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Shooting from the Hip: An Interview with Hip Tanaka

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. Alexander Brandon catches up with the legendary composer.

Alexander Brandon, Blogger

September 25, 2002

12 Min Read

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 composer.

Alex Brandon. 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.

AB. How did you get involved in music for games?

Hip Tanaka: Softography Highlights

Donkey Kong arcade (1980): sound effects onlyGyromite (1985)Duck Hunt (1985)Kid Icarus (1986)Metroid (1986)Super Mario Land (1989)Baloon Fight (1990)

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.

AB. 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 were everywhere.

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 game makes."

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 environment.

AB. 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.

AB. What was it like working with the technology to create music for the original Nintendo games?

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.

AB. Do you have a studio now that you use to create music for current games and Pokemon?

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.

AB. 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 field.

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.

AB. 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 my music.

Also, I usually enjoy good (and sometimes bad) experiences by traveling outside of Japan, leaving the uniform and sometimes child-oriented Japanese culture behind.


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About the Author(s)

Alexander Brandon


Alexander Brandon has been in the game industry since 1995 and has written music, done sfx or recorded voice-over for such games as Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, and more recently audio direction for Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows and Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run. He has written the book “Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production”, is a columnist for Mix magazine and is on the board of directors for the Game Audio Network Guild. He is currently the audio director at Obsidian Entertainment and recently finished audio direction for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer.

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