Crowned “arguably the greatest game-music composer of the 16-bit age” as recently as 2006 by the now-tragically deceased publication Nintendo Power, Yuzo Koshiro was born in the city of Hino in Tokyo, Japan, on December 12, 1967 (1). At the age of three, Koshiro’s mother started teaching him piano, and he went on to study with Mamoru Fujisawa – better known as Joe Hisaishi, composer for many Hayao Miyazaki films, including My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away – for three years when he was eight. A multi-instrumentalist, Koshiro picked up the violin when he was five and later learned to play cello and guitar as well (2, 3).
As a schoolboy, Koshiro would cut his classes and head to the arcades, where he would spend his time feeding Namco, Konami, and Sega machines (2). Although he really wanted to be a game programmer, he had a knack for creating music, and so he made mockups of the music that
he heard in the games he played on a PC-8801 soundboard (3). Having been influenced by the sounds of Gradius, Space Harrier, and Tower of Druaga, one of his goals was to bring the high quality of arcade game music to the PC since, to that point, there wasn’t much in the way of great, inspirational PC game music (4). It was by sticking with that vision and producing high quality music on that soundboard that he caught the attention of those that worked at the game company Nihon Falcom.
During summer vacation, at the age of eighteen, Koshiro spotted a job listing for an opening within Falcom in a PC magazine (2). Since the company was close by, he applied and scored the job. In fact, Falcom loved the music demos that he sent so much that they even used some of those demo tunes in his first game project, Xanadu Scenario II (1985). The rest of the soundtrack was pieced together similarly—instead of writing music off a visual, Koshiro wrote music that he liked and then applied that music to parts of the game that seemed a fit, giving the music an “unexpected quality” which, to him, “created the game’s unique worldview” (3). On composing this music, he states in an interview with Square Enix Music Online:
“… I was a mere beginner, so I composed blindly, as if in a trance. I didn’t have a special approach; I just wanted to create PC game music with the kind of drive that I liked in arcade game music, and that was my main motivation.”
Other works he composed during his years with Falcom were the critically acclaimed soundtracks to the first two Ys games – on which he was a member of the development team – in 1987-88 and Sorcerian (1987) (2). According to Koshiro himself, these years were when he “enjoy[ed] making game music the most.” His affinity for the times is evidenced by his work on Sorcerian, for which he wrote about fifty or sixty tracks even though they only used thirty-nine of those and filled in the rest of the music with other composers’ works. Though Koshiro does not known copyrights to any of his music for these games and thus doesn’t receive royalties for the many arrangement project releases that have been and are released, he feels “very much grateful for… the franchises because so many people heard [his] music through them” (3).
After leaving Falcom, Koshiro’s writing style hit a significant turning point. Instead of continuing to compose rock and fusion VGM, he turned to dance music – such as Eurobeat and House – for inspiration, evident in his work for The Scheme (1988), The Revenge of Shinobi (1989), and Misty Blue (1990) (1,3). In fact, Koshiro would explore writing in many different styles from then on. His successes in his expanding his horizons did not just happen naturally—he attributes his success taking the time to study music of the different genres down to their roots.
While The Scheme and Misty Blue were both for the PC, Koshiro entered the Sega Genesis market when he composed for The Revenge of Shinobi. His transition to the Genesis went smoothly, as the sound chip for the system is so similar to that of the PC-88 that for Shinobi, he first wrote the music on the 88 and then ported it straight to the Genesis (2).
However, things did not go as smoothly when writing for the Super Nintendo at first2. The development kit was not kind to Koshiro, but he was in luck: the director of his first SNES game, Masaya Hashimoto, was a programmer for the Ys series. Knowing that Koshiro would not be content with doing less than he knew he was capable of doing, Hashimoto created a sound driver that was much easier for him to use. The result was the soundtrack to ActRaiser (1990). Though he was not originally aiming to make an orchestral soundtrack, Koshiro could not help himself since the SNES could produce a string sound more easily than other systems with which he had worked (3). Amazingly enough, having not composed such a score before, ActRaiser was written “entirely by instinct.” This soundtrack ended up being one his favorite works (4).
Koshiro’s family founded a company called Ancient that worked mostly on Genesis titles in the 16-bit era, and as a result he would not write for many more SNES games (though he would work on more, including Super Adventure Island in 1992) (2). Ancient would produce Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Master System in 1991 (to which Koshiro wrote three new tracks) as well as Streets of Rage 2, a game that held another one of Koshiro’s favorite works (3,4).
Koshiro’s music for the first and second Streets of Rage games (1991-1992) would once again thrive on his dance music composition chops. By then, early '90s house and hip-hop music was on the rise, and it fueled Koshiro while he wrote the soundtracks (3). For Streets of Rage 3 (1994) there was an extra element added to Koshiro’s own musical workings: using C++, he created a program that would generate randomized sequences, adding a new flavor to a familiar feel.
