04 March 2011

Episode 18: Hirokazu Tanaka

In this episode, Brent and Rob focus on the innovative work of video game music pioneer, Hirokazu Tanaka.  They also present an interview with Tanaka-san, conducted via e-mail.  A fascinating inside look into one of video game music's true forefathers!  Full track listing and interview (in text form) below.

Game - Composer - Song - Company - Console - Year (the version we played was released)

Gyromite - Hirokazu Tanaka - Game A - Nintendo - NES - 1985

Metroid - Hirokazu Tanaka - Escape - Nintendo - NES - 1987

Kid Icarus - Hirokazu Tanaka - Overworld - Nintendo - NES - 1987

Mother - Hirokazu Tanaka - Mother Earth - Nintendo - Famicom - 1989

Tetris - Hirokazu Tanaka - Music 2 - Nintendo - NES - 1989

Super Mario Land - Hirokazu Tanaka - Overworld - Nintendo - Game Boy - 1989

Dr. Mario - Hirokazu Tanaka - Fever - Nintendo - NES - 1990

EarthBound - Hirokazu Tanaka - Snowman - Nintendo - SNES - 1995

Metroid - Hirokazu Tanaka - Kraid - Nintendo - NES - 1987

Kid Icarus - Hirokazu Tanaka - Sky Palace - Nintendo - NES - 1987

Famicom Wars - Hirokazu Tanaka - gameplay - Nintendo - Famicom - 1988

Mother - Hirokazu Tanaka - Magicant - Nintendo - Famicom - 1989

Balloon Fight - Hirokazu Tanaka - Balloon Trip - Nintendo - NES - 1986

Wrecking Crew - Hirokazu Tanaka - BGM A - Nintendo - NES - 1985

Duck Hunt - Hirokazu Tanaka, Koji Kondo - Clay Shooting, Title Screen, Game Over - Nintendo - NES - 1985

Dr. Mario - Hirokazu Tanaka - Chill - Nintendo - NES - 1990

Mother - Hirokazu Tanaka - Humoresque of a Little Dog - Nintendo - Famicom - 1989

Stack-up - Hirokazu Tanaka - Memory - Nintendo - NES - 1985

Balloon Kid - Hirokazu Tanaka - Ending - Nintendo - Game Boy - 1990

Mario Paint - Kazumi Totaka, Ryoji Yoshitomi, Hirokazu Tanaka (dir.) - Monkey Song - Nintendo - SNES - 1992

Famicom Wars - Hirokazu Tanaka - Map - Nintendo - Famicom - 1988

Gumshoe - Hirokazu Tanaka - Level 2 - Nintendo - NES - 1986

EarthBound - Hirokazu Tanaka - The Power - Nintendo - SNES - 1995

Interview with Hirokazu Tanaka (coordination by 8-4, Ltd.):

Brent: Speaking specifically about your music from the 8-bit and 16-bit era, how would you describe your overall style?  What are some defining characteristics of a Hirokazu Tanaka piece?  Are there certain themes and compositional ideas that you were particularly interested in?

Hirokazu Tanaka: First, I should note that I do not have a particular "style" of my own -- the "game" comes before that. As the man in charge of sound, what should I do to make the game more exciting than it'd otherwise be? What sort of ideas can I come up with to accomplish this? I've always worked under the idea that these are the most important things to worry about, and that hasn't changed to this day.

I've also treated as important the concept of "sound without sound" -- the certain type of feeling, or mood, that can be created within someone playing a game. How can we create this feeling, and how can we make it seem like a novel experience to gamers? It's a question of the entire sound package, not one where you're dividing your attention between music, sound effects, and natural sounds.

If gamers feel that there's a unique "Hirokazu Tanaka" style, I think it's because of that approach I take to games.

I don't think about music or my own style; instead, as a member of the game team, I focus on thinking about making the game more fun.

I tend to prefer dramatic RPGs with complex story backdrops over simple action/puzzle games because they allow a wider variety of approaches and ideas to be implemented.

Brent: You have said in the past that even though tools were created to make game music programming easier, you continued to program in assembly, and that gave your music a unique quality.  Can you describe that quality?  That is, what about programming in assembly made your music different?

