The Music of Mr. Gimmick

Posted By at 9:25 AM on Tuesday August 14, 2012

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This June 29th, 2011 interview with Sunsoft composer Masashi Kageyama was conducted by Shun Arita of Cyzo. Kageyama composed the music for the little-known masterpiece Mr. Gimmick (also known as Gimmick!), a Famicom game that only saw release in Japan and Scandinavia. It was commissioned by sharc.

You can listen to the Mr. Gimmick soundtrack here.

A Forward

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Retro games: Simple, but full of limitless potential.

Young gamers used to slip under the watchful gaze of the mothers who restricted their playtime to 1 hour a day in order to further unfold grand adventures, the music in the game their constant companion.

This year marks the launch of a record label called Clarice Disc that aims to revive retro game music in the 21st century.

Rom Cassette In SUNSOFT, released by the label on June 29th, is a game music CD featuring a compilation of over 200 songs from unforgettable Sunsoft Famicom titles such as The Mystery of Atlantis, 53 Stations of the Tokaido, and Ripple Island.

To mark this event, I’d like to take a look back at the days when video games reigned supreme, interviewing people closely associated with Sunsoft.

“Thanks to game music, I now understand what sounds are truly necessary.”

Gimmick

Sunsoft put a lot of effort into the music of their games, enough that retro game fans now describe them as “Musical Sunsoft”. Out of all their titles, Sunsoft’s final Famicom game, Mr. Gimmick, receives the most praise.

It was the year 1992. The Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis had already been released, and the game industry was moving towards the 16-bit era. It was against this background that Mr. Gimmick debuted on the market as an 8-bit Famicom title. Although its pop art graphics and challenging level of difficulty made it a hot topic amongst game fans, the obscure action-based masterpiece didn’t attain stardom.

The Mr. Gimmick Famicom cartridge came equipped with a proprietary sound chip developed by Sunsoft, a company that showed extraordinary dedication to sound quality. The ambitious release overcame hardware limitations to realize its musical potential.

Masashi Kageyama

The man behind the game’s music was Masashi Kageyama. Mixing jazz with a taste of fusion and other styles not often heard in Famicom titles, his work continues to receive the support of game music fans over 20 years later. This well-known composer, who worked on a considerable amount of game music spanning from the late 80s to the mid-90s, has released over 1000 songs.

“It just so happened that there was a programmer working at Sunsoft who was good with Macs. He taught me little by little as I started composing.”

An example of arpeggiated music.

Kageyama speaks nostalgically of the frequent visits he once made to the Naru Jazz House in Ochanomizu, Tokyo, where he went to see live shows. Originally playing the saxophone and performing with jazz bands, the composer entered the world of game music without being very familiar with gaming culture.

“Back then, game music was mostly done with arpeggios. I felt that the simplicity made it boring.”

Such were his feelings upon setting foot into the realm of video game music. As such, his first challenge, to put it simply, was figuring out how to make music that sounded as normal as possible using only a small number of audio channels. Not an easy task.

“In those days, you could only use 4 channels at a time, so it was a constant struggle. I couldn’t use a lot of different timbres, either, due to the limited memory capacity of the ROM. I was forced to think about music as though it were a puzzle. You can’t create an awesome-sounding chord without using all 4 channels. But, if you do, you won’t be able to have any other sounds playing at the same time. So, I tried creating chords using only 2 channels… In any case, I ended up learning a lot. Thanks to my experience doing game music, I now have a good sense of what sounds are truly neccessary.”

An unused track from Mr. Gimmick.

Composing in a restricted environment is definitely not a privilege. A regular person might complain, but Kageyama turned his situation around, creating a series of impressive melodies and songs of a complexity that wasn’t often heard in games at the time.

“I wanted to break the existing Famicom channels. My goal was to take what people generally considered to be the sound of the Famicom, and kick it up a notch. The game served as a testing ground, an environment in which I was able to pursue the question of whether or not I would be able to create awesome music using only a small number of channels. The biggest factor was that every person on the development staff loved music. We had some really interesting people, from a designer who was an expert on techno and minimalist music to a programmer who was well-versed in classical. They motivated and influenced me in other areas as well. If I hadn’t met them, I don’t think it would have been possible for me to pursue game music. Should the opportunity arise, I’d love to work with them again.”

