CRN Interview: "Phoenix Wright" Composer Noriyuki Iwadare at Japan Expo 2013

Iwadare talks about what he thinks of video game music and goes into detail about the changes in composition styles over the years

The very successful Japanese cultural convention in Europe, Japan Expo brought its first US event, Japan Expo USA 2013 to Santa Clara, CA in late August. One of the international guests and a Guest Of Honor of the convention was Noriyuki Iwadare, a Japanese video game music composer known for his work with Capcom's Phoenix Wright series.


With Phoenix Wright 5 (US release title: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies) being released in late July in Japan, he impressed American fans on both Saturday and Sunday with his high quality live music performances. I was able to pick his brain about his music and video game music for an interview. Iwadare-san was very friendly and also passionate about what he does throughout the interview. Enjoy!


Great shows at Japan Expo USA! I was at your Saturday live show and had a lot of fun. It was an interesting experience to be able to hear live music while video game footage played on a side screen.

Iwadare: I'm happy to hear that. I was wondering how it would turn out.


Band master and the Guest Of Honor, Noriyuki Iwadare


Vocal: Yuka Hoshio


Photo via Yomimaid


The band players were great musicians, too. In the last song before encore, the guitarist did a killer solo and really got the audience excited. Then I saw that solo fired up your solo as well. I felt that there was a great chemistry on stage in the band.

Iwadare: Fukuda-san on guitar usually stays at his regular position on stage and plays, but then he came out in front and played like that for the first time, especially in the USA (Laughs), we got really impressed and got fired up at the same time (Laughs). The band was shocked in the good way. I think it was a song called "Tension" in Grandia. I was asked to compose 4 songs titled "Tension" for the actual game, so I made 1, 2, and 3 and the last one is a Honky Tonk number for running away, but I felt little embarrassed to play that at a live show, so we played 1 through 3 this time.


That was a song with pleasant tension.

Iwadare: Thank you very much.


Guitar: Yasufumi Fukuda (Photo via O-Network)


Bass: Wllya


Drums: Rose Horiguchi


You compose not only for video games but also for many different purposes. Which genre would you say is most fun to compose?

Iwadare: Everything I compose has different reasons to make them fun, but the show music for Tokyo Disneyland is especially fun to work with because the audience is huge; I even go to rehearsals, and spend hours meeting with staff to create live aspects of the show. I came from theater / play music so I love music for dance as well. Composing music for Disneyland covers everything I'm interested in.



Is it true that in video games, you have to work with the limited number of sound because it's fixed by the platform?

Iwadare: Yes, it used to be like that, but there is no limitation now. If you are using the internal sound device in a console, you have to work with limited number of sounds for music and recent consoles can play about 20 sounds at the same time. I remember the time when Nintendo Family Computer only had 3 sounds. We were so happy when the Mega Drive/Genesis came out and had 7 sounds (Laughs). After those experiences, now virtually all sounds are available. We gained so much freedom, but at the same time, it takes longer to compose with lots of extra things to take care of. Honestly, it's too much work (Laughs).


Is it too much work? (Laughs) But if you compare now and how it used to be, which do you prefer?

Iwadare: I've been wanting the video game music composition to to be like this for a long time. Ever since I started making video game music, I was asking to make linear music to developers and observed it slowly becoming reality. Now the PS3 can produce 5.1 channel sound and it is already over my expectations. It didn't have to go that far (Laughs).


Many gamers say a lot of recent games make the players feel like they are watching a movie while playing.

Iwadare: I'm not in the position to say if that's good or bad, but I believe (video game music is) different from music for the movies. It's not so much for the presence, but for something more different. I think video game music is in the transition period. It will change again in 10 more years and in 20 years, because it's not only the music, but the video game itself and the consoles are changing.


Mobile gaming is becoming popular these days. Do you compose mobile game music, too?

Iwadare: Yes, I do. There are quite few that are not released because the Japanese mobile game market is on the decline, but yes, I have few projects that I am working on.


