When he was growing up, Nick Dwyer’s family took in a number of Japanese exchange students. Though there were cultural and language differences between Dwyer and his new housemates, video games—particularly, the role-playing games made for the Super Famicom, which would be dubbed the Super Nintendo outside of Japan—helped bridge the gap. Two decades later, after a career of hosting radio and television shows about music that took him all over the world, Dwyer pitched a six-part documentary series called Diggin’ in the Carts to the Red Bull Music Academy. For the series, Dwyer interviewed both famous and obscure video game music composers from the early years of gaming—as well as the modern artists they’ve influenced—with a focus on the intense technical limitations of the sound chips those artists created music for, and the immense creativity and vision with which many of them tackled the task.
Diggin’ in the Carts has spawned a radio show and concert series (London’s Fabric will host Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima on November 30th), but its most ambitious offshoot is a 34-track compilation released earlier this month on the esteemed Hyperdub label. The comp, researched and curated by Dwyer and Hyperdub’s Steve Goodman (who makes music as Kode9), culls the finest examples of pioneering electronic music from thousands of hours of game soundtracks. And while the breadth of the compilation is impressive, it’s the curation that really shines: This collection of tracks—which range from intense to contemplative to downright psychedelic—showcases an incredible and often overlooked moment in electronic music history. We chatted with Dwyer about how the project came together.
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How did you start this journey of rediscovering early game music from Japan?
For seven or eight years, I was making a TV series for the National Geographic channel about music culture all over the world. In the Tokyo episode, I interviewed Hip Tanaka, a very early Nintendo employee, and Yoko Shimomura, who made the music for Street Fighter 2. I had been a big fan of gaming when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that I started to research these guys, and I was just blown away by how incredible they were. I started traveling to Tokyo more regularly, and I’d go on these digging missions. I’d go to vintage game stores looking for, particularly, 16-bit Japanese role-playing games. And the more incredible music I found, the more I wanted to hear about the people who made the music. There was surprisingly little information about most of these men and women, so I pitched the idea of a documentary series to Red Bull Music Academy. Everything has grown from there.
You were digging for those games’ music, primarily?
Yeah, I was looking for music to sample as a musician. I loved the Super Famicom sound chip. Because of its very limited sampler capabilities, composers could—for the first time—start to build a sort of orchestral sound. But they didn’t quite get there. It’s this lush, Super NES, not-quite-orchestral sound that defined so many of those role-playing games. So I was looking for those games in particular, and then I started branching off and looking for PC-Engine games—which was called the TurboGrafx 16 in the States. So that’s what I was into. But now, with the compilation, I’ve sat and listened through every single 8- and 16-bit game soundtrack from Japan.
Were you just attracted to the aesthetics of these early game sounds, or to the intense limitations and difficulty level that these music pioneers were dealing with?
Initially, just aesthetics. I’m still learning about the mechanical aspects—it gets very technical very, very quickly. For me, it’s the sound palettes. I love the sounds these chips were capable of. I love that each system has its own sound chip, and each sound chip has its own personality. You’ve got this cheap, square-wave sound of the NES, or this FM synth of the Mega Drive, and that not-quite-orchestral sound of the Super Famicom. But the latter comes into it, too. The admiration I have for these men and women, knowing what they went through to compose and produce these sounds, is huge. They had the strictest limitations that any composer has ever had, period. And their evolution runs in parallel to the evolution of electronic music, full-stop.
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Can you talk about the kinds of tools the pioneers of cart music used, how they got their songs into their final form?
They were doing it all with numbers that were programmed in, basically. Most of them would use a PC-88 or an MSX. Basically, they’d write a composition, then they’d go back to their work station and punch in numbers to build a track, then burn a rom from that track.
And then the technology got more complicated.
Yeah, originally there were very basic PSG sounds, which were just square waves. But when Namco pioneered new chips around ‘83 or ‘84, those chips were capable of wave-table synthesis—in Japan it’s known as Japan Memory Synthesis. So they would record the sounds of instruments—violins, cellos—and they’d study the physical wave forms, and try to recreate as best they could the shape of that wave, to try and represent that sound as accurately as possible. In the documentary series, we talked to Junko Ozawa and she shows us a book of hand-drawn wave forms that she created—she calls them her treasures. So they were building these sounds by hand, doing all of these experiments.
And then when FM synth came along, you could basically create a soundwave that sounded like a trumpet or a french horn. You could tailor the sound waves and manipulate them a lot more. That’s where you start to hear iconic ‘80s sounds in games, like on the Genesis.
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In terms of your curatorial approach, did you try and pick a mix of songs that were beautiful and songs that were great technical achievements?
To be honest, a lot of the latter is just kind of a happy accident. I sat there and listened to everything. Video game music fans are very passionate and I dreaded the thought of the album coming out and some game music fan going, ‘Ah, you didn’t pick this track or that track.’ The only way I could combat the phantom haters in my head was to do it properly; to sit down and listen to everything. It was about 200,000 tracks. There were the systems that everybody knows, but then also the Japanese home PCs like the MSX and PC-8801. That was a whole world I didn’t know before. I whittled it down to 300, then presented that 300 to Kode9. We whittled it down over a period of about six months, compared notes, discussed things, and we just chose the music that sounded the best. We said from the beginning that we didn’t want this compilation to be about nostalgia. There’s a little nostalgia here for me, but Steve never had any of these machines, didn’t have any of these games, he was just judging them purely with his musical ear, on the musical merits of the songs only.
