The Women who Pioneered Video Game Music

The Women who Pioneered Video Game Music


When you think of the all-time great game
music composers, a few names immediately jump to mind: Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Jesper
Kyd, David Wise. The usual suspects – men who have forged the
musical identities of major gaming franchises, brought unique sounds and styles to the medium,
and written some unforgettable tunes. They are all obviously completely deserving
of this praise, but it’s strange how it’s an accolade seemingly reserved for men, especially
considering just how many women have done exactly the same thing. In fact since the very beginning, women have
been integral in developing the sound of video game music and pioneering the genre. Before the Mario Overworld theme became a
household tune, the domain of video games was the arcade. Arcade games in the early 80’s featured
music that was rudimentary at best – repetitive, oscillating tones that could easily be mistaken
for sound effects, and little jingles throughout to punctuate, often just written by the game’s
own designers. However, there was one company in particular
that was pushing the cabinets’ audio capabilities: Namco. Yuriko Keino was one of the very first dedicated
game music composers, premiering in April of 1982 with Namco’s Dig Dug. This was an early title to feature legitimate
background music during gameplay, and it even had a primitive dynamic audio system that
would only play when the player moved, and sped up when there was only one enemy remaining
on screen. Keino quickly followed it up with Xevious,
scoring two of the most popular arcade games in the same year. But Keino wasn’t alone at Namco. For Dig Dug’s sequel she was joined by Junko
Ozawa, who made a name for herself in 1984 with The Tower of Druaga. This was a landmark title that not only established
the fantasy genre as a mainstay of video games, but its soundtrack, with its heavy classical
inspiration and unmatched orchestration, showcased the value of having a dedicated composer. It set a precedent moving forward, dramatically
raising the bar for what was possible and expected out of video game music. It would only be a couple of years before
Junko Ozawa’s influence was undeniable, with the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Dragon
Quest and Final Fantasy all building upon the foundations laid by The Tower of Druaga. It wasn’t just Namco, though. Capcom’s sound team was famous throughout
the late 80’s and 90’s, not only for the strength of their compositions, but also for
the fact that it was primarily made up of women. In 1987, Capcom introduced us to one of gaming’s
most iconic characters: Mega Man. Named Rock Man in Japan after rock n roll,
music has always been an important point of reference for the blue bomber. Manami Matsumae defined Mega Man’s sonic
identity, fusing catchy pop melodies with driving rock rhythms, and the harsh electronic
sound palette of the NES only added to the robotic nature of the character. Matsumae’s genre-blending style would not
only influence the sound of video game music to come, but it was also a major progenitor
of the chiptune scene, inspiring a new generation of young musicians to experiment with electronic
music. While the Mega Man series has never held a
single consistent composer, it has been primarily women who have continued Matsumae’s legacy
and helped Rock Man live up to his name. Capcom were far from being a one-hit wonder
though. In 1991 they single-handedly ushered in an
arcade revival with the release of Street Fighter II. Capcom entrusted the soundtrack of their crown
jewel to a young up-and-comer in the company named Yoko Shimomura. She was a perfect fit for the fighting game,
having previously worked on a couple of their side-scrolling brawlers. But what truly separated Street Fighter II’s
soundtrack apart as exceptional was its diversity of sound – with a roster of characters from
all across the world and theme songs inspired by the musical flavours of their homeland. Street Fighter II revealed Shimomura as one
of the most diverse and broadly-talented game composers of her time, which is essentially
the entire history of video games. She is one of the only composers I can think
of who was active in the 80’s and still to this day writing entire soundtracks – most
recently, Kingdom Hearts 3. While she is perhaps now most famous for mastering
the impossible sound of the endearing yet outrageous Disney-JRPG hybrid, throughout
her prolific career she has ranged from chiptune beat-em-ups and survival horror titles, to
epic orchestral fantasies and light-hearted Mario games. Yoko Shimomura is by far the hardest working,
most prolific, diverse and yet consistent game composer in history. The Donkey Kong Country series is famous for
having some of the most beautifully atmospheric soundtracks out there. Composer David Wise deserves every drop of
praise that he receives for them – that is except for all the tracks he didn’t write. Eveline Novokovic nee Fischer is commonly
overlooked as one of the original trilogy’s composers. She wrote some of the first game’s finest
tracks including the map theme Simian Segue, the ambient Ice Cave Chant, and fan-favourite
Voices of the Temple. She was also the primary composer of the third
game, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble. She’s so good, you didn’t even realise she
wasn’t David. And this is a common story for women working
in the industry, in which their work is often mistaken for that of a man’s. This is especially true in the West for Japanese
composers, whose names may not be obviously feminine to the untrained Western eye. Take Minako Hamano for instance – she helped
compose the soundtrack to Super Metroid, but is commonly mistaken for a man or just forgotten
altogether in favour of Kenji Yamamoto, even though she wrote some of the game’s most enduring
tracks such as Ridley’s theme. Minako Hamano is also responsible for the
soundtracks of the most underrated titles for two of Nintendo’s biggest series: Metroid
Fusion and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. These are easily among the most celebrated
games on the Game Boy system, and soundtracks of their respective franchises. Minako Hamano truly is Nintendo’s hidden weapon. There’s also the case of women being credited
under a male or ambiguous pseudonym. Castlevania’s score was credited to “James
Banana”, who was actually two women – Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima – “James Banana”
being a goofy reference to Dracula composer James Bernard. Blending dark gothic classical music with
groovy modern rock, Banana’s music set a distinct tone that was perfectly Castlevania
and unlike anything else from a video game. With the series growing famous for its unmistakable
musical identity, the reins of its soundtracks were eventually entrusted to Michiru Yamane,
who gave the franchise its magnum opus soundtrack in Symphony of the Night. The Playstation’s advanced hardware allowed
for a fully realised version of the established goth rock style, with Yamane pushing it even
further into metal, and bringing her own distinct voice with some atmospheric lo-fi synthpop. Crystal Teardrops is basically a vaporwave
song 25 years before the genre even existed. Michiru Yamane would go on to compose five
more soundtracks for the Castlevania series, creating an immortal musical legacy. In fact, a number of the longest running video
game franchises have had women at the helm of their soundtracks from the very beginning. Fire Emblem may have only caught the attention
of the west in the past decade, but it’s been a hit in Japan ever since its debut in
1990. Yuka Tsujioko was the sole composer on every
Fire Emblem game until the mid-2000’s, a job for which she now supervises a team of
people. Japanese RPG series Suikoden had its music
spearheaded by Miki Higashino, and just like Castlevania would be picked up by Michiru
Yamane. And Jun Chikuma has brought us close to 20
different soundtracks for the Bomberman series, ranging from the Arabic-folk-flavoured electronica
of its early titles, to the modern UK club music Jungle and atmospheric drum & bass of
Bomberman Hero, a terrible game that’s now a cult classic solely off the back of its
terrific soundtrack. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list
of women game composers. If it were, I would mention the likes of Soyo
Oka, whose soundtrack for Super Mario Kart defined the sound of the kart racer for decades
to come, and so many others who have just written incredible music for great games. It’s just meant to highlight those composers
and franchises that pushed the medium forward in its early years. But even to this day, women are still pioneering
video game music and taking it to brand new places. Jessica Curry was the co-founder, co-director
and composer for The Chinese Room, the developers responsible for the experimental games Dear
Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, which rely heavily on their musical score
to tell their story. Jessica is also a major advocate for video
game music through her radio show High Score on the UK’s Classic.fm, helping to bring
the genre into legitimacy with other forms of orchestral music. Winifred Phillips, who has written for series
such as Assassin’s Creed, God of War and LittleBigPlanet, wrote a textbook titled A Composer’s Guide
to Game Music, which is used in major universities to teach students VGM composition. She literally wrote the book on video game
music. The legacy that all these women have left
is immense and cannot be ignored or erased. They have consistently been at the forefront
of the industry, innovating in game music design, forging the musical identities of
major gaming franchises, bringing previously unexplored styles and a diversity of sound
to the genre, and just writing some iconic, unforgettable tunes. Women were just as much the pioneers of video
game music – it’s time that we finally recognise them as such.


