not Kinuyo was the one that programmed her songs into the game remains unconfirmed in any sources we could find. Other credits of hers include a music credit for Rush’n Attack, composition and arrangement credits for both of the Goonies games on the NES, and a generic “sound” credit for Nemesis 2 (also alongside Yamashita). All the credits we could find list titles from 1986 and 1987, and we currently have no idea if she has done any work beyond that point.
A few places, again including MobyGames and a three-part interview between the composer and Retronauts, also credit Hidenori Maezawa with involvement in Castlevania. An incredibly famous composer in his own right- often given the accolade of helping to codify the trademark “Konami Sound” of the time, and the man responsible for the music to the NES version of Contra (another legendary soundtrack)- he did indeed join the company around the time Castlevania was being worked on, and has a vague recollection with being involved in the project shortly after his arrival. Although, he specifies it likely wasn’t a massive involvement, and no other source we came across mentions anything specific about his involvement, so for the time being his contributions for the project remain unknown.
Sonic The Hedgehog [Mega Drive, 1991]
Hard as it may be to imagine nowadays, at one point, Sonic was a wildly celebrated character across much of the globe. Despite being a character who’s entire existence owes itself to a somewhat cynical attempt at mass market appeal baiting, Sonic managed to not only hold his own against Mario, but even managed to surpass him in popularity for a brief period of time. A lot of contemporary critics owe this purely to the aggressive marketing the character was pushed with- particularly in the US- but the simple truth of the matter is that if there wasn’t a seriously solid game behind it, Sonic would never have caught on quite the way he did. That isn’t to say that the marketing and the deliberate attempts to appeal to pop culture out the gate didn’t help Sonic along, however; in fact, the games’ music- and the composer behind it, Masato Nakamura- was arguably one of the things that helped cinch his appeal in the mainstream.
Masato Nakamura had originally started out as a session bassist, before forming a band with singer Miwa Yoshida called “Cha Cha & Audrey’s Project” that didn’t last all that long. In fact, the band pretty much ceased to exist entirely when the pair teamed up with keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa to form Dreams Come True in 1988. The career and work of Dreams Come True is itself a very interesting topic, but it’s the relation to Sonic The Hedgehog we’d like to focus on. Whilst Miwa Yoshida handled singer-songwriter duties for the band, almost all of the bands output was composed (and all of it at arranged) by Nakamura himself. As previously noted, the driving force behind Sonic’s conception was to make him as marketable as possible, which meant peppering the game with touches and details that practically oozed “cool”, “hip”, “tubular”, and other 90s buzzwords.
This manifested within the design of the character himself and the attitude with which he carried himself (which were deliberately done the way they were to appeal to Western tastes at the time), the bright and vibrant “pop”-style art that adorned the various promotional images in addition to the box art of the game in some territories, and the games’ soundtrack; whilst it wasn’t entirely out of the realm for a game to have some form of celebrity endorsement or involvement within a game even back then, Sonic marks one of the first instances of a game featuring a “Pop Star Composer”. Whilst we can only speculate, the decision to approach Nakamura seems like a move with the Japanese audience in mind; the band were more or less entirely unknown outside Japan, but even as early on their career as 1990, Dreams Come True were already a fairly big deal in their home country. Sonic’s first official appearance in the public, game or otherwise, was on the side of the band’s Tour Bus.
Masato Nakamura himself seemed pretty up for the chance, despite having no prior experience in game sound; according to an interview conducted with the defunct Sonic City fansite, the passion behind the team’s desire to take Mario’s throne really inspired him to bring his A game to the project. Likewise, the limitations presented- namely the small number of audio channels (and thus individual instruments) he could use- presented a challenge that was something a proving point for him. Nonetheless, he strove to make the music as “cinematic” as he possibly could with the hardware he was working from. Whether or not he succeeded, or just how “cool” the music he wrote for Sonic sounded will come down to the individual, but his music definitely caught on with the masses as a general rule; many of the songs and jingles contained within the game have become both iconic in their own right, and are emblematic of the time in which they were written. The song written for Green Hill Zone is perhaps the most iconic song out of all the pieces in the game, and remains a firm favourite among fans both casual and hardcore.
The actual composing process took place around the time he and Dreams Come True were working on their third album; Nakamura would put together demos and scratch tracks during the downtime (on “an Atari computer”, according to the prior mentioned interview), which would then be recorded onto cassette tapes that were presented to the sound engineers working on the Sonic project- Hiroshi Kubota (Jimita) and Yukifumi Makino (Macky)- to be transcribed into the games’ code itself. The sound engineers would then send back a bare sound chip that Nakamura would audit before giving the go ahead- a process that involved a lot of back-and-forth trading long before the rise of emailing made the process much easier.
