In 1986, we in the U.S. were playing the Nintendo Entertainment System
(known as the Famicom in Japan), and roughly a third of the music for
its first set of games was written by Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka,
then with Nintendo Co. Ltd. He has written music for countless other games
as well as designing the Game Boy Camera and Printer, and also scored
the soundtrack to the Pokemon TV series. He now runs Creatures Inc., which
makes Pokemon cards and developed the hit Japanese Game Boy Color title
Chee-Chai Alien. Thanks to the translation assistance of Kaito
Okutani and Hideyuki Shida, I managed to have a few words with this legendary
How did you get involved in music?
Hip Tanaka. I started at Yamaha Music School [a private afternoon
class in Japan] when I was five years old. Then, I went on to piano lessons
at nine and continued until 11. I have not received any other formal music
education. My composing is almost entirely self-taught. I used to listen
to the classics and movie soundtracks quite often, since my mother was
always playing them in the house.
The TV show "The Monkees" was on the air when I was nine, and
that made me interested in rock music. So I started a band and the habit
lasted until the age of 30. In our earliest stage, we copied the Beatles,
Burt Bacharach, and Simon and Garfunkel. I played anything from keyboard
to drums to guitar in the bands I joined. I had joined many bands with
various genres like rock, jazz, and fusion, but what excited me most was
reggae dub during the punk era in the 1980s. It sounds strange, but reggae
dub influenced my career big time.
How did you get involved in music for games?
HT. I studied electronic engineering at university, but you can
probably guess what it was like. My professor once summoned me and said,
"I understand if you want to make a living with your music, but I
just cannot allow you to graduate as an engineer like this."
Then, I found the newspaper ad from Nintendo for a sound engineer position.
I went to the interview, and fortunately I was accepted. At the same time,
though, my band was selected as a finalist in the music competition and
got a chance to debut as a pro. It made me think about my future, but
I decided to take the job at Nintendo. The band, by the way, found a replacement
and made their national debut.
I was so worried about the job before I started to go work, and I remember
I purchased tons of technical books at the nearby bookstore. My first
job at Nintendo was to design the sounds for Space Firebird [an
arcade shooting game released in 1980]. It was so hard. I had to design
not only the sound, but to do everything from selecting amps to setting
up the speakers for the arcade machine.
For Metroid, how did you go about creating the music? Did someone give
you graphics from the game and give you ideas for themes? Who did you
work most closely with? Gumpei Yokoi? Hai Yukami?
HT. The sound for games used be regarded just as an effect, but
I think it was around the time Metroid was in development when
the sound started gaining more respect and began to be properly called
game music. Even the media had put spotlights on it, and we began to see
many articles on game music.
Then, sound designers in many studios started to compete with each other
by creating upbeat melodies for game music. The pop-like, lilting tunes
The industry was delighted, but on the contrary, I wasn't happy with
the trend, because those melodies weren't necessarily matched with the
tastes and atmospheres that the games originally had.
The sound design for Metroid was, therefore, intended to be the
antithesis for that trend. I had a concept that the music for Metroid
should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as
if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound
without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I
had was, "Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that
As you know, the melody in Metroid is only used at the ending
after you killed the Mother Brain. That's because I wanted only a winner
to have a catharsis at the maximum level. For the reason, I decided that
melodies would be eliminated during the gameplay. By melody here I mean
something that someone can sing or hum.
I suppose some of the players felt it was little bit too heavy. Back
then, many people said the game music for Metroid was too serious.
However, I believe I succeeded in emphasizing the characteristic of Metroid
by synchronizing the theme of the music with the theme of the gameplay
where a player must escape from an underground maze.
When it comes to music, I didn't discuss it with anybody. They allowed
me to be in charge of the game's music. I even insisted that game designers
change certain graphical concepts in the maps from my point of view. Indeed,
I named all the maps. In Japan, Metroid was released as software
on a disk system and it's a bit different from the U.S. version. The Japanese
version has one more voice of polyphony, and it sounds much better. Mr.
Yokoi didn't give us any requests, and let us have a very free working
Has the music from Metroid and Kid Icarus been remixed,
or put to an orchestral score?
HT. The music was remixed with synthesizers, but I don't think
they ever have been orchestrated.
What was it like working with the technology to create music for the original
HT. Most music and sound in the arcade era (Donkey Kong
and Mario Brothers) was designed little by little, by combining
transistors, condensers, and resistance. And sometimes, music and sound
were even created directly into the CPU port by writing 1s and 0s, and
outputting the wave that becomes sound at the end.
In the era when ROM capacities were only 1K or 2K, you had to create
all the tools by yourself. The switches that manifest addresses and data
were placed side by side, so you have to write something like "1,
0, 0, 0, 1" literally by hand. Such prehistoric work makes me laugh
every time I think about it.