26 thoughts on “The Women who Pioneered Video Game Music

  1. Well, the video is great, but I wouldn't call Yoko Shimomura or Michiru Yamane unknown at all. Many webs and podcasts praised their work. I, in fact, am fan of both them since Castlevania or Street Fighter II. The Castlevania "banana" naming not only affected women, but all staff. In those times, Konami forced the staff to hide their names. Times made justice for all of them. 🙂

  2. Brava!!! I so enjoyed this. I wish I had known when I was a little girl playing MegaMan that a woman pioneered his sound! Thank you!!!

  3. Wow, I never knew how many of these amazing soundtracks were written by women. Even names I recognized like Yuka, I originally thought were male, because I don’t know much about eastern languages.

    Very insightful video, thank you.

    Also, anyone know any more up and coming women composer in the video game industry? the video mentioned very few of them, and while it was nice to see Yuka, Lena, and Manaka, it is still a very short list.

  4. Some more great composer:
    Sarah Schachner for 《Anthem》
    Laura Shigihara for《Plants vs. Zombies》
    Chipzel for《
    Super Hexagon》

  5. OMG! Link's Awakening's soundtrack was written by a woman?! That's one of if not the best game soundtracks of all time! I'm not amazed that it was written by a woman, I'm amazed that I didn't know that!

  6. I didn’t even realize how big of an issue this was, I had always assumed the composers of my favorite VGM were just some random dudes.