Producer Beny Benassi can attest to the ease of this method.
Nakamura’s only other game-based work is the score for Sonic The Hedgehog 2, which was primarily composed by him, with sound programing duties (and some additional composing work) done by Hiroshi Kubota and Yukifumi Makino again, Yoshiaki Kashima (Milpo), Masaru Setsumaru (Oyz), Masayuki Nagao (N.Gee), Sachio Ogawa (S.O), and Izuho Takeuchi (Ippo). By sheer coincidence, he was once again working on the then-latest Dreams Come True album around the same time as Sonic 2, only this time he opted to adapt one of his Sonic pieces into a piece for the DCT album. “Sweet Sweet Sweet”, the penultimate track from The Swinging Star, is a rearrangement and expansion of the Ending music Nakamura wrote for Sonic The Hedgehog 2. In the years since, Masato Nakamura has continued to work as part of Dreams Come True alongside Yoshida, as well as operating a record label by the name of DCT Records.
Daytona USA [Arcade, 1994]
This might seem like an odd choice at first, but chances are good you’ve heard the music in this game before. If nothing else, you’ve heard the incredibly iconic attract mode music belting out at the back of the arcade, rambunctious DOO DO DOO’s and all. The lucky few that actually sat down and played the game were treated to a memorably catchy score that was half cheesy Classic Rock, and half cheesy Euro House. In addition to that, almost all the music in the game actually included full vocal tracks, which likely surprised many players at the time. Daytona USA isn’t the first game to do this- that honour belongs to SNK’s Psycho Soldier, released in 1986- but it has gone on to become one of the most memorable and most well known examples of an early vocal soundtrack.
This might have something to do with the (in)famous voice of the games composer, lyricist, and singer; Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.
Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and Trevi Steinmetz started working with the company around 1991, with his first credit being the soundtrack for the arcade game G-L.O.C., done under the name R360 pronounced and sometimes written as R. Saburomaru (an antiquated way of pronouncing the number 360, and a play on words based on the “R360” model of arcade machines Sega produced at the time). He also worked on Strike Fighter, Virtua Racing, and OutRunners during this time frame, alongside other Sega heavy hitters like Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Takayuki Nakamura. He and Nakamura also had a close working relationship on a couple of the early Virtua Fighter games.
It was actually the release of Ridge Racer that prompted the decision to give Daytona USA vocal tracks. Ridge Racer came out during Daytona USA’s development in 1993, and the technical prowess of the game (and the positive reception it received) prompted Sega to make an even more technically impressive racing game in response, prompting a rivalry between the two companies that was largely confined to their arcade divisions. The results are certainly evident; at the time of release, Daytona USA was perhaps the most visually impressive video game available, in part due to it’s use of texture mapping. The soundtrack too, definitely helped it’s popularity- players were charmed by the soundtrack’s personality, packed with upbeat catchy melodies, and infectious vocals that were hard not to sing along to.
Mitsuyoshi’s vocals are definitely unique, with a hearty deliver that, whilst not always technically proficient, are always full of heart and emotion. He seems to have picked up the fact, as a lot of his most memorable work- including the music he provided for the original Sega Rally- bank on his vocals as much as they do the music behind them. The actual technique in Daytona USA uses to get vocals across is fairly rustic; the vocals are cut up into samples (sometimes only a single word long), that were then downsampled and sequenced into the various songs almost like instruments. In more then a few moments, this leads to vocals that are very obviously sampled (and have incredibly short loop times at that), but this only adds to the charm of the songs overall. In some cases it actually adds to the effect, such as on the track Pounding Pavement. Only one song in Daytona USA wasn’t composed or arranged by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi; David Goes To Victory Lane, a short piece written by fellow 90s Sega mainstay David Leytze.
One cool little easter egg about the soundtrack is contained within the Name Entry screen; imputing certain character combinations will lead to the game playing a little jingle based on music from other Sega titles, including ones based on After Burner, OutRun, and even previous games Mitsuyoshi worked on like G-L.O.C.
In addition to the examples listed above, Mitsuyoshi has also worked on Burning Rangers as a vocal performer, a number of Sega’s football titles like Victory Goal ‘96 and Virtua Striker, and perhaps most notably he served as the Sound Director for (and contributed a number of songs to) the soundtrack for Shenmue, one of Sega’s most prised IPs. He also co-composed the soundtrack to Daytona USA 2 alongside Fumio Ito, although the role of vocal performance was largely filled in by Dennis St. James. Versions of several of the vocal tracks featuring Mitsuyoshi instead do appear on the games’ official soundtrack, however, although so far as our research shows, it doesn’t appear that they were used in any version of the game.
