Talking game music with composer Kinuyo Yamashita at MAGfest

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While most of MAGfest XI entailed me nerding out during videogame music cover bands, meeting new people and attending some fantastic panels, I did have the honor of interviewing veteran game composer Kinuyo Yamashita of Castlevania and Mega Man X3 fame.

Kinuyo and I chatted about a bunch of things, including how big videogame music has gotten over the years, her influences and style for some of her more well-known compositions and the official answer regarding that “Neon Tiger” track from Mega Man X3.

Special thanks goes to Maho Azuma for translating and MAGfest’s Nick Marinelli for coordinating the interview.

First off, I’d like to know how you’re enjoying MAGfest.

I’m having a lot of fun at MAGfest. I went to the Bit Brigade show yesterday.

Yeah, I was actually right next to you so it was very special, just to be next to the composer of Castlevania, while a band is playing Castlevania music and the game is playing on screen.

Maho: It doesn’t really line up too often. (laughs)

Yeah, I know, it’s like a moment of zen. So you’ve been composing game music since the 1980s. Are you surprised by how big game music has become? Would you have ever expected there to be a festival devoted to videogame music?

When I first [started] in the 1980s, I didn’t think whatsoever that videogame music would take off the way it has, especially that this is Japanese music that is now embraced by everyone internationally. It’s very difficult to fathom. When I first started the genre of videogame music, it was first, kind of, sort of starting to develop. Now it’s a genre but even then it’s difficult to [imagine.] I’m very happy about it.

The technology for composing videogame music has gotten so big over the years. People are using big orchestras and everything like that. You don’t need synthesizers for orchestras anymore. Yet, you see here at MAGfest everyone is going back to old chiptunes, the old 8-bit sound of the Famicom and NES. Would you ever go back to the old style of composing like that?

Before, when I first started, I used something called PSG (Programmable Sound Generator). At the time they only had four or five sounds that you could [use]. But, because I feel that I’m more experienced, more knowledgeable and better at that because I know so much about it, that I would like to [go back to it]. At the same time though, thinking about the orchestras that are used nowadays, that itself is also [preferable]. The sound quality and the amount of instruments you can use has changed, so it’s very hard for me to say whether I would like to go back or stay – I want to do both if it’s possible.

What kind of music were you influenced by when you were working on games? A lot of fans would assume you’re into hard rock and heavy metal because of the style of Castlevania and Mega Man X3

Before, I used to listen to things like J-Pop, but now I listen to a lot of jazz. I feel the most comfortable listening to [it]. I don’t really listen to rock/metal. (laughs)

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When you listen to music like “Vava” (“Vile” in the English localization)  from Mega Man X3, it’s just so heavy and fast, it’s got an [electric] guitar sound to it. It’s very interesting that it comes from someone who doesn’t listen to anything like that. Maybe you just have heavy metal inside, you just don’t know it.

When I’m writing music for a lot of action-based games, I see the image of the character and I really want to make something very cool that matches that atmosphere. And so perhaps that ignites a fire within me, I really don’t know. In order to make something cool, I imagine guitar riffs, drums, and a lot of fast-paced music.

Are you influenced by things other than music when you write for a game? Sometimes composers look to other things aside from music when writing. And you said that you look at the images of the characters, but is there anything else that might influence the music?

The storyline [of the game] is a very big part of what influences my decision. I always keep an image of the story, the plot, the setting in my head and maybe even the characters’ personality traits in my head at all times and that draws inspiration for me.

Your first work was Akumajo Dracula (Castlevania) for the Famicom Disk System. The internet shows that there was a second composer for the game: Satoe Terashima. Did the both of you work on different tracks?

When I was first working on this project, Satoe-san was also working on [it]. We didn’t actually collaborate. [They were] completely different tracks that we worked on.

I was going to ask you a “Neon Tiger” question, but somebody already asked that at the panel – the Guns N’ Roses thing.

I really didn’t know, like I said before I didn’t really listen to rock. (laughs)

Just a crazy coincidence, probably. You’ve been supporting Video Games Live on tour. How has that experience been for you? Do you see yourself staying with Video Games Live for a while?

What happens with Video Games Live is, whenever they’re in the area, they would call me up like in New Jersey and New York. So, I am not actually working for them, I just get invited to play. However, if there was something in the future where they would [say] “hey, come and tour with us!” I think that would be really fun.

vglliveheaderDid Tommy Tallarico approach you first?

Actually, four or five years ago I saw the [Youtube] videos of [Video Games Live] performing my music for the first time and I didn’t know that they had [these performances] and so I wrote to them, “thank you so much for playing my music!” and so then after that, they contacted me, “oh my gosh, she’s the composer!”

It’s funny how you stumble upon something like that – “wow, that’s my music!” So what are your future plans for game composing? Are there any projects you’re working on right now?

Right now, I would like to take the pieces that are a little bit less well-known, more rare pieces that I have written [and] make a self-arrangement of it. Perhaps add vocals or something, so that people can listen to the things I have written that may be a bit more underground.

I’m looking forward to that! My final question: If Capcom or Konami asked you to make a new Mega Man or Castlevania soundtrack, would you do something like that – would you go back to it?

Yeah sure! If they asked me [if] I would direct it, yeah.

Thank you so much for doing this and thank you for being here. I hope to see more composers [such as yourself] going to MAGfest.

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate with aspirations of joining the game industry. I have a strong love of games and their music. When not serving as Associate Editor for Pixelitis,net and a writer for Game Music Online, you'll see him working on a game music drum cover project entitled "VGdrum" and managing his Breath of Fire Facebook and Twitter fan pages.

3 Comments on "Talking game music with composer Kinuyo Yamashita at MAGfest"

  1. taro-ho-ho-dia January 14, 2013 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Man, you have to listen to some more Jazz. You’d totally get the connection.

    • Patrick Kulikowski January 14, 2013 at 11:21 pm - Reply

      You raise a good point. A lot of metal artists were deeply influenced by jazz, so it would make sense for a jazz fan to conjure up something reminiscent of metal.

  2. Ty Siharat January 14, 2013 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    I have a bunch games music from PS store and CDs.. they are pretty good actually, I love em.

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