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Keiji Yamagishi on His Past and Future in Game Music

COVER STORY: The artist behind Ninja Gaiden's NES soundtrack opens up about returning to composing, and his future plans.

Interview by Jeremy Parish, .

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USG: When the technology changed and evolved, did you feel frustrated that all the time you put in to learn how to program for Famicom was no longer useful, or were you just happy to have a different way to go about creating music?

KY: Actually, no, that wasn’t like a very sore point for me, because after I'd toppled all of the hurdles for composing for the NES, you know... you kind of get bored with doing the same thing. I had pretty much figured out how to do NES music, so the change of methodology for the other systems provided a breath of fresh air. It kind of kept me going.

Otherwise, with everything memorized and everything known, if they'd told me, “Make whatever you want,” then I would've been bored and found that uninteresting. So I guess it’s a combination of liking a good challenge and liking, you know, a little bit of innovation and progression.

USG: So, after you became a manager, did you continue making music on the side, or did you just feel like that was a part of your life that you had moved beyond?

KY: Yeah, after I became a manager, I didn’t really make music in my private life. Though, actually, sometimes... like, if a certain project was falling behind, and they needed more help with the music, I would occasionally step in and start doing it again.

USG: So what made you decide to get back into creating music as more of a full-time process the past few years?

KY: It’s all thanks to Mohammed for encouraging me to get back into music, because – I mean, I doesn’t think I'm famous, or even reputable, really, especially in Japan. But after meeting Mohammed for the first time, I found out that I had this fanbase overseas that I never knew anything about. So that was kind of my motivation to get back into game music. Certainly on a more full-time basis.

USG: It seems like I’ve talked to a lot of people who worked on the Famicom – creating games, creating music – who have a lot of fans overseas and didn’t know about them. Is there just not much of an awareness of the overseas fanbase in Japan? Or is it just that, as the Internet is growing, it’s become easier to communicate?

KY: I would look on YouTube and see a lot of remixes for Ninja Gaiden’s music, and the people from overseas definitely eventually found out who "Keiji Yamagishi" is. In Japan, no such thing really existed. It was a surprise to me, but I guess you could attribute it to the Internet, and YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter and whatnot. There are more opportunities than ever to be connected with your fanbase. Of course, I'm very happy that such people are around, and that was my main motivation to get back into it.

USG: Do you see yourself composing for games again? Or are you happy to create game-inspired music like Retro-Active?

KY: I'm open to doing both. But I feel that the game industry doesn’t really currently need the kind of music that I'm good at making, and that I want to make. So you know, people now want soundtracks that are Hollywood-style: Epic, bombastic themes, stuff like that. Maybe there isn’t so much demand for my kind of music.

Sometimes I'll get projects for smartphone games, smaller projects like that, but even then, sometimes I can’t actually make what I personally want to make. So in that sense, having projects like Retro-Active around is good for being able to do what I want to do. I did work on an indie game by Marvelous recently called Exile’s End, and I really enjoyed that project. I’d love to make more music for games like that.

USG: So if you were able to work with indie games, maybe creating retro-style games, like Matsumae-san worked with Yacht Club on Shovel Knight, would you be open to opportunities like that?

KY: Yeah, happily. Actually, I didn’t mention this, but I'm part of the Starr Mazer collective. So, yeah, I'm already doing it. And Exile’s End was quite Ninja Gaiden-like in its use of 2D-style cutscenes, it’s a platforming game, so...

USG: Getting back into music after so many years, what’s been the most enjoyable part of it?

KY: Yeah, going back to Exile’s End, that was like the first project in who-knows-how-many years. It was a 2D action game; I like making that, so that was quite an enjoyable project, actually.

Also, I'm almost done with Retro-Active Part 2. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted in September at Tokyo Game Show.] You listened to Part 1, right?

USG: Yeah.

KY: I'm pretty much done with all the new compositions. We're going to release a special NES version — we're going to make a Famicom cartridge, and the designer of the cartridge will be the person who did Ninja Gaiden's art back in the day, one of the artists, the illustrators.

USG: Oh, wait, is that Masato Kato?

Yamagishi: Yes! It’s going to be a very limited run... you might have to pre-order or let us know ahead of time if you want it.

Translator: We’re not making that many; I mean, I don’t know if that many people want it, but it’s also a relatively expensive process…

USG: Yeah, I bet.

So, when you compose for your new album, you’re targeting the Famicom sound hardware? You’re trying to work to those limitations?

KY: Actually, the versions, the arrangements I'm making are not NES compliant, if that makes sense.

USG: I was going to say, Retro-Active didn’t sound like it would work on Famicom…

KY: But what we’re making — Alex Mauer is a very good chiptune artist, he’s the principle composer of Starr Mazer. He is the one making the NES and Famicom-compliant arrangements of all of the Retro-Active songs. It’s going to be a really big set, the entire Retro-Active experience, so it’s 1, 2, the Famicom version, all in one… there’s a nice Famicom version so you can plug it into the NES and then listen to it.

USG: Does this mean you're taking this as an opportunity to finally get your music on a Famicom cart with a special chip?

KY: [laughs] I don't think there's a plan to make it with a special chip, actually, so not quite yet. [Editor's note: The project has recently been revamped to target Konami's VRC6 chip.] It’s actually a very difficult task to get Retro-Active’s music into the NES’s sound chip. This is a lot of sound and it’s very vibrant, so whatever Alex Mauer is doing… I’m sure he’s very capable and I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but it’ll be interesting to see how things turn out. Should be fun!

USG: So when you’re composing for Retro-Active, what tools are you using? Are you using like a special set of computer programs or instruments?

KY: Yeah, I mainly use Logic, and there’s some kind of software plug-in, "chip" something — can’t remember the name, exactly — but it’s all software-based, using a PC. I don't actually use a physical synthesizer or anything like that.

USG: Have you considered going back and using some of the older hardware to actually create the sounds?

KY: I mean, it’s not impossible to do that, but it’s a lot of time to do that, because you have to find the development kit, then figure out how to get it running again, and how to connect it to a modern computer, and it is a lot of time for maybe something that’s not so in-demand, you know what I mean?

USG: Beyond Retro-Active 2, do you have any big projects in mind? Any big ambitions, things that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to?

KY: Well after Retro-Active’s done, do you remember Project Light? It’s all the Capcom composers come together and make their own Mega Man-like album or whatever. I'd like to make something like that with former members of Tecmo. So make something, make an album… I guess, all these former Tecmo people. I haven't told Mohammed about it yet. [laughs] But I’m sure he would not mind at all!

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