Manabu Namiki

Please share your feelings about Cave as they welcome their 16th anniversary.

Namiki: Shooting games have been around since the dawning of the game centers. I think its amazing the way Cave has shaped and pursued the evolution of the gameplay of "dodging and firing bullets." I also love these kinds of games, so I'm very happy that I've been able to support Cave through my music. I was employed by Cave before working with Basiscape, so our relationship goes back a long way.

Starting with your older titles, please tell us how you got involved with game production and writing music.

Namiki: My first plunge into the game industry was a part-time job designing pixel art graphics. But I didn't have any artistic talent and never studied art. I just knew how to get the computer to display certain images and worked like that. It was the first time I learned color theory and such, from an art school professional who taught me while I worked. I was 19 then, and it was 1990.

Listening to music had always been a hobby for me. When it comes making music, I had never studied, I didn't know piano, and I never went to music school. About all I had done was help a friend out a bit who had a band when I was a student. But I was a young kid who earnestly loved games, so I had all these personal ideas about how game music should be, or how the music should match the graphics of a game. I wrote music just with my imagination. Through my part time job, I painfully realized that I had no talent with drawing. (laughs) So I thought, if I'm no good at drawing, how about music? So with a synthesizer that I had at hand I started making chiptune style game music, and I'd keep diligently working at it until I'd finally have something worth hearing, and then I'd show it to a friend. While I was doing all that, I sent a demo tape to a company, and they hired me. That was my professional start, in April of 1992. After I joined the company as a "pro," while I made music there I also studied music, so that order was all wrong. (laughs) So, if anyone reading this has something love to do, I want them to challenge themselves and remember that you can pick up the technical stuff later. I think if you really love something, even the difficult parts won't seem painful.

Having worked on so many games, there must be some where the setting and world were very difficult for you to write music to.

Namiki: When it comes to writing music that fits a shooting game, its different from normal music. I have to always keep in mind that it has to be a certain kind of music to work for a shooting game. I think this is a fundamental thing to remember, in a sense even coming ahead of the graphics and the setting.

For example, to compare it with cooking, in cooking the ingredients are already decided, and the setting of the game is like the spice or flavor. In Dodonpachi Daioujou, when I heard the world was a retro-future sci-fi setting, I thought I'd give the music the same color and style, but a fundamental premise that I have to remember is that this is music for a shooting game. Another example, Mushihimesama, takes place in a fantasy world, and the feeling of nature flows through it, so musically I wanted to include folk music rhythms, and use flutes and drums as instruments. For each game I add all sorts of things to diversify the game world. All these different "spices" have to be added while I hold fast to the premise of it as a shooting game... to say it another way, how do I work it out with such limitations. In that sense, its a difficulty I have to face for every game I work on.

When you're creating the music for a game, what kind of things do you pay special attention to?

Namiki: I've always really loved games. I've been playing what we would now call "retro" games since I was in elementary school. When I'd listen to the sound effects and music of those games, I'd think about how it could be made more enjoyable, or how it could better excite the listener as he played. I continue to research those things now, with my work, and its something I keep close to me everytime I'm writing. I'm making "music for video games" so I really focus on how to make the music synergize with the game and make it more exciting.

It must be difficult to achieve that effect in the noisy environment of a game center!

Namiki: Like many kids, when I was young, I'd often ride my bike to the game center, and when I stopped my bike in front, and the automatic doors opened, and I heard all the music flow out... I was like, "Alright, let's play!" and it would really get me excited. I'd like it if I could recreate that excitement in my music. In game centers, there aren't only video games... there's also medal games, crane games, photo sticker booths, tv displays... its a place where all these sounds and more are jumbled together. I've been involved in making music for games in game centers for almost 18 years now, and I still find it hard to hear a game's music in the flood of all that sound. Its something you just can't get away from.

