The Women Who Invented Video Game Music

Noone is a big deal, video game music is a big deal now, and orchestras are frequently commonplace in big-budget games, but the path to today begins in Japan, in the 1980s, at gaming giants like Capcom, Konami, Taito, Falcom, and so on.

Turn Back Time

It’s in this time, and in these places, where groups of women composers, often some of the earliest sound team hires, laid the harmonic foundation for many of video gaming’s most enduring franchises with their infectious earworms.

Most were recruited fresh from college and set to work at breakneck paces, on hardware and software that at best could be described as crude yet byzantine by modern conventions. Women like Manami Matsumae composed the three-channel melodies and effects for dozens of games and legendary 8-bit heroes like none other than the Blue Bomber himself, Mega Man.

Their work filled living rooms, and their soundtracks collided against one another in crowded arcades, urging on the cheers of quarter-pumping gamers backgrounded by the racket of change machines. Soundtracks rapidly became as crucial as the games themselves.

One year for Halloween I dressed up as Simon Belmont and whistled “Vampire Killer” for days on end. Because as much as the aggressive, lo-fi chiptunes transmitted through brutally distortion-prone RF cables drove parents up the wall (my mother included), they enmeshed themselves with the sonic landscape of children, adolescents, and definitely some adults just as readily as David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on the radio.

But for all their labor and brilliance, the women who brought these games to life on the acoustic axis rarely receive the focus that male video game composers do.

Histories of early game development can be murky. Whether because of closely-guarded secrets at major corporations, a lack of interest in documenting and maintaining archives, and an early (and still somewhat lingering) belief that games are frivolities and their soundtracks not “real” music, rich histories are hard to curate and maintain in general. In these early days, it was also commonplace for the people working on video games in Japan to have nicknames, seemingly to stymie rival companies’ poaching attempts.

It was decades before I learned that the Castlevania score was composed not by someone named “James Banana” (a play on the British composer James Bernard, who scored many Hammer horror films, including 1958’s Dracula) but in fact two women—Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima.

It’s too easy to discount this lack of knowledge and awareness as simply the cost of poor record-keeping and ravages of time. Video games, historically and presently, still struggle with being seen as the domain of men.

An Industry Reckoning Waiting to Happen

In the 2017 GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey, women game composers and sound designers made up just 12.7 perfect of the industry (earning just 83 percent of what men in the same roles do). This is up from 7 percent just two years before. There seem to be no similar industry surveys from the ’80s and ’90s, and if they exist, they’re kept behind closed doors. For every hour of interviews with Nobuo Uematsu, the legendary composer of decades’ worth of Final Fantasy soundtracks, interviews with equally legendary Yoko Shimomura can be counted in minutes. The word counts of their Wikipedia pages are often shorter than this article, while ones for men can be Homeric. And what is known about their careers is too often relegated to video game scholars and medium devotees.

The institutional and industry knowledge that’s been lost to time, negligence, or never caring to begin with is tragic. We may never get a full accounting of what the early days of game development were like, or personal accounts of the women who created these sounds. But despite that, their work remains. Their compositions persist into the present, and the early sound teams of major Japanese game developers created insights into chiptune music that are still being explored, embraced, and expanded on today. From Harumi Fujita and Junko Tamiya’s scores for Bionic Commando to Mieko Ishikawa’s work on Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, the music of video games today is beholden to the craft of this vanguard of women composers.

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