The Astro City Mini is set to be released on 12/17/2020, from Sega Toys. And to commemorate this launch, we had a chance to talk to Hiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, both who have worked on sound design for many arcade games. This interview comes to us courtesy of Sega.
Hiro – Having joined Sega in 1984, he worked on Girl’s Garden as a programmer alongside Yuji Naka. He made his game sound composer debut in 1985 with Hang-On, and would go on to work on the music for many well known Sega “experience” type games such as Space Harrier and OutRun. Recently he’s been in charge of the music for the Sangokushi Taisen and maimai series, and he’s also been involved with Sega Sound Team bands such as S.ST.Band, “H.”, and CHAIN Band. He also loves Legos.
Takenobu Mitsuyoshi – Having joined Sega in 1990, he’s worked on a lot of music for 3D fighting games such as Virtua Fighter and racing games such as Daytona USA. He often sings instead of just composing music, and was praised by anime song singer Hironobu Kageyama as being “Japan’s best singing salaryman”. He’s had plans lately to start doing dinner shows, and has been releasing videos on YouTube with him dancing in a happi coat and fundoshi.
(4Gamer) Actually, there aren’t many titles on the Astro City Mini that either of you two have worked on.
(Hiro) That’s true. There are only three titles on it that I’ve worked on.
(4Gamer) We’ll be asking you for details on that later on. But if you look at all of the titles on the Mini according to composer, Tohru Nakabayashi and Yasuhiro Kawakami have the most titles at four each. If you wouldn’t mind, please tell us a bit about their compositions.
(Hiro) Rhythm is Nakabayashi’s defining trait. It’s easy to pick out his FM synth drums as his trademark, and you can really hear a great example of those “Nakabayashi drums” in Altered Beast. Kawakami is also well known for his drum sounds, and his unique dry sounding drums can be heard in Scramble Spirits.
The Three Square Wave Channels + White Noise of the Early 80s
(4Gamer) Now I’d like to ask you to tell us any memories you may have of those two. You joined Sega in 1984, right?
(Hiro) Yes. I applied to Sega wanting to work on sound, but I’d done programming for some original games of my own prior. When I mentioned that in the interview, I was assigned the role of a programmer at first.
(4Gamer) 1984 was the year that the SG-1000II went on sale, so were your programming abilities put toward developing for the home console market?
(Hiro) That was a period were pretty much all of the developers were being put toward that purpose, and that was the case for quite a few years after I joined the company. And at that time I teamed up with Yuji Naka to make Girl’s Garden.
(4Gamer) You were making games on the VIC-1001 when you were a middle school student, and at that point games didn’t often have music in them. It feels like putting music in games at that time was a rather advanced design decision. Did you feel that games should have music in them from the very beginning?
(Hiro) I suppose I started thinking that when I first played Namco’s New Rally-X.
(4Gamer) That was composed by Nobuyuki Onogi.
(Hiro) I realized just how amazing game music was upon hearing it, and I began including music in the games that I worked on.
(4Gamer) You came to be involved with music for Sega games upon request from Yu Suzuki for Hang-On. It’s often said that the defining characteristic of that game’s sound is the use of PCM audio for the music. Was it your decision to use PCM not for the sound effects, but the music? Or was it a suggestion that came from the development side?
(Hiro) There were already samplers around back then, but they were pretty expensive so we didn’t have them. However the Hang-On board had a chip that was equivalent to a sampler on it, and the intention behind that was to use it as an “instrument”. So wanting to make it produce drum sounds, that’s exactly what I did.
(Hiro) But with Hang-On the PCM was always being used for the engine sounds, so I wondered if I’d be able to use it for music as well.
(Mitsuyoshi) Were they joined the same channel?
(Hiro) That’s right. At the time I wasn’t worried about that chip being able to output multiple sounds at once. So I made the music just thinking about it as being a sampler.
(4Gamer) And after that you were in charge of the sound for the SG-1000 games Lode Runner and Dragon Wang. Was your style at the time to “wear two hats”, both as a programmer and composer?
(Hiro) Programming was still what I mainly did, and I worked on sound when I had the opportunity.
(4Gamer) This feels very odd when you look at it in terms of modern game development.
(Hiro) But back then these standards didn’t exist yet. I liked both programming and composition, so it was a welcoming environment for me to do both! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) Two titles featured on the Astro City Mini were released right around then: Flicky and Ninja Princess. The boards used for those games were System 1, which was equipped with a SN76496 sound chip. Do you have any memories of using that as a sound source?
(Hiro) Flicky was made by someone who was senior to me at the company, but the sound effects that he created were very distinctive. I made some effects on the VIC-1001 that I mentioned earlier, but the sound effects on arcade games were way more astounding even though they used a similar chip. Incidentally, the same person who did the sound effects for Flicky also did them on Fantasy Zone.
(4Gamer) Do you have experience composing on these sorts of minimal PSG sound chips, Mr. Mitsuyoshi? Tant-R, which you were involved with, had a SN76496 sound chip.
(Mitsuyoshi) When I joined the company, we were primarily using FM and PCM sound sources. I have some experience with PSG, but I wouldn’t say I was an expert or anything.
(4Gamer) Sega was using Texas Instruments sound chips, whereas other companies like Taito were using the General Instruments AY-3-8910. So each company’s sound really had its own personality. Did you take any inspiration from other company’s titles?
(Hiro) I only really listened to regular music after starting at Sega, so I barely heard any of the game music from other companies at all. You couldn’t really listen to game music back then if you didn’t buy it on record albums or hear it at arcade location tests. But before I worked in the industry I listened to Nobuyuki Onogi’s sound a lot. Not just New Rally-X like I mentioned earlier, but Mappy and Libble Rabble too. I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but I think the music from Fantasy Zone had a lot of influence from Onogi in it.
(Mitsuyoshi) When I think of game music from other companies, naturally I think of Super Mario Bros. I noticed all sorts of tones coming from it if when I was just playing it regularly, but it wasn’t until later on that I realized it was all PSG. It astounded me all over again to hear just how much variation in sound you can get out of that.
The DX7 Lets Out its Battle Cry: The Rise of FM Sound in the Late 80s
(4Gamer) The next title you were in charge of that appears on the Astro City Mini after the previously mentioned Hang-On, was Space Harrier. It’s completely different in terms of melody, so what kind of guidelines did you have for working on that one?
