Few game music composers have as iconic a resume as Manami Matsumae. Starting at Capcom in 1987, her first major project was scoring the original Rockman, the game we know as Mega Man. The Cutman theme? That’s Matsumae. And she was just getting started, soon jumping from the Famicom into Capcom’s CPS-1 arcade hardware to compose Area 88 / U.N. Squadron, (most of) Final Fight, Mercs, Magic Sword, and more.
In January 1990 she left Capcom to go freelance and scored numerous games over the next two decades, including Batman: Return of the Joker (GB version), Dragon Quest Swords, and the popular Derby Stallion series. In 2014 Matsumae landed in the spotlight again with her well-received contributions to Shovel Knight, the first of a series of scores for indie projects. Her latest work is Battle Axe, a love letter to ‘90s arcade games that just came out on PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
In the lead-up to Battle Axe’s release, I had a chance to chat with Matsumae via email. Here’s a lightly edited transcript, translated from Japanese.
Alexandra Hall: Starting really basic! How did you get into composing game music?
Manami Matsumae: When I was a senior in university, I saw a job posting by Capcom. I majored in piano, so I thought I’d become a piano teacher, but it would’ve been impossible to do so if one hadn’t taught students as a part-time job during university; I had only done it for a few people, meaning I couldn’t make a living off of it, so I gave up on this idea.
At that time, the Famicom (NES) had become popular and I played games like Super Mario and Dragon Quest. I knew that Capcom was a video game company. Therefore, I casually just applied for the job. I didn’t dream of being hired since all I did was play piano; I had never even used a computer and I could only compose very simple songs. The job entailed having to create sound effects, as well. From the day I joined, I had to work overtime every day, which was a very tough experience. (laughs)
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AH: Is it easier to compose cool music when you’re working within limitations? For example, an 8- or 16-bit console’s sound chip.
MM: There are no limitations these days, which means a wide variety of possibilities. But when there are limitations, you have to do a lot of thinking before you compose. You need a melody and bass, and you have to decide from there how you will create the chords and such. The NES only has three sound channels, so it was particularly strenuous to work with. One channel must be dedicated to the chord, so I had to use arpeggio and inner voiced chords. It’s like creating pieces of a puzzle.
A few years ago, I composed for Shovel Knight, which used six sound channels. I had to be cognizant of the limitations when composing for it. I was quite satisfied with the result.
AH: In a way it seems like a composer is at the mercy of whatever their current instruments are. Is it ever challenging to translate a melody you already have in your mind into actual real-world music?
MM: It was especially challenging, yes. Nowadays, there are many kinds of sounds out there, and I can find something that sounds as similar to my intentions as possible, but when I was at Capcom, there were limitations to the kinds of sounds available to me, while making sounds with FM synths was difficult on its own as well. I couldn’t really make anything the way it sounded in my head, so I needed to do a lot of trial and error to get as close as possible.
AH: After starting on Famicom and PC Engine projects, how did you feel about making the jump to composing for arcade hardware like CPS-1?
MM: A year after joining Capcom, I was given the choice to stick to the console games team or head over to the arcade team. I went over to the arcade team as those games offered more sound channels to work with. The reasoning for my move was simple: The more sound channels you have, the more you can do with the music you make. However, while composing became easier, I had to create FM synths, which was a tough task of its own, so my job remained quite intense.
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AH: Area 88 / U.N. Squadron is one of my favorite shoot ‘em up soundtracks, and I always felt it had a melancholy vibe to it. Is that something you intended?
MM: Thank you. In U.N. Squadron, you have allies in the game fighting alongside you, but you are all alone inside the cockpit. That’s why I went for a melancholy vibe. Shono-san, the planner, showed me the conceptual docs and asked me to make the music the way I saw fit! I used tearful melodies to show what I thought could be man’s inner feelings that they may never show outside.
AH: Oh cool, that’s a very detailed intention you put into those tracks. Do you ever wonder if your intentions in particular pieces are being felt by the players who hear them?
MM: I always think about this! I wonder if the player will interpret the music the way I intended for them to, in the way I envision the music and the game’s stages are supposed to come together. I’m at my happiest when players agree that the music and game go well together.
AH: Many of the great composers at Capcom were female. Was it easier back then for women to make their mark in sound composition than in other areas of game development?
MM: When I joined Capcom, everyone in the sound team except Sakaguchi-san, the head of the department, was female. I wouldn’t say it was easy for women to make their mark, but rather because everyone was female, inevitably they came to define the team. Unsurprisingly, there came a time when intense music created by men would become sought after, and many male composers joined the team after me. The vibe of the team slowly pulled away from being female dominated and the work of the women was compared to the men and vice versa. Both the men and women studied and polished their music, which resulted in a very wide range of music produced, a result that I think is still relevant to the company today.
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AH: Interesting. Was gender a topic you and your colleagues thought about much back then? Did you all feel it was unique or interesting or perhaps normal that you had a largely female team in those early days?
MM: I didn’t really pay attention to the difference in genders. However, U.N. Squadron and Final Fight feature male protagonists, so the planner asked me to make something masculine and powerful sounding, rather than a feminine melody. That’s why I referenced intense soundtracks when composing for them. I didn’t know this until after those games came out, but people were surprised to find out U.N. Squadron and Final Fight were composed by women. (laughs) It’s funny how some people were fooled back then. (laughs) Yay!
When I joined the Capcom Sound Team, it was already filled with women, so I didn’t think anything of it. I spent a lot of time with them outside of work as well, going on vacations together, attending the same swim schools, and so on. We did many things together.
