Yuzo Koshiro: Legendary game composer, family business owner

Video game composers will never become household names on the level of rock stars. Practically everyone can hum the theme to Super Mario Bros., but it takes a certain type of person to be able to tell you that the man behind that timeless earworm was a fellow by the name of Koji Kondo. Though video game music has worked its way into countless millions of people’s lives, only the most devoted of enthusiasts take the time to explore the lives of the creators responsible for those insidious, addicting loops of music that accompany their every frantic attempt to stop Dr. Robotnik or master the fastest loop of Tetris.

Among those avid game music fanatics, though, few names carry as much weight as Yuzo Koshiro’s. Though he rarely works on gaming’s biggest franchises, his games tend to become cult classics — a status they enjoy largely on the strength of his music. Would Falcom’s Ys games have been nearly so well-loved without Koshiro’s energetic rock scores to propel their simplistic RPG-lite action? Would Streets of Rage have been anything more than merely another beat-’em-up unless Blaze and Axel’s fists could pummel their foes in perfect syncopation to Koshiro’s cutting-edge house grooves? Spotting Koshiro’s name on a project has become one of gaming’s surest guarantees: Even if the game itself turns out to be only so-so, at the very least you know it’s going to sound amazing.

And yet, even among the game music literati, Koshiro’s work beyond composition rarely receives much discussion. Koshiro holds a unique distinction in gaming: He’s a game composer who moonlights as a game developer and owns a development studio. It’s hardly unusual to think of music and game design as intersecting interests — consider the music-based game works of interactive artist Toshio Iwai, including Otocky and Electroplankton — but Koshiro’s music does more than merely overlap game development.

As president of game development studio Ancient, Koshiro has had his hands in the process of making games for nearly as long he’s been writing music for them. He entered the game industry in 1986 at age 18 to compose for PC role-playing powerhouse Nihon Falcom. A mere four years later, he established Ancient. The company has existed for most of Koshiro’s career, though the company doesn’t command nearly as much acclaim as its versatile leader.

Sonic origins

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Koshiro’s heavy involvement with Sega during the Genesis era, you can trace Ancient’s origins back to Sega and its most bankable franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog.

“It’s been quite a while back now,” says Koshiro, “so I don’t remember all the specific details, but it goes back to how I initially formed a relationship with Sega. I was asked to produce a soundtrack for The Super Shinobi [The Revenge of Shinobi in the U.S.], which got me in with the company.”

Koshiro then remembers pitching a section chief at Sega, saying that he’d be able to develop games himself — or as it turns out, with a small group.

“The idea was that it would help us form a better understanding with the people on the development side,” he says. “Based on that presentation, I was actually asked to produce Sonic the Hedgehog for Game Gear!”

At the time — 1990 — Sonic the Hedgehog hadn’t yet made its debut, and no one knew for certain what a juggernaut the character and franchise would become. Still, Sega clearly had high hopes for the game, as it ended up launching the game across all three of its active consoles — Genesis, Master System and Game Gear — within the space of half a year. While the company chose to handle the lead platform’s version in-house, Koshiro was given responsibility for the 8-bit versions, as the Master System and Game Gear hardware were effectively identical aside from their respective color depth and pixel resolution capabilities. As such, the Master System and Game Gear versions of Sonic turned out to be essentially the same as one another, but they were completely separate works from the cutting-edge platformer Sega produced for the more powerful Genesis console.

Reinventing a major publisher’s keystone release for a pair of secondary platforms represented a tall order for a 22-year-old game composer who had never made a video game before, but Koshiro says he felt determined to rise to the task.

“I mean, thinking back on it, it is quite weird,” he admits. “Sonic is a huge property, and I’m not totally sure why they asked us to do it. I imagine at the time, the internal teams at Sega were very, very busy. But they still had to create Game Gear and Master System versions, even though there was nobody in-house to work on them. At the time, there wouldn’t have been many external development companies to work with, and searching for one would have been very difficult.”

Despite Koshiro’s claims, the request appears to have been more than a matter of simple expediency. Sega had worked with a number of external development partners on its 8-bit systems, including Sims and Aspect. But personal relationships and trust count for a lot in Japanese corporate culture, and Koshiro suspects his own strong connection to the company played a huge part in his being asked to take on the Sonic port project. “Probably one of the biggest reasons would be that section chief that I mentioned I knew at Sega,” he says. “He put a lot of faith in me, for one reason or another.”

