We speak to the composers and curators of Diggin’ in the Carts, a compilation surveying the hyper-inventive soundtracks made on early sound chips
Seven years ago, New Zealand broadcaster and DJ Nick Dwyer sat down in Tokyo with Chip Tanaka, one of the legendary composers of early-80s 8-bit video game music (VGM), and interviewed him for a documentary series he was working on at the time. As a young man, Tanaka was deeply inspired by traditional roots reggae and dub and had tried to recreate those sounds in 8-bit while working on games like Donkey Kong, Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Super Mario Land.
“It blew my mind,” Dwyer recalls. “You don’t even think about that stuff when you’re young. After that, I realised there was something bigger going on here.” There was a story to be told, and when the time was right, Dwyer was going to help tell it.
Over the last couple of years, Dwyer has been working closely with London’s Kode9 and his Hyperdub record label to compile Diggin’ in the Carts: a Collection of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music. An outgrowth of the video interview series and radio show Dwyer created for Red Bull Music Academy, the compilation surveys the glory days of 8-bit and 16-bit Japanese VGM in the 80s and early 90s chip era, building on the curator’s efforts to share the untold history of Japanese VGM with the world. In the process, it reveals that while Tanaka was using the hyper-nostalgic bleeps and technological restrictions of the era to riff on dub and reggae, composers like Yuzo Koshiro and Soshi Hosoi were drawing from Detroit techno and minimalist composition too. They were all dreaming up their own micro-masterpieces, works that stand up well beyond the boundaries of “music for video games.”
In the decades since, Japanese VGM has pivoted from the influenced to the influencer, becoming a wellspring of inspiration for several generations of hip hop, beats, synth-funk, grime, and dubstep producers. With the compilation out now and a Hyperdub x RBMA showcase event at London’s Fabric venue, we asked the Diggin’ in the Carts team, and some of the composers from the era, to walk us through ten of the most experimental and adventurous VGM soundtracks from the era.
GENPEI TOUMA DEN, NORIO NAKAGATA
A Japan-only release, Genpei Touma Den is a side-scrolling beat’em up arcade game starring a historical samurai, Taira no Kagekiyo. Its composer, Norio Nakagata, was a second wave employee at game developers Namco and benefited from incredible mentorship from Sempai (senior staff). “It was very free, with an attitude of pursuing that seemed interesting to the fullest,” he says, reflecting on his early days at Namco. “Thinking back on it now, it was a truly creative environment.”
Nakagata created Genpei Touma Den’s soundtrack on the Namco System 86 8-bit arcade system board, taking advantage of the arrival of the new FM synthesis technology to imitate the sound of live instrumentation. “It’s set in Feudal Japan, and you can hear this beautiful Japanese music tradition that is centuries old,” Dwyer explains. “You can tell he spent hours getting the soundwaves to sound like the shamisen playing in Kyoto.”
“Sour drones traversed by cascading arpeggios like this give me brain tingles for days,” adds Kode9.
“There is a phrase in the Analects of Confucius, onko chishin (learn new knowledge while revisiting the old), that I think fits how I feel (about having some of my music re-released on Hyperdub) to a T,” Nakagata enthuses. “I am surprised that work I did back when I was in my 20s – just completely wrapped up in my own thing – would receive such praise, and (I’m) very thankful to all those who have found my music!”
CHATTY, MANABU SAITO
Manabu Saito was one of the most promising Japanese game composers of the era, but tragically died of liver failure in 1992 aged just 22. Saito studied piano as a child, before studying the fundamentals of composition at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. A lover of classical music and anime themes, Saito loved the works of Beethoven and Glenn Gould. He composed with a light, stylish touch with roots in jazz and classical, and a restrained sense of syncopation that recalls French pianist Erik Satie.
Over his short career, Saito scored for Tokyo’s System Sacom, where he created the remarkable soundtrack to a PC-88 game called Chatty: a first-person adventure set in a mysterious future. Dwyer and Kode9 both agree that their favourite VGM tracks hinge around melancholy, and with Chatty, Saito took it to a place Dwyer articulates through the Portuguese concept of saudade: longing, melancholy, and nostalgia all rolled into one. In Kode9’s words, “There is something about these sad melodies filtered through those chips that always conjured the image of circuitry crying.” As Japanese VGM historian Haruhisa ‘Hally’ Tanaka puts it, “You could probably say that his talent was too ahead of its time.”
