New music label helps classic video-game composers go solo

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Like the entertainment medium of which it is a part, video-game music has traditionally occupied an odd space in the public psyche, at once regarded disdainfully as a lesser cousin of “real” art and cherished as a source of so many people’s most powerful childhood memories.

With the children who grew up in the 8-bit golden age of 1980s gaming now in their 30s and 40s, it is perhaps inevitable that game music’s legacy is gradually being reassessed and rehabilitated. And it is against that backdrop that Tokyo-based record label Brave Wave emerges, founded earlier this year by Kuwaiti video-game enthusiast Mohammed Taher, with a mission to bring the work of game composers out into the world.

Often when an art form is dismissed as somehow lesser, the real reason is that it is being judged by a set of critical standards designed for something else entirely, and which have no sensitivity to its unique properties, development process and environment. With that in mind, The Japan Times met up with game composers and Brave Wave labelmates Keiji Yamagishi (of “Ninja Gaiden” fame) and Saori Kobayashi (composer on “Panzer Dragoon Saga”) to see if we could get to the bottom of what makes game music what it is.

“The biggest difference is that if you’re making music for a game, the music isn’t necessarily for the purpose of just having someone listen to it,” explains Yamagishi. “The whole point is for it to be listened to while someone is playing and enjoying a game that someone else has designed. So when I’m approaching game-music development, I’m not thinking, ‘I want someone to listen to this,’ so much as wanting it to fit the game world that the team has created.”

Rapidly changing technology is another factor that can have a huge influence on the form the music takes.

“Also a lot of the time you’d have size limits to the amount of game data you were able to use up, so you’d have to be considerate of that,” notes Yamagishi.

Both Yamagishi and Kobayashi started working during the 8-bit era, with Yamagishi cutting his teeth on the Nintendo Famicom (NES) while working at game company Tecmo in the ’80s and Kobayashi joining Sega to work on music for titles on the handheld Game Gear system in the early ’90s. Since then, the technology musicians have had to work with has changed the nature of game composing in several ways.

“Back then,” says Yamagishi, “you didn’t have to make music that responded to a specific player action, but in modern gaming, that’s something you see a lot. A composer today might have to consider something like if you’re pressing the buttons faster, the tempo goes up. ‘Nights Into Dreams…’ on the Sega Saturn (a series Kobayashi herself worked on) was one of the first games where player input had a real impact on how the music played out.”

With processor and memory hardware now allowing composers to do pretty much anything, the restrictions composers in the 8- and 16-bit eras had to work with have themselves started to coalesce into a legitimate musical subgenre based around the sounds of old computer audio chipsets, sometimes known as “chiptune.” However, Yamagishi admits it remains a small community, at least in Japan.

“If you were to go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I make chiptune music,’ they’d probably say, ‘Oh, is that the music that goes into games?’ ” he explains, “and perhaps with a sort of condescending tone as if it’s not ‘real’ music. However, Mohammed is a big game-music fan and he was the first person who told me that chiptune was cool and there are people (overseas) who really like that kind of music.”

Yamagishi’s and Kobayashi’s particular background and environment continue to influence their creative endeavours today. At Taher’s urging, Yamagishi is currently working on a solo album in a chiptune vein that he believes will hearken back to his earliest work.

Kobayashi, on the other hand, made the music for “Panzer Dragoon Saga” — the work of which she is still proudest — on the cusp of the modern era, at a time when the CD-based, 32-bit Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were allowing more complex and realistic sounds. The game’s mixture of science-fiction elements and its often archaic, ethnic-influenced setting provided her with a different kind of springboard.

“I have a band, Akane, which I do with vocalist Yumiko Takahashi, and we have a sort of minyo (Japanese folk music) feel,” says Kobayashi, “and if I hadn’t done ‘Panzer Dragoon Saga,’ I probably wouldn’t be doing Akane today.”

In addition to providing an outlet for the solo material of game composers, Brave Wave tries to foster international connections, something that the label’s Tokyo-based CEO and business manager Alexander Aniel is keen to point out.

“Another thing we try to do,” he explains, “is put Japanese composers together with overseas game developers. Historically there’s never been much crossover in that regard.”

One success of this approach is due to bear fruit with the release of “Shovel Knight” from U.S. developer Yacht Club Games, an 8-bit Nintendo-inspired platform game featuring the music of Brave Wave artist and “Mega Man” composer Manami Matsumae. The game will be released on multiple platforms, including Nintendo’s Wii U and 3DS, on June 26 in the U.S., with a Japan release to follow at an unannounced later date.

As contemporary games mature as a creative form and retro game styles carve out a new kind of appeal based on, rather than impeded by, their technical restrictions, it’s inevitable that game music in its own right should be attracting the same kind of attention. In the end, though, it’s down to the imagination and creativity of the musicians with the tools they have. As Kobayashi says:

“Your own personality will always come out — whether it’s your intention or not.”

Brave Wave compilation album “In Flux” is out now, featuring Keiji Yamagishi, Saori Kobayashi, Manami Matsumae, Akira Yamaoka and others. For more information, visit www.bravewave.net.