Many people will remember the legendary musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who has died at the age of 71, for his experimental solo albums and evocative scores for award-winning films such as The Revenant, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and The Last Emperor, not to mention his pioneering synth work in the Yellow Magic Orchestra that paved the way for modern electronic music.
His music had an immeasurable impact on a diverse range of musical styles, from house and hip-hop to techno and J-pop, but perhaps none more so than video game music. In fact, it’s impossible to talk about the evolution of video game music without referencing the work of Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra. And whether you’re familiar with Sakamoto’s name or not, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his music through video games.
The link between Yellow Magic Orchestra and the video game industry dates back to the arcade boom of the late ‘70s, when the band sampled sound effects from Space Invaders and Exidy Circus in their 1978 self-titled debut album. Six years later, the band’s drummer Haruomi Hosono released ‘Video Game Music’ in collaboration with Namco, widely regarded as the first video game soundtrack album.
The success of both Yellow Magic Orchestra’s debut album and Sakamoto’s solo albums and film scores was a massive influence on the first generation of video game composers, with music from both Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sakamoto appearing in a variety of video games throughout the ‘80s. The track ‘Rydeen’ from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s second album appears in the 1982 Sega game, Super Locomotive, while Rob Hubbard samples music from Sakamoto’s score for the 1983 film, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in his score for International Karate on the Commodore 64.
At the time of International Karate’s release in 1986, video game composer Jesper Kyd, best known for his work on Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands and Hitman, was teaching himself how to compose music using the Commodore 64. Like Hubbard, Sakamoto’s music was a major influence on his video game scores, Kyd tells NME over email:
“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is up there as one of the very best and most poignant scores ever written for film. It’s the rare score that once heard you will never forget, it becomes part of you. That can only be said of the very best of music. Sakomoto really helped cement my love of instrumental music and he will be missed.”
From Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu to Super Mario Bros’ Koji Kondo, you’ll struggle to find a Japanese video game composer that doesn’t cite Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sakamoto’s music as a major influence. Namco composers Shinji Hosoe, Nobuyoshi Sano, Takayuki Aihara and Hiroto Saski, best known for their work on the Tekken and Ridge Racer games, even formed a parody band called Oriental Magnetic Yellow that have released seven studio albums since their formation in 1994.
Takeshi Furukawa, who composed the score for The Last Guardian, tells NME that Sakamoto was regarded as a cultural icon and Japan’s leading composer. “He was a man of intellect and culture, admiringly referred to as “Kyoju” (Professor) by the Japanese public. In his later years, he was known for his tireless advocacy calling for change in things from the climate to nuclear power to constitutional principles and copyright policies among many others. Even when opinions differed, he was respected; and his music was universally loved by all.”
Sakamoto’s music didn’t just influence composers. In a 1999 interview with Edge magazine, Sonic The Hedgehog’s creator Yuji Naka was asked why he decided to pursue a career in the video game industry.
“I was interested by computers. I was also influenced by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s group YMO and its synthesizers,” Naka told Edge.
This isn’t the only link between Sakamoto and Sega. Sakamoto was also a good friend of the video game designer and musician, Kenji Eno. Eno is best known for developing the Sega Dreamcast games D2 and Enemy Zero but also performed Yellow Magic Orchestra covers in his band Norway, which sometimes featured vocal contributions from Sakamoto’s daughter, Miu.
As Eno gave Sega exclusive publishing rights to many of his games, it led to him forming a close relationship with the company. Eno’s reputation as a trusted publisher meant he was handed the responsibility of tracking down someone to compose the start-up music for Sega’s Dreamcast console, and he wanted Sakamoto to do it. Much to Eno’s surprise, Sakamoto said yes.
Whether it’s writing music for video game consoles and art installations or award-winning films, Sakamoto’s ability to nail compositional briefs within any medium or music genre meant it was only a matter of time until he ended up writing a full video game soundtrack.
The first video game that Sakamoto scored in its entirety was Tengai Makyou: Ziria on the PC Engine, one of the earliest video games to feature CD-quality audio. He also composed the main theme for Square Enix’s Dawn of Mana and Seven Samurai 20XX on the PS2, but his most impressive video game work can be heard in the score for L.O.L. (Lack of Love), an experimental simulation game released on the Dreamcast in 2000.
L.O.L. never made its way to Dreamcast consoles outside of Japan, which isn’t too surprising given it explores the symbiotic relationship of strange alien creatures through a series of confusing puzzles and gameplay mechanics, but it’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of the music in the game. By no means is it in the same league as Sakamoto’s solo albums, but Sakamoto fans will be able to hear similarities between this and the avant-garde nature of his debut album ‘Thousand Knives’.
What makes the loss of Sakamoto so tragic is that he’s been there since the very beginning of video game music and his music has always paved the way for ‘what’s next’ from video game composers. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s warm synth sounds will always be synonymous with the chip tunes that blared out of arcade halls and home computers in the ‘80s. The progressive sounds of his solo album ‘The Fantasy of Light and Life’ echo through the soundscapes of Japanese games released in the ‘90s while his film scores have informed how video game composers approach soundtracks for some of this generation’s best-selling games.
“His use of the strings especially influenced me in many ways. His unique handwriting has greatly enriched the world of music for cinema, and I will always hold him among the more influential contemporary composers I have listened to,” Inon Zur, composer of Fallout and Starfield tells NME.
Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music helped video game music break new boundaries by reinventing electronic music and showing the world how powerful it can be, not to mention the commercial appeal of video game soundtracks and how video game music and sound effects can be sampled to create new music, something the biggest pop stars and hip-hop producers are still doing today.
Video game music wouldn’t be the same without Sakamoto. Without Sakamoto, the soundtracks for Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda and countless other gaming franchises would lose their magic. Without Sakamoto, who knows how many talented composers, sound designers, musicians and even directors that were inspired to pursue a career in the video game industry would now be missing?