XAK II, TADAHIRO NITTA
“In the unlikely scenario I was suddenly going to become a boxer or a wrestler, this is the music I’d run out to in my satin shorts,” Kode9 offers up. Created by Tadahiro Nitta, an in-house composer at Micro Cabin, the Xak II soundtrack brought a heavy feel to the Technicolor sound of VGM. “Micro Cabin wanted such a dark sound on this game that it made my mind dark,” Nitta laughs. “I suffered, writhed, and in the end refused to go to work. I made the soundtrack at home with an electric bass and calculator in one hand. Thinking about it now, it’s pretty weird that my company let me get away with this.” Self-professedly not really into electronic music, Nitta drew a lot of inspiration from classical music, in particular the works of Wagner, who he discovered through the soundtrack to 70s American war epic Apocalypse Now.
A fantasy role-playing game full of demons and sorcerers, Xak II was originally released in Japan for Microsoft’s MSX2, a Japanese home computer system that also became very popular in Russia and Kuwait. “If you talk to Fatima Al Qadiri, she grew up with computers like the MSX,” Dwyer says.
“The MSX2 was a painful machine for developers,” admits Nitta, “but I undertook the challenge and managed to succeed somehow.”
HISOU KIHEI X-SERD, HIROKI NAKAYAMA
PC Engine, 1990
An obscure mecha strategy game released on the PC Engine console by Masaya Games, Hisou Kihei X-Serd really came to life when Goblin Sound collective member Hiroki Nakayama’s work kicked in. ”The ‘Game Over’ track sounds like it could have been in a John Hughes film – it’s this emotional 80s chip music drenched in nostalgia, and the drums are killer,” Dwyer enthuses. “His music has got this other quality to it, something that elevates it above just being VGM.” Dwyer considers Goblin Sound’s overall discography to be incredible, and credits part of this to “the rowdiness of the PC Engine chip.” In the ‘chip’ era, every gaming machine had a different sound chip, and each chip had a defined personality – and Goblin Sound mastered this one.
ACTRAISER, YUZO KOSHIRO
Super Famicon, 1990
Yuzo Koshiro is one of the true dons of the 16-bit era. Although he’s best known for drawing a direct line between house, techno, boogie funk, and VGM with his legendary work on the Streets of Rage beat ‘em up video game series, his dance sensibilities came with an experimental bent. When he was composing the soundtrack for mythical platform game Actraiser in 1990, Koshiro pushed the eight-channel sound chip of the Super Famicom console (known in the west as the SNES) to its limit – then asked one of the main programmers to modify it for him so he could go even further. “I was listening to lots of movie music at the time,” Koshiro recalls. “I think the soundtracks for Star Wars and Space Battleship Yamato were big influences. I wanted to create orchestral music unlike anything heard in a game before.”
Actraiser represented an aesthetic turning point in the sound of Super Famicom games. “At the time, Nobuo Uematsu had just completed the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack,” Dwyer explains. “When he heard Actraiser, he scrapped it, went back to the drawing board, and went for an orchestra sound.”
“When I first heard this track (Actraiser’s ‘Aitos ~ Temple’), I just thought about how it would sound remixed into a grime track, which is kind of what I do in my Diggin’ in the Carts live sets,” Kode9 reflects.
METAL BLACK, YASUHISA WATANABE
“I love the blasts of synth trumpet (in Metal Black’s ‘Area 26-10’),” enthuses Kode9. “It sounds like the theme to a pixelated version of an 80s cop show.” A sci-fi cyberpunk shoot’em up arcade game, Metal Black was released by Taito, with its soundtrack handled by composer Yasuhisa Watanabe, a member of their ‘in-house band’ Zuntata. Zuntata drew inspiration from prog rock, fusion, and early 80s technopop, giving their soundtracks a great sense of rhythm.
With Metal Black, Watanabe tapped into a widescreen, cinematic doom that was also rippling through Japanese anime at the time. “Metal Black is set in 2042, and Yasuhisa (Watanabe) used this very limited technology to soundtrack a dystopian future, much in the same way as Detroit techno producers were using synthesisers to do something similar at the time,” Dwyer says.
