When was it that you first became interested in games?
HI: When I was around 8 or 9, I spent a lot of time playing at the arcade game center close to my home. Sometimes my parents would scold me for spending too much time there. In particular there was a game called Lady Bug, where you would roll around the screen avoiding enemies, which I remember.
Would it be too much of a stretch to say that your current profession is something of a dream come true?
HI: I loved games and now I write music for them, so in that sense you could say my dream came true. It’s a lot of work to write music, but it's also tremendous fun.
What were some of the most important factors in writing music for 8-bit games?
HI: For the Famicom, there was a limit on how many sounds you could use simultaneously, so if you wrote the music without taking into account the limited number of sounds, the song would turn out too simple. It was really important to start off with a catchy melody, something that you would have no trouble humming. Being easy to remember was an important quality of Famicom music.
Another challenge was taking into consideration the memory capacity. That was something you had to keep in mind from the outset. The problem was, if all you worried about was the data size, the music would come out too simple.
There were various ways to go about working around the problem. One of them was to use delays to create an echo effect. That required programming the system to automatically insert notes to fill in the gaps in the original data. I used this technique more frequently in the latter part of work in Famicom games. It was a strategy for writing interesting music that fit the constraints of the hardware.
Would you ever want to return to writing 8-bit music?
HI: If there were the opportunity. The retro mode in Omega Five was a step in that direction. Recently, there is this precedence of Mega Man 9's retro music. If that musical style were needed for a new game, it would be fun to work on.
Alternatively, as with Omega Five, making the arranged version of an original soundtrack in the style of old fashion games is a concept that still interests me.
When did you start work on the game Chaos World?
HI: It was in 1991. This was my second project at Natsume and followed writing music for one Game Boy title.
Was there much of a difference between the sounds cards of the Famicom and Game Boy?
HI: There was. For instance, the standard for the Famicom included two voices emitted by the PSG sound chip (both square waves) accompanied by noise. The biggest difference is that the Famicom featured triangle waves, but the Game Boy had an internal synthesizer similar to a sampler.
These days there are a lot of amateur musicians making original music with Game Boys.
HI: They are uploaded to Japanese websites sometimes. I think it's really interesting.
How did the process differ from your music writing today?
HI: While writing music for Chaos World, mostly I was starting off by thinking of songs in my head, then programming the data to produce the corresponding sounds. These days, I use sheet music or a sequencer program on the computer.
What were the two songs you wrote for the Chaos World soundtrack?
HI: I wrote the song for the save file screen and also the village background music. It was early in my career, and I was short on experience, so I was learning as I went along.
Iku Mizutani, the composer on Chaos World, had worked for a different company previously and had a lot of experience in the field. At the time, when he first joined Natsume, he was handling all the sound design by himself, but after I joined, he showed me the ropes. He taught me a lot.
Was it exciting to have your video game music show up in a published album?
HI: I had no idea that he was arranging the songs I wrote for the soundtrack album. I was surprised when he told me. It was just two tracks, but I never imagined they would be on the CD.
How was the transition from the NES hardware to the Super Nintendo?
HI: Honestly, I was happy to see the system specs change so dramatically. First of all, there were eight simultaneous voices that you could incorporate, which opened the door to a lot of new possibilities. Having a sampler feature was also very exciting.
The biggest difference between the Famicom and Super Famicom hardware was this number of simultaneous sounds. We only had three on the Famicom. While I had been satisfied with the quality of my work for Famicom games, I still had this nagging feeling that there was more that could be done.
With the transition to the Super Famicom, I felt a sense of relief. Suddenly, you could have harmony along with melodies and a bass line. Overall, I would say it was very beneficial.
At times you have been credited as Nanten in the end credits of videogames. Is there a story behind his pseudonym?
HI: This is probably not worth mentioning, but Nanten was the brand name of a certain candy in Japan. There were these commercials where someone would say "Nanten," and someone else would respond by singing "Nodo ame~" (throat candy).
There was this tradition of withholding your given name in staff credits, so I went with Nanten as a joke. Are you sure this information is useful to you? (laughs)
How about the nickname Iwadon? You appear to have chosen this as your handle on a number of different internet services.