(Hiro) Yu Suzuki would often say that he imagined it sounding like The NeverEnding Story. So as an homage to Limahl’s theme song for the movie, I made the theme one long song. But a game has to have a change of music during boss fights, right? So then the song started over from the beginning when you began the next level. Basically you’d only ever hear the intro and A melody from the main theme when you were playing. As a result I split it up, and made it so that it would start in the middle when you changed levels. Thinking about it now, having only one main theme was pretty novel! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) So the music changes during the boss fights, and then goes back to a different part of the main theme? I don’t think there are many songs designed that way at all.
(Hiro) Well, it was the result of me thinking about how it should be heard, after creating it (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) So were you thinking about what would happen with the music during boss fights at first?
(Hiro) Not at all. I didn’t know anything about composing music in a way that was suitable for games. The music for Hang-On also wasn’t composed during the game’s development either.
(4Gamer) About how long does the full version of the background music last?
(Hiro) Probably about four minutes. Back then it was assumed that game music would just loop, going back to the intro when the song was over. The outros were written to go right back into the intro. And with Space Harrier, once again half of the work I did was programming. I was living in company dormitories at the time, and I wrote the music in my room. I borrowed Katsuhiro Hayashi’s Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, and called Yu Suzuki over to let him hear the song.
(4Gamer) The following year after Space Harrier also saw the release of another Astro City Mini featured title: Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars. Please tell us a little bit about this title which isn’t brought up very often.
(Hiro) It has wonderful music, but I think the game itself is horribly difficult!
(4Gamer) I also got a chance to try it out recently, and it was just unbelievably hard.
(Hiro) Playing it is a harsh experience. When we put the music in during development, the game was balanced well and felt really good. But some people cleared it during the location test, so someoneo higher up said it was “too easy”…This kind of thing happens often, but I think it was a big mistake! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) They often say the rule for arcade games is 3 minutes of play for 100 yen, but if you’re unlucky you might only get 30 seconds of play for 100 yen here.
(Hiro) And what’s more, there are a lot of cheap deaths that you have to know are coming to avoid. I think people who were able to play that game in arcades were amazing.
(Mitsuyoshi) I said the title so many times when I was narrating the promotional video for the Astro City Mini, but I actually didn’t know anything about this game. I thought there was only one Alex Kidd game.
(Hiro) By there being only one, you mean the home console game with Uwabo Tokuhiko’s “Onigiri Song” in it? (Alex Kidd in Miracle World)
(Mitsuyoshi) This game, The Lost Stars, is the arcade version, right?
(Hiro) We developed quite a few of them. There was movement toward making Alex Kidd Sega’s mascot character…even though I thought there was no chance it would work since he was just too plain (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) Don’t say things like that! (Laughs) So anyway, the game was ridiculously hard. But doesn’t that mean the turnover rate would probably be really good? Virtua Fighter was built on the business model of being able to win a match in an instant, right?
(4Gamer) Virtua Fighter has a lot of replay value, but The Lost Stars is just soul crushing…
(Hiro) It makes you think “Why on earth did I put 100 yen into this game…” (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) Well then, we can at least call it a title that we’d like for people to play as much as they like on the Astro City Mini! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) Yu Suzuki didn’t do the game design for The Lost Stars and is a game with a very unique flavor, so what direction did you have for the music on it?
(Hiro) I wasn’t given any particular direction. I’m sure I came up with it from looking at screenshots, and listening to the music from the home version. Kind of like with Fantasy Zone, I was just shown screenshots and told to “come up with a song that fits this”. It was determined that my songs didn’t typically fit games very well, so I started getting more direction.
(4Gamer) If I remember correctly, the shop music was leftover from before you were put on the project.
(Hiro) Both the shop and the game over music. Those and the sound effects were worked on by the senior composer that I mentioned earlier.
(4Gamer) Speaking of Fantasy Zone, it seems that from around this time the music took more effort to put into data form. Were there any hurdles in shifting things around to get it into the game data?
(Hiro) Not particularly. The programming to create the data for the music hadn’t changed so much. As far as an FM sound sources went, I had bought a Yamaha DX7 back when I was in my second or third year of high school with a big loan! I knew how FM sound worked from that, so I was able to do all of that without any hurdles.
(4Gamer) I thought this was when you were transferred from development over to the sound team, but when exactly was it that Sega officially had a sound team?
(Hiro) A sound team…it was already there when Mitsuyoshi joined. What year was it that you joined again?
(Mitsuyoshi) In 1990, and at that time it was still R&D 8.
(Hiro) Since I joined in 1984, it was somewhere in between those two times. There were people who worked on sound in 1984, but they did it with some reluctance since they were on the hardware team. And maybe around when I worked on Fantasy Zone…anyway at some point in that six years, the sound team was established.
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s how things were before I joined? It felt like it was just you and Yasuhiro Takagi. So it seems like the sound team was established a year or so before I joined then! (Laughs)
(Hiro) I think so. At the very least we were separated from everyone else.
(4Gamer) Sorry, I can’t really get a good picture of the organizational structure…
(Hiro) Mitsuyoshi, Takagi and I were the sound team for the larger “experience” cabinets. We were protected by Yu Suzuki! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) Just to confirm, R&D 8 turned into AM2?
(Hiro) We were originally Studio 128, then R&D 8…but we were something even before Studio 128.
(Mitsuyoshi) I think so. I’m not sure what it was, because that was before I joined! (Laughs)
(Hiro) The team working on Space Harrier was a smaller one within the development team. But for various reasons, we at Studio 128 were in a building outside of the main Sega one. Then we went back into the main building when we became R&D 8, and…were we attached to AM2? Changing bases once every two years makes me not be able to remember very well! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) I think we were attached to our former department. Because R&D 8 alone didn’t have as many people as AM2.
(Hiro) Was R&D 8 around 20 people or so?
(Mitsuyoshi) Something like that. It was fairly small.
(4Gamer) So then the two of you were in charge of sound for the department that was R&D 8.
