Keiji Yamagishi’s first video game soundtrack turned out to be his most enduring. Nearly three decades ago, Yamagishi was hired by game developer Tecmo straight out of university, and soon after he was put to work writing the soundtrack for a new NES action game called Ninja Gaiden. The game went on to be a huge hit that spanned multiple platforms and a number of sequels (it’s even included on Nintendo’s NES Classic), and Yamagishi followed that success by composing other notable game soundtracks for titles like Tecmo Bowl and Dynasty Warriors. More recently, he embarked on a career as a solo artist — but decades later Ninja Gaiden is still what he’s best known for.
“Even 30 years later, it’s still something that’s quite special to me,” he says.
To celebrate the soundtrack’s enduring legacy, record label Brave Wave is releasing an elaborate remastered edition next year. It’s part of the label’s ongoing “Generation Series,” which kicked off last year with Street Fighter II, and aims to update classic game soundtracks with revitalized remasters. The new collection — dubbed Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack — will be split into two volumes. The first will feature the original Ninja Gaiden’s score from both its NES and arcade incarnations (the two are very different), while volume two will tackle Ninja Gaiden II and III.
Work on the remaster began about a year ago. According to Yamagishi, Tecmo — now known as Koei Tecmo after a merger in 2009 — had received plenty of offers over the years to rerelease the game’s soundtrack, but always turned them down for various reasons. What changed their minds this time was Yamagishi’s persistence. The composer did much of the legwork in convincing the game company to allow the project to happen, and he also tracked down members of the original development team for interviews and helped gather together the art assets that will be featured in the albums booklets. “It wasn’t easy and it was very time consuming,” he says of the process.
Along with two other composers — Ryuichi Nitta who worked on the first two games, and Ninja Gaiden III composer Kaori Nakaba — Yamagishi is also supervising the remastering process. Just like with Street Fighter II, Brave Wave is employing a complex and time-consuming process that involves pulling the tracks off of the original hardware they were recorded on, and then cleaning them up so that they sound crisp, clear, and a lot more modern. Yamagishi not only composed the original Ninja Gaiden’s soundtrack, but also had a hand in creating the sound driver for the game and its sequels, giving him added insight into the process.
That said, in a lot of ways the remastering process is far removed from Yamagishi’s experience creating the original soundtrack 30 years ago. As a new recruit who had never composed for a game before, he had to rely a lot on the experience of the other developers making the game, particularly director Hideo Yoshizawa, who helped guide a young Yamagishi through the process. He wasn’t given any explicit instructions on how the game should sound; instead, Yamagishi would receive design documents and then try to create songs that would match the feeling of scenes in the game. He would then have members of the development team listen to the tracks, and refine them based on the feedback. Yamagishi says he wasn’t even sure if the music was any good until the game launched and he started hearing from players who loved it.
For the sequel, Nitta was tasked with keeping the same vibe going. He believes the series’ music is defined by “the sense of speed, and the quickness that the games are known for,” which continued with the rapid-fire tunes of Ninja Gaiden II. (He was also instructed to make sure the sequel didn’t sound “too Japanese,” perhaps in an attempt to appeal to audiences outside of Japan.) Nitta says he was eager to tackle the soundtrack to employ new programming tricks he had learned on the original, allowing him to create new sounds that weren’t possible before. When it comes to Ninja Gaiden III, things were much like with the original: Nakabai was in her second year with the company, still in her early 20s, with little experience composing for games. “I made the game’s soundtrack not really knowing what I was doing,” she says. Luckily she had the first two games as a reference.
The three all left Tecmo at different times, and afterwards formed a band so they could keep in touch and play music together. Nitta was working as a freelancer at the time, composing everything from ringtones for cellphones to music for apps and games. He was getting so much work that he enlisted the help of Yamagishi and Nakabai and formed a company called Kajiya Music. When Yamagishi started working with Brave Wave — first on his solo Retro-Active albums, and later on the Ninja Gaiden remaster — he brought the other two on board.
Ninja Gaiden: The Definitive Soundtrack is also something of a passion project for Brave Wave creative director Mohammed Taher, who counts the original game’s soundtrack among his personal favorites. “After developing an artistic kinship with Yama-san by collaborating on his Retro-Active albums, I'm excited to direct the soundtrack of his most defining work,” says Taher. “He employed a lot of clever tricks to bypass the limitations of the sound chip, and eventually got to develop his signature style of combining active and mellow pieces in an unusual way. This duality is present in his newer work, and Ninja Gaiden is a fantastic window into the mind of this visionary artist.”
The two volumes will be available early next year on vinyl, CD, and digital, and will feature art from series illustrator Masato Kato (who later went on to help write classic games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII.) For fans it’s a chance to delve deep into classic soundtracks that previously weren’t available outside of Japan, while for the composers the remaster has provided a chance to revisit their past work. Though in Yamagishi’s case, he’s found it somewhat difficult listening to the original recordings all these years later.
“It sounds like NES music,” he says.