Hirokazu Tanaka: It was really just an effort to create a sort of sound that only I could be capable of. For example, if you want to change the music depending on what's happening in the game, you'd normally have to get the game programmer's help for that, but I handled it all by myself. There's a game for the Famicom Disk System called Knight Move (the Tetris author's second game), but the way that title's sound package works wouldn't have been possible unless I was doing the programming. I still like how that worked out.

Brent: Video game music composers are usually influenced by earlier game composers.  For example, Yuzo Koshiro says he was influenced by Miki Higashino.  But because you started composing game music so early on in the timeline of video game music, there wasn't any prior video game music to influence you.  So what did influence you?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I haven't been influenced by other game-music composers. Just like anyone who enjoys regular music, I've been influenced by many standard genres -- rock, techno, classical, folk music, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, and so on.

Brent: Considering that you started programming sound in 1980, does that make you one of the first game composers in history?  Who are some of the other pioneers?  As one of the first game music composers, can you describe how video game sound effects evolved into musical pieces?

Hirokazu Tanaka:
I doubt I'd be the very first composer in video game history. There were a lot of people like me working for places like Namco and Sega at the start of the '80s, and I'm sure there were many similar people overseas as well. There really wasn't any sort of interaction between us, though, so I wouldn't know most of their names.

There was a definite natural process where games went from sound effects to music, and there are two general reasons for this. One is the advance of hardware -- speedier CPUs, more RAM, and so on. More important, though, is the improvement in graphics and more complex types of gameplay that this new hardware gave us. That created a natural demand for more variety to the audio side of things as well.

Brent: Can you talk about the transition between Famicom and Super Famicom, and how that influenced your composing?

Hirokazu Tanaka: With the SFC, you had double the amount of voices and the ability to sample and use your own sounds, albeit not at very high quality if you wanted to fit it all in. I think it really expanded the amount of expressiveness possible in music. I don't think, though, that the improved hardware specs and extra voices improved the essence of game music in and of itself, however.

Brent: How did you get your nickname "Hip"?

Hirokazu Tanaka: That just sort of came out of nowhere and stuck.

Rob: In the 80s and the early-90s, which game composers did you admire?
Brent: Which game soundtracks were your favorite?

Hirokazu Tanaka: None in particular.

Brent: Why do you think there is such a difference between Western and Japanese composition styles?

Hirokazu Tanaka:
I really haven't played that many overseas games in the first place, so I can't answer this.

Brent: About Metroid, you said in the past that you tried to write non-catchy music, and that you only hear a catchy melody when you beat the game.  Personally, I think the music to Metroid is catchy all the way through the whole game.  It's one of my favorite soundtracks of all time.  Can you explain what you meant by the music being non-catchy?  What's not catchy about it?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I think we may be seeing the word "catchy" in different ways here. What I'm talking about is a lack of light, nimble music; minor chords; the lack of a strong melody.

I do think that Metroid is one of the most unique among the titles I've worked on. The idea behind it was to use clear, bright chords only in the song played during the ending, giving the player a strong sense of catharsis.

The only songs in the game that use (relatively) bright chords are the ending tune and the jingle that plays at the start of the game. Outside of that, much of the music serves to encourage a sense of anxiety, right? That's what I was intending to say.

Brent: In both Metroid and Kid Icarus, the use of counterpoint is pretty prominent.  Were you influenced by Classical music?
Rob: If so, what are your favorite Classical music pieces?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I think it's more the case that Dragon Quest was really popular in Japan at the time and the composer on that project is most gifted at the sort of music an orchestra can produce. That really had a major effect on trends all across Japanese game music around that time.

I am not at all an expert in classical music, but as a kid, we had a lot of records at home from famous musicians that I listened to -- Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Haydn, Saint-Saëns, and so on. I don't really feel like I've been directly influenced by classical music, but I can see how I might have been affected  subconsciously at an early age -- we're talking the age of eight and younger here.

Brent: Can you describe your process when composing?  Did you play the game without sound first, and then write the music?  Or did you just compose the music from storyboards and artwork?  Did you compose on musical instruments first or did you begin writing a piece by programming it from the start?

Hirokazu Tanaka: This can depend a lot on the individual project, so it's difficult to describe a single process.