(Hiro) That’s right. R&D 8 was basically Yu Suzuki’s department. The programmers, designers, composers…they were all in that department. We were Sega’s rebels! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) Rebels! (Laughs) Actually when I joined, it felt like we were the department who just made the “experience” games. I think departments outside of R&D 8 made games with large cabinets too, but they were our specialty. And Hiro, Takagi and myself were the ones who were asked to work on the sound design for them.
(4Gamer) Were there defining characteristics to the way R&D 8 made games? Things that were different from the other departments.
(Hiro) Yeah. If I had to say what it was, we didn’t write up any proposals at R&D 8. Especially when it came to Yu Suzuki’s projects. I only remember having to write one up for Rent a Hero on the Mega Drive.
(Mitsuyoshi) Yeah, that was probably the first proposal R&D 8 had to write up.
(Hiro) So our games didn’t really have formal plans. I might say that was the defining characteristic of R&D 8.
(4Gamer) In a manner of speaking, they weren’t aggressive in their targeting. Once development began, an image of the game would be conveyed at a kick-off meeting…and that was it?
(Hiro) Not quite, because there were no meetings either. There were no producers or directors, it was just Yu Suzuki doing all that. So actually we wouldn’t know what kinds of stages there would be or what kinds of enemies would appear until we actually started making that stuff. But I was able to get my ideas in there by saying “If this kind of thing is happening, wouldn’t it make this kind of sound?”. It all felt very free.
(Mitsuyoshi) Each job had its own freedom to it. Yu Suzuki was the nucleus of our particular cell, but we moved independently as our own mitochondria. I think that was possible because we weren’t a very large team. You could just walk over to someone nearby and see a game that was currently being worked on.
(Hiro) I could peak from behind at what the designer was doing and see how they were going to make things explode, etc. Things are fun the way they are now too, but there was a lot of fun in being able to see everything involved in the entire process back then.
(4Gamer) Speaking of Studio 128, you developed the title After Burner. But there was an event called After Burner Panic where Sega held their first live concert. How did that actually end up coming to be?
(Hiro) It began just simply as an After Burner event.
(Mitsuyoshi) So a promotion for the game then?
(Hiro) Yeah, exactly. It was at the Fountain Plaza in Ikebukuro Sunshine City, and there were definitely cabinets setup to play for a tournament there. I forgot who said it, but someone suggested that we just have a live performance there too. We had the MC-500 synthesizer we used for development for the backing tracks, but it wasn’t really reading floppy disks all that well. It would start and then stop partway through. We repeated that about three times, it was pretty bad. We were in a real panic.
(4Gamer) You and Koichi Namiki would go on to form S.S.T. Band in 1988, along with the musicians who participated in After Burner Panic. But what led up to that happening?
(Hiro) At first we started putting out soundtrack records and CDs through Alfa Records. But when we were recording the arranged versions of songs, Yoshihiro Ono (a promoter at Alfa Records) suggested from the start that it might be fun if we did those songs as a band. Though apparently he wasn’t just suggesting that to Sega, but Taito as well.
(4Gamer) It’s well known that you wanted to join Sega because of S.S.T. Band, Mr. Mitsuyoshi. But why exactly was that so appealing to you?
(Mitsuyoshi) I was in a fusion band as a part of a music club when I was in college. And as a result I really hoped to make a living off of music if possible, but I had no real musical education growing up. I had just studied a little classical piano when I was in high school, so I’d kind of half given up on a music career. Since the college I went to was an economics school, I figured my choices for finding a job would be only things like working at a family restaurant, or more standardly at a bank. And obviously neither one of those really sat well with me. And one day when I was riding in a junior member of the club’s car, and he played the soundtrack to Galaxy Force on his car stereo.
(4Gamer) And that would have been S.S.T. Band’s debut release, “Galaxy Force -G.S.M. Sega 1-” on the Scitron label.
(Mitsuyoshi) It’s funny given what I do now, but up until that point I thought of game music and just “bleeps and bloops”. But I was really shocked at FM synth and PCM, which made a big splash right around then. And what’s more, the slap bass sounded so real! At first I didn’t even think it was game music, but when I asked about it I was told that it was from an arcade game. He also explained that they were written by employees at game companies, which really surprised me. To think that there was such a thing as a job where you could make music, play in a band and make a living off of it, even though you were a company employee! That was in 1989, when it was the peak of game music groups like S.S.T. Band and Capcom’s Alph Lyla. And upon looking into it further, I found that Sega made Galaxy Force, and S.S.T. Band was there…that peaked my interest, and when I listened to their music I thought “I’m going to join this band!” (Laughs)
(Hiro) So it wasn’t “I’m going to join Sega!” it was “I’m going to join this band!” (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s what it was at first. Sega was originally a very strange company to me: They started off as a foreign company, and I wasn’t really sure if they were actually a Japanese company or a branch of a foreign company. But I was strangely attracted to working there because it seemed like it would be more interesting than working for a normal company. So I went in for an interview, and I told the person who was interviewing me the same thing that I said here: I want to join S.S.T. Band.
(Hiro) Was I in that interview?
(Mitsuyoshi) No, you weren’t.
(Hiro) I’m pretty sure I at least listened to your demo tape…
(4Gamer) Do you remember anything about it?
(Hiro) If I recall correctly, it was done on a Yamaha CS-10…
(Mitsuyoshi) I don’t think you remember anything about it at all! (Laughs) I made it on a Yamaha TX81Z.
(Hiro) Was that the one with all of the sounds on one tape?
(Mitsuyoshi) You must be thinking of someone else’s.
(Hiro) I guess I really don’t remember! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) Well, this is all from 30 years ago! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) And what were your impressions upon actually joining the company?
(Mitsuyoshi) It was awesome! Composing music for Yu Suzuki’s team naturally led to everyday being fresh and exciting.
(Hiro) What was the first thing you worked on?
(Mitsuyoshi) It was GP Rider. I was told to write a song that will play during a race when you select automatic transmission. It looped, but it was still a 3 minute long song.
(4Gamer) The concept behind the music of GP Rider is that you, Hiro and Mr. Takagi would all each write a song for it, right?
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s correct.
(Hiro) I was in charge of the soundtrack at first, then Takagi joined in, then Mitsuyoshi did too. From there it turned into needing three songs for GP Rider, and it seemed just right for us to distribute the work evenly like that. I don’t think we really had any more direction than that, did we?
