Yuzo Koshiro Interview
Join us as we sit down with the legendary videogame music producer for perhaps his most comprehensive interview to date.
Kikizo: The older sound chips don't offer as much in the way of composition freedom, though... you have a lot more options available with the newer systems, but it seems like you have to work harder to make something that sounds good.
Koshiro: Yes, that is exactly it. In the old days, you actually needed some programming skills to create game music, so it really wasn't easy at all then, either. But the chips themselves had fewer voices. Still, programming was actually the most difficult part. But now, you can make music with middleware and programs like DAW easily. Sequencer programs actually have everything built into the PC - you don't need any music hardware anymore. It's easy and cheap. But there is so much competition, and such high expectations...
Kikizo: Is there any particular song you've composed that you are especially proud of?
Koshiro: I'm very happy with all of my work on Wangan Midnight, but I like the music in Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 2 the most. I've learned more and more about composing trance-style music throughout my work with these games, so I am very proud of the progress I have made. I can't really choose a specific track, though. I love them all! [laughs]! I guess there are two songs I really like. They were the first time I wrote English lyrics.
Kikizo: Sounds like fun! What about your earlier works?
Koshiro: Bare Knuckle 2 and Actraiser. Those two are my best, I think. Actraiser was my first work on SFC, and Bare Knuckle 2 I like for the same reason as Wangan Midnight. My programming skills greatly improved from the first to the second games.
Kikizo: So you programmed the Megadrive and SFC music yourself?
Koshiro: Yes, I did.
Kikizo: What sort of programming languages did those consoles use for the music programs?
Koshiro: For Bare Knuckle specifically, I used the NEC PC-88 computer and an original programming language I developed myself. The original was called MML, Music Macro Language. It's based on the NEC's basic program, but I modified it heavily. It was more a BASIC-style language at first, but I modified it to be something more like Assembly. I called it "Music Love." [laughs] I used it for all the Bare Knuckle Games.
Kikizo: Did you use it for SFC games, as well?
Koshiro: No, I couldn't. The language used in the SFC was completely different. The chip was a Sony sound chip, and the system used for music programming was called NEWS (?), based on a UNIX system. Some company made a special system for it, so I just input the scores I had composed into it.
Kikizo: So you weren't able to modify it to your liking like you could on the PC-88.
Koshiro: That's right. It was very difficult to modify. I wanted to change it, but it was very rigid. The programmer of the system was able to optimize the sound a bit more, though, so that's why the quality of the sound in Actraiser is better than some of the earlier SFC stuff like Mario. The original sound system had limitations of 64KB memory, you see... but one of our programmers was able to modify it a bit. You couldn't use a lot of instruments with that sort of small memory size, and you couldn't reload any samples, either.
Kikizo: What did you do exactly to get around those limitations?
Koshiro: We used a sample loading system that worked with the cartridge ROM memory. with it, we could swap samples in from the ROM data on the fly. We could load parts of the music gradually as needed, and also change it quickly between stages or parts of a stage. The original system couldn't do it with its retrictions.
Kikizo: I seem to remember hearing that a lot of later SFC games had huge amounts of cartridge memory devoted to holding sound samples. Like... Seiken Densetsu 3 had its own special set of sound drivers, and Tales of Phantasia's then-massive 48 megabit size was mostly due to holding music and voice.
Koshiro: Yes, that's probably right. I think they most likely used something similar to the reloading system in Actraiser.
Kikizo: Did the Megadrive has such a strict memory limitation?
Koshiro: It did, but the Megadrive was generally much easier to work with. It was a very simple system. The Z80 sound chip is easy to understand and program.
Kikizo: Did you ever work with the PC Engine CD or Mega CD?
Koshiro: No, I didn't work with the PC Engine at all. We did do one Mega-CD game, which was a port of the popular PC RPG Eye of the Beholder.
Kikizo: Wow, I didn't know you did that.
Koshiro: Yes, I did the music too. It was all CD redbook audio.
Kikizo: What was working with the Saturn like? It's notorious for being a difficult system.
Koshiro: Oh, of course. We made Vatlva and Thor for the system. Vatlva was CD redbook audio, but Thor... it was a lot more difficult. The sound in the game is orchestral, and the sound memory was also limited to 512KB. It's bigger than that of the SFC, but for orchestral-style music, its limitations are very strict. It's tough to fit all of the orchestral instrument samples you need into that space. You didn't need the sort of programming skills you did for the SFC and Megadrive, though - you just used a MIDI input sequencer. I used a Mac program called Vision for Thor's sound. Still, the memory limitation was the biggest issue to work around.
Kikizo: The PlayStation was much easier, right?
Koshiro: Yes, it was much better. The memory size for sound was the same, but the compression algorithms were much better than the Saturn. It used the same compression system as their minidiscs did at the time. It allowed us to fit more and better quality music and sound into smaller space.