While this commission represented an extraordinary opportunity for the young composer, it also presented considerable complications. “Sega as a company couldn’t form contracts with individuals, so I had to set up my own company,” he says. “That way we could take on this project — a company working with a company. I don’t remember all the specific details, but in short, we established Ancient as a company so we could take on the Sonic the Hedgehog project for Game Gear.”

Koshiro’s venture took the form of primarily a family affair: His sister directed the 8-bit adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog, while his mother worked more behind the scenes. He admits the family-centric nature of the business is something he’s always simply taken for granted. “I’ve never really thought about it before,” he says. “And I’ve never been asked about it, even in interviews with Japanese media!”

On reflection, though, he doesn’t feel Ancient’s makeup isn’t difficult to explain. “If you want to start up a company, you need investment,” he says. “You need money. I was around 20 years-old at the time, and I didn’t have that money, so I looked for help from my mother. And, of course, if you want to have a company, you need to bring in employees. I didn’t really want to have a company full of people I don’t really know all that well, so it ended up just sort of being a case where I brought in my family instead.”

Ancient has grown since its early days, but not by much; the company currently employs only eight staff members, including Koshiro, his mother and his sister. The company’s size is just barely sufficient to allow for a small degree of stratification, with Koshiro himself maintaining an active role in both a creative and executive capacity.

“Right now at Ancient, I’m the president,” he says. “That means I’m in charge of deciding, for example, the overall direction of the company. I used to be pretty heavily involved in the game development side, acting as a producer. But now, the game development team has its own director, and they basically handle things on their own over there. So I do what I can, as a composer, to raise awareness of the company and support it that way. And, of course, as president, I handle a lot of things involving contracts and management as well. The backend stuff.”

While this puts Koshiro in something of a unique position in the game industry, he manages to compartmentalize his roles to a certain degree. Among other things, this means that he’s able to approach his role as a composer for internal projects the same as he would any other music gig. Perhaps surprisingly, he says he doesn’t chafe at such restrictions, despite his executive role. On the contrary; he values them.

“When you get down to it, composing for Ancient games isn’t all that different than composing for other developers,” he says. “It’s not like I’m able to make whatever kind of music I want just because it’s my own company. Whether I’m working for Ancient or for another company, a game’s producer or director will tell me, ‘This is the kind of music that we want you to make,’ and then that’s what I make.

“Usually, there is direction. How much direction I get, or how much freedom I have on a certain project, depends on the producer. There used to be a lot of times in the past where it was quite strict: ‘We want you to make this exact thing.’ But recently, there’s been a lot of stuff that is like, ‘It’s fine as long as, you know, it sounds cool. Or it’s fast. If the tempo is fast, it’s fine.’ So there is a lot more freedom now than there used to be.”

And, he says, he doesn’t always prefer it that way.

“When I’m working on a soundtrack, having some direction is always better. For example, one of the things I hate the most — it’s probably not just me; it’s most composers in general — we hate being told that something we’ve written is no good: ‘We can’t use this.’ So in order to have that not happen, it’s best to have ground rules.

“To give one example of how that might work, say you’re making a background theme for a forest. You’re going to have a certain things that you’re going to want to aim for with that, ground rules you’re going to want to stick to, but as long as you are within that framework, you can do whatever you would like. So there is that level of imagination that comes in there. But it’s best when you don’t have complete freedom.”

The ancient future

In its 27 years of existence, Ancient has maintained a steady output of its own games that have never quite cracked the mainstream radar; even its Sonic the Hedgehog projects sold nowhere near as well as the Genesis original. Where Koshiro’s music work has appeared in some extremely high-profile releases, and he often enjoys headliner status for his contributions, Ancient’s best-known game projects have generally consisted of collaborations and contract help with other developers — it was one of dozens of studios that pitched in to help SEGA complete the original Shenmue, for example. More recently, the team worked with Marvelous on a trilogy of PSP fighting games based on the manga Reborn before venturing into the world of independent development and publishing.