But when I write music, I think if I can at least match the mood of the music to the game's progression, even if you can't hear it properly with headphones, the basic parts of the rhythm and melody won't get lost as you play, even in that noise-saturated environment. When I play my favorite games, too, if I get overwhelmed by the other sounds in the game I get disinterested and will soon end up dying. (laughs) And its further disappointing then, not even being able to hear my own explosion! So that sense of excitement and tension from the music is important. When you've cleared a stage and hear music that feels good, you get pumped up and think, "Alright, what's next!" When you can't hear it, though, its like there's no response from the game and its lonely. I feel like even now I'm still fighting against the flood of sound in the game center to avoid that. (laughs)

Its true that your music really gets people excited to play, starting with the character select screens.

Namiki: Players who aren't very good at shooting games will still always hear certain music: the stage/ship/character select screen, and the music you hear before you start playing and take-off. Before I start composing I always get some hints from the graphics and rules of the game, in order to understand what I should be emphasizing. Each time I work hard at this aspect of the composition. I consciously try to write the stage select screen so that it gets players excited, and to make it feel like an inviting door into the world of the game. Of course the more stage select screens I make, the more I exhaust my tricks. (laughs) I haven't counted exactly yet, but I think its been... 9 games? If you add in arrange versions and console ports its probably well over 10. For Daioujou, Ketsui, and Deathsmiles I did all the music myself, but for the other games, in order to keep on schedule, I've asked for help from other Basiscape staff for several songs. Of course I'd like to do everything myself, but its just too difficult.

The CD soundtracks for those titles were also very popular.

Namiki: Before I started working at Cave I worked for another company making shooting game music, but almost all that music has never been put out on cd. When the soundtracks for the Cave games came out on CD, I got inquiries about putting out my older work on CD, too. My response was, please ask Cave about that. (laughs) But after that things became more open, and I participated in the Cave Matsuri events, too. The truth is, people then were saying the outlook for shooting games doesn't look good, and that fewer and fewer game centers are carrying shooting games. There was a feeling of danger that, at this rate, shooting games would disappear. I made my music then with the feeling that, if I write good music, the people who love it will carry the torch forward. That was all around the time of Daioujou and Ketsui.

You must have a lot of attachment to the music from those games, then?

Namiki: I feel that way for all the music I've written, but those early days were particularly memorable because they were full of trial and error. Back then the music couldn't be realized with the same level of quality as a CD, and the waveforms for the different instruments all had to fit on the space of a floppy disk. Now that I think of it, I remember that the music score had to all fit on the same floppy, too.

Its not exact, but I believe we had about 1.2MB of space. When the music got recorded for the CD soundtrack, that was the first time we even heard them in stereo. Even now, pcbs with stereo capability aren't common. That's another difference between normal music and music you hear in a game center, you know. Lately there's been an increase in stereo capable arcade games, but the influence of that older time is still strong. After all, its already been 8 or 9 years since Ketsui and Daioujou were released. I believe it was December of 2001 at my first meeting with Cave that I was told about the space and sound limitations, and I was shocked. It was a real struggle but somehow we managed to release Daioujou in April. I remember staying up late all night sometime in February and delivering the finished product to the office.

Daioujou also has a lot of tracks, and you were on such a tight schedule!

Namiki: More than the number of tracks, the development environment and the technical specs were special and difficult to deal with, and it was really frantic. But for Ketsui and Daioujou, I felt I had really grasped the essence and feel of "Cave shooting," and that it was very clear to me how a shooting game should be, so my vigor came back. Since then, the hardware has been improved for games like Mushihimesama, Espgaluda II, Mushihimesama Futari, Daifukkatsu, and Deathsmiles...and each game has brought its own new challenges, but it was my experience with Daioujou that formed the firm base for me. Everything since then has been about how can I build off that base, and it has never once failed me, except once. That was for Daifukkatsu Black Label. Well, I shouldn't say it failed, but rather that I wanted a different taste there. Everyone who plays shooters seems to have really good ears, so its very difficult meeting their expectations each time. (laughs) I think the graphics and design teams, and everyone involved in our games, has to face that same dilemma anew with each game.

