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12 of the Greatest Japanese Video Game Music Composers

Picture of James Gates
Updated: 8 October 2017
With a compilation of obscure video game themes coming later this year from the influential record label Hyperdub (home to the likes of Burial and Kode9), the medium’s composers are enjoying a renaissance thanks to their hard work soundtracking so many childhoods. While you may know the music, you may not know the people who wrote it. Here are 12 of the best Japanese video game music composers, responsible for some of the most memorable gaming soundtracks ever created.

Koji Kondo

Key Titles: Super Mario series, The Legend Of Zelda series, Star Fox

When he was growing up, Koji Kondo had no intention of becoming a composer. That didn’t stop him answering an ad for a sound designer, posted by Nintendo in the early 1980s. What followed was decades worth of earworms, instantly recognisable and eternally hummable. A true maestro in every sense, he has made music that endures throughout the decades. It’s Koji’s world, we just live in it.

Yuzo Koshiro

Key Titles: The Revenge of Shinobi, Streets Of Rage, Actraiser

Better known as ‘The Genius of FM Synth’, Yuzo Koshiro revolutionised game music on two levels. Firstly, he was a genius programmer able to get the unlikeliest of sounds from rudimentary technology, conjuring up the sounds of rock guitars and drums in ways that blew the minds of listeners. Secondly, he took the music that he loved (rock, hip-hop, house music and Detroit techno) and used it to make game soundtracks unlike anything heard at the time. His influence is boundless, as is his talent.

Nobuo Uematsu

Key Titles: Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Rad Racer

Seemingly capable of mastering every style of music under the sun, Uematsu combines a love of symphonic majesty with a deep fondness for prog rock. The end result is the sort of thing that might happen if Rush ever jammed with John Williams. Final Fantasy VII was his calling card in the West, and few who played it will forget his masterpiece, the epic, baroque One Winged Angel, which memorably soundtracks the game’s climactic, universe-shattering boss fight with Sephiroth. Quick, get him before he unleashes another summons attack!

Takashi Tateishi

Key Titles: Mega Man 2, U.N. Squadron, Side Arms

Takashi Tateishi was once one of the lost prodigies of game music; hugely influential yet virtually anonymous thanks to a Japanese business culture which valued a team effort over recognition for the individual. Creadited as Ogeretsu Kun for his exquisite soundtrack to Mega Man 2, he now works as a sound designer and composer at Konami. The theme for the game’s final gauntlet still gets the blood pumping.

Akira Yamaoka

Key Titles: Silent Hill series, Contra: Hard Corps, Sparkster

The dark prince of game music, Yamaoka treats his compositions as characters in and of themselves, propelling the narrative and creating strong emotional connections with the player. He can muster disturbing, ambient soundscapes reminiscent of David Lynch one minute, and then emotive guitar ballads the next. Always finding new ways to push the medium forward and challenging his audience, he is as much a part of the Silent Hill series as demonic mist and a lack of ammunition.

Yoko Shimomura

Key Titles: Street Fighter II, Legend of Mana, Kingdom Hearts

Yoko Shimomura is one of the grand matriarchs of Japanese game music. She was the gifted soul whose work dominated arcades around the world in the early 1990s, thanks to her scores for classic games like Final Fight. Later, she would find a niche creating soundtracks for some of the best and most beloved J-RPGs ever made, from Kingdom Hearts to Final Fantasy XV. Her most celebrated work, however, was creating almost of all the music for Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, a game which changed an industry, and whose soundtrack was a vital means of embedding the seminal slugfest in the hearts and minds of players.

Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka

Key Titles: Balloon Fight, Metroid, Super Mario Land

“Hip” Tanaka’s nickname is well-deserved. He fell in love with reggae and ska at a young age and, as one of the earliest sound designers at Nintendo, wanted to make music which reflected his passion, regardless of whether there was shared enthusiasm for his tastes or not. The easy-going grooves and proto-steel drums of the theme from Balloon Fight still sound utterly charming to this day.

Junichi Masuda

Key Titles: Pokemon series, Yoshi, Mario & Wario

If you own a portable gaming device, there’s a very strong chance that Masuda’s work dominates your life. He’s the head honcho for all music for the Pokemon franchise, from the very first Game Boy game all the way up to last year’s world-eating Pokemon Go. Seemingly inexhaustible in terms of his creativity and inventiveness, his always-catchy themes are part of what has made the collect-em-up saga so immensely popular.

Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Outrun)

Key Titles: Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner

Kawaguchi’s music was what you listened to if you were feverishly pumping pennies into arcade machines back in the 1980s. He was one of the earliest members of the fabled Sega Sound Team and the go-to guy for the scores to most of Sega’s greatest hits, but more than that he had an uncanny knack for devising instantly memorable compositions that were the perfect match for luxurious arcade experiences.

Masafumi Takada

Key Titles: Killer7, No More Heroes, The Evil Within

Idiosyncratic and adept, Takada enjoyed an especially fruitful relationship with director Suda 51, providing the classic scores to Killer7 and the No More Heroes games (the latter has one of the catchiest themes ever written). He is one of video game music’s great collaborators, working with other composers on a slew of classics including the Nintendo titles including Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Masato Nakamura

Key Titles: Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic The Hedgehog 2

The unforgettable theme to the first ever level from the first ever Sonic game is the work of Masato Nakamura. Interestingly, Nakamura is one of the few musicians in game music whose best-known work took second place to his day job, as in his home country he is a widely-known musician and producer, probably-best known for his work with the J-Pop band Dreams Come True.