(Mitsuyoshi) If I had to say, I seem to recall being asked “What mode do you want to write your song for?”.
(Hiro) But if I’d said “Make it sound like this” it would have narrowed your imagination, so I didn’t say anything. Takagi, Mitsuyoshi and myself all had different personalities, so I didn’t want to attach any particular image to the music. There were no rejections.
(Mitsuyoshi) More so than there being rejections, I got a strong impression that it was tough for people who thought so much about composing long songs.
(4Gamer) There aren’t too many long songs in games nowadays.
(Mitsuyoshi) There are some long songs in mobile games, but in arcade games they’re typically only 1 minute or 30 seconds long.
(Hiro) When you say long, you mean about 2 minutes. Because that’s the average time for a single play on an arcade game.
(4Gamer) So then I guess long songs in games were just popular at the time.
(Hiro) But it’s not like we set out to make them long from the very beginning, they just kind of turned out that way as a result of making them fit the games. In that way, things are still the same now.
(Mitsuyoshi) Even back then, the songs in G-Loc were pretty short.
(Hiro) It’s because the rounds in G-Loc were short. The original concept for that was “Just play the intro and fade out immediately”. I thought it was very novel and good at the time, but when I listen to it now I can only think “We should have just written a song that fit that timing”. I feel like now I could have write something that would have worked better.
(4Gamer) S.S.T. Band started in 1988, the same year that the Mega Drive went on sale. It’s also around the time when the System C board came out, which was built on top of the Mega Drive. What memories do you have of that period? Like Mr. Mitsuyoshi later getting involved with Tant-R as his first programming task.
(Hiro) I wonder if I messed around with that board. I don’t remember what kind of board the System C was.
(Mitsuyoshi) I was in charge of the sound effects for Tant-R. Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car used the System C board previously, and it would have been easy to put in FM or PCM sound. But I had to think about sound effects for Tant-R, not music. With the way programming worked back then, new sounds would overwrite the ones before. So sound effects would get cut-off partway through.
(4Gamer) So then there weren’t enough channels for the sounds being produced.
(Mitsuyoshi) I just couldn’t get used to it. So I worked with a co-worker to develop a program that wouldn’t use a fixed channel to produce sound effects, but would always be searching for free channels to do so. The only games I did any programming on were that and Virtua Racing. I learned a lot!
(4Gamer) Was it not necessary to join other channels together for sound effects when working on other titles?
(Mitsuyoshi) Not exactly, but at that time we were moving toward creating a new Sega sound driver. And I think I was asked to try working on it as well. Hiro and Takayuki Nakamura would later make a real sound driver that used MIDI standards, but this was the “beginning” of that. And honestly, I agonized over it. Like I was talking about before, when I joined Sega all of the employees senior to me were very scientific people. I didn’t really have a good grasp of programming, and working that way really wore me out. But I had to breakthrough with something myself.
(4Gamer) So it was quite a challenge for you in that way.
The Evolution of PCM and the End of Onboard Sound: Sudden Changes in the 90s
(4Gamer) The topic of a sound driver just came up, and after Rent a Hero you went off to work on that for awhile, Hiro. How did it feel to shift your focus from composition to development?
(Hiro) It made me remember just how interesting programming can be. That sound driver was originally being worked on by CS (the consumer game development team), and was known as the “Sega Drive”. But it wasn’t performing very well. The Mega Drive was a console that could produce really amazing sound, all depending on the driver being used. After I wrote that driver and got hooked on programming again, I think I did drivers for the System 24 or STV-V, and the System 16 and System 32 as well. Then I even wrote drivers for the Model1, 2, 3. Those were all a lot of fun in their own ways.
(4Gamer) It seems like you were composing here and there during that time as well, so in what way were you invovled with that side of things?
(Hiro) I wanted to produce some atypical sounds in order to stress test the drivers I’d written. Back then there was a method called “streaming audio” which involved producing audio by the main CPU transferring wave forms to the sound CPU. I wrote “Hang-On ~Theme of Love~” in order to test just how far I could push that technology.
(4Gamer) That was a song from the game Cool Riders. It seems like at that time you were working on music for electro-mechanical games like Speed Basketball, and crane games like Dream Palace. Was that the type of sound work you could handle while working on those drivers?
(Hiro) It’s true I was trying to do both. But I think it wasn’t so much that I did that composition work because I was working on a driver, but rather because I just wanted to write something. And I was working in an environment where I was able to do that just because I said I wanted to! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) So you wanted to work on an electro-mechanical game specifically.
(Hiro) If you’re working on a video game, there’s not really anything like an actual ball flying out when you hit a button and a sound being produced when you hit a goal. Those sorts of physical games excite me.
(4Gamer) It seems that the last thing you were in charge of developing was a tool called SoundFactory. What sort of tool was this?
(Mitsuyoshi) It was a tool to support developers during development.
(Hiro) It was a tool that allowed someone to embed and control music and sound effects even if they had no programming experience, as long as they could deal with midi files.
(4Gamer) Then from what I’ve heard, you were given the choice to stay with AM2 and and work on system development, or transfer to another department and compose.
(Hiro) Not quite, it wasn’t AM2 but rather CRI. CRI was a department that had been spun up specifically for creating sound drivers and tools, so it was a matter of going over there or not. I’d been heading up those efforts, so it had come down to going outside the company to continue that with everyone else involved, or stay within the company and work on sound. And I chose to stay and work on sound, even though I was very interested in continuing development on tools. But that would have meant I had to quit working at Sega.
(Mitsuyoshi) You may have been able to transfer over there just temporarily, or at least that’s what it felt like at the time.
(Hiro) I guess more than quitting Sega, it was an issue of just working on driver development and programming and not being able to compose, so I picked music. Even now I still go back and forth between both.
(4Gamer) I think that music and programming are both fun in different ways, but what sorts of things do you feel are fun about programming?
(Hiro) Probably being able to make things work as I feel they should. Actually seeing things work according to my internal concept of “When I do this, this should happen” is the most fun part of it.
