On February 20, 2013, the video game world was stripped of one of its most important voices. Japanese video game developer and musician, Kenji Eno, was best known for developing the cult-classic survival horror games, D and D2, but he built a rockstar persona for his unconventional ideas and not being afraid to speak his mind, such as criticizing Super Mario 64 in front of the creator of Mario.
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Eno famously shunned PlayStation at a major Sony event as revenge for not manufacturing enough copies of D to meet 100,000 pre-orders. When Eno took to the stage with the expectation of him announcing that Warp’s future titles would be coming to PlayStation, he announced an exclusive deal with Sega as the PlayStation logo behind him transformed into the Saturn logo. This was after he punched a Sony employee for not being able to find D on the shelves at Bic Camera (to be fair to Eno, he did warn the employee he would punch him).
“I felt betrayed when Sony was treating me like that, so when I heard that the Sega vice president was a very interesting guy, he and I met and created this whole plot,” Eno told 1UP in a 2008 interview.
This is just one of the many wild stories surrounding the time that Eno spent developing video games, but the time he spent writing and producing music hasn’t been explored in much detail. Not only did Eno’s passion for music shape his approach to video games, but it also led to collaborations with some of the biggest names in UK electronica such as Coldcut, Andrea Parker and The Cinematic Orchestra, as well as classical composer, Michael Nyman, and American guitarist, Arto Lindsay.
Like many Japanese video game developers and composers, Eno was heavily influenced by Yellow Magic Orchestra, but also spent a lot of time listening to Elton John, Björk and electronic music, specifically techno.
Game designer and producer, James Mielke, became close friends with Eno during his years as a video game journalist and spent a lot of time clubbing and listening to music with him.
“The thing about Eno was that his love of music was comprehensive,” Mielke tells NME over email. “One time when we were at his studio – and to be clear, tripping balls – he started playing the most eclectic ‘mix’ I’d ever been exposed to. One second he was playing a concert by Herbert von Karajan, segued into some heavily percussive, tribal South African music, jumped over to ‘Rez’ by Underworld, and landed on the Chemical Brothers playing ‘Star Guitar’ at Fuji Rocks Festival. So, I’d say it’s safe to say he liked a lot of English bands, but he liked a lot of everything, and it was unpredictable what he’d put on next.”
It’s fitting that Eno’s video game development journey spun off through his love of music. Eno bought an NEC computer to compose music and ended up teaching himself how to program. He submitted a video game he developed to a programming competition, ended up winning ‘a few thousand bucks’ and got his first job in the video game industry working for Interlink, before eventually leaving to found his own company, Warped.
Kengo Watanabe, journalist, DJ and founder of Frogman Records, tells NME:
“He used to compare running his own company to organising a band. Going through the punk, new wave, disco, hip-hop, house and techno days as young kids, we were all influenced by the music and how the scenes were built and expanded. Maybe influenced too much!”
“He also said the games industry was still quite young compared to the music one,
and he could not do everything he wanted to with his games, because the industry
was still immature and not ready to embrace all of his wild ideas.”
One of Eno’s wildest ideas was Real Sound: Kaze No Regret, an interactive audio game for blind and visually impaired players. Its development started after Eno spoke to a group of blind students and was inspired to create a video game they could enjoy. The 1997 release of Real Sound: Kaze No Regret on the Saturn features no visuals as a result [the 1999 Dreamcast version features photographs], as players navigate the game’s plot using audio cues.
“The idea was to create a game that didn’t rely on visuals,” Eno said in a 1998 interview with Official Sega Saturn Magazine. “Once you give a game imagery, everyone has the same image. However, if you just convey the game details with sound alone, players use their imagination and conjure up their own idea of what’s happening.”
While Eno composed the music for D, it was Mother and Earthbound’s composer, Keiichi Suzuki, who wrote the music for Real Sound: Kaze No Regret. Eno brokered an exclusive publishing deal for the game with Sega on the promise that it would donate 1000 Sega Saturns to blind people, which Eno would accompany with 1000 copies of the game.
Eno’s idea of audio playing an integral role within game mechanics was also explored a year earlier with Enemy Zero, a survival horror game released on the Saturn. Set on a stranded spaceship, players are hunted down by visible enemies, the locations of which are only given away by high-pitched sounds, with the pitch of notes corresponding to the distance of enemies.
Again, Eno chose to produce the soundtrack rather than compose it. That responsibility would fall to Michael Nyman CBE, one of the UK’s most celebrated composers, best known for his score to the award-winning film, The Piano. In 1995, Nyman was in Kobe after a big earthquake to donate pianos to schools in the city. Eno tracked him down, invited him to his hotel room, and spent six hours trying to convince him to write music for Enemy Zero. Nyman eventually gave up saying ‘no’.
“Eno loved music as much as anyone I know, but because of this he knew when he needed someone whose talents surpassed his own, and in this case it was Michael Nyman,”
“[Eno] basically pestered Nyman until he agreed to compose the Enemy Zero soundtrack. That sounds completely like something Eno would do, which I find both admirable and hilarious.”
Considering Eno was a naturally gifted musician, it’s humbling that he always recognised where he was best placed to piece together the musical jigsaws encompassing his games. Despite contributing to numerous remixes and arrangements of video game soundtracks, notably Tekken 2 and Space Channel 5, it was Kenji Eno’s original compositions for D2 and the remix albums that followed that showcased his immense love for electronic music.
