In 1990, Yuzo Koshiro did for Sharp X68000 computer (Sharp’s replacement for the PC-88) the soundtrack for the game Thrice (by M.N.M. Soft), which he considers one of his most difficult jobs. In it you can glimpse the style that, a year later, would make him a world celebrity:
In the same year, in his first partnership with Enix company, he released Misty Blue, an obscure RPG for the PC-88 computer, little known outside Japan. The music is totally techno-dance, reflecting the style of its time, where rhythms like freestyle dominated the music scene:
But the real gems from the Misty Blue CD soundtrack are the bonus tracks, which contained a preview of the songs from a new game he was working on, also from Enix: Actraiser. Considering that this game would be released at the end of the year 1990, together with Nintendo’s new console (The Super Famicom / SNES), it’s very likely that Yuzo did not have yet the technical specifications of what the SNES sound chip would be, and that’s why he composed the tracks in his traditional Sharp X68000 computer, using the Soundboard II sound card. So those first versions of Actraiser’s songs are pure video-game-music style with a slight classic feel, as in Ys:
And below, one of the best musics ever composed by Yuzo (in my opinion). Simply powerful:
In late November 1990, Nintendo launched, with a resounding success, the video game Super Famicom (which would be known as Super NES in the rest of the world) with only two games: Super Mario World and F-Zero. In three days, Nintendo’s stocks were sold out. F-Zero demonstrated the rotation and zoom capabilities from the SNES Mode 7 chip, while Mario World reaffirmed creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s reputation as the “God of videogame industry”. Both games had slightly better colors and sounds than Mega Drive, but not much. That changed two weeks later, when Actraiser was released, a game that mixed RPG with platform, with impressive graphics and a sound that many Magazines defined with one word: Divine.
Interesting to note how the music style changed due to the possibilities that the SNES sound chip provided. Yuzo says that the great motivation for Actraiser was to bring the sound of an orchestra to video games for the first time. Then he took sound samples from real orchestras and carefully decreased their size and quality to fit in the memory limit for each SNES song (64kb in total) without losing realism. The way Yuzo Koshiro mastered the sound hardware in such a short time is so impressive that, even after EIGHT years of SNES’s life, only TWO games reached the same level of sound quality as Actraiser: It was Castlevania IV (which I consider the game with the most beautiful Baroque music of all time) and Chrono Trigger.
Speaking of Chrono Trigger, Actraiser made a deep impression on the two composers who worked on this game: Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu. Mitsuda tells in an interview that at that time he worked at Enix as a sound programmer for Norihiko Yamanuki (composer of The 7th Saga), and that Norihiko asked if he could achieve a sound like that too, but right from the opening song they figured out it was pretty much impossible. “I think the beauty of ActRaiser’s soundtrack had an impact on every single game company at that time”, said Mitsuda. Nobuo Uematsu said something similar: “When ActRaiser was released, I was almost done with the score to Final Fantasy IV, but when I heard Yuzo Koshiro’s music, I became aware of the orchestral quality and ditched my completed work for Final Fantasy IV. I exchanged all the samples I had used at that point for fuller, more powerful samples. I didn’t, however, change the compositions themselves”.
It was the first time that classical music was reproduced almost perfectly on video games. The samples came from real orchestras, and the compositions mixed classical style with the vibrancy of traditional game music; choirs & chiptune, interleaved with moments of pure John Williams, or Baroque, or gothic music! An unforgettable experience for those who played. The music of the first stage (Fillmore) was a testament to that, with a magnificent orchestration of multiple simultaneous layers of sound, which can be enjoyed individually or as a whole.
Regarding the musical influences to make Actraiser, Yuzo says that his greatest inspirations were the anime Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers) and the film composer John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.), as we can see in the song below:
The team that made Actraiser was essentially the same that created the game Ys for Falcom. The name they adopted for the company, Quintet, is derived from the musical terminology, as well as from the five elements of Game Design: Planning, graphics, sound, programming and production. The director and president of Quintet is Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, the scenario writer for the first three entries of Nihon Falcom’s classic Ys series. Masaya Hashimoto, the main director, designer and programmer for those same Ys titles, is also a member. Thanks to the Ys connection, composer Yuzo Koshiro (also an Ys veteran) lent his talents to the score of the company’s official inaugural title. Koshiro’s sister, Ayano Koshiro, drew the character designs.