(4Gamer) It’s the kind of good feeling you see in something like Pitagora Souchi (a specific segment of the NHK program Pitagora Switch)
(Hiro) And back then it was a ton of fun when bugs would come up too. Because you make games so that they won’t have bugs, right? Bugs that you can fix right away are fine, but once a day we’d have one that really threw us off. Those were the exciting bugs.
(Mitsuyoshi) They’d turn into really crazy conversations! (Laughs)
(Hiro) To put it in a time period appropriate way: There’s a criminal somewhere inside of the code. We’d start out with chasing after the criminal by trying to figure out where in the world they were…were they somewhere in Japan, somewhere in Tokyo…and gradually narrow it down. When it finally came down to “They must be on a floor in this specific building!”, we won. Sometimes debugging was the most fun game of all.
(Mitsuyoshi) Why don’t you make a game about debugging?
(Hiro) No, I think it would be boring if you actually made it into a game! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) I’ve also had the experience of looking for bugs through printf() parameters, so I kind of get what you mean.
(Hiro) Yeah, exactly. Displaying the contents of the RAM and seeing the hex data all written out was fun. And the eureka moment of finding ridiculous values written out there, then searching for the reason why it’s actually happening is also fun.
(4Gamer) The conversation has jumped ahead into the future, so let’s take it back to the 90s. The actual Astro City was released in 1993, did you get any particular directives when it came to the sound on the cabinet itself?
(Hiro) I don’t have any memory of that at all. I wasn’t involved in anything as far as what kind of speakers to put on them, or where they should be placed. Of course I’m sure there was someone who was involved with it.
(Mitsuyoshi) I don’t have any memory of it either. It felt like it was all completed before we even knew it. I saw an Astro City cabinet with my own eyes for the first time when I was working on Virtua Fighter as a part of AM2. I didn’t know anything about it when I was with R&D 8.
(4Gamer) How did you feel about it from a sound perspective?
(Mitsuyoshi) The speakers were good, and they were well positioned in relation to the player’s ears. It would have been a different story if they’d been attached to the control panel or something! (Laughs)
(Hiro) When you think of older arcade cabinets, you think of the speakers being attached to the bottom half, right? I think this was the first time they were properly attached to the top half. Of course the sound itself was fairly good as well.
(4Gamer) And then there were minor updates like the New Astro City which has the speakers protruding out toward the player more, making for better sound directionality.
(Hiro) It wasn’t us, but I’m sure someone must have gotten direction on the sound setup. Placing the speakers in such a way that they’re facing the player is a very important thing, and it continues to be done that way even today.
(4Gamer) Like the upper speakers on maimai dropping the sound downward, or the upper speakers being tweeters on CHUNITHM.
(Hiro) OutRun was the first cabinet to do it that way, since were actually asked to put the speakers near the player’s ears.
(4Gamer) Now that you mention it, did the idea of moving speakers first come up with After Burner?
(Hiro) It wasn’t so much an idea as it was something Yu Suzuki told us to do. He wanted to do 3D sound, but it was difficult to actually make the sound move around with the technology available at the time. So he told us to just make the speakers themselves move along with the missiles and such.
(4Gamer) What a feat of manual labor…
(Mitsuyoshi) But you didn’t do it, right?
(Hiro) You mean actually moving the speakers with a motor? There’s no way we could have done it with that design! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) But that would have been a very Sega thing to do, right? I love that kind of stuff, it’s so critical! (Laughs)
(Hiro) I suppose it is critical. But after the missiles flew by, you’d have to bring the speakers back to their original positions. And that being the case, it might have been better to have four speakers on the cabinet.
(4Gamer) Also they’d be very prone to breaking, and would make things difficult for arcade employees.
(Hiro) Yep, they’d be the first things to break.
(4Gamer) This is another digression, but in 1993 you started up B-univ with Koichi Namiki. Please tell us any stories you may have about that.
(Mitsuyoshi) There honestly isn’t a lot to talk about there. Virtua Fighter was coming out and coincided with the timing of going in the very Sega direction of using 3D polygons. So we borrowed some of that momentum and formed B-univ. It was intended to be the successor to S.S.T. Band (they had broken up at that point), and we’d intended to bring other people in above us as members as well.
(4Gamer) Speaking of Virtua Fighter, you did the voices for Akira and Kage in that first game. What was the policy with Sega company employees voices being used in games?
(Mitsuyoshi) My voice was initially just put in there temporarily, but it ended up going into production that way. It was definitely something that happened back then. Akira’s voice was done by Shinichiro Miki in Virtua Fighter 2, so it was officially transitioned over to being done by proper voice actors. I guess my voice was also in Rent a Hero, but I actually don’t remember that very well.
(Hiro) It’s the main character’s voice. My voice is in Rent a Hero No. 1 for the Dreamcast too.
(Mitsuyoshi) You’re a zombie, right? I had a good laugh about that behind your back! (Laughs)
(Hiro) Even before the game came out, the concept for Rent a Hero No. 1 was to feature developers front and center, so employees did the voices as well. Employees have been doing quite a bit of voice work lately too.
(4Gamer) I know that maimai-chan was an employee, are there other examples of that?
(Hiro) maimai-chan is one. But for example, a bunch of soldiers shout “Yaa!” and “Ei!” behind the commanders in Sangokushi Taisen, and those voices are all developers.
(Mitsuyoshi) They definitely tend to do voices for cases where a lot of people are needed, like those.
(4Gamer) So then it’s a relatively well used technique. When it comes to you and Virtua Fighter, I think the of anime ending theme song “Ai ga Tarinai ze” (“Love’s Not Enough”). How did that come to be?
(Mitsuyoshi) I think that was also Yu Suzuki’s idea. I feel like he asked me if I could do the song rather suddenly. We’d put out the Virtua Fighter 2 vocal album “Virtua Fighter 2 Dancing Shadows” prior, and he’d asked me to sing about three of the songs on there. I think the idea that I was going to sing it might had already have been in his head. It felt more like a proper TV anime theme song than it did a game related song…so for better or worse, it was quite surprising. But I’ve loved anime theme songs since I was a kid and I’ve listened to quite a few of them, so it was a challenge that brought with it a pleasant sort of uneasiness.
