Yuzo Koshiro :: Biography
Note: This biography was written exclusively for Square Enix Music Online by Chris. The act of using it without advance written permission is regarded as a copyright infringement. It was last updated on October 11, 2008.
Born on December 12, 1967 in Tokyo, Yuzo Koshiro is one of the most influential video game composers and sound programmers, known for his work on the Ys, Dragon Slayer, Shinobi, Streets of Rage, ActRaiser, Story of Thor, Culdcept, Shenmue, Wangan Midnight, and Etrian Odyssey series. His mother Tomo Koshiro is a former concert pianist who introduced him to various classical composers and taught him to play the piano from the age of the three. He took violin and cello lessons with other teachers later in his childhood and studied basic composition techniques for three years under the now world famous Joe Hisaishi. Otherwise entirely self-taught, Koshiro's use and appreciation of genres such as rock, fusion music, funk, hip-hop, and techno comes from independent listening during his adolescence; though he appreciates the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven the most, he likes to embrace all musical styles and integrate them uniquely into his own music. During his adolescence, he sometimes missed classes to play games such as Gradius, Space Harrier, and Tower of Druaga from the mid '80s at arcades. These games developed Koshiro's passion for early game soundtracks; he enjoyed their strong melodies and was endeared by their distinctive sound chips. These experiences inspired him to record pieces directly from arcade machine speakers and reproduce them using his personal computer.
Koshiro soon created original PSG-generated music himself and submitted it to the Microcomputer Basic Magazine under the pseudonym YK-2. He required extensive programming knowledge to compose with PSG and, later, FM synth and found this the most difficult part of the process. His music was so popular with its readers that he was described as a 'PSG God'. He considered becoming a game programmer and composer and, at the age of 18, received his opportunity to enter the industry. He read an advertisement in a games magazine that RPG developer Nihon Falcom were recruiting composers; encouraged by his mother, he sent a demo tape featuring several diverse themes since published on his Early Collection 2nd CD and was subsequently hired as a composer. During two years employment at Falcom, Koshiro co-composed, sound programmed, and designed sound effects for six hit games for early Japanese computers such as the PC-8801, MSX, and X1. He initially produced four compositions for 1986's Xanadu Scenario II (part of Dragon Slayer II) alongside Takahito Abe and then worked on the three subsequent titles in the Dragon Slayer line. He underscored the opening movie for Romancia before taking a larger role on Legacy of the Wizard. For Sorcerian, Koshiro used the inspiration of the various scenarios to create soft and nostalgic melodies. This particularly well-known score has become representative of the old-school sound.
In 1987, Koshiro led the scores to the first two instalments of the Ys series for the PC-8801. He felt completely satisfied with the score to Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished Omen and still enjoys listening to the score over 20 years on, associating it with fond memories of his youth. While considering hardware limitations, Koshiro defined the series' music by mixing mellow melodic compositions, upbeat action tracks, and atmospheric location themes. Most of these themes have since featured in numerous ports, remakes, and sequels of the original game. Koshiro's compositions for Ys I, Ys II, and Sorcerian have also become a principle component of numerous Falcom albums, most popularly in synth rock and heavy metal styles for best-selling Perfect Collection albums and Falcom's in-house J.D.K. Band. Koshiro does not own the copyright for his hundred or so Falcom compositions and has received none of the profit from these successful albums. He also received no official recognition for them, given only the Falcom Sound Team J.D.K. were accredited. He also disapproved of many arrangements of his music and, in particular, criticised Ryo Yonemitsu's arrangements for the famous TurboGrafx-16 versions of Ys I and Ys II for betraying his original intentions. Feeling he had been exploited by Falcom and would never gain individual recognition if he continued to work there, he left the company after completing work on Ys II to become a freelancer.
