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Hirokazu Tanaka :: Biography

Overview Biography Discography Game Projects Interviews

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 25, 2008.

Born on December 13, 1957, Hirokazu Tanaka is the president of toy company subsidiary Creatures Inc., songwriter for the Pokémon television series, composer of many of Nintendo's early titles, and designer of various console accessories. He was introduced to music at the age of five when he attended private afternoon classes at the Yamaha Music School. When nine, he also took piano lessons for two years, but otherwise received no other formal music education. Having gained an appreciation for classical and movie soundtracks through exposure from his mother, he also developed a taste for rock music when nine thanks to the TV show featuring The Monkees. This inspired him to set up a band with his school friends and cover acts such as the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Simon and Garfunkel. These rewarding experiences resulted in his involvement in numerous other bands throughout his adolescence, where he engaged in keyboard, drums, and guitar performance, while also teaching himself how to compose original music. He explored rock, jazz, and fusion music through these varied experiences, though reggae developments during the 1980s were what especially excited him and ultimate influenced his career.

Tanaka's passion for music distracted from his university studies as an electronic engineering major and, to the concern of his professors, he seemed intent on becoming a composer rather than an engineer. Around 1980, Tanaka successfully applied to Nintendo as a sound engineer after a newspaper advertisement inspired his interest. He liked the idea of combining his love for music with his technical expertise as video games gained widespread popularity in Japan. Nevertheless, the decision to accept the job was a difficult one given the latest band he was involved in were finalists at a major music competition and, upon Tanaka's recruitment, were forced to replace him as they made their national debut. Tanaka's first game project was creating sound effects for the 1980 Arcade shooter Space Demon. Given ROM size limitations, it was necessary for him to create all sound tools by himself using binary coding to account for switches that manifest addresses and data being placed side by side. Adding to the massive demands of the project, he was given multiple additional tasks such as selecting the arcade machine's amps and speaker set-up, using numerous technical books to assist him.

Tanaka adopted a similar role on Shigeru Miyamoto's Donkey Kong the following year. A massive hit in Japan and America alike, the title made Nintendo a household name and brought the debut of the company's most popular characters, Mario and Donkey Kong. Collaborating closely with jingle and background music creator Yukio Kaneoka on the project, the sound was created little by little by combining transistors, condensers, and resistance. To Tanaka's delight, the game's immediately recognisable sound effects were sampled on Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia's original album Pac-Man Fever in 1982. Tanaka undertook sound effects design roles on two further hits, Donkey Kong Jr. and Mario Bros., with Kaneoka. For Donkey Kong 3, Tanaka was promoted to the role of composer for the first time, expressing individualism with a few busy jingles and focus on chromatic runs. All four games were ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System following its 1983 launch with Tanaka's assistance in the sound department. Rather than use the console's internal drivers like most designers, he developed custom sequencers using his own programming language to maximise sound chip capability and allow direct access to the music source.

In 1984, Tanaka assisted in the design and production of the NES Zapper, the light gun accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System. He helped to popularise the accessory by creating brief scores for the compatible titles Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt, and Hogan's Alley. The light gun project firmly associated Tanaka with Gumpei Yokoi's team at Nintendo Research & Development 1 while new employee Koji Kondo began heading the music department of what became Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development. Subsequently, Tanaka worked on several more Nintendo Entertainment System titles, offering an iconic main theme for Balloon Fight, a few ditties for Urban Champion and Wrecking Crew, and the more eccentric accompaniments to Stack-Up and Gyromite. Aware of every aspect of the console's sound generator, he was able to implement these scores convincingly and efficiently. His scores helped to define 'enjoyable' video game music as simple, melodious, upbeat, and quirky as games came to widespread attention around 1985. Though his music helped to inspire other iconic melodic scores such as Gradius and Super Mario Bros., Tsanaka was disappointed that consequent competition across the industry resulted in an influx of cheerful pop-like scores that didn't necessarily fit their respective games.

Tanaka aimed to change that after being assigned 1986's Metroid for the Japan-only peripheral Famicom Disk System by new R&D1 spinoff company Intelligent Systems. He intended to portray the sounds of encounters with living creatures and the intensity of an underground labyrinth escape; as a result, he rejected hummable melodies in favour of dark ambience that made no distinction between music and sound effects. Though it was initially criticised for being overly serious, it received recognition, even in the press, for demonstrating the potential of game music for interactivity. For the Disk System's Palutena no Kagami, later ported to the NES as Kid Icarus, Tanaka created a melody-focused score that was more harmonically elaborate and emotional than his previous efforts. These two scores were arranged for a cassette that constituted Tanaka's first true album release. In 1989, Tanaka scored Earthbound's precursor Mother with Keiichi Suzuki and Hiroshi Kanazu on behalf of second party developer Ape, Inc. With its tender and youthful chiptune melodies, the score remarkably complemented the gameplay and was regarded as a crucial reason why the game endeared to so many in Japan. The popular music was arranged into a charming 1980s-themed vocal album with an original sound medley.

