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Yuzo Koshiro on remastering Etrian Odyssey’s music and having fun with old hardware

The legendary composer talks about revisiting soundtracks, posting about his process, and what he still wants to do in the future.

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An illustrated photo of Yuzo Koshiro.
Image: Will Joel / The Verge

There are few video game composers that are well known by name — and even fewer with as eclectic a catalog as Yuzo Koshiro. He’s best known for the iconic soundtracks of the Streets of Rage series but has worked on everything from Revenge of Shinobi to Ys to ActRaiser. He even wrote the jingles for Smash creator Masahiro Sakurai’s excellent YouTube videos.

In 2007, Koshiro composed the soundtrack for the dungeon-crawling RPG Etrian Odyssey and has gone on to score every title in the series since then. More recently, he’s had a chance to revisit that music for the new Etrian Odyssey remastered collection, an experience he says brought “a sense of nostalgia.”

With the new collection out, I had the chance to ask Koshiro a few questions about updating the music, why he posts so much about old hardware, and what he still wants to accomplish in the future. “My aim is to utilize these skills to create a new style of music that people have never experienced before,” he explains.

What has it been like for you revisiting these tracks so many years later? Did anything stand out to you when relistening to these songs?

Whenever I listen to the music of the Etrian Odyssey series now, I feel a mix of emotions. There’s a sense of nostalgia, remembering the time when I was in a difficult mental state and the challenge I faced to compose the game music in the late ’90s to the early 2000s. There’s also a sense of gratitude toward [Etrian Odyssey director Kazuya] Niinou-san, whose passion and enthusiasm for the project inspired me to overcome my concerns and give it my best. Listening to these tracks, I can perceive the transformation I underwent, from uncertainty to confidence, and it’s a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come and the obstacles I’ve overcome.

What did you want to change or update for these remasters?

In this remaster, my primary role was handling the mastering of all the songs in the trilogy and creating a new song for the sixth stratum’s battle theme in Etrian Odyssey III. Instead of using the original DS music data, we chose to use PC-88 sampling sources, which required a lot of careful work. Mastering is a crucial step in music production — it’s the process of finalizing the music tracks and ensuring they sound cohesive and of high quality across all platforms and sound systems. Despite this being quite an intricate process, the result was worth all the effort, and the sound quality significantly surpassed that of the original DS version.

As for the new song, I strived to maintain the original musical mood that Etrian Odyssey had. The need to create a new song arose because the original DS version didn’t have a dedicated battle song for the sixth stratum and used the same battle song as the second half of all the stratums. Both Atlus and I believed that introducing a new song would be a great treat for the fans.

You have worked on a lot of different games and franchises over the years. What is it about Etrian Odyssey that stands out as unique or interesting from your perspective?

The most attractive aspect of the Etrian Odyssey series, to me, is its game system, which includes unique battle mechanics such as FOEs. The captivating graphics, like the intricate dungeons, diverse characters and classes, and formidable monsters, also greatly contribute to its charm. And, of course, the FM sound music, which I believe is certainly worth listening to, plays an integral role in the overall allure of the series.

How would you say your approach has changed or evolved during the time you’ve spent working on Etrian Odyssey?

As I mentioned earlier, the FM sound music is one of the most attractive aspects of the Etrian Odyssey series. However, after the fourth installment, I began featuring live bands and orchestras instead. Unlike FM sound, creating music with live bands and orchestras requires entirely different skills for composing and recording. So, I had to learn how to effectively feature them through these productions. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet and work with incredible musicians and recording engineers. With their help, we were able to create some truly wonderful songs.

Do you have a personal favorite song or soundtrack from the series?

My favorite pieces are “Molten Caves” from Etrian Odyssey Ⅲ, “City of Radiant Ruin” from Etrian Odyssey IV, and “Battlefield - Activation” from Etrian Odyssey V

I’m really into “Molten Cave”’ because of its complexity and the musical expression, which is reminiscent of the volcano. I was aiming for it to rise above the rest in its genre, so I injected some progressive rock elements and modern beats into it. I’m very proud of how it turned out — it’s a standout piece.

“City of Radiant Ruin” was the first piece that made me realize the allure of live band recordings. The beauty of the grooves and tones produced by the band in the studio surpassed my original score and expectations. It made me want to continue using live recordings for future projects.

The pieces from Etrian Odyssey V hold a special place in my heart because they were the first ones recorded in my own studio, established in 2013. “Battlefield - Activation,” in particular, was a great success in terms of score arrangement and the performances by skilled musicians. Every instrument in the piece plays so passionately it brings the battles to life.

How would you describe the series’ sound?

The music of Etrian Odyssey is designed to draw players into the world of the game, creating an immersive experience that complements the gameplay and visuals. Each piece conveys a strong sense of place, enhancing the sense of exploration and adventure. It covers a wide range of musical styles, from tranquil melodies that capture the serene beauty of the labyrinthine forests to intense battle themes that convey the thrill and danger of combat. The compositions are highly melodic, making them instantly recognizable and memorable. It stays with the player long after they’ve finished playing.

The first three installments feature FM synthesis music that invokes nostalgia in retro gamers, while the fourth installment and subsequent series elevate the experience with dynamic and emotionally resonant performances by live bands and orchestras. It elicits a wide range of emotions, reflecting the highs and lows of the player’s journey. From the hopeful strains of the opening themes to the melancholic melodies that underscore poignant moments, the music taps into the emotional heart of the gaming experience. The compositions showcase a high level of musical sophistication, with complex arrangements and intricate harmonies that reward repeated listening. Despite this complexity, the music remains accessible and engaging, serving the needs of the game while standing on its own as a compelling body of work.

You have been really open about your tools, processes, and philosophy on Twitter. What made you want to share so much? What have you gotten out of the experience?

Many of my longtime fans are interested in both the musical and technical aspects of my work, so I often share my ideas on these topics via Twitter. I particularly enjoy discussing pieces made with FM sound chips. By doing this, I hope to not only deepen my fans’ technical understanding but also to spark interest in this style of primitive game music among the younger generation.

You often post about older hardware and tools. What makes these so appealing still, even as you have access to modern options?

The need for programming knowledge and skills in creating retro-style game music is something that greatly appeals to me. I’ve been fascinated by programming since I bought my first home computer, the NEC PC-8801. It’s no exaggeration to say that this experience led me to create my original sound driver, Mucom88, and compose game music. Programming a good sound driver can let you control sound chips in a more detailed and accurate way, and you can create unique music you’ve never heard in other musical genres. I believe these technical skills also benefit modern music production processes that use DAWs.

What kinds of projects are you looking at for the future? Are there things you haven’t done yet but want to explore?

I’ve created a variety of music in many genres, including retro-style songs. My aim is to utilize these skills to create a new style of music that people have never experienced before. As for the medium that features my compositions, I’m not particularly selective because my hope is for as many people as possible to enjoy my work.