I went to MAGfest in the DC metro area again this year, after having a lot of fun last year and putting on a really cool panel. Besides doing another panel (which will be up shortly, with notes), I also had the opportunity to partake in some of the musical festivities – it is the Music and Gaming Festival, after all!
Above: Manami Matsumae plays the keyboard in a live performance of Mighty No. 9 songs at MAGfest 16.
Among the performers at the show was Manami Matsumae, a storied game composer currently working with BraveWave. She’s perhaps best known for her work on the original Rockman/Megaman. Her body of work encompasses many more great tunes, however, including several of Capcom’s early-90s arcade classics. She graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with us during the event, and the result was some very cool anecdotes about working on the Capcom sound team during the great Japanese video game boom of the 80s and early 90s.
Read on for the details, and remember – it’s thanks to the support of readers like you that I’m able to travel and conduct cool interviews like these!
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Matsumae-san. I’m very curious as to how you got involved with Capcom in the midst of the great expansion of the Japanese game industry.
Indeed, things were really taking off around that time. Games like Mario and Dragon Quest had already become huge success stories. When I was a senior in college, I saw a recruitment ad from Capcom for a composer/sound designer position. I applied, and was hired. I’d known that Capcom was a game company, and a well regarded one, at that.
Were you local to Osaka at the time?
Yes, I was.
Were you trained in traditional instruments and music composition, or did you have prior experience with electronic music composition?
I majored in piano during my time at the university, so I was trained in a classical background. I didn’t actually compose music, in the sense that we understand it, until I joined Capcom and started making music for NES games. Of course, that had more of a “rock” orientation to it [pun not intended, I think – ed].
Was it difficult using the tools for NES composition at the time?
Actually, I would make the music itself with a sequencer, and to abide by the NES hardware limitations at the time, that music was limited to just three channels plus noise. I would take the music and use the program to convert the music to numeric programming data that could then be implemented into the game itself. It was pretty tough.
Did Nintendo supply tools for NES/Famicom music composition, or did everybody have to program everything “by hand?”
Back in the day, we didn’t use any tools from Nintendo. I have no idea why; that’s just the way things were. I ended up using the tools that Capcom’s programmers made.
So if you wanted to simulate a particular sound or instrument, you’d go to one of the programming team members and ask them to help out.
No, actually, I had to do all that on my own. The programmer would make a program, and then the parameters could be adjusted to output the desired sound. I’d have to adjust the numbers like that. That’s how I made all of Rockman’s sound effects.
Oh, so all those sound effects that have persisted through the series – those are all your work?
Indeed! I honestly have no idea why they kept using them! *laughs*
Besides Rockman, what other games did you work on at Capcom?
After we finished that game, I moved to Capcom’s arcade division. There I did games like Magic Sword, US Navy, UN Squadron/Area 88, and Mercs, among others. As you know, the NES/Famicom had only three channels plus noise, but the arcade hardware gave me a full six channels plus PCM. I was able to use instruments like drums and whatnot, which was impossible on the NES. Basically, I couldn’t deal with the NES’s limitations.
Rockman was your only work on the NES, then.
I worked on parts of soundtracks for other NES games, but the only game I did the full soundtrack for is Rockman.
What other Famicom games did you contribute to, then?
Rockman 2 comes to mind – a very small portion of that. I also did work on a PC Engine game, Son Son II.
I didn’t know Capcom themselves developed Son Son II internally. I guess it should have been obvious, given that Yoshiki Okamoto was heavily involved.
It was his game, yes.
I am rather curious as to what the atmosphere at Capcom was like at the time, especially given that there weren’t a lot of women working in games at that point.
What about Yuukichan’s Papa?
He was the one male, the guy in charge of the department. He was a sound programmer.
So how old was Yuukichan at the time?
She was about two or three years old when I was there. He – Sakaguchi-san, I mean – is a bit older than I am, probably around 55 or so currently.
What was it like working at Capcom, then? Do you have any particular anecdotes?
The first year I was working there was pretty rough, honestly. I’d be there until 11PM daily just to get everything done. That was tough. I don’t remember a lot of fun experiences from that time. There weren’t any sort of big scandals or anything, mainly because the sound team was in a separate building from the rest of the developers – the other building was just too crowded. There were probably things that went on in the main building, but our building was overwhelmingly women, so nothing particularly scandalous went on in our department, as far as I know.