As Nintendo R&D1 shifted its focus to developing Game Boy, Tanaka assisted creating the sound source for the handheld console in 1988. He was subsequently assigned to score its 1989 launch titles Alleyway, Baseball, Yakuman, and Super Mario Land. The lattermost was predictably a best-seller and Tanaka included many catchy upbeat compositions to accompany it, but controversially discluded Kondo's Super Mario Bros. themes. Given the superficial nature of the gameplay in the other titles, Tanaka felt it was appropriate to focus on creating catchy jingles once again. During the same period, he offered a tense and catchy rock-tinged score for Intelligent Systems' military game Famicom Wars. A little later, he was responsible for all sound aspects of the Game Boy's best-selling puzzle adaptation Tetris; offering three compositions to accompany gameplay, Type A was the Russian folk song "Korobeiniki" that became engraved in popular culture due to the game, Type B was a fast-paced eccentric original composition by Tanaka, and Type C was J.S. Bach's French Suite No. 3 in B-Minor. Other early Game Boy works included a new score for Golf and a slightly more elaborate accompaniment to Balloon Kid that was adapted into the Super Nintendo's Hello Kitty World by Character Soft in 1992.

During the early 1990s, Tanaka received many score requests, but felt the quality of his music would suffer if he continued to balance numerous commitments. As a consequence, he introduced and trained several employees to Nintendo R&D1 over the subsequent few years. In 1990, Tanaka shadowed Yuka Tsujiyoko (née Bamba) on Intelligent Systems' tactical RPG Fire Emblem ~The Dragon of Darkness and the Sword of Light~; she later went on to create the majority of the other scores to the series, praised for their functionality and size. Tanaka offered his final solo efforts on two puzzle games — the multi-console Dr. Mario, renowned for its hilarious main theme "Fever", and the Famicom Disk System's Knight Move. On the score to Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo, Tanaka created a reggae-influenced main theme while Kazumi Totaka and Ryoji Yoshitomi were recruited to create most of the other compositions. Tanaka and Totaka worked together on Argonaut Software's 3D Game Boy shooter X the same year; the result was a dense action-packed score with dazzling arpeggios and powerful crisis motifs. These employees went on to achieve recognition in major projects like Animal Crossing and Wario Land while maintaining the musical and philosophical influences of Hirokazu Tanaka.

In 1994, Tanaka contributed to the sequel Mother 2: Gigya's Counterattack, released overseas as Earthbound. Despite taking a subsidiary role to Keiichi Suzuki, Tanaka spruced the score with memorable and endearing melodies. The score wonderfully complemented the gameplay and has gained classic status. The subsequent year, he and Minako Hamano worked on the funk-influenced score to the externally developed Snoopy Concert. From 1997, Tanaka created two related children-targeted Game Boy and Game Boy Color peripherals. As a result of a strong desire to create a new product and put everything he felt in the flow of the gaming industry, he designed the Game Boy Camera (aka Pocket Camera) and the thermal Game Boy Printer (aka Pocket Printer). After drawing images and programming prototype games for the intended hardware, he gave a presentation to former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi for approval. Game Freak assisted with the manufacture of the final products. For the camera, Tanaka also prepared the sequencer Trippy-H that allowed porting core parts of the Game Boy sound source to allow gamers to enjoy Game Boy music from and was later exploited by pirate software. The hardware sold well from their 1998 release to 2003 discontinuation and numerous games showed compatibility with the hardware.

During this work, Tanaka fulfilled requests to create music for the Japanese theme songs for the first season of the Pokémon anime series, based loosely on the Game Boy titles. He was the primary choice of Earthbound graphics designer Tsunekazu Ishihara, founder and president of Ape's successor Creatures, a Pokémon production company that owned a third of the franchise's copyright (Game Freak and Nintendo owning the rest). Tanaka initially worked on the series in his part time, taking the project almost as a joke. His songs were rarely included in the Western adaptations of the franchise and the series' incidental music was composed by Shinji Miyazaki and others instead. As Pokémon grew into a phenomenon beyond Tanaka's imagination, he was requested to compose more songs for the initial season that eventually spanned 83 episodes. Nintendo restricted him from doing so, given employees were not allowed to officially work at other companies. The combination of his enthusiasm for the Pokémon craze, enjoyment of creating songs, and personal reasons convinced Tanaka to leave Nintendo at the start of 1999 to work with Creatures full time. He has continued to create the youthful theme songs for the numerous Pokémon anime series, but balanced this work with increasingly large managerial responsibilities.

In 2000, Tanaka became president of Creatures, succeeding Ishihara who formed the Pokémon Company. Under Tanaka's supervision, the company is responsible for assisting Game Freak designing and developing the majority of the portable Pokémon titles. They also specialise in designing trading cards for the Pokémon series and beyond. Tanaka also conceived and designed Creatures' original portable titles Chee-Chai Alien and Nonono Puzzle Chailien that became popular in Japan. Though Tanaka has not created game music for any of Creature's productions, he delighted classic gamers by remixing his classic Nintendo compositions at the annual Extra: Hyper Game Music Event. Producer Masatoshi Nakamura has said that Tanaka is at the centre of the event noting his divine status among chiptune fans. For Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Tanaka also made surprise guest arrangements of Donkey Kong and Kirby: Squeak Squad with his characteristic eccentric chiptunes. He was additionally a studio musician at Harmonics International for a short time, but is distinct from techno and beatmania artist Hiro Tanaka. Tanaka has had a rich and regularly landmarked career as a composer, programmer, designer, and manager. He continues to balance work on Pokémon productions, original games, and tributes to his Nintendo past with his hobbies of travelling outside Japan, photography, art, and listening to a diverse amount of music.