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A lot of people seem to create soundtracks that are very much in the background. But as you mentioned, there are soundtracks where you recall where you were and what you were doing at the time that you played that game. Most people don't make distinct themes anymore.
You can remember Super Mario, you can remember Castlevania, you can remember Zelda, but for the last 15 years you can't remember anything. But, in your music, I can hear repetition, like the Silver Case theme is used, and reused with variation, to the point where I can remember the theme right now. How do you go about creating that feeling; that some day people will be say "Oh, I remember that time..."
MT: The technique I used in [early Grasshopper game] The Silver Case is called the leitmotif technique. It's through this that I try to achieve that sense of nostalgia. The same technique is often used in operas, where a specific melody is used for a specific character. So the soundtrack selection is based on and coupled with the character in action. For example, you have two characters with separate motifs for each, if the both characters appear at once, you would blend the two melodies. Using this technique in addition to Silver Case's main motif and theme, the tunes are rearranged over and over for each important point in the game.
I think that's a much better technique. The traditional themes that we remember, like Final Fantasy battle themes, for instance - that's largely because we heard them hundreds of times. But this is actually threaded through, so you're not just hearing the same song over and over again.
Jesse Harlin, the audio columnist for Game Developer magazine, wrote an article about techniques for making distinct themes. One of the techniques he described is taking a certain style of music and putting it in a genre where you wouldn't expect. He says the themes you remember are things like, where you take an action game like Mario, and you put a waltz in it. Or the a cappella theme in Katamari Damacy.
MT: Yeah, I think the shock factor and initial impact of the mismatch link directly to memory, so it's probably easier to remember a cappella used in Katamari Damacy than the same a cappella applied to an emotional scene.
To hear a cappella in a situation that fits a cappella makes less of an impact than hearing it in Katamari Damacy - a situation that seems like a mismatch at first, that's probably why people remember.
ASCII Entertainment/Grasshopper Manufacture's The Silver Case
What other techniques do you use to try to make music distinctive?
MT: No More Heroes is structured to have smaller squad battles and boss battles. There's a specific melody that is used for the smaller squad battles throughout the game which is also used in the game trailer. The entire game, from the opening to the ending, is constituted by this one melody. [Takada hums it.] That single melody is rearranged in a variety of ways, with varying complexity.
In the small squad battles, because lots of identical characters or enemies with the same look come out at once, by playing the main theme, you make a stronger impression of the No More Heroes game itself on the players. On the other hand, because characters in boss battles stand alone and have a greater presence, I try to omit the melody and include music with less impact.
I noticed that when you were thinking about your music, you did this [gestures as though playing keyboard] -- can you actually play the keyboard without the keyboard?
MT: Oh, you mean like this? I don't intentionally play air keyboard, but I do it for sure. Yeah, I do practice like this when I'm taking the train and stuff.
In Samurai Champloo, the music and the sound determines the combo chain that you can do, and so in a case like this, how do you create the music to work with the game?
MT: Hmm... when I wrote the music for Samurai Champloo, the game's combo change system idea wasn't solidified yet. So the music was created first and then the game was shaped around and adjusted to match it. That was the production pattern, yeah. The music was created first, then it was applied to the game system, then we went back to making fine adjustments.
And do you feel that was a successful implementation?
MT: Yeah, it wasn't a flop so... (laughs). The programmers of Samurai Champloo had good sense.