The word “Quirky” doesn’t quite do justice to the Katamari experience, to the point that we’re at a loss as to how we should open the section of the article relating to it. Perhaps the best place might be the sheer adoration for the game; it certainly wasn’t everyone’s sort of game, but those that love it do so unconditionally. Perhaps it’s the bizarre sense of humour, the bright and cheerful graphical style, or the fairly unique gameplay, or some a combination of all three, but one way or another the game garnered a large cult following. One that fell shy of total mainstream acceptance, but was just large enough (and certainly passionate enough) to turn the game into a veritable franchise, of which there have been twelve games in total as of this writing. One of the biggest talking points of the game is it’s soundtrack, which is as bizarre and fun as the rest of the game. A fairly eclectic score, the game fuses together influences from typical video game music, a variety of Electronica genres and subgenres, flavours of both Jazz and Samba, and even a touch of Classical music here or there. Supposedly, in many cases, the lyrics for the songs were actually written before the music they would be sung too was.
So, who was responsible for it all? Well, that’s a bit of a deep rabbit hole. A lot of the credit tends to go to Yuu Miyake, who served as the Sound Director for the project in addition to composing some of it. But he wasn’t the sole musician involved. Not by a long shot. Below is a screenshot of the games’ soundtrack entry on the Video Game Music Database, featuring a full list of the composers, arrangers, performers and lyricists involved with the project.
Quite a few people, I’m sure you’ll agree. Far too many to talk about succinctly in an article that is already running quite long, at any rate. I would, at the very least, like to cover the Namco sound staff in brief, as well as the more immediately noteworthy outside contributors to the project:
Akitaka Tohyama has worked with the company since the late 90s, with his primary contributions being to the Tekken and Ridge Racer series, the latter of which features a number of works done under his hard-trance AJURIKA alias. He recently served as the sound director for Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and is noted “power user” of Image-Line’s famous FL Studio software.
Asuka Sakai is often known for her Jazz and Latin influenced work, and her breakout role as one of the composers on the Ridge Racer Type-4 soundtrack solidified this in spades. She contributed music to other entires in the Ridge Racer series, typically also of a Jazzy nature that contrasts with the harder hitting electronic pieces in the games. She was also involved in Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil- another Namco ensemble piece- and has done some non-game work as well.
Hideki Tobeta’s credits are a bit thinner in number, largely ones for further work on the various entires in the Katamari series, as well as contributions to the original Soulcalibur game. Their first work with the company was as an arranger on the Tokimeki Memorial Fantastic Christmas Party album.
These days, Yoshihito Yano is the lead Sound Designer at Namco Bandai, overseeing duties on a number of their properties, including Tekken, Ridge Racer, and Soulcalibur- he served as the Sound Director for Tekken 6 and Soulcalibur Legends in addition. His first work for the company were contributions to Alpine Racer 2 and Ace Driver: Victory Lap.
Yuri Misumi first came to the company in the mid 90s, and was heavily involved with a number of their arcade titles, including Cyber Cycles, Dirt Dash, and the incredibly obscure Armadillo Racing (her earliest credited work). She was among the composers that really codified the trademark “Namco Sound” that ran through their various arcade titles during the mid-to-late 90s. Nowadays, she primarily contributes work to the highly popular IDOLM@STER multi-media franchise.
A number of the vocalists featured on the songs in the game were J-Pop singers like Yui Asaka, or Enka (a form of modern Japanese folk music) performers like Kenji Ninuna and Gregg Blackstock. Some of the vocalists had faded from the limelight by the point the game had come out, meaning it served as a brief career revival for them. One the most noteworthy non-Namco contributors was Charlie Kosei, who many people will know for his work on the Lupin III anime soundtracks.
That got a little longer in the tooth then we expected, but we believe it was worth it; the many musicians, sound programmers, lyricists and so on and so forth listed above are fully deserving of the credit for their hard graft over the years, and we can only hope this (comparatively) brief expose on their contributions to gaming both informed you and inspired you to seek them and their work out.
(Info corroborated from MobyGames, IMDb, VGMdb, the Videogame Music Preservation Foundation, the Pac-Man wikia, Original Sound Version, Video Game Music Online, Legacy Music Hour, Retronauts, Sonic Retro, Image-Line, GameSetWatch)