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The Evolution of Super Robot Taisen: Interview with Salamander Factory (Jan 2011)

Salamander Factory is a prolific sound production studio established in 1999. It is comprised of company director Naofumi Tsuruyama, experienced composer Takuya Hanaoka, and versatile sound creator Kayoko Matsushima. The studio is best known for creating various scores in the Super Robot Taisen (aka Super Robot Wars) game series, blending action-packed original compositions with arrangements of mecha anime favourites.

In this major interview, the three composers initially recollect their work on the Super Robot Taisen series, noting the series' musical evolution from α to Z. In the second part of the interview, we discuss Salamander Factory's works beyond the series, including Shining Force, Endless Frontier, and various iPhone apps. We also discuss Takuya Hanaoka's involvement in various Tecmo favourites, beatmania titles, and Touhou albums.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Naofumi Tsuruyama, Takuya Hanaoka, Kayoko Matsushima
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Ben Schweitzer, Christopher Ling
Coordination: Don Kotowski, Takuya Hanaoka, Yuji Takenouchi

Interview Content

Chris: Takuya Hanaoka, Naofumi Tsuruyama, and Kayoko Masushima, thank you for talking to us today. Tsuruyama, as leader of Salamander Factory, could you introduce the company to readers and give an overview of your works?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Thank you for giving us this opportunity. I am Salamander Factory's director, Tsuruyama. Our company was founded by the illustrator Yoshitaka Tamaki in 1999, and in 2004 I inherited the position of representative, and remain in this position today.

We have had a two team structure for sound work here for several years now. However, the most important games our sound team has worked on are those in the Super Robot Taisen series: the entire α series, the Original Generation series, and the newest game, Z, comprising ten games in all.

Recently, we have worked on the Endless Frontier series as well as the Misshitsu kara no Dasshutsu (The Escape from the Locked Room) and Misshitsu no Sacrifice (The Sacrifice in the Secret Room) series from D3. Looking back over our company's 10 years of history, I feel we have worked on a very large number of licensed games. We have worked on projects like Zoids Saga, GetBackers, NANA, Mushiking, Battle Spirits, and so forth.

Two plus one people: Naofumi Tsuruyama (left), Kayoko Matsushima (depicted with stuffed toy), Takuya Hanaoka (right)

Chris: There are three composers currently at Salamander Factory. Could you each please introduce yourselves and tell us about your musical specialities?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Although I've said it already, I am the representative director of Salamander Factory, Tsuruyama.

While I was in school, I specialized in the electric organ (the Electone), and in middle school I played in the wind band. Within the company I tend to write quiet and elegant music — which is to say, I leave all of the more violent and complex music to Hanaoka (laughs).

Takuya Hanaoka: I'm Hanaoka, the composer of violent and complex music! Once in a while, when the schedule is tight, I compose quiet and elegant music. I am also usually the one to research new consoles when they come out. In fact, I just might be the one who spends the most time in the office (laughs).

In middle school I played the trombone in the wind band, and at that time, I would take the various scores I could get and play them back through my computer. That was before most scorewriting programs, and it was necessary to program everything in manually. In college I majored in composition, and alongside my lessons, I was in the choir club and got caught up in singing in musicals. I also played in a band with friends and in an extracurricular community orchestra — in fact, I am still a member of that orchestra today. After graduation I entered Tecmo. Several years later, I began to work at the same company as Tsuruyama, and at the end of 1999, I moved to Salamander Factory.

Kayoko Matsushima: I've loved video games since I was a child, and it was my dream to work on video games. I majored in voice in my college's music department, and chose to become a sound designer. In addition to composition, I create sound effects and work on converting the music for internal synthesizers.

Chris: Salamander Factory is best known for extensively working on the long-running Super Robot Taisen series. First of all, could you introduce readers to the concept of this series and what to broadly expect from its original scores?