AH: There’s this incredible photo online of you and four of your Capcom colleagues (Kumi Yamaga, Tamayo Kawamoto, Harumi Fujita, and Junko Tamiya) in probably the late ‘80s. I actually think about it a lot, haha—you all look super cool.
MM: I’m actually a bit bummed that someone just uploaded this photo to social media without asking us. It’s a photo that I would prefer to look at privately. But it’s already out there, so I’ve come to live with it. This photo was taken at a Capcom company retreat when we were all having a meal.
I’m in touch with Fujita-san and Tamiya-san, but I haven’t been in touch with the others.
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AH: Ah, that’s unfortunate. Why did you leave Capcom to go freelance? Do you prefer the freelance life? It’s very different than working at the same company for a long time, isn’t it?
MM: I decided to get married and move to Tokyo. When I quit Capcom, I asked if I could work as a freelancer for them, but at the time, there were many composers in the company, so they couldn’t accommodate my request! (laughs)
I went to Tokyo and visited a lot of game companies to see if I could work for them as a freelance composer. I was given offers by a number of companies. If you work directly inside a company, you have to do the 9-to-6 schedule, but sometimes you’re just not inspired specifically within that timeframe and can produce nothing. (laughs) As a freelancer, you can work from home at whatever schedule works for you, which I think has merits (late night or early morning).
AH: Haha, I know that well. Many game composers of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, your peers, seemed to leave the games business by the early 2000s. What were some reasons for this?
MM: This is my personal opinion, but I think the profession of game music composer has become common, and as young composers join the fray, people from my age tend to become a bit out of touch with modern trends compared to the fresh perspectives young composers bring. I imagine that’s why some of my counterparts have since moved on to other things.
Also, women tend to quit working when they get married, so I imagine that’s why some of them have retired from composing game music.
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AH: How would you describe the Manami Matsumae signature sound?
MM: When I joined Capcom, my superior (sempai) told me that I had to create melodies that were memorable. I haven’t forgotten those words even after three decades. I think my signature sound is thus melodies that are catchy and memorable. In other words, my songs are melody-focused. Whenever I’m asked to compose, people ask me to create something with the Matsumae signature sound! (laughs) I also like to use chord modulation in my tracks, so my melodies will feature this technique. I love thinking about how my melodies will turn out as I experiment with this during the composition process.
AH: What inspires you in making new music?
MM: The music I create depends on the game’s setting, character animations, stages, etc. The music I make needs to be in line with the expectations of the game planner, so I need that person’s input, as well. Even more important is the perspective of the players: I need to step into their shoes and imagine how they would enjoy the game. The game needs to suck those players into its world. I make music that allows that to happen.
Given I’ve been at this for over three decades, I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.
I made a solo album a few years ago, which was music not tied to any particular video game. When making this solo album, I pretended to be making music for a game and imagined what kind of stages and imagery it would have. Without such references, I probably can’t make anything. (laughs)
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AH: I checked out a few levels of Battle Axe and was instantly struck by how the game is so aesthetically similar to arcade games you worked on at Capcom, especially Magic Sword. What was it like working on what’s basically an arcade game again?
MM: The creator of Battle Axe, Henk, asked me to create something akin to Magic Sword. I think the vibe is indeed quite similar. Composing for an arcade game isn’t terribly difficult and is very much like conventional composition. For this, I harkened back to my Capcom days and composed this album with nostalgic feelings.
AH: Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about what you were going for in your Battle Axe work, or what it was like creating it?
MM: I think Henk’s pixel art is fantastic and am happy to have been part of the project. It was a project that lasted just under a year, but I had a lot of fun thinking about what type of tracks I could make whenever new art assets came in. I had to find sound assets that were similar to FM synths, and tried using drums similar to how arcade games of the day sounded. I think it was a very fruitful experience.
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AH: I read that you prefer working with indie developers these days. Is that right? How come?
MM: A large company means a large development team and an environment where it might take more time for people’s opinions to be made known. Also, a large company tends to have many in-house composers, some of them famous in their own right, so unfortunately, I don’t get many opportunities to work on their games.
Indie devs, on the other hand, tend to have smaller teams that allow for opinions to be more directly communicated. If I say I want to do something, I generally will receive feedback quickly and can get to work on composing. I’ve worked with a number of indie devs, but they each have their own style and personality, and I enjoy being able to create different kinds of music. That’s why I like indie game dev.
AH: Are your indie projects of the last decade or so the first time you’ve worked with foreign developers? I wonder if that collaboration process feels any different than when working with domestic/Japanese companies?
MM: For the past few years, I’ve been working together with indie developers from outside Japan. When these developers were young, they played the games that I composed for. When they grew up, they created game companies themselves and have asked me to compose for their games. That’s the most common scenario. It’s an incredible privilege and a responsibility I’m thrilled to take on.
The various games by young creators are unique and varied in their own ways and having to create music that matches these games is what lifts my spirits as a composer. Nowadays, the internet allows for unhindered communication, so I can pass along data from Japan to other countries friction-free. There are no issues with the composition process here, either. I guess the biggest hurdle is the time difference, which means I can be late in replying to emails. (laughs)
AH: What’s next for you, Matsumae-san?
MM: A number of indie games I’ve worked on began releasing earlier this year, so I’m actually taking a holiday! (laughs) From next month, I have plans to create more indie titles going forward, but I’ve got a bit of downtime right now, so indie devs from around the world, please get in touch.