Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (Composer at Natsume)
Works: Mitsume ga Tooru, Choujin Sentai Jetman, Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns
PA: Could you tell us how you got into composing for Natsume?
IWATSUKI: I joined Natsume when I was 20 years old. And at that time, Natsume had an office here in Nagoya (where I live) but didn’t have a sound engineer. So applied for the job, got hired, then went to Osaka for 6 months to train under Iku Mizutani before returning to Nagoya to continue my career.
PA: What was it like working at Natsume? Could you explain the company culture?
IWATSUKI: I liked game music but I didnt have any experience at all until I joined Natsume. So it wasn’t until after I joined that I started writing music. Well, not only music, I also started learning how to do SFX constant learning process and I basically struggled a bit every day.
The thing is, when I was hired, the office I worked at was solely a development department. For example, the actual “business” people in the company we never even saw. So for me, It was more like a circle or club where game lovers got together to MAKE games.
PA: For Mitsume ga Tooru, and all your NES music, we believe you used a driver that was created by Iku Mizutani. Could you tell us about this driver and your process for writing music on the NES?
IWATSUKI: Well, so when I started working at Natsume, we just started releasing NES games but once we had this, it was the driver we continued using the entire time we worked on that platform. To be honest, it wasn’t anything fancy but it was good enough to playback music and handle sound effects together.
I forget exactly when this was, at first we had to actually type in code to create echo effects. But the more you have to type in, the bigger the memory footprint becomes, So with this driver, there was a function to do automatic echoing which gave the music a bit more expressive feeling
So what the driver would actually do was, is it would grab the previously played note and insert its own echo where in the music it is actually a break (or REST) this allowed us to keep the data smaller using less notes (which normally would have to be filled during the REST making the data larger)
You know now, everyone uses a sequencer or DAW but at that time using the driver everything had to be input with hexadecimal. For example, 00, 20, and then you also have to add additional data for effects, like tempo, and volume. And because that all has to be typed out it also takes up memory.
PA: You previously said that writing music doesn’t come easy to you as you would like, did you find it difficult writing music on the NES? Did its sound hardware create any challenges?
IWATSUKI: Yeah, unfortunately at that time, I didn’t really appreciate or have a good impression of the NES sound source. The whole time I used it, I always wished I had something better to work with.
Of course, there’s so many limitations, like how many channels can be played at the time, etc. But now, when I think back at it (sound source) I probably could have done a lot more (or better) but it was my lack of experience that really made it harder. Simply put, I just wasn’t good at it. <laughs> So now I think the limitations were just an excuse for my inexperience.
Actually, this is something I haven’t mentioned earlier. I had my complaints but there’s a few really good points about the hardware. Simplicity is one. No matter where you play the music is always going to be the same. Like, the echo will always sound the way it was intended on any other NES…
For the SNES, it was all based on samples, so creating the echo effect with that was a total challenge. For a sample, I would have start the echoed sample midway thru the first. But with PSG its the same everywhere in hex, everything had its place and was easy to order. So even with my complaints about it, that was a really positive thing now that I think about it.
PA: You’ve composed music for several licensed games, including Power Rangers, Gundam and Mitsume ga Tooru, what was your approach for writing the music for an already successful manga/anime?
IWATSUKI: You know, basically I just read the manga, watched the anime to understand the contents, then kind of made up my own image of what I felt about it. Then I combined that image with what I knew about the game and then began to write the music with those combined thoughts. I’m not quite sure if that’s the image that the listener got but that was my approach.
Since I was mostly making music for action games I didn’t want it to have just a generic ‘action game feel’ hence combining the image I got from the original manga/anime and my interpretation of the game.
PA: You’ve done work on a bunch of other systems like PS1/2, GBA, and even Xbox360… was it hard to transition from chiptunes, to sample-based sequencing, to like redbook audio?
IWATSUKI: When transitioning from the NES to the SNES, I was quite pleased with the richness in sound available to me as well as the larger number of simultaneous voices of the sampling source. The games could be much richer, and there was some great characteristics of the samples we’d use. However, now I had a new struggle that simply wasn’t around an issue in the NES days, and that was data capacity and free space in memory.
After the SNES, we moved over to PlayStation and since we actually used the built-in sound source (initially) it was almost identical to the SNES. At least it felt unchanged to me.
But as we made the move over to CD-DA and streaming playback, the constraints and limitations from the older systems were gone (limited voices etc) making it a lot easier to write music. Because there aren’t really any limitations or restrictions it means that music is purely evaluated as music and despite being a sound engineer, I was pretty weak in music production. So this always gave me some contradicting feelings.
Because of my background, I was able to publish Omega Five (for the X360) and its CD soundtrack. And because the music had a pretty favorable perception, it’s still one of the things that gives me motivation today in my job. Now, I still can’t say I’m good at writing music, but I think that I’ve gained a lot more confidence in my ability since then.
PA: Can you tell us what you’re working on these days?
IWATSUKI: Well, I can’t really talk about my current ongoing projects (we gotta keep that secret) but I can tell you about some of my work from the last year.
Last year in December, We released “Wild Guns RELOADED” for the PS4 which is a remake of the SNES game. Natsume-Atari in Japan, Natsume Inc. published abroad. So from the SFC game, we wanted to extend or enhance the image of the game, and for the music, I didn’t want to destroy that image so tried to keep it very faithful the best I could. And It was published by Natsume Inc, abroad. So I hope that you all check it out.
WILD GUNS Reloaded公式サイト http://www.natsumeatari.co.jp/wild-guns-reloaded/
Then there’s one more, just a few months ago in February I did the arrangement of VARTH for Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours (a shooting game) which was DLC from Capcom. It’s like a Capcom game with a Dariusburst motif. So I was in charge of some of the music in that DLC. This kinda goes back to the old standup arcade title, so I did arrangements of that for this game. ★
We’d like to thank Iwatsuki-san for taking the time to answer our questions and help preserve Video Game Music history for years to come. Thanks! – Pixelated Audio
For more game audio specific questions from Mitsume ga Tooru that aren’t transcribed here, listen to the full interview from Episode 78.
Feel free to link to this article but please do not redistribute without permission.