Road to the Future: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki Omega Five interview

By Jeriaska . May 5, 2008 . 6:55pm


Omega Five is a horizontal shooter for the Xbox Live Arcade, featuring an unlockable retro mode, during which both the graphics and sound are stylized to imitate 16-bit hardware.  The soundtrack represents a new take on the sidescrolling shooter by revisiting previous conventions of the genre.  The score by Natsume veteran composer Hiroyuki Iwatsuki contains up to three versions of each song, with the categories of contemporary game music, retro chiptune sounds, and remixes (by the sampling masters of Super Sweep) represented within the same album.  Siliconera had the chance to catch up with the game's composer and arranger to hear his thoughts on the multifaceted soundtrack album.


Interview by Kaleb Grace, Godai and Jeriaska.  Translated by Ryojiro Sato. See it in Japanese.


Siliconera:  Iwatsuki-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion of your soundtrack to Omega Five.  How closely were you involved in working with the development team on the game?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  At the onset, the production team did not make any specifications regarding the music.  They were up for incorporating whatever kinds of songs I came up with.  As the project continued, I met with the other staff members to check out the content and stages of the game.  Viewing screens while the title was in production, I decided on what content would be appropriate for individual stages as well as the work as a whole.


I am not certain whether the background music had any discernible impact on the other staff members.  However, when the main programmer first heard the music for the Retro Mode, he really got into it and actually made some refinements to the visual processing to match the sounds.


Siliconera:  After progressing further in the game, Retro Mode is unlocked.  It's hard to put a finger on exactly what the style of the compositions sounds like, but they are reminiscent of an old arcade machine. Whose idea was it to have a retro soundtrack included in the game?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  Originally the Retro Mode of the game started off as part of a test by the main programmer.  He was playing around with a program for rendering effects called "Shader."  So it began merely as a visual content processing method for low-resolution conversions.


As the game was nearing completion, I decided to modify the music to fit the altered visuals.  Everyone on the staff was intrigued by the combination of retro graphics processing and simplified sounds.  Since we had come this far, it was decided, why not make an independent mode of play? So we finished the Retro Mode as a stand-alone element for the game.  I believe that the feature can be enjoyed by a wide range of players since it delivers feelings of nostalgia to veterans of classic games and a fresh experience to younger players.


Omega Five Soundtrack




Siliconera: The retro soundtrack incorporates a variety of non-sinusoidal waveforms.  Could you share with us some of the technical details involved in producing these audio effects and what kind of feeling you get from these additions?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  How Retro Mode works is pretty simple. In Omega Five, the sound is played through a built-in synth-like method so the sound generator itself is treated as an individual module. Switching over between Normal Mode and Retro Mode only substitutes the sound generator. Your impression of the sound is different because the characteristics have been changed, but the same musical notes are being played.


The Retro Mode sound source is a group of simple waveforms made using Adobe Audition. For percussion sounds, we had to decrease the sample rate at first and bring everything back up again to 48kHz to align the timing for each attack.


There are portions that share the same real-time effector (band-pass filter). We could not bypass it for the Retro Mode simply because we did not have enough time to deal with all the technical difficulties that would have been involved. However, as you hear in the beginning of the first stage, the filter effect works pretty well, so I think it was preferable to leave it as it is.


As I mentioned, the music data for Normal Mode and Retro Mode is identical except for the sound generator. Nevertheless, I was quite fascinated by the dramatic differences between the two. The simple waveform sounds are clearly audible and direct compared to the complicated sound sources. The staff members told me that they liked the Retro Mode sound even better than that of the Normal Mode. I have mixed feelings about that opinion, but I think it bears mentioning.


Siliconera:  Did you spend any time revisiting songs that you had composed during the Super Nintendo era for inspiration on the nostalgic sound of the game?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  I do listen to music I composed in the past, but nothing before the streamed music for the Playstation 2. I have those songs as data files, so I can simply upload them to my iPod to listen to them.  I had not made a habit of recording my songs during the 16-bit era, so except for those tracks that were specifically recorded upon requests, I do not have any of them handy.  I sometimes listen to them in my free time, mostly when they appear on online videos or blogs.