There was a dedicated sound design tool available when the Famicom was
introduced. It was common for most sound designers to use sound tools
in the PC and convert the MIDI data into Famicom's sound data. But then
I didn't use any sequencers specialized for music and sound. I always
created my own sequencer and used assembly for programming language.
It's a small thing, but being a programmer and a composer using my original
program was a strong element of my uniqueness, I think. I was always particular
about me directly accessing the music source and wielding the sound from
there. I'd never changed my way of doing things, starting from understanding
the buffer in order to write every parameter for sound controls, to writing
the data directly to them. I preferred to stick to my way because I believed
that could maximize the sound chip capability, which was limited to 3
to 4 tones, and generating more detailed sounds.
Do you have a studio now that you use to create music for current games
HT. The company is called Creatures Inc., and the former president
is the executive producer of Pokemon. I took the job to create
the music for the Pokemon TV series for my spare time, before Pokemon
gained today's popularity. I don't need to explain this, but Pokemon quickly
became the phenomenon beyond my imagination. At first, I composed the
music for it almost as a joke and didn't take it seriously. But I was
asked to continue composing music for the anime series. Nintendo didn't
allow employees to work for other companies, so combining my personal
reasons that I had then, I made the decision to leave the company.
Everybody thinks I am a dedicated music composer, but before resigning
from Nintendo, I planned and developed Pocket Camera and Pocket Printer.
In the project, I wanted to put everything I felt in the flow of the gaming
industry. I gave a presentation to Mr. Yamauchi [former chairman and president
of Nintendo], and I drew all the images and even programmed the prototype
game myself. Around then, I had a strong desire to create not just music,
but to plan and develop a new product.
In the Pocket Camera, I prepared the sequencer that you can port the
core parts of the Game Boy sound source, and enjoy the music from Game
Boy on it. Having been on the staff who created the Game Boy sound source,
this is something I wanted to do. There is a pirate CD software that is
using this portion.
At Creatures, while composing the music for anime, I designed and developed
a Game Boy title called Chee-Chai Alien. This game is also something
I had in mind since I was at Nintendo.
Two years ago, the former president set up a new company and took off,
so I was asked to operate Creatures. With my experiences at Nintendo,
we basically design and develop game software and trading card games,
inclusing Pokemon card games. I want to continuously supply unique gaming
experiences, on whatever the platform might be.
What are your thoughts on making music and sound for games now, compared
to making music and sound for games in the 1980s?
HT. When it comes to the hardware, the technologies used in the
N64, Gamecube, Playstation and Xbox have completely different qualities
from the older arcade machines, Famicom, and Game Boy. I think the term
"gaming" itself is changing. Today, I think it's common now
to work more systematically, not relying on one single sound designer
as I used to do, but coordinating several groups who specialize in each
However, what really doesn't change is that sound designing is a human-to-human
business, not like you are doing it for dogs or birds. Not only that,
but you have to tackle gamers’ feelings, which is something we've
never been able to grasp completely. The understanding on the technology
side is a must, but most importantly, I think we are required to have
various ideas and techniques in order to cope with the living beings that
we are targeting.
The ideas in designing sounds are everywhere, and it's not a bad thing
to think about how you have been dealing with the sound since you were
a child. We are surrounded by sound since our birth.
Personally, I always loved all the different types of music, and even
now, I buy many CDs and listen to them. I also think how the music was
created, considering the composer's personal and social environment. I
even feel myself that I had been shaped and moved by the ever-changing
world for the last 20 years of my career.
I hope I can continue my career in making games and game music. I would
like to influence, and be influenced with the fellow sound designers to
get the best out of us.
AB. Do you
have plans to create music for an album or CD?
HT. Buckner & Garcia published a record album called Pac-Man
Fever in 1982. In it, they had music for the Donkey Kong arcade
version. This song starts with Donkey Kong's stomps as well as Mario's
squeaking footsteps. I made both of the sound effects, and you can't imagine
how happy I was when I first heard it. I was really touched! I haven't
heard of any releases in the near future regarding my works.
What is among your favorite game music soundtracks?
HT. As I mentioned, I listen all different kinds of music. It's
hard for me to name a particular genre or favorite musicians. I listen
to pieces from folk music to avant-garde electronic music.
Other than music, I like to look at photos and paints. I often get inspirations
from portraits. I like photos in which the person in it is not aware of
being photographed. From the face and its natural expression, I get this
strange feelings and emotions that I feel like I could imagine the some
part of human lives that at least I'm not aware of. Then, I start to feel
like some of my worn-out senses are polished again, and this influences
Also, I usually enjoy good (and sometimes bad) experiences by traveling
outside of Japan, leaving the uniform and sometimes child-oriented Japanese