(4Gamer) Hideyuki Yonekawa from the band C-C-B wrote the music to “Ai ga Tarinai ze”, B.B. Queens also had a vocal album featuring Sega music, and Masato Nakamura from Dreams Come True did the background music for Sonic the Hedgehog. So it feels like the early 90s Sega sound was full of collaborations. Were there any projects specifically aimed at spreading the popularity of game music?
(Mitsuyoshi) It wasn’t something we explicitly planned. Me singing “Ai ga Tarinai ze” and Maki Ohguro singing a vocally arranged version of After Burner in a very Being-style (“Being” in this case referring to Being Inc., a Japanese label with a house sound that was home to groups like early B’z, ZARD, WANDS, DEEN, T-BOLAN, and Ohguro herself) missed each other by a little bit in terms of time. But the person who arranged “Ai ga Tarinai ze” ended up being formally with the Being label, so it must have been fate! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) It may have been inevitable given the time period.
(Mitsuyoshi) Now that you mention it, what did you know about the plans for when Maki Ohguro sung After Burner, Hiro?
(Hiro) Absolutely nothing at all.
(4Gamer) Were there a lot of cases of songs getting arranged that you didn’t know anything about?
(Hiro) I’d say I rarely knew about any of them. I feel like sometimes someone would just ask for sound data, but I didn’t particularly ask what it was going to be used for. I went from one project right into the next, and didn’t really work on any arrangements like that.
(4Gamer) So then most of the time you’d probably only find out them once they were released?
(Hiro) That’s right. I didn’t know anything about half of the songs that were on the After Burner CD box set that came out. When I listened to them I was like “Wow, this kind of arrangement of this song is on here!” (Laughs) But it was fun to hear the different aspects that people pay attention to when it comes to sound.
(4Gamer) Ichidant-R, which is also featured on the Astro City Mini, came out in 1994. And Mr. Mitsuyoshi, your voice appears in the mini game “Date na UFO”. Were you involved with the development of that game?
(Mitsuyoshi) I don’t believe I was involved with Ichidant-R in any way other than voice recording.
(4Gamer) We talked earlier about how there were barely any titles you worked on featured on the Astro City Mini. But between the time the Astro City cabinet came out and the Blast City and Net City emerged to succeed it, Hiro did sound driver development and Mr. Mitsuyoshi was involved with the development of Shenmue. It seems like you didn’t have too many opportunities to work on arcade game development, but was that the case?
(Mitsuyoshi) After Daytona USA, maybe in…1995?…most of my time was spent on Shenmue. Though I did composition for Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Fighter 3.
(4Gamer) Speaking of Virtua Fighter 3, the Model 3 board had onboard FM sound. It feels like Sega had FM sound sources onboard until relatively late.
(Hiro) You say that, but from around the ST-V they were capable of doing full streaming playback through PCM. The capacity and sampling rates were low, but it made it possible to include a relatively good amount of songs.
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s true. Also, Virtua Fighter 3 barely uses any FM synth at all.
(Hiro) But I was really opposed to playback of the actual music using PCM. I was very insistent that music should be played using an onboard sound source!
(4Gamer) And what was your reason for thinking that way?
(Hiro) Much like a CD, PCM is something that plays back music that’s been converted into data. But I really loved the system where an onboard sound source is actually creating the song in real time right there on the board. Furthermore, the fact that the quality increases with the more improvements that you make when it comes to drivers or tone, is very interesting. The last onboard sound source I did anything like that with was for Air Trix.
(Hiro) Takeshi Isozaki and I worked on it together, and he insisted until the last minute that it should be using PCM and not onboard sound. But since after this project we’d all have no choice but to use PCM, I thought of it as my “last song using an onboard sound source” and went ahead and made it that way.
(Mitsuyoshi) It was the same for Shenmue. I was the sound director on it, but the rest of the staff all insisted that the music should use PCM. Actually I wanted to do it that way as well, but the music would cut off during loading. So for that technical reason, almost all of the music was done using onboard sound.
(4Gamer) This is a really vague question, but how do you feel about FM sound, looking back on it?
(Hiro) It’s a chip that’s perfectly suited to video games…or at least that’s how I feel. As a chip for which the original purpose was producing sounds of musical instruments, its access speed is a bit slow and the tone doesn’t change if you don’t put in wait times. So in those aspects, I guess it’s not well suited to games. But even so, the aspect of figuring out how to control all of that through programming can be really fun.
(Mitsuyoshi) FM sound really sounds great in arcades, and that’s how I primarily imagine it. The truth is, I could never quite get it to work the way I wanted: I would produce interesting sounds just by pure chance, and to me that was a characteristic of it.
(4Gamer) And how did you feel after switching over to full PCM?
(Hiro) It was difficult at first. With onboard sound, the number of different sounds you can use and balance parameters aren’t very numerous. But you can layer sound upon sound with PCM, to pretty much any extent you want. Switching my brain over to that way of doing things was tough.
(4Gamer) So in other words, it offered too much freedom.
(Hiro) I’d pile up a bunch of different sounds and everything would just kind of get buried, so I had to write thinking about things differently than I would have using onboard sound. It was really difficult.
(Mitsuyoshi) For me on the other hand, there were a lot of aspects to producing sound that way that were very intuitive. You could make instruments that sounded like voices, and that idea is very heavily connected to the sound design of Daytona USA.
(4Gamer) It did a lot of favors for songs. This is just my opinion, but even though Daytona USA’s “Let’s Go Away” and Quaret’s “OKI RAP” were written quite some time apart from each other, I feel that they’re very similar in theory. The era of game music that used only limited amounts of PCM was very interesting.
(Mitsuyoshi) The vocals in Daytona USA were created using a small bit of sampling, but I actually didn’t know that there was a precedent for that sort of thing with games like Quartet. I only found out about Quartet when I performed it as a part of the group “H.”.
2020: The Birth of The Astro City Mini By Means of the Retro Game Boom, and OTORII
(4Gamer) Now I’d like to ask you both some questions about the Astro City Mini. Let’s start with your impressions when you first heard about it.
(Hiro) To be honest, I was told that it was coming out, and that was it! (Laughs) The first time I heard about the plan to release it was after I’d taken up a new position at Sega around May. At that time I was asked “This seems perfect for you, will you help work on it?” It sounded like fun, so I said that I would! I didn’t even know what it would end up looking like, or what games would be on it.