Eno’s music for D2 is as eccentric as his personality, an avant-garde mix of electronica and classical strings that’s even more bizarre when you consider it’s been written for a survival horror game.
So proud was Eno of the music in D2 that he treated it as its own separate piece of work. D2 wasn’t released in Japan until December 23, 1999, but its official soundtrack release came a week earlier. Eno had spent the year working on an arrangement album, ‘D2 Sketches’, as well as another album, ‘D2 Remixes‘, featuring a selection of techno, trip-hop and downtempo mixes of D2 music from some of the biggest names in electronica music, curated by Eno and the director of album publisher, Toy’s Factory.
To celebrate the release of D2, Eno gathered his favourite musicians for a launch party that took place at the Tokyo Bay NK Hall on December 25, 1999. Hardfloor, Andrea Parker, Mijk Van Dijk, DJ Spooky, Ebizoo, Toby Izui, Arto Lindsay and Eno himself played DJ sets to thousands of punters and partied until the early hours of boxing day. It was a huge party, and Eno spent a lot of time, money and resources into making it happen.
Kengo Watanabe wrote the inlay notes for the ‘D2 Remixes’ album and says this launch party was Eno wanting to share the same experience he’d had clubbing with fans of his games.
“[The notes say] Eno was quite shocked and inspired by the big indoor techno rave, WIRE,
that used to be organised by Takkyu Ishino of Denki Groove. He explained the experience at WIRE was equivalent to something he could get from intense and consecutive gaming and he wanted to share it with his game fans,” Watanabe explains.
Techno DJ, Mijk Van Dijk, shares his fond memories of the party and the time spent with Kenji Eno.
“I was playing pretty later from 7:30 to 9:00pm, starting with my remix of his beautiful ‘Sketch #3 Morning Theme’, that I had already designed as a DJ set intro track, starting with the original Emanuel Satie-esque piano until I would throw my beat in,” he tells NME.
“Eno-san was a shy and humble man, so it seemed not unusual that he would give his invited guest artists the limelight and place his own DJ set at the end of the timetable, playing mainly drum ‘n’ bass, but also mixing in his own productions. He was very fond of the party and told me afterward that he would love to create and release even more of his own club music. His far too early tragic death prevented this. RIP, Eno-san!”
If you’re wondering how major names in UK music such as Coldcut and DJ Food ended up remixing Eno’s music, Toy’s Factory had a licensing deal with Ninja Tune Records.
“We were signed both as artists and as Ninja Tune, the label, in the mid 1990’s,” Jonathan More of Coldcut and co-founder of Ninja Tune tells NME over email. “These times were always a whirlwind and we were introduced to many Japanese artists and creators from touring Japan at the time.”
“I think we must have been asked to do the remix and given some material from Kenji, which we then fed into DJamm and used with some synth drum noises from our favourite Japanese sound toys along with Spoken Word,” says label co-founder and other part of Coldcut, Matt Black. “It’s nice to have been reminded of this because we have very little recorded using DJamm.”
Kevin Foakes AKA DJ Food tells NME over email that it was an open brief when it came to remixing the track he worked on.
“I remember using a lot of extra jazz samples and some little squiggles of ‘Morton Subotnick’ in the breakdown. It would have been made in Cubase back then, and it felt good to have something fresh to work on after the album [Kaleidoscope].”
One of the biggest oddities surrounding the music in D2 is a track from Arto Lindsay called ‘Counting the Roses’. It wasn’t commercially released until 2000, and even then only as a self-remixed track which suggests the track was originally written for D2. We reached out to Lindsay to confirm this but he didn’t respond.
Eno left the video game industry on a brief hiatus and disbanded Warp in 2000, but went on to form a new company, From Yellow to Orange, that released its first video game on the Wii in 2009. During the 00s, Eno also worked as a composer on the Newtonica games for iPhone, the electronica soundtrack for which he’d DJ at club nights.
While Eno’s passion for developing video games wavered in the years until his death, he continued to immerse himself in music through his rock band, Norway. He played keyboard in the band and regularly collaborated with Japanese pop singer, Miu Sakamoto, daughter of Ryuichi Sakamoto from Yellow Magic Orchestra. These experiences would have meant a great deal to him given his love of the band, says Miekle.
“He played YMO all the time, told me personal stories of his memories of (and possibly with) Ryuichi Sakamoto, introduced me to all of their side projects typically involving different configurations of YMO, and often gave me a pile of their DVDs, CDs and albums. He was really generous and kind with his love of music,” he says.
While many will remember Eno for his video games, wild ideas and eccentric personality, it’s worth remembering how Eno’s love for music helped make his video games all the more special. Many of Miekle’s memories with his best friend are directly linked to the times they spent listening to and sharing music with each other.
“When we’d go to clubs, we’d go to a bunch whose names I can’t recall, but the ones that made the biggest impression were Ageha and WOMB. Ageha is the first place I ever saw techno DJ Ken Ishii play –and he is still the best DJ I’ve ever seen perform– and WOMB is just a super-club the likes of which I last saw in New York City in the 90s when Peter Gatien still ran clubs like The Limelight, The Tunnel, and USA.
“When we’d go to WOMB, Eno would re-introduce me to superstars like Shinichi Osawa, AKA Mondo Grosso, who I’d interviewed in the past and who remembered me. Those were really great times, and we were truly like brothers, born only months apart, only children raised on opposite sides of the globe, but truly united by our love for music.”
Mat Ombler is a freelance journalist and regular columnist at NME