Does mobile game music have a higher turn around rate?

Iwadare: It's very fast. I usually get asked to make a 2 to 3 minute track for a video game. For a mobile game for example, I make songs that are 30 seconds long, so it takes less time to download. There are other restrictions, too, to keep the budget low as well (Laughs). Sometimes I get asked to make 7 ten-second songs. It seems like short music works better with mobile games because it helps the game develop faster.


Which do you prefer to compose, short songs or longer songs as a composer?

Iwadare: It's more work, but I prefer to compose longer songs because then I can create a drama in the music. 30 seconds is not long enough to tell a story. It's like it ends right after you say "Hey" (Laughs). It feels like I'm just repeating "hey, hey" in every short songs and sometimes that can be little frustrating as a composer.


When you are composing a short piece, do you aim for it to be short to begin with?

Iwadare: Video game music is basically a loop. The hardest thing is to decide the timing of the loop and the mobile game environment still can not set the loop to happen in the middle of the piece, which means the loop always goes back to the beginning of the piece. Other video game consoles can do that. For example, I can actually create an intro and make the loop happen after the intro. Since that functionality is not possible in mobile gaming yet, it's important to take the time lag when the loop occurs into consideration when composing. I try to make my music still easy to listen to when the loop happens for hours, but when the original piece is only 30 seconds, its only able to repeat the main theme of the music over and over. That's really hard.


Sounds like it's quite a challenge to keep the players from getting tired of it.

Iwadare: I swear, it must be on the mind of all video game music composers from what I have heard and talked with them. I personally think it works better when there is a melody that the players can hum to. Humming to it will help the players not get tired of it. Many people may think the atmosphere music may work better, but when it goes unnoticed, the players can easily turn it off.


Is it also a matter of the music getting noticed or not?

Iwadare: Yes, I believe it's better to get noticed than the music being left unnoticed in the game.


Then the music becomes a part of the game play experience.

Iwadare: Exactly. That's the difference between video game music and TV music. Background music for TV shows can not overpower any lines in the show, so that limits the use of melody and the use of certain sounds such as a flute because it mixes with the female voice.


That's why you hear piano in the background music often because the sound doesn't linger as long. Strings are a little better than the flute, but still, composers have to keep in mind to avoid using the area of human voice tones when it comes to TV and radio background music. That does not mean we don't have to worry about it at all for video game music, especially for the in-game animation scenes, but we are usually asked to put more melody in. Otherwise, it's less fun and users ask for it.


That makes me think that video game music is considered as important as any lines in the game. It's not for just staying in the background. For example, the song titled "Tension", if it's just for background music, a simple heart beat would be enough, but we put in melody to stir up some emotion in the players. I try my best to be in the shoes of the players playing the game and I always imagine myself playing the game when I compose.


For example, I ask myself if I was playing the game and I'm in a dungeon seeing my enemy coming at me when the song "Tension" comes in, what music would I hear? I imagine the first song with the pounding sound of enemy rushing towards me, then another song urging me to run away. Then I imagine another song with the sound of rising heart beat with desperation with melody. Stuff like that comes to my head when I do that.


That's pretty much describing how I felt when I was playing Phoenix Wright during the heart pounding court scenes.

Iwadare: I do the same when composing for Phoenix Wright to imagine myself in the courtroom, too. At the same time, I try not to get too influenced by the jokes in the game scenario because that will change the feel of the Phoenix Wright music.


Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies available for digital download this Fall for North America


Phoenix Wright also plays with the gap between the seriousness of the music and the light-hearted scenes in the game.

Iwadare: I never receive the scenario before I make music for it. I have no idea how the game is when I'm composing so that I don't get too influenced and accidentally compose spoilers into music. The music for the series is always on the serious side, but the game has many different sides to it. I was never told the details of the Phoenix Wright scenario either. I only had the list of characters with their personalities and other than that, I worked on updating the arrangement of the music that always gets included in the series. I'm currently playing the game (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies) myself and discovering many facts saying "Ah ha! That's what happened!" (Laughs).