Koshiro soon received popular recognition as a freelancer after a period of stylistic exploration. He initially worked on the lesser-known titles Ojousama Club, Dark Storm -Demon Crystal-, and The Gate of Labyrinth on the X1 and PC-8801. His solo soundtrack for 1988's Algarna explored a melodic Baroque-influenced style that he previously established with Ys I's "Church". He developed his own custom FM synthesizer driver, MUCOM88, to greatly enhance its sound quality. Continuing to use the sound driver in subsequent works, he blended rock and techno elements into the light-hearted score for Bothtec's The Scheme. In late 1989, Koshiro established a relationship with record label Alfa and personally produced an album featuring two sound versions and five arrangements from The Scheme. The score exposed his name to many thanks to his choice of cover art. Koshiro subsequently created some original compositions on ports of Bosconian and The Return of Ishbar and even composed for the movie No Life King. He experienced many challenges creating the disco score M.N.M.'s puzzle game Thrice (sometimes called Slice), but felt satisfied enough with the results to publish the score in his first Early Collection CD. A year later, he established a relationship working with Quintet on the Enix-published RPG Misty Blue. Its accomplished score revisited some of his earlier works and featured several catchy and rhythmically compelling synthpop and techno compositions.
In 1989, Sega AM5 hired Koshiro for the first time after they were shown his earlier works by his mother. On their behalf, he initially composed the hit Genesis platformer The Revenge of Shinobi (aka The Super Shinobi). While another melodic score, the diverse stages mixed influences from oriental, techno, funk, jazz, power rock, and industrial music, referencing even Prince's "Batman". Koshiro used his programming expertise to create a custom sound chip that allowed his compositions to be powerfully articulated and sound realistic regardless of the style integrated. The game is Koshiro's biggest breakthrough in terms of popularity in the West in no small part thanks to his name featuring prominently on the title screen and its soundtrack, published four days after The Scheme's, was a big hit. Koshiro achieved an even greater breakthrough with the Super Nintendo hybrid ActRaiser. He found the new console inflexible and demanding to work with, but was able to integrate clean and convincing custom orchestral samples nevertheless. The score continued to exhibit Koshiro's strong sense of melody and harmony despite its leanings towards John Williams' scores. The subsequent year, arranger Koshiro and orchestrator Kaoru Wada recorded the Symphonic Suite from ActRaiser with the Shinsei Nihon Symphony Orchestra. While inspired by other orchestral arranged albums, the result was almost universally praised in its own right for its colourful orchestrations, daring choices, and use of medleys.
Following the success of ActRaiser and The Revenge of Shinobi, Tomo Koshiro founded the family-based game development company Ancient in 1991. Among its fifteen or so employees were her son Yuzo, already reputable for his composition and sound programming, and her daughter Ayano, who was an artist and character designer on games like Ys and ActRaiser. Its employees were welcome to work on projects independent of the company, meaning their productivity was not restricted at the sacrifice of the number of games the company could develop. Ancient's first effort was 1991's Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog; despite the transition from 16-bit to 8-bit, the graphics and music maintained their quality and the game was praised as a technically competent adaptation. Yuzo Koshiro programmed and faithfully arranged Masato Nakamura's popular score for the Genesis version of the game and was even able to create a composition of his own to accompany the Bonus Stage. He took a similar role in the Game Gear's Shinobi the same year. His breakthrough 1991 work, however, was the beat 'em up Streets of Rage (aka Bare Knuckle), developed by The Revenge of Shinobi's Sega AM5. Composed in a techno and house style, its contagious beats, booming bass lines, and enticing treble frills immersed gamers. The work was created using a NEC computer with a programming language Koshiro personally developed, affectionately called 'Music Love'.