METAL STOKER, HIROTO SAITU
PC Engine, 1991
Metal Stoker is a futuristic overhead shoot ‘em up game released by developers Face for the PC Engine console. Kode9 describes “Site 6-2” from its soundtrack as “ultra funky”. As he puts it, “I love the shuffling, scuttling and crunchy drums. It’s like I’m cruising around in a hover-car with the top down.” The work of the composer Hiroto Saitou amounts to some of Dwyer’s favourite discoveries out of the quarter of a million odd VGM tracks he listened through while auditioning material for Diggin’ in the Carts. In a testament to this, three of Saitou’s songs feature on the compilation. “We chose the best music at the end of the day, and he seemed to be able to get something very unique out of the PC Engine sound chip, which you just don’t hear in other games,” Dwyer reflects.
DRAGON GUN, HIROAKI YOSHIDA
Something Dwyer loved about the Diggin’ in the Carts research process was learning how arcade game system boards work. Each arcade game company had their own board, with unique sound specifications. “I realised that most of my favourite arcade game music – Street Fighter 2, Final Fight, etc. – was made on a particular Capcom board,” he reflects. It’s like how electronic music enthusiasts have come to love rhythms programmed on the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Dragon Gun composer Hiroaki Yoshida worked for an arcade game company called Data East. “Data East games had these bleak, dystopian synths, and these killer special drum sounds that were so manicured,” Dwyer enthuses. Dragon Gun was a two-player lightgun shooting game; there were monsters, you needed to blow them up, and Yoshida provided a pounding soundtrack with crunchy power rock overtones. “(Dragon Gun’s ‘Lunatic Forest’) is a real stomper,” Kode9 says. ”I probably wouldn’t notice it if it was played by a real human rock band, but filtered through circuits, it just sounds epic.”
Humorously, the Data East composers actually maintained their own house band, Gamadelic, and have regularly recorded and released live rock arrangements of their soundtracks. In recent years, they’ve been taking advantage of nostalgia to perform live in Japan and abroad. Yoshida sees the internet as having given us a new way to share and preserve the things that influenced us as in teenagers in adulthood. He’s enjoying having his early work reappraised, but at the same time, he never stopped composing. “I feel like I’m a part of history now,” he says, “but I’m still actively working, so I guess it’s a bit like being a living fossil.”
THE MAHJONG TOUHAIDEN, SOSHI HOSOI
Super Famicon, 1993
You probably wouldn’t expect a soundtrack this good to be hiding in a mahjong game only released in Japan, but that’s exactly where Dwyer found Video System composer Soshi Hosoi’s The Mahjong Touhaiden. In Kode9’s words, “His Steve Reich-influenced track (‘Mister Diviner’) made me realise this compilation would appeal to people with zero interest in games, and that the music could stand up outside its original context.”
“I think it’s a miracle that Nick Dwyer found this track,” Hosoi admits.
Before working in games, Hosoi grew up listening to Japanese noise music, minimalist composition, early 90s VGM, and the slanted technopop of Yellow Magic Orchestra. “He knew that minimalism, in the Philip Glass and Steve Reich style, would work well in a video game, so that’s what he did, he made this minimalist masterpiece for a Super Famicom (SNES) mahjong game no one ever really heard or played,” Dwyer says.
“I remember that the director and a lot of other people at the company had a low opinion of the music,” Hosoi recalls. “It was pretty much just us on the sound team pushing through whatever we wanted, (and I wanted to create) sounds that didn’t seem like part of a game, tracks unlike anything ever heard before, and to give the player a comfortable sense of dissonance.”
TAROT MYSTERY, YASUAKI FUJITA
Super Famicon, 1995
Released on Super Famicom (SNES), Tarot Mystery was, as the name suggests, a tarot card game. In 1995, its buoyant Yasuaki Fujita composed soundtrack was a swan song of sorts for 16-bit VGM music. “Who knew that those icy 16-bit synths could be so pretty?” says Kode9. The Super Famicom and Megadrive consoles were on their way out, soon to be replaced by a new generation of 32-bit gaming systems like the PlayStation. “You’d never think it was for a video game,” Dwyer says. ”It’s a gorgeous piece of electronic music.”
Tarot Mystery’s “What Is Your Birthday” means a lot. It’s a beautiful and sad goodbye to the chip music era.
RBMA and Hyperdub present Diggin’ in the Carts at Fabric, London tonight (November 30)