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Ninja Gaiden composer Keiji Yamagishi on the enduring appeal of chiptunes

'It's difficult not having any limitations.'

Keiji Yamagishi has been making iconic and beloved music since the 1980s — but it wasn’t until last year that he released his very first solo album. The composer of classic games like Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl, Yamagishi stepped away from video game music as the soundtracks became more film-like, shifting away from the chiptunes sound he was known for toward something more orchestral. For a while he ran a business making ringtones for cellphones, but last year he partnered with music label Brave Wave to release a solo album called Retro-Active Pt. 1.

It was a bright and energetic collection, and today Yamagishi is releasing the second half, a similarly-themed chiptunes album that feels ripped out of the NES era. But while the music has a comparable sound to his past work on games, it was made using modern hardware — unlike many chiptunes artists, Yamagishi doesn’t limit himself to composing songs using old game consoles. "I don't really like chiptunes that are made only using the simple sounds provided by game hardware," he says. "It might be because that's what I did for so long when I was younger."

Like this first half, Retro-Active Pt. 2 is relatively brief, clocking in at just six tracks, and it has a similar vibe, which Yamagishi describes as a "futuristic emotional chiptunes world." But the new album is also denser, with more complex songs. "I maintained the style of making modern electro music using chiptune sounds," he explains, "but strived to increase the scale of the music at the same time." By using new technology to create a retro sound, Yamagishi is able to create music that sounds both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly new.

"It's difficult not having any limitations. I feel like I was being tested."

It’s been a long time since he’s worked on a video game — his last major project was Onimusha Tactics on the Game Boy Advance back in 2003 — and Yamagishi says that the process of composing for a game and creating a stand-alone album are quite different. "The game already has a world created for it, so above all, I follow the directions of the game designer and compose for it," he says. "My albums don't have such a predetermined direction. I was worried about what exactly I should make. I had no idea what the right approach was or how far I should go. It's difficult not having any limitations. I feel like I was being tested."

Now that both halves of the album are out digitally, label Brave Wave — the same company behind the fantastic remastered version of the Street Fighter II soundtrack — is working on a complete physical version of Retro-Active on CD. In addition to the 15 songs from the two Retro-Active releases, this edition will also include "demakes" of several songs — stripped-down versions created so that they would physically work on an old-school game cartridge (you can listen to an example below).

In fact, after the release of the CD, those songs will be actually be released on a Famicom cartridge, much like the chiptunes album 8-bit Music Power. (The Famicom is the Japanese version of the NES, which uses a slightly different style of cartridge.) Brave Wave is aiming to have the Famicom version out sometime this year, and it will feature art from Masato Kato, who worked alongside Yamagishi on the original Ninja Gaiden.

Retro-Active Famicom art

An early cover sketch for the Famicom album by Masato Kato (Mohammed Taher / Brave Wave)

Most chiptune songs remain beloved primarily due to nostalgia — the moon theme from Ducktales is a great song, but it’s also inextricably linked to a game that people grew up playing. Artists like Yamagishi, Chipzel, and Anamanaguchi, however, are proving that there’s more to the genre than just classic NES songs. That said, though his career has come full circle back to chiptunes, Yamagishi isn’t exactly sure why the genre has become so enduring.

"I don't really know myself," he says, "but I think perhaps when you listen to electronic music from old game hardware, there's a kind of magic that stays with the listener."