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Hirokazu Tanaka talks Earthbound, Creatures company, starting with Nintendo, more

Posted on August 9, 2012 by (@NE_Brian) in General Nintendo, News

Hirokazu Tanaka is the president of Creatures, Inc. Others may know him for his musical work on the likes of Balloon Fight Metroid, and EarthBound.

1UP had a chance to interview Tanaka at last year’s Tokyo Game Show, and the discussion has now been published online. The outlet quizzed him on a bunch of different topics, including EarthBound and his job with Creatures, along with more off-beat topics such as starting out with Nintendo and working with Shigeru Miyamoto.

Check out the Q&A below.

*Note: We’re leaving this in 1UP’s format rather since some things may have been lost in the transition.

HT: I have my Ele-Conga here, so…

1UP: Wow. That’s really ’70s — the metallic-flecked paint. I like that.

HT: It’s pretty awesome. This was probably created by Gunpei Yokoi and Mr. Uemura, who created the Famicom [Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System].

1UP: Is Mr. Uemura still at Nintendo?

HT: No, he quit. He teaches at a university now.

1UP: It’d be amazing to have the creator of the NES as my college professor.

HT: Maybe his technology is a little too old… But it would still be cool.

1UP: Those old games are still a lot of fun. On the flight over yesterday, the only person I saw playing a video game was actually playing Ice Climber on the 3DS.

You started with Nintendo as an engineer. Can you talk a little about that, how you got into video games in general, but specifically Nintendo, and how you went from engineering to composition?

HT: When I first entered the company, I was in the arcade division. They were creating arcade games. I was creating sound effects for arcade games, so I was in charge of making things like the boom-boom-boom sounds in Donkey Kong, or Mario’s walking sound and jumping sound. I created specific electricity circuits for those specific sounds. But then Nintendo started creating the Famicom, and the Famicom had an exclusive chip for hardware sound. From there and beyond, I created musical tracks, not just sound effects.

1UP: So was there just an organic transition from sound effects to music?

HT: It was kind of an organic move, yes. It was the involvement of the hardware, and also me learning more, my programming getting better. And also, games became more complicated. The sound became more complicated, too, and evolved into music.

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1UP: The difference between a game like Wrecking Crew… There’s music, but it’s very simple and just a short loop. And then with Metroid, it’s a night and day difference. That was just a natural function of the game itself becoming more complex, you think?

HT: In those examples, Wrecking Crew… Well, what I always prioritized was, I create music that matches the game. So I’m not making my music, I want to make music that’s a part of the creation of the game. When I saw Wrecking Crew, I got the image of a very simple game, so that’s why I created very simple tracks for Wrecking Crew. But Metroid is more like a drama, like a movie, so that’s why the music naturally became more complicated, because of the image of the game.

Also, with Wrecking Crew, if I had wanted to make something more complicated, he could have. But I had the image of people playing the games not requiring that much musical quality from games. Back in the day, games were more… In my mind, the image of games was more like, games equal toys. You’re not actually wanting to hear a musical track from a toy. Because of that, I wasn’t creating a complicated music track for a toy.

1UP: So when did your mindset change, when did you go from thinking of games as toys to games as something more? Something that deserved that deeper, more elaborate musical accompaniment.

HT: When the Super Famicom [Super Nintendo Entertainment System] came out, that’s when I started to feel like games could have more of a complicated music. But it was gradually changing. It wasn’t like night and day, like I woke up one day and decided I should put more complicated music in games.

1UP: It seems like at least on the Nintendo side of things, if you look, there’s a two-year period from 1984 where you have a game like Wrecking Crew, it’s so simple, just one screen. And then Super Mario Bros. a year later, where you have lots of levels that you scroll through and you have this continuous world. And then the next year after that you have games like Zelda and Metroid, that are these big, open, expansive worlds. There was this huge jump in how games were designed and the kind of experiences they gave you. What do you think accounts for that, this sudden change?

HT: It seems like a very natural evolution. The hardware was the same, but the people who were creating the games, their technology evolved, and the stuff that consumers wanted, they started to want more and more. And creators wanted to create more and more. So it was more of a natural evolution. The end goal for games was how realistic you could make the game. In the beginning you just had a line and a circle, and that used to be a human being. But it started to change forms, into something like a Mario form, and it continued to evolve to make that character become more realistic. I think that explains the rapid evolution. People were trying to create something more realistic.

1UP: Metroid had a big impact on me because it was one of the first games I owned, but even so, I look at it compared to the games that came before it, and it seems very… It just seems much more atmospheric, and I think a lot of it had to do with the music. The kind of music that you created for that game was very different from the music I’d heard in other video games. I was just wondering if he could talk more about the thinking behind the music in that game, because it was so unconventional.