Despite Ancient’s continued existence as a small studio, Koshiro seems upbeat about its status and prospects. “When we put the company together, we weren’t thinking of it in the long term,” he says. “It was about five years into it that we started to think, ‘Maybe we could make this last for a while.’ Of course, you don’t even really know until you try. At the time, I was quite young, and didn’t I even know if I could make it in the music scene in general. I started doing this when I was 18, and I’ve found the most important thing is just to go for it. Don’t really think about it; just try your hand at it.”

The company’s small size lends it a certain degree of nimbleness and almost certainly has helped it to weather some of the massive, industry-wide changes that have taken down larger corporations. Yet Koshiro admits that Ancient’s modest scale can be limiting at times. His future ambitions for the company include technological horizons that represent a steep challenge for such a small studio.

“I’m extremely interested in virtual reality,” he says. “When I tried it for myself, I had an absolutely fantastic experience. We’d love to become involved with that. Unfortunately, those games are still quite difficult to make, and we only have eight people at Ancient, so we’re not really in a position where we can make huge games.

“For the moment, if you look at our games, we’re working in the style of more indie-type titles. Even if we wanted to [develop for VR] and we said, ‘You know, we would love to be involved in that,’ it would be difficult to make it happen, both on the money front and also in terms of manpower as well. But I’m very interested in the technology itself, and I’d like to make it happen. I haven’t really thought exactly what we could do with it but if I thought about it, I’m sure we could come up with some stuff. But if there was somebody out there who was, like, ‘Here’s all the money you need. Make us something on VR.’ That would be a really fantastic opportunity. I’d love to do that.”

Ancient’s self-published titles have appeared on a variety of different formats: 3DS, Xbox 360, Steam and mobile. Even if the company has to work within certain limits, it clearly doesn’t want to limit itself in terms of its reach to players. That said, Koshiro considers each new platform that Ancient branches out to carefully to see if it makes sense — and for the moment, at least, the verdict is still out on the industry’s newest contender.

“Switch strikes me as a very Nintendo-like piece of hardware,” he says. “The games that Nintendo makes haven’t really changed over these past 20 years. They’ve had recent hits like Splatoon, but looking at the hardware, it seems made for games like Mario, Mario Kart, Splatoon … it seems like they simply wanted to make a system that would allow them to make those games more dynamic, so they could add more expression to their games. They only really want to have people enjoy their own games more. It doesn’t really seem like they are being that adventurous with the system.

“If Nintendo is going to keep up with the Switch, I think they’ll need cheaper models, or maybe to make them lighter. If they were to do that, it could become a replacement for the 3DS … but, of course, Nintendo has said themselves that that is not what they’re planning to do. It kind of makes me think, ‘Why does this thing even exist, really?’ In other words, it’s a game system that will allow people to enjoy Nintendo games even more, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised by it and don’t really feel there’s anything novel about it.”

Koshiro’s misgivings about Nintendo’s hardware shouldn’t be taken as an excoriation of Nintendo as a whole, though, he says. On the contrary; he’d love the opportunity to collaborate on its creations.

“I honestly haven’t really thought too much about [what series I’d like to compose for], but I do love Nintendo titles,” he says. “I think it would be fantastic to work on something like Zelda or Splatoon. Zelda, in particular, I am a huge fan of. I love fantasy and action, and of course, Zelda is the ultimate combination of both of those things.”

For now, however, Koshiro seems focused on building Ancient’s catalog of creations, as well as continuing his own musical projects. Besides new compositions, for example, he’s also been collaborating with UK-based record label DataDiscs to remaster some of his classic Genesis compositions for high-fidelity vinyl releases. And while he prefers not to discuss the precise nature of Ancient’s current ventures, he sees a clear future for the company.

“There is no specific overall vision I’ve given to any of my team,” he says, “but they’re game developers. To give a bit of background, 10 years ago, we made games as contracted by companies like Sega or Bandai Namco. And of course, when we were producing games for them, those companies would still own the rights. But over the past few years, we have been able to make games to which we own the rights, like Protect Me Knight. So what we’re thinking is, say, five years from now … we’d like to go and make more original games. For what we’re working on at the moment, unfortunately we can’t really speak in too much detail.”

He smiles for a moment. “But, of course, we think we are working on something really fun.”

Source: Polygon – Full


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