The evolution of music in video games was a gradual one. Programmers have been using computers to create short melodies for games since the mid-seventies but the first time a video game ever had background music repeat on a loop was for Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978. A four-note bass-like tune that was simple but effectively set the game’s mood nonetheless, especially when it would speed up the closer the aliens got to you. More melodic was the background music for Namco’s car-based maze game Rally-X in 1980, which was composed by Pac-Man’s Toshio Kai and might have been the first video game BGM meant to convey a sense of fun (I could honestly listen to the Rally-X song all day). At the same time, 1970s electronic music groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra, who would actually sample music from arcade games in their songs, were popularizing synthetic music created by computers, aka chiptunes, and inspiring game programmers in the process. But one programmer in particular whose career I want to highlight is Hirokazu Tanaka, the man behind some of my favorite chiptunes of the eighties and nineties, a few of which are some of the most recognizable songs in popular culture as well as video games.
Born in Kyoto, Japan in 1957, Tanaka loved music and loved to create his own music. He even started a band in high school and they actually became fairly popular on a local level, playing all over Osaka and Tokyo and covering popular artists of the day like Elton John and The Beatles. His band even once opened for reggae duo Sly and Robbie when they toured Japan. But while music was his passion, electronics was the job he fell into because it’s what he studied in college. Although he had no real desire to be a programmer, the game company Nintendo was looking for sound engineers and Tanaka applied with the idea that making sounds for a toy company seemed like a relatively stress-free job, and this was in the seventies when Nintendo was still a small arcade company that hadn’t yet taken over the world.
The first video game Tanaka worked on was Space Firebird (1980) where he programmed electronic circuits to synthesize laser blast and explosion noises. More popularly he was the man behind the sound effects of the game Donkey Kong (1981), inventing the famous “boing” noise of Mario’s jump as well as the melodic sounds of his footsteps while he’s running. A turning point came in 1983 when Tanaka worked on Donkey Kong 3 for the first time as a sole programmer. As a result it was the first video game for which Tanaka composed music. One notable if obvious aspect of that game that sticks in my mind is the very fitting “Flight of the Bumblebee” influence you can hear as you fight to protect your greenhouse from Donkey Kong and the swarms of bees.
From there Tanaka composed for a number of classic arcade and Famicom/NES games from the eighties including Duck Hunt (1984), Wild Gunman (1984), Hogan’s Alley (1984), Urban Champion (1984), Stack-Up (1985), Gyromite (1985), Wrecking Crew (1985) and Balloon Fight (1985). The soundtracks for Wrecking Crew and Balloon Fight in particular are good examples of Tanaka’s unique composing skills. While chiptunes were a limitation back then, you certainly did not listen to the fun and bouncy reggae and dub-influenced beats of those two games and think there was anything limiting about their appeal just because you were listening to them on an 8-bit system. The emphasis on drum and bass-like music in these games created a sound that truly stood out from other video games at the time, and this is mainly because Nintendo’s programmers were essentially inventing and fine-tuning hardware and software every day and Tanaka was learning about the computer industry as he went, although the fact that Tanaka was an experienced musician certainly helped him creatively. Compare the music you hear when you pick up a hammer in 1981’s Donkey Kong to Tanaka’s music for when you pick up the Golden Hammer in 1985’s Wrecking Crew and you can hear how the technology for sound compositions was getting more sophisticated as the years went on.
Other console games Tanaka created the music for include sci-fi action platformer Metroid (1986), which had a more dark, ambient and cinematic-feeling soundtrack than previous video games, but that was Tanaka’s intention in order to match the mood of the solitary space platformer in which bounty hunter Samus Aran is the lone character among a planet of monsters. Tanaka balanced that out with the angelic and light-hearted melodies of Kid Icarus (1986), another well-loved action platformer released the same year.
