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Hirokazu Tanaka’s Metroid

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Currently the president of Pokémon card producing and game developing company, Creatures, Inc., Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka in the 1980s was a sound engineer for the Japanese game developer, Famicom. There he produced the soundtrack for the NES game, Metroid (1986).

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To say that Tanaka was just a sound engineer would completely understate the man’s influence on video games and geek culture — this is the hacker who designed the Game Boy camera and Game Boy printer, besides composing the music for Duck Hunt and Ballon Fight in assembly language. Here’s some more background from wikipedia:

Nintendo began development of its Famicom home video game console in 1983 (known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America and Europe), and Tanaka worked on early titles including Duck Hunt and Kid Icarus. The new system had three tone generators and one pseudorandom noise generator, with which to produce melody, harmony, percussion, and sound effects (which would usually interrupt a note). Though a vast improvement over the simplistic sound of the arcade machines, the Nintendo hardware still left Tanaka and the other composers severely limited in the complexity of the music they could write. Even though sound tools had been written for the Famicom, Tanaka continued to write his music alongside his custom playback libraries written in assembly language, a fact he credits with helping to set his work apart from that of his colleagues. By 1986, Tanaka was writing over a third of the music for the Famicom’s games.

This increase in sound technology, coupled with the composing talents of Tanaka and his coworkers such as Koji Kondo helped raise the popularity of game music in Japan. The increased attention spurred good-spirited rivalries between many game composers, a development that bothered Tanaka, since it forced composers to write in a way that he felt was contrary to the atmosphere of the games themselves.

It was this dislike that inspired him to compose the subdued themes of Metroid. In his words, he tried “to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects.” He composed the music so as to deny the player a simple melody to hum along with; only after completing the game is any “catchy” music played. [emphasis mine]

For a long while, if you wanted to hear Tanaka’s score to Metroid, you had to play the game to its completion. However, by the late 1990s an underground of video game system emulation programmers were busy copying the data off of NES and other game cartridges for their precious ROM (games stored as Read Only Memory). And in a sub-basement of this underground, a small group concerned only with the soundtracks to the games was figuring out ways of directly copying the digital scores from NES games into NSF (Nintendo Sound Format) files. Plug-ins for listening to NSF files were written for winamp and until a few years ago the most popular plug-in was called Nosefart.

Even with these plugins, listening to NSF files as easily as other audio files remained difficult. Like midi files, NSF files were small files usually less than 50kb, and relied on synth chips in sound cards to reproduce the orchestration programmed into the file. A single NSF file would contain all the tracks for a game, but each track would usually lack an end-time signature. That meant that in order to listen to the next track in an NSF file you’d have to manually advance the track, otherwise it would play indefinitely. This made sense, because the soundtrack was engineered to be played in a game for a level which a user could take an indeterminate amount of time to pass through — so the music would need to loop.

In 2004, a new plugin, NotSo Fatso, was released which offered the user the ability to set a fixed song length and set their own fade out length to the loop. This wasn’t a complete solution but finally I could realize my dream of converting the entire soundtrack of Metroid to mp3 for the rest of the world to listen to. Unfortunately, the MOG player can only accept 15mb of file per post and my join of Metroid’s constituent tracks into one mega-MOG-playable track came out at a too hefty 21mb. However, I’ve posted to the MOG player Metroid Parts I-V with the last track, Part XII (total length is about 9 min). I’m also hosting the entire album here for you to download if you like what you hear below (or would simply rather enjoy them in a ridiculously large audio format compared to the original NSF ). My favorite piece is Part V which should start around the 4:40 mark.

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Just one final point before I go. It really grieves me that there is this entire library of music which although now accessible in a sense, is still amazingly obscure despite important compositions such as Tanaka’s Metroid. Search on the web and glance at any voluminous archive of NSF (and other game system sound files) and you’ll gape at how many possibly brilliant works are almost completely unknown, often times without the composer’s names even known. (spaceling raises his chalice in a toast). Here’s to you aging monks of 8-bit, may your precious sounds sold over to corporate suits find their way to more anxious ears! (If you’re interested a nice collection of links to NSF archives can be found at the bottom of this wikipedia article on NSF files.)

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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