Series Introduction: The series, beginning with 1991's 2nd Super Robot Taisen on the Famicom, is a strategy RPG series containing crossovers from various robot / mecha animes. The continuing story was concluded in the 1997 Sega Saturn game Super Robot Taisen F Final. It began again with Super Robot Taisen α, and the series has continued to develop since then in the α series (which concluded in 2005 with α 3), Impact and MX with their independent stories, and the portable games A, R, and D. The original robots, characters, and world that had been created throughout all of these games were collected into the Super Robot Taisen Original Generation series, which has spawned an anime and models in addition to the games.

Naofumi Tsuruyama: The various copyrighted works appear together, and any given work's music is usually quite intense. When I was first working on the series, I composed for the inter-mission sections and dialogue, so I tried to balance out the licensed music. My goal was to give players a chance to take a breath in the midst of the bitter fighting.

Takuya Hanaoka: I primarily composed map and battle music on my initially scores for the series. Of course, I kept in mind the personality of the various licensed works that would appear on the maps, but I also considered the long time players would spend on each, due to the nature of the game, so I created much longer map music than had been used in the series up to that point. Instead of thinking about the locations of the stages, I tried to develop the various pieces so that one could imagine the story through them. Since α, it has been possible to skip the battle animations, and hear the same music continuously, so I think it had a good effect.

Super Robot Taisen OG: Original Generations

As for the battle music, I watched many of the old classic robot anime back when they were airing, and I feel that this has influenced me positively. Several years after writing "Ware ni Teki Nashi" (aka "My Rival") in the style of Michiaki Watanabe-sensei and Mr. Ichiro Mizuki's (real name: Toshio Hayakawa) classic songs for Mazinger Z, I had the chance to meet them, and I was overjoyed when they praised my work. Of course, there have been many styles throughout the history of robot anime, and the atmosphere of an anime is extending outward with its era, but following the characters' personalities I have tried to compose music that creates a general impression of the super robot genre.

I later had the chance to make full-size arrangements of the character themes I had created for the TV anime version, Super Robot Taisen Original Generation: Divine Wars.

Chris: Naofumi Tsuruyama and Takuya Hanaoka, you made your debuts in the Super Robot Taisen series with the original α. What was it like to work on this major title and how did it define the sound for future entries in the series?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Although I worked on a large number of neutral pieces, I also composed "Ace Attacker," which is as powerful as any of the licensed titles' music. I did the composition and Hanaoka did the arrangement, and since then we have worked on a number of pieces in the same style. "Namida Nuguu Tsubasa" (aka "The Wing that Wipes Away My Tears") from the latest title, Z, is one of them.

Takuya Hanaoka: Since I was already familiar with the series, I felt under a great deal of pressure. I worried about how to approach the map music, and how to convey variety and personality in the character themes. In the initial stage of composing the map music, I had the direction to "let players hear a little bit of the melodies from previous games and connect it to the new series' music." From this, I created "In the Valley of Victory and Defeat," and from there composition progressed relatively smoothly. I tried out a number of small devices in that piece, but at that time my method was to stick to the fundamentals of the series, even as I took it forward.

As for the character themes, I remember a number of things: "Ice Man" was a melody that I had thought up half a year before I started composition on the game, "Messenger from the Void" was composed based on my ideas about a certain location but ended up being used in another, and "Time Diver" was composed at the very end to fit the old location, because I figured it would be needed. In the end, I composed the majority of the character themes for α, but since I would frequently read and re-read the character descriptions to get my imagination working, I thought about composition even when I wasn't at my desk.

Chris: Super Robot Taisen α subsequently expanded into a multi-episodic series. How did you maintain the essence of the series' music in these scores, yet still keep things novel, interesting, and expansive?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: For the entire α series, I took the essence of the inter-mission music, and used it to bind the series together. I have said this on our website's samples page as well, but I believe we utilize tension and release it to dramatic effect.

