Toshikazu Tanaka Interview: The King of Fighters
Fatal Fury, Power Instinct, Metal Slug, and The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact… Just some of the titles that Toshikazu Tanaka has worked on during his three decade career. The leader of the SNK sound team as it made its first fighting game hits, Tanaka went on to work on Atlus’ Power Instinct series before embarking on a highly successful freelance career.
In his first English-language interview and our first Patreon-funded interview, Tanaka talks us through his background, career, and works. Along the way, he talks about his defining scores such as Fatal Fury, Power Instinct, and Maximum Impact. Along the way, he touches on topics such as his life-changing experiences with the electric guitar, his reasons for leaving and reuniting with SNK, and why he has created such exotic fusions on his scores.
Interview Subject: Toshikazu Tanaka
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Ben Schweitzer, Tomoko Akaboshi
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Toshikazu Tanaka, thank you so much for doing this interview. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background, education, and influences?
Toshikazu Tanaka: I was born in the Japanese city of Osaka in 1965. Both of my parents loved music, and my father played accordion and Electone (a synthesizer from Yamaha). My mother also played accordion, and my sister played piano. Being brought up in that environment, they tried to teach me piano several times starting from a young age, but at the time music held no interest whatsoever for me. So I took the lessons begrudgingly and gave it up soon afterwards. On the other hand, I was very fond of creating things, so I would always be making something out of clay, blocks, or paper, or putting together plastic models… even drawing pictures. Our household provided more opportunities than normal to hear music, I feel. I listened to the classical piano music my sister played so often that I grew to hate it!
My interest in music started when I was in middle school (age 13) and I saw an older student playing guitar in the school’s culture fair. I was struck then and there by the way he looked and the power of live performance, thinking “wow, that’s cool.” That was when I started teaching myself how to play guitar. I began with acoustic guitar, playing and singing folk songs. But Deep Purple’s album Machine Head, which I had heard about in a guitar magazine, came as a real shock to me, and I switched to electric guitar instead. After that, I listened to guitar performances in hard rock, naturally, but also jazz, blues, and other genres. The main artists I listened to at the time were people like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Van Halen, Lee Ritenour, and Larry Carlton.
I formed a band around age 16 or 17, and we played covers of hard rock songs (Deep Purple, Van Halen, and so forth) as well as originals. At the same time, I had loved working with electronics since middle school (putting together electronics like radios, for example), so I made most of my guitar effects pedals myself. Alongside these interests I had an interest in video games and computers as well, so I bought an NEC PC8001 and taught myself about video game programming.
Chris: What then led you to become a game sound creator?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Given the hobbies I had at the time, when I was in high school (17-18), I wanted to be a musician or a game programmer. My parents were opposed to the former; given his job, my father was well aware of the disadvantage of that line of work in the difficulty of procuring a steady salary. As a result, I set my sights on programming for video games.
Back then, there weren’t any schools that taught game programming, so I went to a college that focused on computers in general. I found that the school was mainly geared towards creating programs for corporate accounting and customer management, and I wouldn’t learn anything about video games there, so I lost interest and dropped out after one year. After that, I was going nowhere, scraping by getting gigs with the band while earning a bit of money through part time work. I spent one or two years before once again giving up that job and, knowing that I had to look for real employment, bought job hunting magazines so that I could find work as a real employee.
The first job magazine I bought had a call for game sound creators. It seemed unreal to find them looking for something so specialized in a normal publication, so I applied on the spot, feeling that this had to be it. That application was for a company called Nihon Bussan (a company that made games like Terra Cresta), but I had bought the magazine too late and they called me up to tell me that their hiring call was already finished. With this lesson in mind I picked up the next issue on its release date and there inside was a hiring call from SNK. I called them up right away and went in for an interview. The fact that I could do programming seemed to make a great impression, and I was offered a job on the spot.
Chris: You joined SNK all the way back in 1986. Could you tell us about what day-to-day sound creation was like back? What were the technical challenges associated with creating sounds for Ikari Warriors and Victory Road back then?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Right after I joined, I had to spend time learning how to convert sheet music into digital data, how to get music to play back from a sound chip, and how to create timbres using FM synthesis. I could program at the time, but I also had to be taught sound driver analysis, information about sound chips, and so forth. After I got through that, I could work on my first game project, which in my case was Victory Road. I wasn’t personally involved with Ikari Warriors at all, as the game was released before I even joined SNK. In fact, its sequel Victory Road was the first real project I worked on.