HI: This goes back to a personal story from my youth. As I've mentioned, I really like arcade games. You know how after every game you were allowed three letters to enter into a list of high scores? People had been calling me "Don" back then, but the first time I ever used it myself was at the arcades.
You see, I have relatively big body for someone Japanese, but I’m really bad at sports. There’s a word in Japanese "??(Nibui)," which means slow or dull. This word can also be read “DON,” and that’s where I got that name. The name remains until now, and I still go by “Iwadon” or simply “Don” online.
What kind of a musical background had you acquired prior to joining Natsume?
HI: When I started making music, it was purely as a hobby. I’ve never been to music school, though I took elective classes in high school where you were allowed to choose from fine art, calligraphy, and music. I spent those class sessions playing Japanese pop songs with an acoustic guitar. Instead of studying, I wrote chord progressions in my notebook.
There was a song called “Nagori Yuki” that was very popular. I bought an acoustic guitar, then later an electric guitar, and spent a lot of time listening to a fusion band called Casiopia. Another band called T-square was introduced to me by a friend.
I didn’t know much about instrumental music, and was mostly familiar with what my parents listened to around the house, a style of Japanese music called Enka. But in school, I was listening to Casiopeia and imitating the style of the lead guitarist, analyzing his compositions.
Casiopeia’s music was very intricate. It was also a unique style, which became like my manual for creating melodies. After graduating, I was hired by Natsume to write music, but as soon as I entered the company I discovered that I didn't know any of the songs that other people were familiar with.
It’s embarrassing, but I didn’t even know the Beatles. My first experience listening to the White Album was when I was twenty. The music I was listening to when I first started at Natsume probably formed the basis of my compositional style.
One of your later works for the Super Nintendo perhaps demonstrates a greater mastery of the 16-bit console's sound capabilities. Wild Guns is regarded by many fans of your music as one of your most memorable soundtracks. What was the concept behind this game by Natsume?
HI: Wild Guns is a shooting game in which the player controls gunmen to shoot enemies that appear on the screen. The unique thing about the game was that the controller allowed you to both move the character sideways on the screen and also aim the gun's sights. That was different from any other shooting games at the time. There were also actions you could perform, such as jumping and evading enemy attacks.
What were some of the musical genres that inspired your score for the game?
HI: Wild Guns is a game that has mixture of American western and science fiction elements. I had not composed anything like that previously, so I spent some time listening to compilations from famous movie soundtracks like The Magnificent Seven.
The archetypal Western motifs you can hear on the soundtrack are the whistle, brass instruments such as trumpets, and acoustic guitars. However, there are a lot of fast passages that make the music suitable for an action game. You might chuckle at the lack of subtlety in some of these music cues, but I wanted for the Western theme to be easily recognizable.
Do any of the tracks from this game score particularly stand out in your memory?
HI: Normally I start out by composing the first stage of the game. The first stage music tends to present the initial theme of the game more than the later tracks, and I did spend a lot of time working on it, so for that reason I have a particular fondness for it.
Also, there is a stage in which a train speeds by across the screen. I had the idea of making this song start on an interesting note, so I incorporated some irregular rhythms followed by a fast guitar passage. This "armored train" song stands out in my memory as well.
Enthusiasts of your music have posted movies of these songs to YouTube and its equivalent in Japan, Nico Nico Douga. Is it meaningful for you to observe that your music has left a lasting impression on people around the world?
HI: It has come to my attention, and it's something I've been curious about. People outside Japan seem to know about my work and even send me emails. It makes me really happy, but it also makes me wonder where they find all this information.
Our company has a relatively modest public presence, and I am practically anonymous among game composers, yet there are people from all over the world who have tracked me down for no reason other than to tell me they enjoy my music.
Those online video services you mentioned came out recently. Back when Wild Guns was released, I would receive letters in the mail from people who had listened to the music. Now I sometimes watch these videos that fans make for the old games that I worked on, and I am really happy to see that people still remember these games and enjoy them. I’ve even heard there are still people with Super Famicoms in their homes. It makes me happy to think about.
[Photo and Interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This text is available in Japanese on Game Design Current. Omega Five original soundtrack can be imported through Amazon.co.jp]