What was it like working with Inafune-san back in the day?
I joined Capcom the same year that Inafune did, so we’re “douki1.” When I was assigned to the Rockman project, I was introduced to him for the first time. Back then, he was just an artist – he only did character design. I thought it was nice to work with him. That was the only project we did together back then, because I left for the arcade division. We wound up collaborating again, decades later, on Mighty No. 9.
The original Rockman didn’t perform particularly well on the market. Did that hurt your morale at all?
It didn’t sell well, but that wasn’t really my fault. We did everything we could do. Maybe the marketing didn’t do enough? That’s what everyone thought at the time.
So why do you think the second one did so much better?
I have no clue! But doesn’t it always seem like the sequels are the games that do really, really well for Capcom? *laughs*
Were you listening to a lot of other game music at the time? That whole time period (the late 80s) was a renaissance in game music composition, especially on the arcade side.
I never listened to other composers’ music, no.
I’m curious as to how the composition process worked. Were you able to provide the music after playing a mostly-finished game, or was it a more back-and-forth type deal where you’d work with the team over the development process?
I’d only see the in-development stages and animations after they were mostly finished. Like, for the individual levels, I’d only see it after the stage was mostly finished. The way the development flow worked. It was hard for me to see anything beforehand, because I was in the other building. After the project was finished to some degree, I’d take a closer look at it, then go back to my desk and start making music.
Now that I’m a freelancer, however, I only get a little bit of information from the developers. – I usually just get some design documents and go from there.
So things have changed pretty dramatically, then.
Why did you leave Capcom, then?
Quite simply: I got married. Back then, if you were a woman working in Japan, you were expected to quit after you got married.
Out of everything you did for Capcom, what would you say is your favorite work?
UN Squadron/Area 88, easily. I like Rockman, of course, but that one is really my favorite.
Yoko Shimomura is another very famous composer who rose from the ranks of Capcom. Were you two in the company around the same time?
She came in a year after I did.
Oh, I see. When new hires for the sound team came in – people like Shimomura – were you tasked with teaching them?
For Shimomura specifically, she wound up going to the console division first, so I didn’t direct interaction with her at work. After hours, though, we had a good social relationship.
After you left Capcom, what kind of freelance work did you do besides games?
When I had my first child, I had to invest a lot of time into taking care of him. Once he grew up, I got back into the swing of composing VGM regularly. In the meantime, I was doing music for various small firms. There wasn’t ever a period of time where I really stopped composing. I did a fair bit of composing educational songs for children – stuff that would teach them certain things, like names of mountains and rivers in Japan. When you’re singing these things, they become a lot easier to memorize.
What do you feel is different about game music now, as opposed to back when you began composing?
As game hardware has improved, we now have more sophisticated visuals, so we have to make music that goes along with them. It’s like making music for a movie soundtrack.
How do you feel about the nostalgia people have for certain sound chips, as someone who struggled working with the NES’s limitations?
All I can say is that I’m happy people have such strong, nostalgic feelings towards that music. This music is over 20 years old, yet people still remember.
Personally speaking, I feel like the qualities of what makes game music special come across better when there are limitations that people need to work with.
I agree, music from that era had a more narrow focus. You had to take very specific approaches to make sure that you made music that stuck in peoples’ heads. More modern game music – well, the visuals are amazing and fun to look at, but even though the music might be nice, they don’t quite leave the same impression that chiptune or FM synth music did.
When you got the request to do music for Shovel Knight and were told that the game was a throwback to NES-era sound, were you excited or filled with dread of having to go back to those harsh limitations?
When I made the music for Shovel Knight, the developers said I could use six sound channels, so that was actually quite fun! It was like a puzzle, in that sense – putting things together, then putting them into place. When I was assigned to the project, I was quite excited, since it had been a long time since I’d worked in that environment.
When you come to a convention like this and see a lot of people who are really into game music, how does that make you feel?
I’m really surprised that there are so, so many people here! And they all know so much about video game music! Like, A LOT! It’s been super fun to be here. I love coming to events like these.
Special thanks to Alex Aniel for his assistance in coordinating this interview.
- A word meaning people who entered a company around the same time. Workplace seniority is a big deal in Japan, so a lot of words like this exist in business-speak. ↩