Victory Road my first real professional experience, and it was a huge challenge to create the music and the sound effects for the title. But I enjoyed it a lot, and I found the everyday work very satisfying. I worked on the game together with two people who had been hired at the same time I was. They respectively worked on the music and sound effects for the game. but I dealt with both in addition to sound driver analysis and revision, so there was a lot that I had to deal with.
Thanks to my experience tinkering around with the sound driver, though, I was able to make use of my additional experience to get a richer sound for the first game I worked on by myself, Chopper I (known in Japan as Koukuu Heiki Monogatari).
Chris: Most of your early works from SNK are featured on soundtrack releases, namely three compilation albums and dedicated albums for Prehistoric Isle, ASO II, and King of the Monsters. How involved were you in preparing these releases? Did you intend for your music to be enjoyed on a stand-alone basis when composing these titles?
Toshikazu Tanaka: My involvement with the soundtrack albums was limited to writing track titles, writing liner notes, and checking the recording of the original sound (the recording itself was handled by the record company). But if there was an arranged version produced, the original composer would handle the arrangement. As a result, I sometimes worked on arranging my own music. There weren’t many members of the team who could play guitar, so I would sometimes join in just as a performer for some arrangements. Sometimes I would be present at the recording and mix for the arrangements too…
At the time, I never considered people would listen to the music I was creating on a stand-alone basis and so didn’t think about it while composing. I never thought that I was making anything more than something that would be played in-game. That’s why it was sometimes quite a challenge to arrange some tracks so that they lasted longer than the originals.
Chris: The liner notes for the album Fatal Fury / Last Resort reveal you were the lead composer for SNK’s breakout hit Fatal Fury: King of Fighters. How did you portray the diverse cast and onscreen action of this fighting game? Was there a conscious effort to make the soundtrack for this title a step up from Street Fighter Ⅱ?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Although the score has ended up being my signature work, I wasn’t originally supposed to be the lead composer for Fatal Fury at all. A string of circumstances led to me taking on the job mid-way through production, and I remember the pain of having to deal with tight deadlines.
With every game I work on, when I start on a new project, naturally I aim to make it a step up in quality over my previous scores. However, I also consider how to ensure that the game has an impact that sets it apart from other games, creating sounds that will stick in the player’s memory. So with Fatal Fury, I wasn’t aiming merely to surpass Street Fighter II, but to make sure the quality was a step or two above all of the competition.
Chris: Your music for Fatal Fury undoubtedly influenced the soundtracks for SNK’s numerous subsequent fighting games, with some tracks (e.g. A Kiss for Geese) even being directly arranged. Looking back, what legacy do you think your music left? How do you feel about Shinsekai Gakkyoku Zatsugidan’s approach to subsequent fighting games and albums?
Toshikazu Tanaka: With Fatal Fury, it felt like I ended up going it alone before I knew it. I always give it my all when composing, so it wasn’t as if this was the one time I put special care into my work. I think the main reason the music from Fatal Fury in particular has had such a continued existence is because the game became such a big hit. I actually didn’t know that tracks like Kiss for Geese were being arranged and reused until considerably later. Could it be that my music is living on? Hmm… dunno about that. *laughs*
I think the Shinsekai Gakkyoku Zatsugidan’s approach to subsequent fighting games and albums was fantastic. I think that the immense popularity of the genre is thanks to SNK, and that popularity made it possible for others to create games with a different take on the genre, like Power Instinct. For the albums, the team took a whole range of approaches including working with voice actors, and I think the results were great.
Chris: Rather than return to produce Fatal Fury sequels, you switched to Atlus to work on the Power Instinct. What inspired you to make this move? How did the working environment differ between SNK and Atlus?
Toshikazu Tanaka: I didn’t actually jump right from SNK to Atlus. In the first place, I had left SNK because I found that my duties as a sound creator (strictly speaking, as a composer) had become a difficulty. Right before I left SNK, I had ended up as the most experienced person in the whole sound department, so in addition to my own work I had to deal with the work from the other employees, and I found that I didn’t have enough time to devote to composing if I wanted to create music I would be satisfied with. This made composition itself into a chore, and I started feeling stressed from my work. So I decided to back away from that job and left SNK.