(Mitsuyoshi) Was what you were asked to work on related to the music?
(Hiro) It was the system level sound effects and music. The jingle that plays when you turn the power on, and that kind of thing. There were no story boards or anything, so I just wrote it thinking “If there’s a menu screen, this is the kind of music it would need”.
(Mitsuyoshi) The song that plays on the menu screen is very FM sound-like, isn’t it?
(Hiro) It wasn’t an actual YM2151, but I used a VST FM sound source and KORG Gadget’s OTORII. And I’m really glad that I did.
(Mitsuyoshi) Oh, you did it using OTORII?
(Hiro) The drums, yeah. The drums in Fantasy Zone were done using FM sound, and I figured putting in something like that would give the song a real FM feel. Drum sounds are hard to make using current FM-style VST though.
(4Gamer) When did you find out about the Astro City Mini, Mr. Mitsuyoshi?
(Mitsuyoshi) For me it was much later when the person in charge of the project asked me to the narration for the promotional videos. The Mega Drive Mini was very popular before it, and then there was the Game Gear Micro as well. So I thought “Oh, this is the order in which these are coming out, huh? This seems fun!”. A few titles that I worked on are on the system, so I was hoping there’d be some way in which I could help out with it.
(4Gamer) Did anything particularly funny happen while recording those narrations?
(Mitsuyoshi) You mean did I miss up any of the names? I was doing that narration as I was looking at the screen, but I was also thinking to myself how nostalgic these titles were as I was doing it. So it was very moving. I think it only took one take to finish the initial narration, but I was called back a second and third time for when new titles were announced.
(Hiro) The later voice work was edited in? Your voice sounds so youthful in those recordings.
(Mitsuyoshi) I felt young again! (Laughs) I’ve been doing more narration work as of late, so I’ve been endeavoring to talk more slowly than usual and end my sentences more properly. That might have been what it was.
(Hiro) You’ve leveled up, how wonderful! (Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) I feel so flattered! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) In terms of titles you were surprised to see on there, what did you think about Dottori Kun?
(Mitsuyoshi) It was the first game to be in an Astro City cabinet, and I feel like I have some memories of playing it…
(Sega PR) It might be Dottori Kun under its original name, Head-On
(Mitsuyoshi) Oh yeah! I misunderstood there, but I was surprised that you could play that game on there as well.
(Hiro) I didn’t know anything about it. There was a prototype Astro City Mini unit when I started working on the project, but it wasn’t yet at the point where all of the final games were running on it. So I thought it was just on there as a test title. When I heard it made it onto the production version, I Googled it to make sure it was true! (Laughs) Dottori Kun has no sound whatsoever. If they’d asked, I could have made some for it.
(4Gamer) It seems you were involved in QA as well, but what aspects of it did you test?
(Hiro) Primarily the system-level parts that I worked on. That and confirming what the sound was like coming out of the actual unit. The sound that came out of the prototype unit was no good, so it had to be fixed.
(Mitsuyoshi) What was off about the prototype?
(Hiro) For starters, the materials were different. It was probably 3D printed or something. The printing on the control panel was off as well, and the sound was really lackluster.
(4Gamer) Was it an issue on the system level? Or the hardware level?
(Hiro) It was the hardware. I guess they changed the capacitors they were using on the revised version.
(4Gamer) Is the sound that it outputs a replication of what it sounded like in the arcade? Or was it tuned differently to be a home device?
(Hiro) It was more a matter of making it so the actual device itself sounded good, and then it was balanced from there. There are a lot of games on it, so some of them sounded too loud or too quiet on the default settings. For some reason Virtua Fighter in particular was extremely loud.
(Mitsuyoshi) The default volume on the board itself was probably different from the rest. That’s the type of thing that has to be tuned well on the software level.
(Hiro) There were bugs found as well. Even though the power switch was off, the power still stayed on.
(Mitsuyoshi) There was a lot of debugging! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) A hidden feature of the Astro City Mini is that it has a “BGM Mode”…
(Sega PR) BGM Mode allows you to keep on playing the main background music from some games. There are ten titles included in it, so you can listen to the music from Space Harrier, Virtua Fighter, Alien Storm, etc.
(Mitsuyoshi) I listened to Alien Storm quite a bit.
(Hiro) It sounds fresh even when you listen to it, even now.
(Hiro) I wonder why all of the titles aren’t included in this mode. I wonder if it was a resources issue.
(Sega PR) I’m not exactly sure…let me call over one of the developers.
(They listen BGM Mode for awhile)
(Hiro) Oh, here they come now.
(Sega Toys Developer) BGM Mode was developed to recreate the experience of the popularity of Sega’s game music at the time. Sega Toys handled the development of the Astro City Mini, so it was done from the point of view of a toy maker. One difference between game consoles and toys is the idea of displaying them when they’re not being played with. I’m a fan of these games myself, and thought that being able to listen to Sega’s game music just by itself would be a wonderful idea. So I asked for a big favor in requesting this, and was able to make it work with 10 songs.
(Hiro) Was the reason it was only 10 songs because of issues with development time?
(Sega Toys Developer) It was an issue with storage capacity. The main theme in Gain Ground in particular is about four and a half minutes long, so that alone takes up a lot of storage. We recorded the music not from previously published CDs, but from the actual boards. It’s a functionality we added thinking that it might be fun for someone to just sit back and listen to some Sega game music. I suspect it’s probably the first Sega device that allows you to just loop the main themes from several games. However with Quartet 2, it does play the opening sound effect every time that it loops.
(Mitsuyoshi) That was a very thorough explanation. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything we can say in response to that! (Laughs)
(Hiro) But if that’s the case, I wonder how the song from Space Harrier is connected together.
(Mitsuyoshi) If it was recorded just the way it was, the same melody would play twice in both the outro and intro.
(They listen BGM Mode again)
(Hiro) It’s actually connected! It cut off there!
(Mitsuyoshi) I’m surprised all over again! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) Speaking of background music, The arranged album “Astro City Mini -Celebration Album-” from Wave Master is being released the same day as the Astro City Mini. Were you involved in this album, Hiro?