Siliconera:  How did the collaboration with Super Sweep on the arrangements for Omega Five come about?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:   It started off with an message I got from [Manabu] Namiki (aka Santaruru). After the game had been distributed digitally, he sent me his impressions of the game along with expressing his wishes for a soundtrack release. It sounded like a great opportunity, since Omega Five had been my first original title in some time.  That was how it came to be that I was introduced to Super Sweep by Namiki-san and they agreed to produce the album.  The finished soundtrack turned out wonderfully.


Previously my soundtrack for an NES game called Chaos World was arranged for an album release, so I was really looking forward to hearing the results this time.  Still, I never could have predicted how stirring the arrangements would be.  They were my songs all right, but having taken on the distinct tastes of others, and from the first moment of listening to them it was like a miraculous new discovery.


Siliconera:  For the soundtrack album, you also arranged your own theme "Road to the Future."  How did you intend for the approach to differ from the original and retro versions of the song?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  The arranged theme of "Road to the future" consists of three songs, mainly the staff credit track.  However, instead of merely putting the three songs together to produce a medley, I aimed to create a single track. I did not revise much, and in looking back perhaps it would have benefited from a little more variation.  What I wanted to do was connect the final track with the intro so that the entire score as a whole loops. I knew this arranged tube was going to be the last song on the soundtrack, so tying in the intro track was a way of bringing the whole album together.  It would make me glad to know if just a few listeners caught on to this idea.


Siliconera:  What are your thoughts on the Xbox Live Arcade as a platform for new game titles?  How does it compare to other game systems and delivery methods that you have created games for previously?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  I think there are a lot of advantages to the Xbox Live Arcade platform. Having an integrated player ranking list and cooperative network play are great features. It’s also unique for having a playable demo available for every game.  As far as videogame music is concerned, when the service first started, we either had to limit the number of the tracks or use built-in synth to play each tune in order to accommodate  the capacity restrictions. I think that most of these technical problems can be solved now because of recent improvements in the technology.  I think that it would be truly interesting if games come about using the powerful sound capabilities of the Xbox 360 while incorporating a system that manipulates sound in real-time so that the music interacts on a deep level with the gameplay.




Siliconera: To many fans of videogame music in English-language regions, there has been an air of mystery surrounding Hiroyuki Iwatsuki.  To the best of our knowledge, you have kept a low profile over the last ten years or so.  Do you prefer not to speak publicly about your work?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  It was never my personal intention to hide myself from the public. I think it has more to do with my position as a member of Natsume and that I simply have not had a chance to reach listeners.  It can also be very difficult to talk about one's own work during time off.  That said, the release of Omega Five was a great opportunity for me. It would be preferable to discuss all aspects of my work with listeners whenever there's the chance.


Siliconera:  It appears that you collaborated with several composers for many of the games you have made music for in the past. Was it a positive experience for you?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki: It can always be stimulating to work with others. You can always learn a lot from observing the kinds of sounds others create. I would like to work with all sorts of different musicians if given the chance.  Concerning the Super Nintendo titles I worked on, I did in some cases arrange songs from MIDI files other musicians had provided.  However, in most cases each composer is responsible for their own compositions from the beginning to the end of the entire process.


Siliconera: What are you working on now?


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  I cannot really go into any detail at this point, but I’m working on a new game title.


Siliconera: You have been with Natsume for many years. Clearly you must have a strong bond with the company.


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  You could say there are a number of people with broad experience in this field. I have had the chance to work with a few of them ever since the days of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo. I think that is probably why we were able to make a game like Omega Five.  I feel fortunate about having had the opportunity to make music for Natsume, to have continued with them until now and shared the support of others in my surroundings.


Siliconera: Iwatsuki-san, thank you for joining us for this interview on the subject of your videogame music.


Hiroyuki Iwatsuki:  It is a great opportunity to speak with listeners.  Thanks for inviting me for this interview.


Images courtesy of Hudson

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