In particular, I have a strong impression from Junya Inoue saying during Deathsmiles, "I want to make something that isn't 'Cave style'." The way the difficulty and stages can be selected, and how players can choose their favorite stages, the way it scrolls horizontally and you don't die when you run into something... Deathsmiles, looked at objectively, really is different from Cave's normal style. At the first meeting for it, I heard from Inoue himself that the world was a "gothic horror, gothic lolita." That news came at just the right time because I too had been wanting to change the style I'd become set in. Inoue and I were kindred spirits in the sense that we both saw a lot of new ideas in that setting. So Ketsui, Daioujou, and Deathsmiles were all turning points to me, and I have a very special attachment to them.

In Deathsmiles, the "Halloweentown" song is very impressive.

Namiki: That song came out very easily. It was very different from the music I'd written up till then, a sort of gothic style with classical airs, so of course I studied up on those things in order to incorporate them. I'd never written for that kind of a world, and to be honest, I felt I wasn't very good at it. The music of old Europe like Bach, pipe organ music and such... its famous, but I feel like the respect people pay it is sometimes not entirely genuine. I get the sense people are forced to listen to it for their musical training, and it often gets used in a hackneyed, cliche way whenever anyone wants to evoke churches or old Europe. But if I wanted to give players an image of a horror game, that was the way to go, and even if I didn't reference Bach, if I wanted something with that kind of feeling I was going to have to make my own "gothic horror shooting" style music in this way. It became easier when I realized I could put my own twist on it. After I wrote the Halloweentown song, like a picture scroll, the music for the other stages came out smoothly and easily.

From the experience I felt how important a game's world was. For a SF, mecha shooting like Dodonpachi, where the world is already firmly set in stone, its become very difficult to add variety through the music. Using just a synthesizer and figuring out how to keep things interesting for each new game... I've finally hit a stalemate. When I hear other mecha style shooting games, it always cliched rock and techno, and it doesn't enhance or enlarge the world of the game. Since I've been given the distinction of writing music for Cave, after all, I've never wanted to cop out with some generic rock and techno cliche. I've always wanted to write music that really reflects the true core of the game's world, filtered through my own sensibilities. And I here I am today. (laughs)

Is there anything you've been wanting to do in the future?

Namiki: By now I've made so many songs for boss fights that I'm really worried how I will make future ones interesting. Such worries are the fate of the creator, but I want new challenges without narrowing my ambitions and releasing something mediocre. I want Cave to make a shooting games with no boss music. (laughs) A boss-less shooting game... could it be the next big thing!? (laughs)

Are you saying a shooting game without stages?!

Namiki: Yeah, the accomplishment from clearing stages would be lost... (laughs) Well, in place of bosses, just put some kind of boss-like obstruction in the way!

That's what a "boss" is. (laughs)

Namiki: Ok then, let's have Ikeda make a new shooting game with no bosses at all. I only ask the world that they please stop making boss rush games. These games where its just one boss fight after the other from the get-go just end up giving you ulcers, anyway. So instead, please make a "journey shooting" game with no bosses. (laughs) Because that's what I've been saying about not getting trapped by mediocrity. I want Cave, and myself, to challenge ourselves by making games that aren't just rehashes of preexisting ideas. In shooting games there's a certain basic set of promises that games fulfill: zako come out, then a midboss appears, then you defeat the boss and clear the stage. I want to overturn such "common sense"... with a no-boss shooting game! (laughs) Or maybe we could do a single, really well-hidden boss.

If you do that, then the boss will have to have 5 phases or so, and with each phase the music will also have to change...

Namiki: Why are you torturing me!! (laughs) Well, I know that's a joke, but it would be a new challenge, something different from everything we'd done so far, like Deathsmiles was. Shooting has this reputation as a hardcore genre, and I know Ikeda too has wanted to sweep that image away. Its difficult, you know, to make something that different people can all enjoy. That challenge will be an eternal theme for shooting developers.

Do you still go to game centers to relax or get ideas?

Namiki: I go a lot. But I like older games, when there were more diverse genres. The number of new arcade games has really decreased, and there's almost no new large arcade machines at all. So if I want to play something like that it always ends up being something older.