That sounds fun to be able to enjoy your own work from the point of view of the players!

Iwadare: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies has animation scenes. Thanks to that, I had more clues than ever before. I knew when Miles Edgeworth comes into the game because of it, but I didn't know the context of how he comes in, so I was wondering "Who is this old man?" when I was working on the music.




Who is your favorite character from the series?

Iwadare: I have to say it's Phoenix Wright himself, since he is the main character and I was focused on him for a long time. My PC wallpaper is him in the court. I get myself worked up with the wallpaper while working on Phoenix Wright project.


How about a favorite female character?

Iwadare: I forgot the name but she is in Ace Attorney 2, but the title has not been released in North America. She dresses like a ninja (we found out that it was Kay Faraday). She was really memorable to me and I put extra something in the music for her. It's too bad that Ace Attorney 2 is not available in US. If fact, I met Capcom USA people the day before yesterday and asked them directly for the release here with Tatsuo Iwamoto (the series character designer, another guest at Japan Expo) since we both worked on it, (laughs).


If it comes true, fans here would be very excited!

Iwadare: Oh by the way, have you watched the Takarazuka Phoenix Wright Musical? It's great! Phoenix sings and dances and the stage even has nice love scenes. I was surprised! It's very different, but it still has the same feel of the game and it also uses all the in-game sound effects on stage. I submitted my orchestra score for the production and the Takarazuka people arranged it for the stage. It was more interesting than I expected. I believe there is a DVD available (in Japan), I recommend it for all Phoenix Wright fans.



Phoenix Wright Musical home disc cover by Takarazuka Review



How many visits have you had to the US so far?

Iwadare: This is my third visit. The first time was Hawaii, the second time was when I was invited as a guest to see VGO, Video Game Orchestra's concert that included songs from Grandia in Boston last year, and this is my third time in the US and first time in the West Coast. In Boston, I was only there to see the concert as a guest, oh and I did a panel discussion at the Berklee College of Music. Berklee has classes for people who want to make video game music and sound effects.


More than 100 people came to the panel and it was me, Hitoshi Sakimoto (FFXII), Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) and Kinuyo Yamashita (Castlevania) were the guests. It was a very interesting experience. Takahiro Nishi, who did the sound effects for Grandia was also there, too. Many participants of the panel expressed interest in coming to Japan, but in fact, I feel more good games are developed in the US, while Japan is a little quiet these days. I see small developers in US making interesting things.


I think Japanese developers are having a harder time taking more risks because their budget is too large, forcing them to make safe decisions that are sure to recoup costs, while I think being a small independent developer gives more freedom to try new things. That's something to work on for the future.




Lastly, is there anything you would like to accomplish by this visit?

Iwadare: I would love to meet more fans! I really want to have a good talk with them. I was able to chat with them at the autograph session, but I actually want to be close to them and ask more questions. I'm interested in hearing what they want as users. Other than that, I was able to visit San Francisco for sightseeing. If time allowed it, I would have loved to go to Disneyland, but I have to leave tomorrow to get ready for my orchestra concert. Then the next day is the Asakusa Samba Carnival.


Samba Carnival?!

Iwadare: There is a video game company called Gungho in Japan (Puzzle & Dragons) and they are participating in the carnival with 2/3rds of their employees and willing users, which makes it a total of about 300 of them! I was working on the music for them and saw their practice and it looked really fun, so I decided to participate myself as a musician, too (laughs)!  After that, I will have another orchestra concert on September 25th in Japan and October 13th in Taiwan with the same band that I brought to Japan Expo!!


Thank you so much for the fun interview, Iwadare san!

Noriyuki Iwadare official site (Japanese) (English)

Photos by Martin Wong, unless otherwise noted

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