Takuya Hanaoka: For the map music, I intentionally built up core melodies one by one, and throughout the series, from α Gaiden to 2nd α to 3rd α, I would weave in melodies from the games up to that point. When all of the pieces accumulated in this way appear in the final map music in 3rd α, I think it produced a very special reaction. Also, it's not the type of music that people pay much attention to, but a number of pieces throughout the α series use the same phrase in their crisis music; I took care to bring out a sense of unity even if the scope of each game differed.

Looking at it now, I think that these guiding concepts served to protect the score's essence. I am overjoyed that people find the ideas and drama that I added to that essence to be novel, interesting, and expansive.

Super Robot Taisen α Album

Chris: The music for the series developed further in Super Robot Taisen Z and Super Robot Taisen OG: Original Generations. Naofumi Tsuruyama, what do you think were the major musical innovations in these scores? As a relative newcomer to the series, what was it like to work on these large scores, Kayoko Matsushita, and what do you feel you uniquely brought to the titles?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Z was the beginning of a new Super Robot Taisen, so I felt we had to try new things with the music as well. With the inter-mission sections, I wanted something more like Taiga Drama music, which resembles space opera. In a lot of ways, OG is like a celebration of our original works, and I enjoyed the feeling of breathing life into the various characters that appeared through music.

Kayoko Matsushima: With Z, my original music existed alongside the licensed music in an already complete Super Robot world, but in OG, almost all of the music was original, so I had to construct a world that would stand up just as well.

Chris: Over the years, a variety of other artists have also worked on the Super Robot Taisen series, such as JAM Project, Koji Hayama, and Yasufumi Fukuda. Is there significant degree of collaboration between the artists assigned to the Super Robot Taisen series and is there any rivalry?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: It's a trying fate, but since all of the music has to be put into the internal synthesizers, other people's music passes through our hands before it's released. Collaboration is probably not the right word; the music passes through our filter, and we have a chance to grow through such wonderful music. Even within the company we have some friendly rivalry, and even though no one says it, there's an understanding that we're in competition with each other.

Takuya Hanaoka: JAM Project has sung the title themes and ending themes for the series since α Gaiden, and since 2nd &alpha, the last map music has been an arranged version of the title theme. It's always an exciting experience to arrange their aggressive sound for an orchestra. Listening to the version before the final, I think about which spots would be improved through live performance, and arrange it for the game. After experiencing the atmosphere of JAM Project's live performance, I am always motivated to improve.

For the Original Generation series, Impact, and MX, I worked together with other sound teams. At the time I'd had little experience working with outside teams, but as one of the few teams in this era of streaming playback that can work with internal synthesizers, it was an extremely rare chance for interaction and information exchange, and I learned a good deal.

Just hearing one of Hayama-san's pieces once can get it stuck in your head, playing over and over. They have that kind of impact. I listened to them when I was converting them for use in-game, and I couldn't get them out of my head for days (laughs). I am always thinking that I would love to emulate that kind of impact.

Fukuda-san helped out a lot with 3rd α, playing the guitar and doing a little bit of the composition. I was especially taken aback by how he shredded on "Wild Flug," which I had composed for 2nd α. Since that is pretty much the extent of what I've done with people outside the company, I'm probably not one to say much about collaboration. Since I have a strong will to improve, both from a musical and a technical standpoint, no matter who I'm working with, I'd like to approach every opportunity thinking "I'm going to learn a lot."

Endless Frontier EXCEED

Chris: Furthermore, the Super Robot Taisen series is known for its use of anime themes. How do you select appropriate themes for the franchise and appropriately adapt them for an in-game context?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Since in the end it is music for a game, we aim for a more "game-like" sound, but we try hard to be faithful to the originals. The "game-like" parts are found in the tempo and the strength or weakness of the tone colors. Also, there are times when the memory of music has been colored by nostalgia, so we have to bring it closer to what people remember.