[[tr note: the terms Namiki uses are kogata games and taikan games. A kogata game just refers to a normal sized arcade game, like a standard candy cab size. Taikan games are large arcade machines with enclosures designed to give greater sensory immersion, things like F-ZERO AX, Darius Burst, many racing games, etc]]

By the way, I have two children, and my son is a big fan of Cave's shooting games. He's in his third year of elementary school now, but he can clear their games. He 1cc'd Deathsmiles Mega Black Label at the game center. (laughs) It began with him listening to the roms I'd bring home from work, and him asking "Can I hear Dad's music on this?" but lately, rather than hear Dad's music, he's awoken to the intrigue of Cave's games. I thought there's no way he'll spend enough time to clear these, and that he'd just give up after awhile, but I was shocked when I saw him weaving through these danmaku patterns! He cleared Deathsmiles II with about 60 million points! Someone saw his score ranked on the Xbox Live leaderboards around 100th place and said to me, "Maniki, your score is amazing!" and I replied, "That's not me, that's my son!" (laughs)

Your son shows great promise as a future shooter. (laughs)

Namiki: If there are more kids like him, then I think a way will open up for the next generation of shooting. I also want to hear what shooting music sounds like in 10 years. I wonder if I'll still be writing shooting game music then? I'd like to still be writing and be included in the 25th Anniversary Cave shooting book. (laughs) I'm excited for however it will turn out, but please let everything be in stereo by then. Maybe we'll even have "live orchestra" shooting music. I know it would be exciting to have a live orchestra playing shooting music at some future event! I hope there are more events and such in the future. I'd like to involve kids more, like with a caravan shooting competition. If you do that you'll get kids named "Naniwa Casper" gathering in Shinjuku Gyoen. [[tr note: where Cave's offices are located]]

You know, the original shooting game generation is now in their 30s and 40s. Soon we'll be Grandfathers! When our eyesight starts to go bad, there's no way we're going to see these danmaku patterns... it'll be "Oohh, where's my ship?!" and the arcade cabs may start needing reading glasses or handrails attached to them. (laughs) "Barrier Free Shooting" won't be referring to a shooting game with no barrier! And since our hands will be shaking all the time, they'll have to add "shake correction" to the games to keep the ships from moving about... ok, I'll stop thinking of all these ways our bodies will degenerate. (laughs) So please, show your children ages 10 and below the wonder of shooting games.

[[tr note: I cracked up at this. "Barrier Free" in Japan is a term that means handicap accessible. Otherwise, in Japanese shooting games, the term barrier means the same thing as in English, a shield/barrier. Nice one, Namiki.]]

And the music too should appeal to the younger generation as well.

Namiki: Maybe we'll start seeing bouncy punk music by 10 year old girls be added to shooting games. (laughs) Let's sign some of these girl bands for production! You'll hear them screaming out while you struggle with the boss! I was saying I wanted boss music to have an impact, so I've got to try some strange things, you know. (laughs)

Looks like we've finally come back to the subject of bosses... you really do hate them. (laughs)

Namiki: When I first started writing boss music it was fun. But gradually I started running out of new things to do. (laughs) Now that its come to this I just have to keep trying new things. But when the tempo gets over 200 BPM, it becomes difficult to construct music that way. And at 300 or 400 things everything juts sounds like a drill. I'm really at an impasse here. When I'm trying to write boss music at my PC I'm just grinding my teeth with frustration, and its raising my blood pressure! If you don't get the right tension to make it feel imposing like "I'm the BOSS!" , then the song ends up being more appropriate for a mid-boss or something. If I can just convey to the readers of this book the terribleness of bosses, I will be saved. (laughs) Its terrible making their music, its terrible for players struggling to defeat them, its terrible for Cave from start to finish creating them... everything about bosses is terrible. Who benefits from this madness?! (laughs) So please, think about a shooting game without bosses!

Please give all your fans a final message.

Namiki: As everyone knows, shooting is a very interesting genre. While you can naturally enjoy it on your own, please also share it with your friends. Or if you have children, please don't think it will be bad influence on them, add playing together as one of his/her activities. And as a composer it would make me happy to see parents and children playing together and getting excited. Also, if you've understood how terrible the work involving bosses is, despite all this, please crush them. (laughs) Shooting games will surely be decreasing, and there will be less chances to play them, but I think Cave will continue to put out high quality shooting games, so please keep watching us.