Hip Tanaka Made Some of the Greatest Game Tunes in Existence

Hip Tanaka grew up idolizing The Monkees, but went on to become member of a reggae dub band. He worked on a number of arcade cabinets, helped design the NES Zapper, and was responsible for the Game Boy Camera.

Oh, and he probably had a hand in some of your favorite Nintendo tunes.

For years, Tanaka was one of Nintendo’s most interesting and prolific composers. He wrote music for everything from Duck Hunt to Metroid to EarthBound. He’s the man behind the oh-so-catchy Dr. Mario theme, and is responsible for some of the strangest boss music in existence.

While Tanaka composed plenty of upbeat tunes, he was more interested in writing music that was atmospheric. He believed that music shouldn’t just be fun to listen to, but an integral part of the game itself. This is particularly true of the Metroid soundtrack, which eschewed traditional melodies and relied on unconventional rhythms and sounds. Tanaka talked about this a little in an interview with Gamasutra:

I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I had was, “Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that game makes.”

Tanaka had unusual ideas about composing, but he also had a unique understanding of how to write music for video games. He helped to design and code the NES’ audio hardware, and made music by programming the sound chip directly. He was able to push the system to its limit, creating sounds that no one else could.

Curiously, the thing that drove Tanaka and Nintendo apart was Pokémon. As a joke, he penned a few songs for the Pokémon anime. Those goofy little tunes were incredibly successful, which inspired him to write many, many more.

But Nintendo (who has no involvement with the animated series) was less than thrilled that one of their top composers was becoming an anime superstar. Citing a policy against employees working for other companies, Nintendo asked him to stop composing Pokémon tunes.

Tanaka chose to leave Nintendo instead.

Hip Tanaka hasn’t left video games behind entirely. He’s now the president of Creatures Inc., the company behind the Pokémon Ranger titles. He designed and developed his own title, the Japan-only Chee-Chai Alien, and has re-arranged a number of classic tunes.

Still, his presence at Nintendo is sorely missed. When he wrote music, he considered every element, from sound effects to system architecture to the players themselves. His songs weren’t always hummable, but they were engrossing and extraordinary.

No one made music like Hip Tanaka, and I don’t think anyone ever will.

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