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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Women Who Invented Video Game Music

On February 9, 2020, for the first time in the Academy Awards’ 92-year history, a woman conducted the orchestra. A noteworthy moment for women in music, to be sure. But it was also a big moment for video games. Eímear Noone, among her many accolades, is a celebrated, award-winning conductor and composer for video games and film. Here she was taking up the baton and standing at a podium previously granted only to men like Ennio Morricone, André Previn, and John Barry. The first woman, who was originally told that being a woman would hold her back from being a conductor.

Well, she sure showed that guy.

In an era where video game music is a fantastically complex production, often with live musicians and even full orchestral compositions, it's easy to forget that between the first notes on the page to the grand sound coming out of your PlayStation there is a wide intermediate stage. You need musicians, and a conductor to guide them. You need someone to interpret and channel the spirit of the music. You need an Eímear Noone.

The music of video games has come a long way. From the rudimentary rocket woosh of Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space through successive generations of consoles, not only have these soundtracks become multichannel high-fidelity colossi, their consumption and critical discourse have grown to astonishing proportions. Albums on compact disc, digital storefronts, and even special edition vinyl are commonplace. Orchestral performances of symphonic arrangements of Legend of Zelda soundtracks, the many Final Fantasy concerts, and Atlus’ Persona series are massive global events. And yet it’s only when a soundtrack truly stands out to game critics or players that it becomes something noteworthy to discuss, and it’s even less often that the people who compose, orchestrate, and perform these often complex soundtracks are given much thought or made the focus of critical inquiry—unless they achieve some kind of hero status, like decades-long Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.

But long before Noone acted as sonic psychopomp for games like Diablo 3 and Starcraft II, or crafted and conducted the aural accompaniment for World of Warcraft's players going back through the Dark Portal to confront the Warlords of Draenor, there were other women working with the now primitive seeming hardware constraints of consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, building the foundation of video game music.

Noone is a big deal, video game music is a big deal now, and orchestras are frequently commonplace in big-budget games, but the path to today begins in Japan, in the 1980s, at gaming giants like Capcom, Konami, Taito, Falcom, and so on.

Turn Back Time

It's in this time, and in these places, where groups of women composers, often some of the earliest sound team hires, laid the harmonic foundation for many of video gaming's most enduring franchises with their infectious earworms.

Most were recruited fresh from college and set to work at breakneck paces, on hardware and software that at best could be described as crude yet byzantine by modern conventions. Women like Manami Matsumae composed the three-channel melodies and effects for dozens of games and legendary 8-bit heroes like none other than the Blue Bomber himself, Mega Man.

Their work filled living rooms, and their soundtracks collided against one another in crowded arcades, urging on the cheers of quarter-pumping gamers backgrounded by the racket of change machines. Soundtracks rapidly became as crucial as the games themselves.

One year for Halloween I dressed up as Simon Belmont and whistled "Vampire Killer" for days on end. Because as much as the aggressive, lo-fi chiptunes transmitted through brutally distortion-prone RF cables drove parents up the wall (my mother included), they enmeshed themselves with the sonic landscape of children, adolescents, and definitely some adults just as readily as David Bowie's "Let's Dance" on the radio.

But for all their labor and brilliance, the women who brought these games to life on the acoustic axis rarely receive the focus that male video game composers do.

Histories of early game development can be murky. Whether because of closely-guarded secrets at major corporations, a lack of interest in documenting and maintaining archives, and an early (and still somewhat lingering) belief that games are frivolities and their soundtracks not "real" music, rich histories are hard to curate and maintain in general. In these early days, it was also commonplace for the people working on video games in Japan to have nicknames, seemingly to stymie rival companies' poaching attempts.

It was decades before I learned that the Castlevania score was composed not by someone named "James Banana" (a play on the British composer James Bernard, who scored many Hammer horror films, including 1958’s Dracula) but in fact two women—Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima.

It's too easy to discount this lack of knowledge and awareness as simply the cost of poor record-keeping and ravages of time. Video games, historically and presently, still struggle with being seen as the domain of men.

An Industry Reckoning Waiting to Happen

In the 2017 GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey, women game composers and sound designers made up just 12.7 perfect of the industry (earning just 83 percent of what men in the same roles do). This is up from 7 percent just two years before. There seem to be no similar industry surveys from the ’80s and ’90s, and if they exist, they're kept behind closed doors. For every hour of interviews with Nobuo Uematsu, the legendary composer of decades’ worth of Final Fantasy soundtracks, interviews with equally legendary Yoko Shimomura can be counted in minutes. The word counts of their Wikipedia pages are often shorter than this article, while ones for men can be Homeric. And what is known about their careers is too often relegated to video game scholars and medium devotees.


The institutional and industry knowledge that’s been lost to time, negligence, or never caring to begin with is tragic. We may never get a full accounting of what the early days of game development were like, or personal accounts of the women who created these sounds. But despite that, their work remains. Their compositions persist into the present, and the early sound teams of major Japanese game developers created insights into chiptune music that are still being explored, embraced, and expanded on today. From Harumi Fujita and Junko Tamiya’s scores for Bionic Commando to Mieko Ishikawa’s work on Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, the music of video games today is beholden to the craft of this vanguard of women composers.

The 21st century has seen an expansion of who is making games, decentralized from the major studios and fragmenting much more rapidly than before. More people are making games, and many of those new developers and independent creators return to the memories of their own childhoods and the games they played to inspire them. Retro gameplay and visual aesthetics are no longer a technical constraint but a deliberate choice—and with them have come soundtracks that build upon the musical foundations originally constructed by these women. In 2014, Manami Matsumae joined the development of Shovel Knight. It's retro-style 2D side scroller, complete with a chiptune soundtrack by Jake Kaufman, a composer who got his start doing remixes of classic game soundtracks. And while Matsumae contributed just two tracks—“Flowers of Antimony” and “A Thousand Leagues Below”—both are undeniable bangers.

Three years earlier, The Legend of Zelda celebrated its 25th anniversary, and as part of the celebration, Shigeru Miyamoto along with original Zelda composer Koji Kondo brought to the world a symphony series celebrating the totality of Hyrule’s soundtracks. Alongside them, none other than Eímear Noone, who had been selected not only to conduct the soundtracks around the world, but conduct the orchestrated album release. One more step, one more beacon. A guide for the future of women composers and conductors in this space.

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