(Hiro) People from Wave Master were primarily the ones involved in the production of the album. I was writing the menu music for the Mini so I thought maybe if I had time I’d arrange a song for this album, but that ended up being pretty tricky. The extra track that I made as a part of “H.” awhile back is on there though.
(4Gamer) Are you involved in the song selection for next year’s “Go Sega -60th Anniversary Album-“?
(Hiro) I’m involved to the extent that I say “Yeah, let’s include this”. I want to include some music from before I joined Sega as well. If possible, from some of Sega’s first games that had audio. I’m not sure whether that would be Head-On for some electro-mechanical games, but it would be good to have something to show where Sega’s sound got its start.
(Hiro) I also think that we need to put the company song on there as well.
(4Gamer) That’s “Wakai Chikara” (“Youthful Power”).
(Hiro) But where to put on the collection and which version to use are the issues. It’s a 4 disc set, but putting it last doesn’t feel right. The company song isn’t all that old in the grand scheme, so I keep wondering if we should just put it on there first. Then there’s the anime version as well.
(Mitsuyoshi) You mean “Hi*sCoool! SeHa Girls”?
(Hiro) I keep thinking it might be better to put that version on…
(Mitsuyoshi) That means you’re also considering the original version as well?
(Hiro) The original version is what I first thought about. It’s the company song, after all.
(Mitsuyoshi) I was definitely thinking of the SeHa Girls version. What about including both of them? The original version can be the first song, and the SeHa Girls version can be the last! The collection will begin and end with the company song!
(Hiro) That reminds me, don’t you song the company song sometimes too? Maybe we should include a new version with you singing it.
(Mitsuyoshi) I’ve sung it a bunch of times live and plan to keep doing so, but I haven’t gotten the go-ahead to record it.
(Hiro) Well, let’s think about it! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) It’ll get people fired up if you go from “Wakai Chikara” into “Segagaga March”.
(Hiro) That was a Tsuyoshi Kaneko song, it would be a good choice. If fans want it on there, there’s still time! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) How should they communicate that they want it on there?
(Hiro) Tell me on Twitter…
(Mitsuyoshi) Don’t be so hasty, let’s direct them to go through PR and the proper channels! (Laughs)
(Hiro) Well, it’s going to be a 4 disc set containing 60 years worth of music. I just want to make it something that will make people smile.
(4Gamer) How about you, Mr. Mitsuyoshi?
(Mitsuyoshi) The same statements that Hiro made about the album, I’d echo for the Sega 60th Anniversary Live event. We’re going to be performing many songs from Sega’s 60 year history, and I guess I’d call it something of a “Sega Party”. It’s an opportunity to show everyone where Sega came from, so I’m looking forward to having fun along with everyone else watching.
(Hiro) I believe that concert was originally announced with the intention of having an audience. It’s turned into a streaming concert because of everything going on nowadays, but in a way I think it’s better since people from around the world can attend.
(Mitsuyoshi) It was the same thing with Tokyo Game Show 2020 Online.
(4Gamer) You’re planning to release “Takenobu Mitsuyoshi 30th Anniversary Album ~From Loud 2 Low For Vocal Best”, so would you like to talk about that?
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s been postponed along with my dinner show event, though production on it has been coming along. So stay tuned!
(4Gamer) Do you think it will go on sale this year?
(Mitsuyoshi) Well, the fiscal year ends 3/31 of next year, and that’s my 30th anniversary. So I hope everyone can be patient knowing that! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) Which three titles would you recommend people buying the Astro City Mini be sure to check out?
(Hiro) The titles that I worked on, of course!
(4Gamer) I thought that’s how you might answer! (Laughs)
(Hiro) That would be Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars. Though it’s okay if you just listen to the music from Alex Kidd! (Laughs) But since it isn’t one of the songs in the test mode, I guess you can’t hear it unless you play the game.
(Sega PR) The Mini offers save states, so people should be able to clear it if they’re willing to put in the time.
(Hiro) I think even with that, the game still might be pretty brutal…(Laughs)
(Mitsuyoshi) I’d recommend Virtua Fighter since it’s so memorable, and also Tant-R since it was my first experience programming. I need one more, don’t I…maybe Thunder Force AC. I was really surprised by the parallax scrolling, and I’d be very happy to experience that again.
(Hiro) I’d also like for people to listen to Mr. Kawakami’s music from Scramble Spirits too. The music isn’t very Sega-like (in a good way), and it really conveys his world view.
(4Gamer) And lastly, during the Tokyo Game Show 2020 Online stream, Hiroyuki Miyazaki mentioned that if people could support the project then it would give them the confidence to explore game line-ups that came after the Astro City era. What piece of Sega hardware would each of you like to see become a mini console?
(Hiro) The R360.
(Hiro) The control sticks would be on the outside of the mini, it would connect to a TV through HDMI, and the mini itself would spin when you controlled it. You’d barely be able to see the screen on the mini itself, but you’d be able it on the TV screen.
(Mitsuyoshi) It definitely wouldn’t be any fun unless it moved according to what the player did with the controls. There are only two types of games on the R360, but I wonder how it would be received if we took some other games and put them on as sort of a “what-if this had been on the R360” type scenario? (Laughs)
(Hiro) The whole thing could just spin around when you wiped out in Hang-On! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) I’d want it to be at 1/12 scale so I could put an a figma of Akira from Virtua Fighter in there as it spins around.
(Hiro) I don’t think there are a ton of people who have actually seen an R360. So wouldn’t it be fun for people to think “Wow, Sega really made something like this?!”?
(Mitsuyoshi) But continuing on to make the next mini an R360 would be difficult. There’s been Mega Drive and Astro City Minis so far, so I’d want the next one to be the Sega Saturn Mini. Especially if Burning Rangers was on it.
(4Gamer) I’ve seen a lot of people wanting a Sega Saturn Mini on social media.
(Mitsuyoshi) That or the Dreamcast…Hmm, maybe a Dreamcast Mini that could play Shenmue. No, but nothing could beat an R30 Mini in terms of being a big story! (Laughs)
(4Gamer) In other words…”R Saburomaru couldn’t beat the R360″! (R Saburomaru was Mitsuyoshi’s codename during his time in S.S.T. Band)
(Mitsuyoshi) That’s all from me! (Laughs)
The original interview can be found here