Interview: 8-Bit to Omega Five with Hiroyuki Iwatsuki

Having worked at Natsume for nearly 20 years, veteran composer Hiroyuki Iwatsuki discusses his memorable video game soundtracks, from classic scores on the Famicom to the soundtrack for XBLA title shoot'em-up Omega Five -- also sharing the challeng
[Having worked at Natsume for nearly 20 years, veteran composer Hiroyuki Iwatsuki discusses his memorable video game soundtracks, from classic scores on the Famicom to the soundtrack for XBLA title shoot'em-up Omega Five -- also sharing the challenges of producing 8-bit songs.] Few musicians working in the video game industry today can claim to have been writing chiptunes back when the Nintendo Entertainment System was in its heyday. Self-effacing by nature, long-time Natsume staff member Hiroyuki Iwatsuki is one member of a small community of composers who can claim that distinction. Contributing in the early 90s to the NES title Chaos World, whose 8-bit tunes saw an arranged album release, Iwatsuki most recently worked on the score for Xbox Live Arcade shooter Omega Five. The game received a soundtrack album that features original songs and retro remixes by the composer, and also contains special arrangements by Ridge Racer series veterans Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso, along with other participants of the Super Sweep music group. Iwatsuki's games include the Super Nintendo titles Pocky & Rocky, The Ninja Warriors, and Wild Guns, along with Game Boy titles such as Ninja Gaiden Shadow and various PlayStation entries. Working most often as part of a team of musicians, his distinctive contributions to gaming audio have at times gone unmentioned. This in-depth interview, taking place at Natsume headquarters in Nagoya and looks at the development of Chaos World for the Famicom, Wild Guns for the Super Nintendo, and Omega Five for the Xbox 360. The discussion offers insights into Iwatsuki's personal perspective on the challenges and rewards both of writing 8-bit music in the era of the Famicom and adapting to two decades of evolving game hardware. In several respects, Omega Five combines traditional and more recent trends in gaming. The visual style is reminiscent of a 2D shooter, but the graphics are made up of 3D polygons. In terms of the music style, there is an original sound mode and also retro remixes for each track that emulate the arcade shooters of a prior era. How much confidence did you have in setting out on the Omega Five soundtrack that you could deliver a score to suit the style of the title? Hiroyuki Iwatsuki: I wasn't all that confident, to tell you the truth. The aim was to write the music for a 2D shooter, which was something new to me. One thing I had in mind from the beginning was to maintain a feeling of momentum in the music. In the case of action games, the players' choices will affect what is displayed on the screen, which allows for more leeway in how the score is arranged. By contrast, when the screen scrolls at a fixed speed in a shooter like Omega Five, you have to keep in mind that the music will be precisely matching the image presented on-screen during each level. Personally, I've been a fan of shooters for a long time, so while making the score to Omega Five, I was thinking back on all the games in this category that had inspired me. There are any number of conventions from celebrated shooters in the music of Omega Five. The team working on the project wanted to create a solid addition to the genre, so we all had our favorite shooting games from the past as ideals to live up to. How conscious was the design team of tradition while making Omega Five? HI: We included strategies from previous shooters and musical conventions that make subtle reference to the past. These days, I sometimes read blogs for feedback on the game, and I've found that everyone seems to have a different idea of how Omega Five offers a look back at the past within the context of a new game experience. When the album was first released, you mentioned in an interview that composer Manabu Namiki of the sound design company Basiscape first suggested the idea of an album. What other factors motivated the creation of the published soundtrack? HI: Omega Five was the first original game from Natsume's Nagoya office in a long time, so this might have inspired interest in an official soundtrack CD. This email from Namiki-san was very influential in [convincing me to put] effort into a printed soundtrack. Did you anticipate the release of an album while working on the game? HI: In all honestly, I was surprised at first by the suggestion that people were interested in seeing a published soundtrack. Namiki-san introduced me to Super Sweep. Meeting composer Shinji Hosoe, I found out that everyone at Super Sweep had been playing the game and was familiar with the music. It was gratifying to discover. Is it unusual for a soundtrack album to be produced so late in the development of a video game? HI: Ideally, making a soundtrack CD is a process that is set in motion at the outset of a game project. The title came out last January, and we felt it was important to deliver the album within two months so that it was fresh in people's minds. It was a demanding schedule to put the album together within that timeline, seeing as it included new arrangements. Though the deadline was strict, Super Sweep's results were very impressive. Before the album was completed, I had no idea which musicians were arranging which tracks. There were interesting touches here and there, things that I would never have thought of doing myself. Omega Five Soundtrack includes a new arrangement of your own song "Road to the Future." Was this a new experience for you? HI: I have never had the chance to do arrangements of my own music. For "Road to the Future," the music that plays during the end credits sequence is the backbone of the track, but it also incorporates the Stage Complete and Start Screen themes. Each of these musical elements appears in that order. I wanted it to be a surprise for the listener that the first track in the game fades up after the conclusion of the end credits theme. I think this idea turned out well, but I would be interested to hear the opinion of listeners. What are some of the important differences between composing for the Xbox 360 compared with your work on the 16-bit Super Nintendo? HI: The biggest difference between the Super Famicom and the Xbox 360 is the difference in memory. You could almost fit the contents of a Super Famicom cart within the memory space allotted to the music of a single Xbox 360 game. For Omega Five it adds up to a few megabytes because of the high quality of the recorded sounds. The Xbox 360 uses 48 kHz sound output, so naturally we were using those specifications. In retro mode, we consciously lowered the sound source to between 12 and 16 kHz, then rendered these files at 48 kHz to give it an antique quality. Even the retro tracks are large files, which is the sort of thing you could not get away with on the Super Famicom. Back then, we were forced to be inventive and make sacrifices on sound quality so that the hardware could handle it.
Hear samples from Omega Five Soundtrack at the Sweep Record blog

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.

Brazilian cover band 8 Bit Instrumental concluded their 2007 tribute album Altered Bit with an arranged medley of Wild Guns themes.

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]

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