Alongside being waist-deep in writing dance music, Koshiro submerged himself in classical styles in the mid-nineties. The first result was an experiment in 20th century atonality and polytonality: the soundtrack to Beyond Oasis, a 1994 Genesis title (3). This music is horrifying. I don’t think anything says my true feelings about it like my initial reaction in a chat to my friend, Brandon. Note the extreme tension, disarray, and disjointedness in my type (rated PG-13):
me: this ost scares the shit out of me I feel like I’ve been listening to it for 30 minutes But really I’ve only listened to it for like 15 max wait maybe 20 maybe I have been listening to it for 30… it’s seemed like hours forget that I said 30 earlier HOURS 30 HOURS
Brandon: this is crazy Carol is not amused her initial reaction “a swamp. fire. dire fight scene.”
me: lol so crazy the whole soundtrack is like I don’t know it’s hard to listen to I don’t know how anyone ever approved it for a game i’d guess that they were like “do your thing” and then the game needs to be released the next day and he comes in with that shit and they’re like “o.o umwhatthefuck umiguessokaylet’sjustuseit”
Don’t confuse my terror for thinking that it’s bad. Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, I believe everything I said above. I have absolutely no idea how Koshiro got away with this soundtrack because it is so unpleasant to listen to casually that I don’t see anyone approving it. He wrote geometry here. And the sounds of the Genesis amplify that geometry. Squares to cubes. Cubes to hypercubes.
He continued his studies and applied them to future titles as well. For instance, he notes in the Square Enix Music Online interview that the sequel Legend of Oasis (1996) and two other games, Merregnon (2000) and Lost Regnum (2008), utilize late romanticism (3). Studying for the first Oasis title aided him in producing those sounds, as well.
The aughts found Koshiro studying another type of music: trance. Until he started to work on the Wangan Midnight series (2001-2011), he had yet to explore that world, yet he caught on quickly due to his proficiency in other techno styles (3). Ever learning, he continues to use the latest trance styles in each of the latest Wangan games. Wangan Midnight Maximum 2 is one of his favorite recent body of works (4).
He also wrote his first song in 2005, the theme to Namco x Capcom4.
Koshiro’s career seemed to have come full circle in 2007 when he started to compose for the Etrian Odyssey series (the most current title in the series was released in Japan as recently as July 2012). The original director of the series, Kazuya Niinou, approached Koshiro about writing music for the series because he wanted to create a sense of nostalgia within it (3). Thus, Koshiro naturally went back to his first electronic instrument, the PC-88. The music in the game, however, was not composed solely on the PC-88; rather, Koshiro sampled the sounds of the PC-88 and pulled them into the digital audio workstation Cubase to compose. He thought that the “sounds of the DS would make the music really boring and flat, so [he] mixed in PCM [pulse-code modulation] and other new sounds to add thickness.”
Throughout his years of being in the business, Koshiro has an affinity for old game music (4). He prefers the unique sounds of older chips, such as PSGs, FM synths, and low-frequency samplers. Some of his favorite modern game soundtracks are those for PaRappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5, and Rez.
His secrets to success? Learning a multitude of instruments, listening to all types of music, and “[trying] not to limit [himself] since [he] was little” (3). When composing a new soundtrack he has many inspirations, from buying lots of CDs to listening to different styles of music, watching movies, and "[eating] tasty food” (4). Most recently he draws inspiration from playing outside with his son on the weekends and taking him to different places.
If you’d like to learn more about the technical side to Koshiro’s approach, check out the Video Games Daily article, linked below.
Yuzo Koshiro will be at MAGFest this weekend. On Friday he will host a live Q&A session at 10am; on Saturday he will be in a panel with Chris Huelsbeck at 12pm and one with Huelsbeck and Kinuyo Yamashita at 2pm; and at midnight on Sunday will DJ a dance party.
See you there!
1 “Yuzo Koshiro.” Wikipedia. 12 Dec. 2012. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuzo_Koshiro>
2 Greening, Chris, Don Kotowski, Shota Nakama, and Ben Schweitzer. “Interview with Yuzo Koshiro” SquareEnix Music Online. Ed. Chris Greening. 2011 Feb. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.squareenixmusic.com/features/interviews/yuzokoshiro.shtml>
3 “Yuzo Koshiro Interview.” VideoGamesDaily.com. 2005 Oct. 14. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://archive.videogamesdaily.com/features/yuzo_koshiro_iv_oct05_p1.asp>
4 Parish, Jeremy. “Keeping the Classic Sound Alive: An Interview with Yuzo Koshiro.” 1UP.com. 20 Sep. 2012. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.1up.com/features/keeping-classic-yuzo-kushiro-interview>