But Tanaka’s music for the Game Boy is even better. When Nintendo’s hardware developers began work on the creation of that device, Tanaka was the programmer responsible for developing its sound chip, with the intention of making the Game Boy sound chip better than the Famicom sound chip. A seemingly impossible task for a handheld system but amazingly he accomplished this with flying colors. Compared to the very computerized chiptunes of the Famicom/NES (which are still excellent, don’t get me wrong), the Game Boy sound chip seemed to be a lot wider in scope and therefore sounded a bit more orchestral (in an 8-bit way). Some of the Game Boy games Tanaka composed for include Mario’s first original handheld platformer Super Mario Land (1989), the entire soundtrack of which is just as catchy and charming as the soundtrack for any Mario game. If you ask me it even rivals Koji Kondo’s work in Super Mario Bros. But Tanaka’s most famous work is probably the soundtrack for Tetris (1989), his remix of the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” labeled in the game as the “A-Type” track probably being one of the most recognizable songs in history thanks to the popularity of that puzzle game.
Tanaka also composed the music for another well-known puzzle game, Dr. Mario (1990) for the Famicom/NES, a game in which you had to match the colors of the pills Mario threw into a bottle with the colors of the viruses to make the pests disappear. The excellent music in that game could convey fun in one moment and anxiety in the next all in a single song, which was Tanaka’s way of reflecting the hectic and stressful nature of the game’s unpredictable difficulty level, with the tracks “Fever” and “Chill” being the best examples of this and both very Tanaka-esque in their creativity.
Tanaka also collaborated with others on some of the most highly-regarded video game soundtracks, including with Keiichi Suzuki on the Famicom game Mother (1989) and the Super Famicom sequel Mother 2 (1994) which is known as Earthbound in North America. Some of my personal favorite contributions from Tanaka for that series of role-playing games being the theme for the dreamscape Magicant, the “Battle Theme 1” music and the shop theme “Humoresque of a Little Dog,” all from the first Mother.
The Mother series was created by Shigesato Itoi and developed by Itoi’s company Ape Inc., which in 1995 would change its name to Creatures and work on the Pokémon series in the late nineties. This development led to Tanaka’s close association with the Pokémon series which first began when he was asked to compose music for the Pokémon anime. American viewers may not recognize his music for that show because the music for the American version is different from the music for the Japanese version, including the famous opening theme. But Tanaka became beloved by Japanese Pokémon fans and he later left Nintendo to join Creatures and work on the Pokémon series full-time, later becoming the president of Creatures, a title Tanaka still holds to this day. While Game Freak is the main developer of the Pokémon series, Creatures was responsible for the Pokémon Trading Card Game and would later create the polygon models for 3D Pokémon games like Hey You, Pikachu! (1998), Pokémon Snap (1999) and Pokémon Stadium (1999) as well as help develop the Pokémon Ranger and PokéPark games and the Nintendo 3DS game Detective Pikachu (2018).
Before Tanaka left Nintendo, he did make one other non-music-related impact with that company I want to point out, and that’s the Game Boy Camera. Known as the Pocket Camera in Japan, the Game Boy Camera was an accessory for the Game Boy that could be inserted into the system the same as a game cartridge and could be used to shoot, edit and transfer images, kind of making it the Smartphone of the nineties! And when connected to a Game Boy Printer, you could hold the images in your hand just like a photograph. Tanaka handled the development of the Game Boy Camera as a challenge to see what could be possible on Game Boy tech, taking inspiration from the popularity of the ViewCam at the time. The Game Boy Camera was kind of an oddball project for Nintendo and it didn’t make a huge impact in the pop culture landscape, but it’s actually still popular with a niche group of photographers who like its aesthetic as well as nostalgic appeal.
At Nintendo, Tanaka became known by the nickname “Hip,” named for American hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest who Tanaka is a big fan of, but he became known as “Chip” Tanaka in the late 2000s because by this time his chiptunes from the eighties became the stuff of legend, plus he wanted to differentiate his current self as an independent artist from his past self as a Nintendo employee. Today, Tanaka has not composed an original tune for a video game in years but he is still making music like he always has since his days growing up in Kyoto. And he has even made a few albums. But I’m just glad he brought his musical talent to the world of video games when he did. His music was among the most influential in the history of the medium. Plus I don’t care what anyone says. Chiptunes will never go out of style!