It seems that, for musician Masashi Kageyama, nothing can replace his time immersed in music composition at Sunsoft in the 80s and 90s.

“To me, Mr. Gimmick is a compilation of game music.”

Benkei Gaiden, another game Kageyama composed for.

Even today, the quality of Mr. Gimmick’s soundtrack has yet to fade, despite the 20 years since the game’s release. When asked the reason, Kageyama relates an episode concerning a particular fan.

“I once received a letter from a schoolteacher requesting sheet music for the theme song from Benkei Gaiden (an RPG released for the TurboGrafx-16 in 1989) because he wanted to perform it with his school’s wind ensemble. That definitely caused me to rethink things. ‘Yikes, now I really have to work hard,’ I said to myself. ‘I want to give the next generation of children good music to listen to.’ For kids playing the Famicom, game tunes might end up being their first brush with music, you see. What I wanted them to take away from my games was an interest in music itself. With Mr. Gimmick, I had that in mind from the start. That’s why I think of it as a compilation of game music.”

As though substantiating his words, the tracks featured in Mr. Gimmick range across several styles. Fashionable fusion, peppy pop, acid songs featuring heavy bass, fantasia pieces that make you feel like you’re floating, dramatic hard rock music… Not to mention the ending music, whose bright, beautiful melody resembles something you’d expect to hear in a movie. Out of the variety of songs collected for the soundtrack, all are high quality, including tunes featuring ad-libbed sections that bring to mind an image of Kageyama having fun while playing his sax.

“The music of Mr. Gimmick features ad-libbed portions, a product of jazz and fusion. Those aren’t styles people normally hear. They don’t really have an opportunity to listen to them. That’s why I took it upon myself to incorporate them into the soundtrack. I can listen to hit music and songs that have sold well wherever I go, but I don’t often get the chance to hear jazz and fusion. I think that’s the reason I opted to put their essence into my own songs.”

Kageyama's Photography

These days, Kageyama works as a photographer. From April to October of 2011, the top image was used on a sideboard at the Ring Cube photo gallery located in the Ricoh San-Ai building that stands at the 4-chome intersection in Ginza, Tokyo. Below, jazz pianist Don Friedman. For several years, Kageyama’s photography has been focused on jazz musicians both inside and outside Japan.

Several of Kageyama’s songs, derived from his pride and sense of purpose as a musician, found a place in the hearts of young game fans of the time. They continue to be held in high esteem by game music fans even today.

Kageyama retired from the music composition scene in the latter half of the 90s and has turned over a new leaf, working as a photographer. This spirited purveyor of pictures has been involved with a large collection of live photography featuring jazz musicians from all over the world. His work was exhibited at the Ring Cube photo gallery located in the Ricoh San-Ai building that stands at the 4-chome intersection in Ginza, Tokyo, in 2010.

Another example of Mr. Gimmick’s music.

So, why did he put down his saxophone and pick up a camera? In answer to this question, Kageyama mentions a certain name:

Tomomi Sakai, the person behind Mr. Gimmick’s graphics and programming, is a man who is capable of anything. I saw him winning prizes shortly after he picked up photography, and I figured that if he could do it, well… That was when I began to see him as a rival. [Laughs bitterly] I might never have thought about taking it up if I hadn’t seen his monochrome photography. I didn’t have any interest in it before then. [Laughs]“

Sakai, the close friend and rival that Kageyama holds in such high esteem, is a programmer whose repute stems from his time working at Sunsoft during the golden age of 8-bit consoles.

“Sakai was a huge influence for me.”

So, what’s the scoop on Tomomi Sakai, so highly praised by Kageyama? And what was life like for a game developer working at Sunsoft in the 80s and 90s? Tune in next time when we put these questions to Sakai, one of the people behind the creation of Mr. Gimmick.

Read the interview with Tomomi Sakai here!

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  1. Winged Cat says:

    Thanks a lot! It was very interesting to read =)

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