We are extremely pleased to be interviewing Hirokazu Tanaka, the legendary composer of the original Metroid game. Tanaka-san discusses his time composing Metroid and reflects on his work’s lasting legacy.
Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure that Mr. Tanaka’s words are not misinterpreted in our translation, we have also included the full interview in Japanese, which can be accessed here.
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us Tanaka-san! We are delighted to be interviewing you! For those who don’t know you, can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born in 1957. I joined Nintendo in 1980 as an engineer. Until I left the company in 1999, I took part in developing arcade games, Game & Watches, Famicom and Game Boy sound, and games. In 1999, I left Nintendo, and now I am the representative director and president of Creatures Inc.
It has been more than thirty years since Metroid originally released in Japan, and your contribution to the game continues to be a source of inspiration for the series to this day. Please tell us how you became involved with the game back then.
Metroid was being developed by Nintendo Research & Development 1, and I just happened to be a member of R&D1’s sound team.
Your goal with Metroid was to create a soundtrack that left no distinction between music and sound effects, as if the player existed within a living entity. Unlike most games today, you were restricted to a small number of audio channels on the Famicom/NES. Tell us how you were able to achieve your ambition, while working within your limitations.
I never really thought about it that much, I only thought about wanting to compose suitable music and sound effects for a game like Metroid.
The Brinstar theme in Metroid is much lighter and less creepy than the music in later areas of the game, and it has been revisited in subsequent games. Why do you think this theme in particular has endured?
The Brinstar theme is the music at the start of the game, and we sought to make a difference in the music in order to ease the immersion into a game such as Metroid. As for why it has endured, I just think it was only because it was the first music in the game.
During the Red Bull Music Academy lecture, you said that Nintendo did not like your approach with the game’s music and felt it was too dark. How did this criticism make you feel personally? Were you ever tempted to change direction to appease them?
I think that is a mistranslation. They didn’t say that. Music from mainstream games of the time had a basic and cheerful atmosphere as in the Mario games, so I thought that the people from the sales department and the like would not think of it positively. I thought in that sort of way because I didn’t get feedback directly from the company. However, at that time, while our project was supported by department staff outside of development, I think the game’s content was thinly understood. Naturally, this couldn’t be helped as video game history had just begun.
What are your personal feelings towards the music you created, and do you have a favourite track?
It’s not an “I like this, I don’t like that” sort of thing. Personally I like it all.
Your music has inspired fans to make their own arrangements. Have you listened to any fan-made music, and how do you generally feel about people remixing your work?
I didn’t search and listen to them by myself, however I frequently get informed of them on Twitter and such, and in that case I listen to them properly. They make me feel very honoured and happy.
In addition to the music you created, you were also responsible for the sound design of Metroid. Can you give us an insight into how you came up with certain sounds, for example, the Screw Attack and Samus taking damage? How difficult was it to keep to your vision of the music and sound blending together?
I don’t give them a hard thought, I just keep on programming them until I am satisfied.
As fans, it is rare to get an insight behind the scenes of our favourite games. Please tell us what it was like to work on Metroid and the working environment back then.
It’s been a bit too long so my memory is fuzzy, but as far as Nintendo R&D 1’s room goes, it wasn’t any special environment. There were a lot of other staff members, and from these, several people were making Metroid.
Were there any challenging moments during development, or fond memories and stories you would like to share?
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. Having been involved in so many games, I don’t recall anything special for Metroid. As for the most challenging aspect, it was sound source development for the Famicom and the Game Boy.
You weren’t limited to just creating audio for Metroid. In an interview with Gamasutra, you said that you named all of the areas on Zebes (Brinstar, Norfair and Tourian). What was the inspiration behind each of those names?
Yes, I named them all. I was just inspired on a whim.
It is well documented that Metroid took inspiration from the Alien movies, and shares similarities such as a deadly alien creature, a rogue computer named Mother and an escape sequence. Were you inspired by the movie’s score when composing Metroid?
I was inspired by the first spaceships drifting in the darkness of space. I wasn’t inspired by Alien’s music, but I was fascinated by the senses of urgency, tension and uneasiness that dominate the whole movie. I was affected by that mood of not knowing when something would happen.
During development of Metroid, a member of the team proposed making Samus a woman. The team held a vote on this and the concept passed. Who suggested that idea, and what was the original plan for the character prior to the vote?
Well, I don’t completely remember that, but when we were making the ending, I think someone said “What if we make her a woman?”. I don’t remember who that was.
On a side note, we were hoping you could clear something up for us. Some of the names in the original Metroid’s credits were mistranslated (for example, Yoshio Sakamoto as “Shikamoto”), and because of this, have not been properly credited for their work on the game. Can you tell us who “Sumi”, “Kacho”, “Hyakkan”, “Goyake” and “Penpen” are?
It wasn’t a mistranslation, Sakamoto-kun was Shikamoto-kun. He lived in Nara. Nara’s parks are known for having lots of Shika (Deer in Japanese) in them. R&D1 staff of the time used to call him Shikamo-chan. It was his nickname of that time. Sumi, Kacho, Hyakkan, Goyake, and Penpen were nicknames of R&D1 staff from that time. I didn’t know if we should have used our real names, but at that time we played around and ended up using these names as credits…
What influence has Metroid had on your career? What have you learned from your time working on the game that you have applied to other projects?
When making music, I felt like getting informed of its charming aspects only with my own ears, by relying on my own sensitivity and intuition without having my opinion swayed by other people.
The sequel, Metroid II: Return of Samus was composed by Ryoji Yoshitomi for the Game Boy. Because you worked on the original game, and designed the Game Boy sound chip, were you ever invited to work on Metroid II? Were you unavailable due to other work commitments?
I think I was developing Mario Paint or MOTHER 2.
Many composers have worked on subsequent Metroid titles since the original, such as Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano, both of which were responsible for arranging your music from Metroid for Metroid: Zero Mission. How do you feel about their approach, and the legacy you have left for future games?
Personally, I do not know about anything other than the very first Metroid. Because I only was the first Metroid’s music composer, and because I was not involved at all in the following installments of the Metroid series, I cannot make a comment on this.
In 2017 you released your first solo album, Django, which included music from your live shows. In your many years as a composer, why did you finally decide to create one, and do you have plans to create more?
After leaving Nintendo, for about 20 years, I made lots of music for the Pokémon anime and movies. When that trend fell, I made a summary of my live activities in Tokyo since the age of 50. When I summarise my history, after going from an amateur band to game music to Pokémon music, I would like to go back to composing music privately. I think it’s a memorial album for the start of my life after 60. When I think about separating my musical life into periods of 20 years, I think it’s the start of my fourth phase. I’m also thinking about a next album.
Tanaka-san, on behalf of Shinesparkers and the broader Metroid fan community, we want to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Your music has endured for over a quarter century and influenced scores of musicians and you will always be appreciated for that. To close, do you have a message you would like to give to the fans?
Despite the franchise being over 30 years old, I cannot hide my surprise that there’s still lots of Metroid fans out there. I am now over 60 years old, but even now I am still encouraged by the fans to continue making music and to live my life in Japan. I am honoured to be able to do such an interview at this age. From my corner of Tokyo, I would like to pray for everyone’s happiness. Thank you very much.
© 2018 Darren Kerwin and Hirokazu Tanaka
Special thanks to Antoine Fantys and Toya Yukawa and RoyboyX
Header image by Benjamin Stewart
Interviewed on 7th August 2018