For a year after leaving that position I didn’t do any work related to games and instead worked on creating MIDI data for karaoke. There was no actual composition involved, but I was still working with music, so at that time it was the perfect job for me. That job was perfect for teaching me how to get expressive results out of MIDI data, so it turned out to be very useful long after I moved on to other work.
After about a year, however, I started feeling the urge to compose again, and at almost exactly the same time I received an invitation from a former head of SNK to come back to the gaming world. The name of his company was Atlus. The biggest difference between the working environments at SNK and Atlus was that, with the latter, I was working alone as a sound creator. Although there were a number of people working at Atlus’s headquarters even at that time, I was assigned to their branch in the Kansai region, where I was the only sound creator. That’s why I was able to focus on doing my own work to a degree I never had been able to during my days at SNK. Of course, this also meant that when something happened, the responsibility would be mine alone to bear… I went freelance after that, so I’ve been working alone pretty much ever since.
Chris: As the sole composer of all six Power Instinct games, you were really able to make the series your own. Could you explain to us your musical intentions on the original Power Instinct and how did you develop on this with basis with subsequent titles? Looking back, which soundtrack are you most proud of?
Toshikazu Tanaka: When I first heard about the plans for Power Instinct, I was amazed at how far it broke the mold for what fighting games had been to that point. So I felt I had to produce music that broke the mold too if I wanted to live up to the game. To do that, I would have to create music that explored genres and melodies that had never been used in fighting games before. But if I went too far, people would find the music inaccessible unless they listened carefully. I had to come up with something that would come out with a bang from the get-go.
The idea I had was “vocals.” With the first game, there were lots of tracks that I had wanted to add sung parts to (“A Man’s Karate Way”, for one). However, we didn’t have much ROM space, so I wasn’t able to add as many songs as I wanted. Then the game was a runaway hit and the soundtrack well-received, so I was given plenty of ROM space for the sequel. That’s why I put vocals into most of the tracks. My basic approach for the other Power Instinct games (outside of Groove on Fight) was the same.
Around the time of the second game, I was interviewed by a magazine called GAMEST, and they asked what I was trying to do with the music for Power Instinct. I came back with “making music that’s normally considered uncool,” which has confused quite a number of people (laughs). At the time, I felt that the market was filled with music that was cool but unmemorable… you listened to it one moment and forgot it the next. So my music was to go against this trend, and by adding memorable melodies, end up sticking with people. But I didn’t mean to say that it was low quality by calling it uncool, just that it wasn’t the kind of flashy thing that was popular. So I tried to create something that was high quality but a bit on the old fashioned side so it would come off as uncool in the then-modern era.
Chris: While you’re known for working mostly on fighting games, you did score the action RPG Princess Crown for Atlus too. Could you tell us more about your involvement in this title?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Some people are under the mistaken impression that I composed all of the tracks for this game, so I’ll take this opportunity to explain that I really only did about 2-3 tracks of the score, and the majority of the music was handled by others (editor’s note: only Toshikazu Tanaka is credited in the end credits). I came onto this project partway through, at a stage when most of the music had already been finished (I don’t actually know myself the details of who composed the rest of it). I simply created the music and sound effects that still weren’t complete.
When a soundtrack CD was created, the company that produced the album requested liner notes from me, thinking that I had been the main composer for the project, but I politely declined for the reasons above. If many who have come to love this music are under the same impression, I have complicated feelings about the matter, but mostly I feel sympathy for the real composers who still aren’t getting credit for their work.
Chris: Through your work with Noise Factory, you worked on SNK franchises once again at the start of the millennium with the Metal Slug and The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact. What was it like to return to your roots in a sense? Given you were a contractor rather than employee, is it safe to assume that you had a lot more freedom than when working on Fatal Fury a decade earlier?
Toshikazu Tanaka: As far as I remember, the first project I did with SNK after an absence of several years was Sengoku 3, and I had never imagined that after all that time I would be going back and working with them again. This was the first Neo Geo game I had worked on since parting ways with SNK, so my first thought was that I had never imagined I would be working with that system again. It brought out a lot of complex emotions for me, and I found myself wondering, did I really do the right thing? But, whether I was working with SNK or with Noise Factory, there were lots of people I knew well, and that aspect of it, at least, made the going easier.