HT: Like I said, when I create soundtracks for games, I don’t approach it as myself creating music for the game. I’m just a part of the development team. So to bring out the game’s features, what sound or background music is able to bring out the atmosphere of the game? The theme that I had for Metroid when I was creating the soundtrack is that I wanted the people who played the game to feel like they’d accomplished something. I wanted them to feel rewarded for clearing the game. Because of that, I wanted people to feel the music and the atmosphere to be dark and gloomy, to give you a sense of feeling afraid and unsure about things. You’re not confident. And then after you clear the game, you feel rewarded and happy that you cleared the game. So the soundtrack for the ending is the most happy song in the whole game. But I felt like starting the game off like that would make people feel a little down, so that’s why I made the beginning music a heroic theme. That track, as well, doesn’t have a melody to it. It’s a heroic theme, but it doesn’t have a distinct melody.

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1UP: I feel like it’s pretty memorable. I’ve heard it remixed a lot in the subsequent Metroid games, and I always recognize it.

HT: I never liked like songs with a distinguished melody that you can sing along with. I thought that wasn’t cool. So for Wrecking Crew and Balloon Fight, you could say there’s not a distinct melody, a pop kind of melody to it, because I didn’t like that kind of music. You can look back at the stuff I created back in those days… My work might fall into a techno genre, perhaps. That’s the kind of stuff I liked from back in those days up until now.

1UP: I see what you mean. You listen to Mario [composed by Koji Kondo] and it’s very upbeat. Or the Legend of Zelda. Everyone knows that music. I think Metroid had memorable music, but not necessarily for the melody. Maybe more for the way it made you feel. It does feel very isolated and alone. I think that was very successful.

HT: Thank you.

1UP: I feel like the desire to evoke a mood with video game music was something that people hadn’t really explored a lot at that point. I guess what I was getting at was, where did that inspiration come from? You’ve answered it to a degree, but it was a very unconventional way of approaching game music. Was that something you brought, or was it something the team as a whole decided they wanted to explore together?

HT: That kind of thinking… I wasn’t told to think like that by anybody — it wasn’t a team member who wanted me to think like that — but when I first entered the company, I came as an engineer to create products. So that was what I had in my mind the whole time. I didn’t enter the company as a music composer.

To create a product, what do I need to do? That was the question I always had in mind. Because of that, I had this approach to creating the music for soundtracks. I would state my opinion of the game, like if I saw something that I felt was not matching the game or didn’t look like fun, I would say that. And I would also decide names of roles.

1UP: We talked a little bit about EarthBound a little bit earlier — that was another game where you took a really unusual approach to the composition. The music in that game is not like any other music that I’d ever heard in a game before. It has a lot of sampling. Is that something you’d experimented with a lot, is that something you brought, or was that something that [co-composer Keiichi] Suzuki brought?

HT: We both worked with sampling. There was some that Suzuki-san did and some that Tanaka-san did. There probably are a few things that aren’t ironed out, so he can’t really talk about the details…

1UP: That’s fine. I’m more curious about the creative process, not the specifics.

HT: It was more like him and Suzuki-san talking with each other and experimenting with things. That was how the creative process worked.

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1UP: At the time sampling was something that was new to music in general, it was something that had only recently kind of entered the mainstream and people had become aware of it. So to see it in a video game, dated to 1995, to me that seems very progressive. Is that just a reflection of your interests in music in general?

HT: The sampling issue is a little sensitive, because… well, I don’t know for sure, but it sounds like that is one of the reasons EarthBound is not able to come out in America. It’s a topic we should probably avoid.

1UP: Let’s talk about the feel of the soundtrack, then. The sampling is a part of that, but the overall feel of the music is very bizarre. It doesn’t sound, like I said, like what you’d expect from a video game soundtrack. I’m curious to hear the thought process behind that.

HT: The only reason for that is because of time. Normally we would create a game like that in four years. But they spent eight years creating EarthBound. Of course, I was doing other stuff too, but this whole game was in development for eight years. Just because of that, there’s a lot of unsettled ideas thrown in the game because of that.

1UP: So the long period of time means that instead of really refining things and working over them and perfecting them, instead you just kind of put in elements that were conceived all throughout the process?

HT: Instead of just polishing one direction, the reason why it kind of got scattered is because… I always felt best when I was creating something different from other people. I want to create something different from what other people do, so that’s what resulted. Being scattered a little bit. I have been a huge fan of rock music for a long time, so I feel that all of that was within the rock genre — so not too scattered, in the end.

1UP: There’s a relatively small number of games that have been in development that long. Duke Nukem Forever, L.A. Noire, The Last Guardian… Does you view that as a good thing?

HT: No, I don’t think it’s a good thing. You spend way too much money on a game like that.

1UP: So was the budget for EarthBound much larger than other games at the time?