Takuya Hanaoka: With the licensed music, you can avoid a number of musical problems, but since people have already imprinted memories and impressions, which have become colored by nostalgia, and will have to withstand scrutiny, both the sound team and the game development staff check the pieces constantly. It takes a lot of time and labor, but from my experience, I believe it's necessary.

Chris: We'd like to end this part of the interview by discussing Salamander Factory's very recent works on Endless Frontier and Endless Frontier EXCEED, a spinoff series for Super Robot Taisen. Could you elaborate on what this series offers and what musical direction you have taken for it?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Endless Frontier shares some elements of it worldview with Super Robot Taisen, but with more of an "anything goes" feel. We wanted the game to have a lively feel, with the idea "let's have fun in this world!"

Takuya Hanaoka: In the Super Robot Taisen series, there is a number of more serious scenes and pieces of music, but in Endless Frontier the story and the world are more chaotic and happy-go-lucky, so the music is just as fun. In scale it's completely different, so even though it's a spin-off of Super Robot Taisen, we added in some small rhythms and playful elements — things that we would have decided against using in a Super Robot Taisen game, because they would have killed the mood, or because we would be scared of getting a bad vibe (laughs). Since the series was on the DS, we tried to cover up the weaknesses of the system's sound specs through solid construction and use of the parts.

Kayoko Matsushima: Since the highly individual characters define the game, I aimed to support the characters' personalities through my music.

Chris: Takuya Hanaoka, at the start of the interview, you mentioned that you were employed at Tecmo before entering Salamander Factory. Could you share your memories of this period and, in particular, what it was like to be involved with the Monster Farm franchise?

Takuya Hanaoka: I only worked on the first Monster Farm (aka Monster Rancher) game, but even before production had started, I had read the plan that was circulating around the office, and I was intrigued because the world was different from my ideas about Tecmo, and because its world seemed so novel, so I applied to score the game. Musically, I took things as far as I could to match this new world and created a consistent musical score. As a player, I am very happy with the way they have extended that world.

The series, which has continued for a long time, continues to use the atmosphere that I developed on the original. In fact, the opening movie theme, which was created after I left the company, also develops these ideas. Even after I left Tecmo and continued to compose, several soundtracks in the series have been released on CD, and I am still in contact with friends I met through the game. I therefore believe that it is indeed my first major game.

Monster Farm

Chris: At Tecmo, you were also involved with the Tecmo Bowl, Angel Eyes, and Deception franchises. Could you elaborate on your contributions to these franchises and how important they were for the development of your musicianship?

Takuya Hanaoka: There were three Tecmo Super Bowl games, for the SNES and Genesis. I composed a number of pieces for the first SNES game, and was the lead composer on the second and third Genesis games. I also ended up doing some programming-related work on the games, so I had the opportunity to learn about American football.

Although I was not the primary composer on Angel Eyes, someone I got along with well — an artist working on the character called Mysterious Power who had a similar taste in music — asked me to write the character's theme, "Beloved Bette." When it was ported to the PlayStation, I worked on arranging it.

On Tecmo's Deception (aka Kokumeikan) too, someone else was the lead composer, but he was having some trouble with some pieces and asked if I could compose them. The three I composed were "The Door, Having Been Opened (Prologue)," "Trembling in a Crisis," and "Yurias, Misguided." It was an unusually dark game for its time, and at the same time, in the same environment, using the same equipment, I was creating the entirely different world of Monster Farm. I created music with a kind of atmosphere uncommon in my work, and with its tragic story, it's become a favorite game of mine, even though I didn't compose very much for it.

Chris: In addition to Super Robot Taisen and Endless Frontier, Salamander Factory has come to attention for scoring the remake Shining Force: Resurrection of Dark Dragon. As lead composer, how did you elaborate on the original compositions for this title, Naofumi Tsuruyama? Was it a challenge to accommodate the compositions on the Game Boy Advance's limited hardware?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: I had played and loved the original as a gamer, and since the remake team couldn't get any of the music to work, they entrusted the production to me instead. I asked myself what the original game's composer, Masahiko Yoshimura-san, would have done, and it arrived at its present form.