In the same year, Tomo Koshiro – the mother of the Koshiro’s siblings – created their own video game company (Ancient), where she was responsible for the promotion, Yuzo for the music and direction and Ayano for the graphics.
In 1991, Yuzo premiered the concert Actraiser Symphonic Suite, with a real orchestra playing the Actraiser score (Yuzo himself, along with Kaoru Wada, did the orchestration). All of this at 24! It’s amazing to see how the music Fillmore (Filmoa in Japanese) remained beautiful and with its own personality in three different incarnations:
Fillmore is a singular song due to its unusual combination of rhythms that blends perfectly: if you listen with attention, you’ll realize that it has an Wagnerian style orchestra, supported by a bass that plays in a funk rhythm (from the 70’s) and drums that give it a hard rock edge, all encompassed by a church organ. Perhaps because of this Fillmore has become a popular song in Youtube covers. It’s possible to find covers in piano, heavy metal, funk suingado, epic style, emulating the sound of the Mega Drive chip and even in the Castlevania IV style, which, according to Yuzo Koshiro himself, was his predecessor (Castlevania III, for NES) that inspired him composing Fillmore in the first place!
Talk about Actraiser really moves me, and for two reasons: it was the first time I played an RPG (which left me emotionally attached to the story) and it was precisely when I finished it that I considered Yuzo to be my ultimate music idol. Until then Yuzo was just a name on the screen of a game with great music (The Revenge of Shinobi, because Streets of Rage had not come out yet in Brazil). No magazine (until then) spoke of game directors, designers, there were no “stars” in the world of videogame except for Shigeru Miyamoto. I was one of the few people in Brazil to have a Super Famicom, a few months after it launched in Japan. Luckily there was a place where I could rent Super Famicom games, and Actraiser was among them. Blown away by the graphics and sounds, I was advancing in the game without knowing Japanese!
In the game you are a God, and you must take care of your people. One day I reached a part where a person was found in the middle of the desert. After that I got an item (I didn’t know what it was for) and the music changed dramatically to a beautiful transcendental lament. Even without understanding a word, I understood, just by the mood of the music, that it was a composition made in honor of the person who died in the desert, and that (the music) was offered to me as a prayer! It was the most beautiful experience I had playing video games, and it marked me today, where through the universal language of music I was able to understand feelings and emotions.
I reached half the game, where the language barrier prevented me from advancing (precisely because it was an RPG) and I promised myself that I would continue when the English version would arrive. I had no idea who created the songs, but whoever he/she was, I already considered him/her a musical genius!
In the meantime (6 months), I became a Super Famicom evangelist, and always talked about Actraiser’s music to my friends. Then someone said that he heard the most beautiful song ever in a new Mega Drive game: Streets of Rage. A few days later I went to a store to check it out, intrigued how anyone could find the music on a Mega Drive better than of a SNES. In fact, the opening of Streets of Rage is something fascinating … but it was a different style, I couldn’t compare. On the title screen there was the same name as in The Revenge of Shinobi: Yuzo Koshiro. “This guy is VERY good,” I thought. I was divided: at the time the Nintendo x Sega rivalry was at its height, and now I owned a Nintendo. How could I admit that a Mega Drive could produce fantastic music that could rival with the SNES?
Then Actraiser arrived in english, and I finally could play it through. At the end I was almost in tears with the sublime music that plays in the epilogue and thought: “My God, who’s that composer?!”. So I was watching the credits, waiting exclusively for the composer, and when the name of Yuzo Koshiro appeared on the screen I jumped of my seat with joy! What was divided in my head became one: He was definitely the complete composer! It was an incredible emotion, and from that day on he became my ultimate idol. When I got married, in 2011, I insisted on that the musicians should play “Sacrifices” and “Birth of the People” in the ceremony, in piano & flute.