HT: I don’t know the detailed numbers or anything, but I feel like Nintendo probably thought that [EarthBound creator] Shigesato Itoi is a very interesting person to invest in, I guess? So they probably did have some kind of a large budget for that.

1UP: That game has a really loyal, cult following in America. Does it have that same sort of reputation in Japan, or is it… How is it viewed here? How do people look back on that game?

HT: It might be pretty similar in Japan, too. The Mother [Japanese title for EarthBound] fans are kind of unique. They don’t really overlap with Zelda or Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest fans. They don’t bond too much.

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HT: There’s the Dragon Quest fans and the Final Fantasy fans… Mother’s fanbase is not that big, so that groups is smaller. But there’s a little overlap here. Getting smaller and smaller… If you talk about atmospheres, the Mother atmosphere, I was trying to make something different from the Dragon Quest or the Final Fantasy atmosphere.

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1UP: Just wanted to return very quickly to that other question, talking about the eight-year thing… Obviously it’s bad financially, but from a creative perspective, is it good or bad? Do you start to second-guess yourself? Or do you have more time to improve the game?

HT: I see it, in a creative way, as a good thing, because you have a lot of time to experiment with things. There are still a lot of Mother fans, people who are fans of the series to this day, and that’s probably because we had a lot of time to experiment with things and make something really creative.

1UP: Moving on, I’d like to talk a little bit about Creatures. Were you one of the founders of the company, or did you come into Creatures later, after it had been around a little while? I know it’s about 15 years old now…

HT: I’m the company’s second president, so I wasn’t the founder of the company. The company has been around for 15… It’s their 16th year. But he’s been the president of the company for 10 years.

1UP: Can you explain how the Pokémon ownership situation works? I’ve asked people at Nintendo of America and they can’t really explain it to me. I know there’s Creatures, there’s Game Freak, there’s Nintendo, there’s the Pokémon Company, but I don’t know exactly which company does what and who plays what role. It’s all very confusing…

HT: So Game Freak and Creatures are the developers, and Nintendo is the publisher. The Pokémon Company is like the producer, they’re the agency of the franchise.

1UP: So they don’t actually create the games, they sort of are the public face…?

HT: The Pokémon Company would be like the face of the franchise, yes. They talk with Nintendo and decide schedules and things like that.

1UP: What creative role would you personally, and Creatures in general, play in the creation of each game? You said that Creatures and Game Freak are the developers, but how does that break down exactly? Who does what when you create a new Pokémon game?

HT: The mainstream games are created by Game Freak, and then Creatures creates the card games, mainly. But the games that Game Freak doesn’t create, Creatures often works on. The 3D modeling for Pokémon is all created within Creatures, too. The 3D modelings will be used in the card games, in the actual games, in commercials, everything else.

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1UP: Do you play a role in the design and the development of new monsters, or is that done at Game Freak?

HT: Game Freak thinks up the original monsters, the creatures.

1UP: Why is Creatures a separate company from Game Freak?

HT: Originally, Game Freak was making the games and Creatures was the production company. Creatures were the people talking to Nintendo about stuff. Because they were playing different roles, that’s probably why they were different companies. The Pokémon Company is in charge of bringing the franchise to the movies and anime and stuff like that. Nintendo isn’t related to that part at all. That’s why it’s so complicated and there’s so many companies involved.

1UP: Were you involved with the original development of Pokémon, back when it was first being created? You said you were responsible for the creation of the Game Boy link cable, and the link cable was sort of the lifeblood of Pokémon, so did you have any involvement with [Pokémon creator Satoshi] Tajiri’s work before Pokémon became the big phenomenon that it is?

HT: I wasn’t involved in the creation of the original Pokémon at all, but I’m good friends with Tajiri-san. Tajiri-san created a few games for Gumpei Yokoi back in the days. Yokoi-san was my boss, so I was really close to Tajiri-san when we were all creating games together. I’ve been good friends with him since.

1UP: Were you aware of Pokémon before it launched, when it was in development? I know it was being worked on for a very long time, so did you know about this game that Mr. Tajiri was working on?

HT: Yeah, I knew about it back then.

1UP: What did you think about it at the time? I don’t think you could have expected it would become the huge phenomenon it is now…

HT: I knew it was a new type of RPG, but yeah, along with other people, I didn’t think it would become a massive hit like it became. I never heard anyone predict that Pokémon would be a big hit, or that the NES would be a big hit, or that the Game & Watch would be a big hit, or even the Game Boy. I never heard anyone predict that they’d become big hits. I asked people at Nintendo of America, I showed them Pokémon and asked them if they thought it would become popular. And nobody said it would. They’d just say, “Hmm, don’t think so.” But it became a really big hit in America, too.

1UP: Is that why it took so long to come to America? I know there was about a three-year gap between the Japanese launch of Pokémon Green and the launch of AmericanPokémon Red and Blue.