With Sengoku 3, my biggest challenge was to get the quality of the music up near the level of the other game music of the time. Even if I tried my best and used the methods that had worked in the past, there would be no way of guaranteeing the high level of quality I wanted, so I went for it and decided on streaming playback for the music. The problem was that the sound driver had never been designed with the idea of using streaming in mind, so it was difficult to pull off. I considered modifying the sound driver myself to make it more effective, but that was just not feasible given the schedule.
Unlike when I was an employee, I was able to do all my work by myself in new works like this, and the production environment was much improved from the old days, so in that sense I did have a high level of freedom. But that came with a lot of problems of its own… (see above). I was very happy when I later got the chance to arrange tracks I’d composed for The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact (Kiss for Geese, one more time).
Chris: An incredible thing about these soundtracks, particularly Metal Slug 5 and The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2, is their sheer diversity in styles. Compositionally and technologically, how were you able get these tracks sounding so rich and authentic? What do you think the diversity brought to the in-game experiences?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Personally, I feel that it’s better for a fighting game to have a lot of variety in its music so that the player doesn’t end up getting sick of it. I’ve ended up creating all the music in a game pretty often, so if I made everything in the same genre there would be a lot of similarities between the tracks.
That’s why I always start out by listening to music from a variety of genres and, instead of just absorbing them and replicating them as-is, I create all kinds of fusions and keep trying new things. For example, I could mix the Japanese genres like gagaku, minyo, children’s songs, and enka with Western genres like rock and classical (this approach was used in Power Instinct and Maximum Impact in particular).
I’ve never cared for the approach that says this genre of music is usually used for this genre of game, and you should choose the type that fits the mold. On the contrary, I believe that if there’s a certain genre of music that’s normally used, you should go out of your way to try out other genres instead. Of course, I can’t just run about indulging my whims, and if the producers don’t get what I’m trying to do, it’s not gonna fly. I’d say in that regard I’ve been quite fortunate to have such great work environments during my career.
Chris: Over the years, you worked on multiple other IPs covering a range of genres. Could you share your memories on the following projects?
This was a project I worked on as an employee of Noise Factory. Lots of the tracks are inspired by Chinese music, but I remember mixing them with elements of rock and other genres rather than creating music in a pure Chinese style.
Rage of the Dragons:
Rage of the Dragons was my first fighting game in a while, so I found it very worthwhile and enjoyable to work on. I had already become accustomed to the new Neo Geo design environment from Sengoku 3, so I made use of that experience to create very high quality music.
This was my first music game. It turned out to be a great project to be involved with. I had to consider the difficulty for the player before starting to compose a track, which was quite a challenge, but I enjoyed composing for something where the music would be the primary focus.
Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming:
I was happy just to be working alongside such famous artists for this game. I remember putting a lot of effort into the music I wrote. A piece of mine ended up being used in a video released during the development, which was a true honor.
Chris: Through labels such as Noise Factory and SuperSweep, all of your major scores have now been released on CD. Is it safe to assume this important to you? How do you prepare your music for CD releases? Would you one day be interested in organising arranged albums dedicated to your works?
Toshikazu Tanaka: Yes, it’s certainly an important process to get people to listen to the music outside of the game as well and I’m very happy that they do.I’m grateful that so much has been released, and I have always cooperated as far as I am able with the labels that make it possible. I would single out the folks at Noise Factory in particular for their devotion to bringing listeners a great product in everything from the liner notes to arrangements to getting the original sound sources from before they reached the game hardware.
I personally would love to release all of the tracks I’ve written on CD, but there are a number of problems tied up in that and many things that can’t be done. In fact, I would love to create an album collecting all of the works I’ve done personally, but there are all kinds of barriers in the way and it’s more difficult to do than you’d hope. Still, I’d love to make it a reality in the future.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today. What can fans of your music look forward to in the future? Do you have any messages to readers around the world?
Toshikazu Tanaka: I’m hoping that I can get outside of games and get my music to listeners in a variety of ways, and there may be some who have already encountered my music outside of the context of a game. If you ever have the chance to hear my music, please be sure to let me know your honest opinions. I will continue to appreciate all of your support in the future, and it’s great to hear from you.
I’m working on delivering fresh, high quality sounds to my fans that I hope can brighten their day, and I am sincerely grateful for your continued support. Thank you very much.
Thanks to our supporters at Patreon for helping to make this interview happen. Those wishing to learn more about SNK’s music should also check out our interview with Yasumasa Yamada published last year.
Posted on January 12, 2016 by Chris Greening. Last modified on January 12, 2016.