The melodic loops from classic games such as The Legend of Zelda, Contra, and Street Fighter II are forever etched into the minds of video game fans who grew up during the 8- and 16-bit era. Though the target hardware is considered primitive by modern standards, talented musicians and engineers of the day didn't let limited audio channels stand in the way of their creative spirit; they embraced the given hardware, and in many cases, found ways to exploit it.
Not content to simply re-listen to their favorite songs, a pair of intrepid documentarians from New Zealand set out to locate the musicians from Japan who're responsible for creating some of the best game music of the 80s and 90s. Teaming up with the Red Bull Music Academy, an initiative started in 1998 to bring music workshops and festivals to different countries around the world, the duo of Nick Dwyer and Tu Neill met with well known composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Hitoshi Sakimoto of Final Fantasy fame, but also the hidden gems of the gaming world, like Junko Ozawa from Namco.
Speaking with Dwyer, I was reminded why the music from that era is so memorable, and in many cases, special. It was the passion of the artists and their dedication to giving the player an unforgettable aural experience. For Nick, his obsession with video game music began during the heyday of the Commodore 64.
"Growing up, I had a Commodore 64 and that changed my life. That was my introduction to electronic music. I was so into the music of my Commodore 64, and when I was about seven, I used to record soundtracks to my brother's dual tape deck. When I was about ten years old, my older brother moved to Japan, bought a GameBoy and sent it back to New Zealand, and we also got a Super Famicom. He sent over Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and I was so excited. But, I couldn't play them, so I bought a Japanese dictionary and started to learn Japanese to play those games. I just completely and utterly fell in love with the music, especially Final Fantasy. Those game soundtracks played such an important role in shaping me musically. Considering how interesting the music of those games were to us, we still know very little about the composers. Some of those soundtracks played more in our households than pop music at the time."
Nick's passion drove him to create Diggin' in the Carts. In order to make the series work, he needed to not only track down the composers behind Japan's most memorable soundtracks, but he had to get permission from publishers--Namco, Capcom, Sunsoft, and Konami, to name a few. This was a difficult task that required a lot of legwork, and a lot of business cards.
"There were definitely a lot of difficulties, and there was only so much that I could do in pre-producing a series like this in New Zealand. The way Japanese culture works, you've got to meet them face to face and exchange a business card. Literally, as soon as we moved from New Zealand mid April, it was crazy, it was all on. We had to meet everybody first and just show them how passionate we were, you know? I guess that's what did it."
"The most difficult part of making the project was that we were essentially making a series about other people's copyright, and those people also happened to be some of the largest corporations in Japan that fiercely guard their copyrights. Some of the copyrights are some of the most iconic copyrights of the 21st century. I just kept meeting them and showing them that we were really passionate about the story and then little by little they finally went 'alright, we admire your passion.' The same thing with the composers. some were really hard to track down and we had to meet friends of people who knew of these people. Slowly but surely people came on board. I think now that they've seen it as well, a lot of them are really happy to have been a part of it. But it was a long, long process. It was a lot of meishi (business cards) being handed out and the biggest lesson I learned from this whole series, and the best advice I can give anyone who wants to do any kind of business in Japan, is to never, ever, ever forget to bring your meishi to a meeting."
Considering how interesting the music of those games were to us, we still know very little about the composers. Some of those soundtracks played more in our households than pop music at the time.
As Nick and Tu began to meet composers, some who still work in games and others who have moved on, they realized that this wasn't just a chance for them to uncover anecdotes and secrets from gaming's past; it was a chance for them to inform their subjects of the impact their work had on a generation of gamers and musicians. Some of them had no idea that, 20 years later, their music was being celebrated in YouTube videos and live performances. There was one composer that Nick and Tu met who was profoundly impacted by this realization. He quit making music for games before the advent of the internet, and was amazed that his music was celebrated, let alone remembered, by people halfway across the world.
"Masashi Kageyama, who's in episode two. Really, it was people like that which we were so happy to have in the series. Someone like Kageyama-san...it's such a unique thing, the notion of Japanese video game music, because a lot of these guys, you know they're musicians. But, especially back in the day, it was a very salaryman situation that they're in. They've got a job at a big company and they make music to these game at a deadline, they clock in and out of work like regular company employees, and back in those days they had absolutely no feedback on how their music was being received. It's one of the rarest things to be creative and have absolutely no idea what people think of your music. With Kageyama-san, he left, he couldn't handle anymore and he stopped making game music in the mid-90's. He had absolutely no idea that the music he made 20 years ago sitting in his tiny office in some way had an impact around the world. It's inspired him to get back into making music again, which I think is really beautiful."
One of the prominent threads running throughout the series was that women played a massively important role in forming the most recognizable soundtracks of the day, but they rarely received the same level of recognition as their male counterparts. Dwyer points out that not only were there more women working behind the scenes than most people realize, but at one company, they were the rule, not the exception.
Man, it was huge. It's something that we definitely wanted to highlight. You know, in episode one, Junko Ozawa, she laid down the foundations for that Namco sound. And she's just, oh my God, the most sweetest, incredible woman. At Namco at the time there were a lot of other female composers as well, but the big one was Capcom. In the late 80s, virtually 80% of the sound team was women. It was Yoko Shimamura; it was Manami Matsumae, who of course did Mega Man on the NES; also this amazing woman called Mari Yamaguchi who did soundtracks for Super Ghouls and Ghosts, and a number of other games; Junko Tamiya who did Strider. There's an amazing photo if you Google Capcom sound team, you'll see this amazing photo that's got them on a work business trip, and it's all women!"
"And the most amazing thing is, when you think about Capcom in the late 80s, it was making very testosterone heavy games, be it Final Fight or Street Fighter II, and it was these really sweet, amazing women, making really manly, tough music."
"A number of the companies were very smart and they really cared about music; that's the one thing that's come across is that companies like Konami, companies like Capcom, they really knew that the power of music was a really key factor in the games. I really loved researching that whole thing and finding out just how influential and key female composers were, especially that 16-bit era."
Diggin' in the Carts was released as a series of episodes over a series of two months, and you can watch all of the episodes now, over at the Red Bull Music Academy website.