If you grew up during the 1980s or 1990s, there’s a good chance that you spent more time listening to the music of Hirokazu Tanaka than to many of your favorite pop songs. Such was the reach of the work that the Kyoto native created during his nearly 20-year tenure as a sound designer at Nintendo, as the company branched out from manufacturing playing cards and children’s toys to become one of the world’s biggest video game makers.
Tanaka’s soundtracks for Nintendo Famicom (NES) titles such as “Metroid,” “Kid Icarus” and “Mother” (along with its Super Famicom sequel, “Mother 2,” released overseas as “EarthBound”) are now considered classics of the genre.
He composed the music for Game Boy staples including “Tetris” and “Super Mario Land,” as well as developing the audio hardware that played them. Later in his career, he became in-house composer for the “Pokemon” animated TV series, winning another generation of unwitting fans.
Video game composers from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, which lasted from roughly 1983 to 1994, played a role in the development of electronic music that is only beginning to be fully recognized. But at the time, says Tanaka, it was “just a job.”
“I wasn’t doing it with the feeling of a musician,” he recalls. “I approached it in a very Japanese, salaryman style: I was just contributing my portion of a product that the company was making.”
In retrospect, Japan’s early video game composers seem to fit into the wider electronic music scene of the era. Techno-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra used samples of arcade games in its 1978 hit “Computer Music” and YMO member Haruomi Hosono later released the seminal “Video Game Music” compilation in 1984.
Tanaka, however, says he wasn’t paying much attention.
“I didn’t listen to YMO at all,” he confesses. “I really liked Hosono — loved him, actually. I thought his ‘Paraiso’ album was great, but I didn’t listen to anything after that. I just wasn’t interested.”
That’s because his musical allegiances lay elsewhere. While working at Nintendo, he moonlighted in a local dub-reggae band that opened for Jamaican heavyweights Sly and Robbie when the duo visited Japan.
“During my 20s and 30s, I was a total reggae-head,” he remembers. “I had to cut down after a while, as I realized if I was only listening to reggae, I wouldn’t be able to make other kinds of music.”
The influence of Jamaica’s producers seeped into the work Tanaka did at his day job. In a revealing Red Bull Music Academy lecture in 2014, he described how he applied the methods of dub music to get around the limitations of the three sound channels available on the Famicom, frequently dropping out the melody to leave just the bass and drums.
This kind of experimentation was common at the time, as documented on the “Diggin’ in the Carts” compilation of rare Japanese video game music, released this week via Hyperdub [see sidebar].
“At a normal record label, you’ll have directors and producers who exert some kind of influence, but game composers back in the day didn’t have anything like that,” says Tanaka. “A lot of people were working with total freedom. They wouldn’t have made it past all the filters that regular music had to go through.”
In retrospect, he sees the early video game composers as forerunners of the democratization that technology unleashed on the music industry, including the way it opened the door for people who weren’t trained musicians to get involved. Like Tanaka, many of his peers had been hired for their technical rather than musical abilities.
“It was music made by the kinds of people who wouldn’t have been released in the past,” he says. “Nowadays, everyone with a computer can make music. I feel like the environment is similar.”
In the canon of video game soundtracks, Tanaka isn’t quite as revered as his former Nintendo colleague, Koji Kondo, or “Final Fantasy” composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose work is now regularly performed by symphony orchestras.
However, he has become a sort of godfather figure for the chiptune genre, an international scene of musicians who use the sounds of the 8-bit era as their main ingredients. Many chiptune artists wield Game Boys as instruments, employing software that allows them to use the consoles like a sequencer and synthesizer.
It’s a culture that Tanaka helped foster via one of his final projects for Nintendo, the Game Boy Camera. Released in 1998, the accessory included a simple sequencer that allowed players to create their own, admittedly primitive, tunes.
“When we were making it, I thought I’d like to show people what you could do with the Game Boy’s sound,” he says. “Even if the music you could make with it was really limited, it let users directly manipulate the Game Boy’s sound generator. I think that set the precedent for things like (popular chiptune software) Nanoloop and LSDJ.”
In 2007 Tanaka began performing at chiptune events under the moniker Chip Tanaka, a twist on his old Nintendo nickname, Hip. His productions — which can be heard on his debut album, “Django,” released this week — use the unmistakable tones of the Famicom and Game Boy, but also incorporate more contemporary tricks. (Tanaka’s press shot has him posing not with an old-school games console but with a decidedly modern Apple laptop.)
When he closed a recent live set in Tokyo with the ending theme from “Super Mario Land,” a friend told him afterward that he’d seen a woman in the audience crying.
“When you’re hearing that music at high volume, I think it brings back all kinds of childhood memories,” Tanaka says. “It happens a lot in Japan. I was playing the ‘Snowman’ theme from ‘Mother,’ and there were three guys in front of me in the crowd who were bawling.”
Such is the curious emotional reach of video game music.
“The experience of playing games is really universal,” he says. “Everyone’s culture may be different, but the experience of gaming is something that so many of us have in common. I’m constantly amazed by it.”
Chip Tanaka plays Diggin’ in the Carts at Liquidroom in Shibuya Ward as part of Red Bull Music Festival Tokyo on Nov. 17 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; 0120-527-526). “Django” is out now. For more information, visit www.hirokazutanaka.com.
The pure sound of video game music
The early history of Japanese video game music was chronicled in “Diggin’ in the Carts,” an entertaining documentary series produced by Nick Dwyer and Tu Neil for Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. Now there’s also a compilation, released digitally this week on U.K. label Hyperdub, with a vinyl edition due next February.
The 34-track album covers the creative heyday of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles like the Nintendo Famicom and PC Engine, and avoids the obvious choices — you’ll find no “Super Mario Bros.” or “Sonic the Hedgehog” here.
“The methodology for choosing the music was really just to treat it as music, regardless of whether we or anyone else had heard of the game,” says Hyperdub’s Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, who worked with Dwyer on compiling the album.
“I’m very aware of the fact that the most famous and popular games definitely didn’t have the best music, and that if we dug deeper, we could tap into something which was even stronger musically,” he says.
The distinctive timbres are part of the appeal — Goodman contrasts the “crunchy (but) pure tones” of early 8-bit soundtracks with the “coldness and shininess” of the 16-bit era — but the music’s sheer inventiveness is remarkable too.
“It’s almost a cliche now to draw attention to how new musical genres often arise through the misuse and struggle with the confines of what machines are capable of, and how the limitations can force musical ingenuity to incubate and intensify,” Goodman says. “But I think this is also the case with early game music.” (James Hadfield)