From 1992, Koshiro mainly collaborated with Ancient co-composed Motohiro Kawashima given his increasingly busy schedule. As sound producer of the Game Gear's Batman Returns, Koshiro trained Kawashima as a composer. The pair subsequent worked on the Game Gear's Shinobi II: The Silent Fury together offering original compositions later featured in Koshiro's second Early Collection. Also that year, Koshiro produced the Caribbean-influenced soundtrack to Hudson Soft's Japan-only Super Adventure Island. The score's exotic percussion rhythms, pseudo-improvised melodies, and jungle beats complemented the setting of a monster-ridden tropical island. Around the same time, Koshiro worked on several lesser-known projects such as the cancelled The Stickman is Back and the little-known Slap Fight that later featured in his Early Collection 2nd CD. The following year, Koshiro and Kawashima created the score to Ancient's second fully developed game, Streets of Rage 2 (aka Bare Knuckle II). The game featured many hard techno compositions and appealed to mainstream listeners even more than its predecessor. Koshiro visited many dance clubs to gain musical inspiration and regularly listened to DJs such as Maxi Priest, Soul2Soul, and Blackbox. The ever-reflective composer regards Streets of Rage 2 and ActRaiser to be his greatest works and fans seem to agree.
Koshiro concluded the 16-bit era by offering several more innovations. Koshiro's brief score to ActRaiser 2 blended avant-garde orchestrations of ActRaiser classics with original neo-Baroque compositions. It was more dark and serious than its predecessor, but never commemorated with a soundtrack release. For 1994's Streets of Rage 3, Koshiro and Kawashima adopted an oppressive industrial and hard jungle style with the help of automatic music generation programs. Koshiro was well-aware that the daring and inaccessible work would split opinions, but still regards it as a valuable innovation. That year, his attention was largely focused on Ancient's RPG Beyond Oasis (aka The Story of Thor), a project that is especially dear to him. Here, he combined creating and programming a quasi-orchestral score with the demanding role of producer for the first time. The game was highly successful and praised for all its elements, while its score, inspired by modernist composers such as Stravinsky, is the most complex of Koshiro's early works. Also that year, Koshiro further demonstrated his emotional maturity with his subtle use of dark electronica for the redbook audio score to the Sega CD's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder. In addition, he managed to squeeze in directing Ayako Yoda on the Quintet / Enix collaboration Robotrek. His last 16-bit effort was 1995's remote Super Nintendo game Miracle Casino Paradise. Koshiro had secured his legacy with numerous games, but was to struggle more in the 32-bit era...
Koshiro dedicated the years 1995 to 1998 creating scores for the doomed Sega Saturn. Ancient developed Legend of Oasis (aka The Story of Thor 2) close to the console's launch, but it was poorly received relative to Beyond Oasis both commercially and critically. Koshiro's symphonic soundtrack was nevertheless a notable work. None of the pieces in the game looped and instead gradually developed often to a dramatic peak before fading out to silence; the orchestration was elaborate and dramatic, often giving the game a cinematic feel. Much of the game featured silence and there was no overriding thematic material and few event themes, likely explaining why a soundtrack release was deemed financially unviable. After Ancient created a limited number of CD-Rs featuring the game's music mostly for archive purposes, Koshiro proudly handed out a number of them to fans. Koshiro's musical innovations on Ancient's 1996 multiplayer action game Vatlva largely went unnoticed. The redbook audio score was dominated by a wide variety of vocal samples that referenced hip-hop, trip-hop, soul, flamenco, Indian chanting, and more. These samples were blended with heavy beats, novelty sounds, and instrumentals in all sorts of styles to create an unprecedented fusion. It remains Koshiro's most outrageous and humorous work despite its obscurity. Subsequently, Koshiro mixed ambient sounds, electronic beats, and orchestral flourishes to score the Saturn adaptation of Zork I: The Great Underground Empire.