  7. As a JRPG music buff, I'd definitely known about Yoko Shimomura, Michiko Naruke, Miki Higashino, and Michiru Yamane. Was great to hear about some others I never knew about from the really early generations, as well as hearing about composers who contributed to works that I had long thought were the work of someone else (in this case, I had no idea it wasn't David Wise doing all the DKC stuff). Great video 🙂

  8. good content, thanks for bringing oft forgotten composers to my attentions. and going all the way back to arcade games, i didnt know about a lot of that

  9. Very good video here. Indeed, I was unaware of the immense contribution women have made to video game music, but then again, I’m also profoundly ignorant about video game music composers in general. Perhaps I’m a part of a small minority, but I’ve seldom associated a game’s soundtrack with its composer; I’ve almost always just associated the music with the game itself. Shout out to all of the composers we’ve never heard of who work on many smaller—and sometimes bigger—projects! I’m glad you’re doing your part to highlight the women who’ve written music for video games.

    To be frank, I’ve seldom thought about the person behind a game’s soundtrack, let alone their gender. I guess it never mattered to me; I either like the music, or I don’t. I also imagine there were a fair number of women who were ghost writers for more well-known composers, which doesn’t seem to be all that unusual (see Hans Zimmer, for instance).

    Perhaps it’s time we give more acknowledgement and praise to video game music composers overall. I’m glad you’re staring this praise with the unsung heroines of the industry. I’m glad Japan set a great example for consistent egalitarian practices in who they hire, particularly for music and sound design. If I end up liking a game’s soundtrack, I’ll make it a priority in the future to research who worked on the music and shout praise for them from my proverbial rooftop.

    Lastly, I would add one possible reason these women you mentioned didn’t get more recognition for their work. Bear in mind that it took a long time for video game music to be taken seriously, and so to an extent, it almost didn’t matter who wrote the music, because the music was written for a toy; that sort of music didn’t belong in the concert hall, as it were (though I strongly disagree with that idea). I think nowadays as video game music is gaining respect and recognition, there’s no better time to highlight the women and men who write these great soundtracks. Your video is a great addition to the effort to draw rightful attention to this cause.

  10. I'm almost ashamed to admit how few of these names I knew about. Even though Yoko is my favorite composer of all time, I'm not sure I could've named another female composer before watching this video. Every single one of these talents is hilariously underappreciated, thank you so much for highlighting them for everyone to see.

  11. Love the video, but, if I am getting the implication right, is it really the case that female composers haven't been recognized?
    Maybe I'm living in a bubble of gaming connoisseurs, but I can't think of a single genuine fan of the medium – and I don't extend that to saturday night dudebro gamers whose gaming library only consists of whatever is peddled by the AAA industry at the moment and have no deeper appreciation for the medium – who don't recognize multiple of the names mentioned here as the industry's best and brightest composers.

    The people who don't, are no more likely to recognize Uematsu or Mitsuda, so I am not sure there's a genuine issue of people not recognizing female composers specifically, as much as it's an issue of most casual media consumers not paying much attention to anyone on a credits list at all outside of a couple of directors here and there.
    To make this even more clear, how many here can name 10 sprite artists from the SNES era, men or women?

    That being said, obviously no problem drawing attention to these people, men or women.
    I just found the angle at the end somewhat odd.

  12. AC Origins, being one of the best scores in my recent memory, is scored by the immensely talented and underrated Sarah Schachner and Elitsa Alexandrova, both of them have also worked on other games in the series, and I'm eternally grateful to them for that one. also grossly underappreciated is the fantastic work of Michiru Oshima for Ico. Nevertheless, the topic is very commendable, I hope you'll find ways to do more videos on it, and thanks for this one!

  13. I appreciate all the examples. Good video ~

    A lot of times, feminist arguments like these show a lot of exaggeration and bias, but I think you avoided that here. You were speaking pretty raw truth. The only yikes part was when you said conclusively that the KH3 composer was the hardest working composer in the business.

  14. I love that Yoko Shimomura's style is very noticeable. You hear Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts, Mario & Luigi… and you know it's her

  15. Just discovered this channel, it's awesome! You cover one of the videogame aspects that I love most, that's amazing! If you're planning on doing another FF related video, I would suggest covering "Suteki da Ne", the most emotional track of the series in my opinion.
    Keep the great work up!💪

  16. Yoko Shimomura’s music has a special place in my heart because of the Mario&Luigi rpgs :,,) if you want me to cry in front of you all you gotta do is play any song from Bowser’s Inside Story lol

    Also Link’s Awakening and Symphony of the Night’s OSTs were composed by women?? Thats awesome! I had no idea

  17. I know I'm not alone in wholeheartedely believing that the world, let alone my childhood, received a gift in the form of Kumi Tanioka's work. That woman's devotion to music is a blessing.

    In juxtaposition to what's been discussed regarding Yoko Shimomura's ability to recreate styles that aided in the portrayal of various regions in the planet for SF II, one would argue Tanioka's most famous OSTs are characterized by how they manage to merge sounds originating in widely different cultural landscapes and create a new, somehow believable "folk". As if she had just single-handedly uncovered this unexplored land once holding a rich, deeply-rooted civilization.

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