HT: I’m not sure. The localization probably took a while as well.

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1UP: I heard the original version of Pokémon was programmed in a very unconventional way that made it very complicated for localization.

HT: Yeah, that might have been one of the reasons.

1UP: To bring it back to the link cable, when you were developing the link cable concept, what vision did you have for it? What was your inspiration for that?

HT: I wouldn’t say I had a huge vision for the link cable or anything…

1UP: Maybe “vision” is a bit of a grand word…

HT: Right. But what I had in mind, the keyword for me was “transparent.” I felt like Nintendo was a very closed company, and connecting — being able to connect your Game Boy to a PC — was taboo. You weren’t able to do that… If you think about it from the company’s point of view, it’s very understandable, because if you break the computer by doing that then Nintendo has to be responsible, and they of course don’t want to be responsible for all of that. So to cut out all the risks, they were saying, no, you can’t connect to PCs. I was a little frustrated about that. I wanted to make things more open and transparent, so that’s why linking your Game Boy to another Game Boy… it opens things up a little bit.

Then, for the Pocket Camera, “transparent” was still the keyword. When I was creating the Pocket Camera, there’s a sequence where you could create music. In the sequencer, I’m using this thing called the register, which is a part of the Game Boy that only creators could see. In the game, because I wanted to make things more transparent… this is something that I’m probably not supposed to be talking about, but there’s a software called “Nanoloop.” It’s illegal software, so of course Nintendo doesn’t approve of it, and I don’t approve of it myself, but there is software like that. There are people who like the chip tune music using this software, creating music…

1UP: Yeah, every year at the Penny Arcade Expo, there’s a room dedicated for three days to people playing chiptune music. A lot of times they use either the Game Boy Camera software or they use something like Nanoloop to use Game Boys to rock out on stage and perform for people.

So when you look at these big popular multiplayer games, like Monster Hunter or Dragon Quest IX, that use handheld to handheld to connectivity as the core of their appeal, do you feel a little bit of pride, thinking that, you know, “I helped build this”?

HT: Well, it wasn’t totally his idea to make the cables, and of course, the cable did exist… Making the cable transparent was definitely his idea, but don’t give me too much credit for this!

1UP: But you did play a role, you helped design it and come up with a lot of the thinking behind it. That concept of connecting systems has really become a huge part of gaming, whether it’s networked games, consoles on Xbox Live or PSN, or Steam, or handheld games, playing Monster Hunter and things like that ad hoc.

HT: It’s very vague — it’s a vague memory — but it was me and a few other people on the hardware team, and Gunpei Yokoi. I think that somebody from the hardware division brought up the first idea of having people connect with each other. Maybe it was Mr. Yokoi who might have said, “No, we can’t do that.” Just creating another connector costs a lot of money. What we was doing in my division was trying to bring the cost down as much as possible, fighting for that. So I feel like it may have been somebody from the hardware division that brought up the idea of the cable.

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1UP: As someone who’s been developing video games for 30 years, you’ve probably seen a lot of changes. What changes do you like, as far as the direction games have gone, and which ones do you not like?

HT: There’s nothing that I really dislike about the evolution of games, or game technology changing. I’m very open to everything that’s happened, how games spread… Because of the Internet, games have changed a lot, but I’m very open to all of that. I also feel that for someone like me, on the game-creating side, those of us on the creative side shouldn’t be closed to any of those ideas or closed to any evolutions.

1UP: What’s your favorite story about working with Mr. Miyamoto?

HT: I have a bunch, but I can’t really say them [laughs]. Well, he always talks about work, he likes talking and talking and talking. Even from the first year that I entered Nintendo, I was always wondering why Mr. Miyamoto was so serious about creating games, always thinking about how to create a game, always thinking about games the whole time. He’s very intense.

1UP: Did you ever figure out why he was always thinking about games, or is that still a mystery?

HT: Looking back on everything, and seeing where he is now and what he’s done, it’s very understandable. I have huge respect for him. Mr. Miyamoto came to our company to give a speech at the anniversary party as well. He’s five years older, but we’re from the same hometown. When I first joined the company, there were only 20 people on the dev team. And so Mr Miyamoto was in the art team — there were four people on the art team — and I was on the other team. But when we were making arcade games, I would team up with Miyamoto and create games, so we worked pretty closely.

Since Miyamoto-san is about five years older than me, so he was like my sempai [mentor]. We worked pretty close. Whenever I speaks with Miyamoto-san, he’s always very interesting. It’s always fun. I really want for him to go out and talk to a lot of people, but he’s the face of Nintendo, so he can’t go out and just meet this person or that person. He can’t freely go out and meet with people.

1UP: I think that’s it for us. Thanks for giving us so much of your time!


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