In 1997, Koshiro co-composed the classically-oriented small ensemble score to Culdcept with his new composing partner Takeshi Yanagawa. Each of the game's worlds were accompanied by two whimsical stage themes and a dramatic battle theme. For the Dreamcast epic Shenmue, Koshiro created 15 compositions and three orchestrations over a six month period. He found the project demanding given its magnitude and director Yu Suzuki's firm control throughout and was disappointed that only three of his tracks were included in the soundtrack releases. Koshiro subsequently worked on Ancient flops Tamogotchi Pack and Anime Chick Story 1: Card Captor Sakura due to his family commitments. These projects reflected the difficulties of a small company meeting the financial demands and attaining the productivity to develop for more advanced consoles. Koshiro also directed members of the Ancient team for over six months in 1999 to produce a demo of Streets of Rage IV for possible Dreamcast development in 1999. Despite Sega of Japan seeing potential in the project, Sega of America dismissed it given many of its executives had never heard of the series. On at least one other occasion since, Koshiro has attempted to develop the long-awaited title so dear to him, but the game is unlikely to ever be fully realised. As a result of all these blows on Sega's final consoles, Koshiro became skeptical about the direction the game industry was going and considered leaving the industry.
Yuzo Koshiro was appointed the president of Ancient following his mother's retirement. He oversees about 19 employees at the company to develop new titles for various consoles, but mainly focuses on administration and sound production rather than directing or producing titles. His light-hearted funk and jazz score was an enjoyable component of quirky sleeper hit Car Battle Joe. Koshiro also enjoyed reminiscing about his Super Adventure Island work while creating the cheery tropical accompaniment to Amazing Island. Koshiro's most high-profile soundtracks nevertheless tend to be on behalf of externally developed titles. For 2001's Wangan Midnight, Koshiro blended emotional piano and orchestra with action-packed rock and techno tracks. In 2003, he experimented with trance music for the first time with an arrangement of "Balrog Stage" for the Street Fighter Tribute Album. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to dedicate Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune to exploring trance music further. His melodic and euphoric music proved a particularly compelling component of the racing game. He scored the lesser-known Dokapon the World around the same time. As one of producer Thomas Boecker's favourite composers, Koshiro was selected to compose two orchestral pieces for 2005's acclaimed fantasy album Merregnon Soundtrack Volume 2.
Koshiro has also been involved in several retrospective game projects in recent years. For 2004's Legend - Game Music Club Event, he DJed in a Tokyo Club with a 50 minute Streets of Rage medley. He was delighted to create a range of guest compositions for 2006's Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin as a long-term Castlevania fan. Endeared by the DS' traditional nature, he scored the Atlus dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey (aka Sekaiju no MeiQ) in 2007. He combined the distinctive FM sound of titles like Sorcerian with the dynamics and density of modern game audio. The soundtrack was an outstanding commercial and critical success that reaffirmed his position as one of Japan's most popular game composers. For its sequel, Koshiro maintained the novel yet nostalgic sound, but made several modifications; he decided to make the music even more memorable given the success of its predecessor, created a slightly different atmosphere given the forest setting, and even made subtle references to some classic game music. Etrian Odyssey's music has also been featured in three arranged albums produced by Norihiko Hibino and the two Extra: Hyper Game Music Event concerts. He has commemorated classic game music further with his orchestral arrangements for the Symphonic Game Music Concert series, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, Symphonic Shades - Huelsbeck in Concert, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Koshiro has continued to engage in a range of projects despite the retro revival. He returned to the two sequels of the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune series where he offered more anthemic trance music. He also offered his first vocal themes for the second game in the series to glorious popular reception. He has explored vocal trance music further with songs for Namco X Capcom and the Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2. For the former, he also created all the background music and DJed with a selection of its music at Extra: Hyper Game Music Event 2007. Continuing to oversee activities at Ancient, he recently created the catchy light techno score to Ueki no Housoku and some jazz-tinged tracks for the multi-console Kateikyoushi Hitman Reborn. He has also recently scored the externally developed Warriors of the Lost Empire and the upcoming 7th Dragon. On both projects, he stretched the sound capacity of today's portable consoles with cinematic orchestral music and, in the latter, even some operatic vocals. Thanks to a close relationship with Five Records, he has also recently released seven of his classic scores in two best compilations. In addition to 7th Dragon, he is currently leading sound production of Dragon Ball Online, contributing new pieces to Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune DX, and overseeing the soundtrack for the remake Culdcept DS. Koshiro is one of the most influential, versatile, and creative game composers of all time and will be forever known for 'doing so much with so little'.