However, there is one unique aspect to how I create music data. Most composers usually play out music on a MIDI keyboard, record it, and edit the results to create music data, but for me, all through the FC and SFC I wrote my note data directly into the machine in code form.

Rob: I've read that there were good-spirited rivalries between video game composers in the past.  Is that true?  Who were the composers involved with these rivalries?
Brent: And what were the rivalries about?

Hirokazu Tanaka:
I've never really seen anyone else as my rival, although naturally I've kept tabs on games that are popular in the market.

Rob: Were you ever approached by Sega or NEC about possible employment?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I haven't.

Brent: Was any of your music rejected or never used?  Are you particularly fond of any music of yours that was never used?

Hirokazu Tanaka: It certainly has, and even now, I like some of that music.

Rob: Sometimes, game composers were credited with aliases instead of using their full names.  Why was that?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I suppose it's because the composers themselves like using names like that.

Brent: Do you play video games?  Did you prefer older games to newer games?  What are your favorite games to play?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I don't play many games these days, but since I'm in a Pokémon outfit, I still play the Pokémon games and Nintendo's lineup in general. Most of the famous, top-selling games I at least try out a little, but I almost never play them to the end.

Rob: Do you still compose 8-bit and 16-bit music?

Hirokazu Tanaka: I don't compose any of it for game purposes, but I still love 8-bit music.

Brent: What are you working on and doing today?

Hirokazu Tanaka:
I am the president of Creatures, Inc.

I also do a lot of composing work for the Pokémon TV show and films.

On a more personal level, I have an interest in dance music like minimal techno, electronica, and reggae, so I compose that sort of thing as well.

Brent: Would you like to add or plug anything else?

Hirokazu Tanaka: It has been about 30 years since I began working for Nintendo, but I always see it as an honor to get asked for interviews like this one. It's always a surprise for me to see how many people there are all over the world that like the music from Metroid. It makes me extremely happy and always gives me a lot of personal encouragement in my work.

Thank you.


  1. The link on the site takes you to the Puzzle games episode. Looking forward to this one once you get it fixed.

  2. This is one of your best yet guys! I hope there will be more interviews in the future even with Rob reading them. I wish I was the president of British Knights I would sponsor you in a heartbeat.

    I don't want to annoy you guys with a request but if you ever find time to do a focus on Taito games I would love to know who originally composed bubble bobble... I can only find credits for the rerecording.

  3. To Robertryan: Could it be Tadashi Kimijima?

  4. great interview! very cool hearing him talk about metroid, and trying to create a sense of anxiety. that game used to seem pretty scary when i was a young lad... something tells me the music was a huge part of that.

  5. Thanks Dissident93...I thought he only did the sfx..but I guess he did the music too.

  6. Thanks guys! I love Hirokazu Tanaka's music.

    He did what few people could ever do: make an 8-bit game scary!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. BTW, The "Southern song" you are thinkin of is the MOST southern song. Specifically, the unofficial National Anthem of the Confederate States of America: Dixie Land

  9. Brent's impression of Rob F was oddly accurate and funny at the same time.

    Good interview with Tanaka.

  10. I'm so glad you guys played so many songs from MOTHER and EarthBound. It's great to hear that Tanaka prefers working on dramatic RPG's because his soundtracks to those games really stand out far above the rest of all his work in my view. His music for those games is so full of soul and emotion, from light and fun to dramatic and heartfelt. I'm so sad he was busy and couldn't do the MOTHER 3 soundtrack as well; it really stands out as being a subpar soundtrack in comparison with the first two games. Not that it's a bad soundtrack in any way, but it's nowhere near as impactful and memorable as the first two games' soundtracks.

    I really hope you guys either have played by this point in time or will play in the near future "Smiles & Tears" from the ending of EarthBound. It's one of the greatest ending credits songs to any 8 or 16 bit game ever, especially when coupled with its preceding track, "Good Friends/Bad Friends." Those two songs connected one after the other are so perfect for celebrating your victory and immediately afterward being so sad that it's all over. It's so fucking beautiful.

  11. A YouTube commenter on an upload of the Kid Icarus Overworld music says that middle section comes from an old marching theme called "The Girl I Left Behind." The melody isn't quite the same, but I think it counts as a quote. https://youtube.com/watch?v=eIw8m9ogJKE