I’ve been to see orchestral game music shows, and they’re a celebration of the compositions of games like Mario and Zelda, which is amazing. But for us, this project is different. It’s a celebration of the sound palette and the technical wizardry that went into making those sounds. There are amazing compositions on the compilation, don’t get me wrong, but it’s these distorted synths that are particular to certain Konami chips—the VRC6 chip, that was a custom chip Konami put out for the Famicom that had two extra square waves and a sawtooth, you know? It’s a celebration of that kind of thing. Steve and I have both dedicated large parts of our lives to diving into sounds from around the world, and we want the compilation to be representative of that.
Do you feel like you’re discovering music, or at least uncovering it, for folks in the West?
What’s only starting to happen in the last three or four years is that a lot of this music is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Diggin’ in the Carts probably helped a little, and there’s been a lot of amazing work from labels doing repressings—especially the work that Data Discs is doing. That was the first step, just getting people to start thinking about this music as music outside of the context of the video game.
Has there been more of a focus on some of these composers in Japan than there has elsewhere, or was it sort of a forgotten history there, too?
Well, the compilation is kind of unique there, too. I think this is pretty much the first time that there’s been a compilation that has worked with a multitude of different companies, but gaming compilations have existed for a long time. Weirdly enough, the man responsible for kicking off video game music as a listenable music was Haruomi Hosono from Yellow Magic Orchestra. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Yellow Magic Orchestra were using chips as instruments. Especially the first two albums of Yellow Magic Orchestra are packed with chip melodies that were sampled from video games. They just saw it as a new sound palette. Hosono teamed up with Namco in 1984 and did an album called Video Game Music, where he created arrangements of famous Namco arcade music from that time. That was the first time that the words ‘video game music’ were used. Hosono was a big deal in Japan at the time, so video game music became a cool thing.
Alpha Records, which was Yellow Magic Orchestra’s label at the time, started up a sub-label called G.M.O. And they started releasing compilations of, like, Sega music or Capcom music. It would be one game company at a time. In the modern context, Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, those events have been going on in Japan for a long, long time. There was a wonderful period in the late ‘80s where every Japanese games company would have their own house band, and they would go and play at these big music festivals in Japan. They’d play these fusion and rock arrangements of their big tracks. Sega had the SST Band, Capcom had Alph Lyla, Taito had Zuntata. Those bands still kind of play, now and again, in Japan. But no one in Japan is doing what we’re doing, which is trying to create a live experience that authentically recreates the electronic music aspect of video games that came from that era.
There’s a vein of compositions on this comp—’Hidden Level’ from Solomon’s Key, ‘What is Your Birthday’ from Tarot Mystery—that have this really hypnotic, arpeggiated sound with ambient overtones. You and Kode9 must both be pretty big fans of that end of the game music spectrum.
When I was listening to a lot of this stuff I was living in Tokyo, in the Shinjuku area. I would ride my bike around Shinjuku and Kabukicho at night, and those are sort of dystopian areas. It’s the closest to Neo-Tokyo that you’re going to find in contemporary Tokyo. And to me this music was the soundtrack to all of that. I would think about this idea of a dystopian future where, if the robots made music by themselves, this is the music they’d make. If the machines could sing, this is what they’d do autonomously. But I think every track on the compilation has an extra quality to it—has this ‘something else’ that elevates it out of the video game. That hypnotic, arpeggiated sound—yeah, that stuff blows my mind. Especially when you think that that Tarot Mystery track was music made for an obscure tarot card game. ‘Mister Diviner’ is this incredible, Steve Reich minimalist composition with a Super Famicom sound chip made for a Mahjong game. It blows my mind.
It’s interesting that this 25- or 30-year-old music sounds more futuristic than most of what’s being made today.
Absolutely. One of my favorite tracks on the compilation is from a game called Dragon Gun [Hiroaki Yoshida’s ‘Kyoushin’]. The music has all these bleak, dystopian synths. I just love it. And there’s a track on the compilation, Technosoft’s ‘Shooting Stars’ track from Thunder Force IV, that’s very Detroit. A lot of Japanese video game composers were looking to Detroit for influences. They were listening to Underground Resistance, they were listening to Derrick May, and that’s why you’ll find these Detroit influences in shooting games from the ‘90s.
Tell us about one particular artist who you’ve really come to appreciate in this process.
The more I’ve discovered the music of Manabu Saito, the more I really really want to do a compilation of his work. That’s maybe the next project. The world definitely need to know his music. His music is just incredible. It’s just phenomenal. It’s packed with this melancholy and sadness that are rarely heard in video games. He was making a lot of music for Japanese-only, kind of visual novel PC games. Sadly he died at the age of 22 of kidney failure. I’ve got no doubt that if he’d lived on he’d have become one of the greats.
You just did a live show in Tokyo. What was that like?
It was incredible. For me, the highlight was Kode9’s set. He’s mixing in a lot of the tracks from the compilation, giving them very contemporary beats and so much bass, and it’s all set to this incredible live A/V show with a massive LED wall. And all these Japanese composers came out of the woodwork. I think a few of them were having emotional moments.
There’s something a little Buena Vista Social Club about that.
Yeah, definitely, there’s some of that. The main aim of this compilation is to highlight what these composers did 25 or 30 years ago as pioneering electronic musicians, and not as video game composers, you know? The music was made within the context of serving a purpose within a video game, but if you take it out of that context and listen to it as electronic music—having a little bit of an understanding of what technical challenges they faced and the work that they did within those limitations to create this incredible chip-based electronic music—it’s been amazing seeing these guys get the credit they deserve.
It sounds like that’s not something they were expecting.
None of them were expecting it at all. All of them are definitely taken aback by it.