Takuya Hanaoka: I handled the battle music. Since the Game Boy Advance doesn't have as many channels as the Sega Genesis, it was very difficult to reduce the music without lessening its impact.

Chris: Salamander Factory have worked on numerous other anime cross-overs for Banpresto and others. Naofumi Tsuruyama, could you elaborate on these works and how their scores compare to Super Robot Taisen?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: The anime-related projects I've worked on outside of the Super Robot Taisen series are the ones I listed earlier, Zoids Saga, Getbackers, and so on. It's a little difficult to do a comparison, but if I had to say, I'd say that the other works are more like background music. That is, it's there in order to support the characters and story. In the Super Robot Taisen series, I feel that they support each other.

Takuya Hanaoka: Whatever the original work was, when I'm working on an unfamiliar project, I start by watching or reading the original in order to take it all in. I don't know if there are any conscious differences in my approach, but there are definite differences between works featuring giant robots and works featuring normal people — this is in the degree their worlds are fleshed out, in their scope, and also in their typical settings and worlds. By matching the music and the work in these elements, I think that the music will fit the project in the end.

Touhou Anthology

Chris: Takuya Hanaoka, your music has featured on a number of arranged and doujin projects too. Could you share your experiences working on albums such as Winter Mix Vol. 3, Touhou Anthology, and Choro Q Jet Rainbow Wings? How did you come to participate in the Touhou doujin scene and what are your thoughts about this gigantic phenomenon overall?

Takuya Hanaoka: For Winter Mix Vol. 3, I heard about the project from the people at the doujin shop Toranoana, which was commissioning the project. Since we were allowed to create anything for this original album so long as it fit the winter theme, I spent some time wondering about what I should do with it. I often compose while imagining and developing a visual image or scene, so once I imagined "snow beginning to fall from a dark night sky," I proceeded smoothly. Without telling her a word of my concept, I played the piece for my wife and she came up with approximately the same idea. It's rare for us to have the same ideas about things, and I found it mysterious, so the piece left a strong impression on me.

For the Touhou Project, I hadn't been in contact with the creator since he had retired, but the people at the doujin shop Toranoana asked me to participate. I have had the chance, since then, to participate in a number of titles. Within the doujin world, things are usually done very quickly, but the Touhou Project has a clear set of guidelines; I think that it is wonderful that there are people who are working to create places that allow anyone's music or art, pro or amateur.

For Choro Q Jet Rainbow Wings, I was not involved in the production of the game itself, but I did work on the arranged CD. I arranged tracks 7, 9, and 10. More recently, I also arranged "Cross Your Heart" from Haunted Castle for the Castlevania tribute album, which will be released later this week.

Chris: You are also one of an exclusive number of external composers that have been entrusted to contribute to the beatmania series. Is it satisfying and challenging to work on this series?

Takuya Hanaoka: With beatmania, I went to the studio and worked on the button layout and the related data. I like to play the Bemani series in my spare time, so I took care to make a fun layout that would have people move all over the console. I have received good feedback about "Manmachine plays Jazz ~MIO2~" from GOTTAMIX in particular. I would come home from working on beatmania and then play more Bemani games, so I was spending all my time immersed in music games (laughs).

Chris: Salamander Factory have also recently worked on several projects for the iPhone. Could you elaborate on what these projects involve and what it is like to work with such unique technology?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: Since 2009, Salamander Factory has developed iPhone applications as well. We aimed to create enjoyable applications all around, not just in terms of their sound. We have challenged ourselves to create applications in multiple genres: the first was an action game, the second a camera app, and the third was a movie app. The sound is casual for these apps. They have gotten quite a bit of use, so I hope you enjoy them.

Takuya Hanaoka: The apps aren't really sold on the basis of their sound, but I worked a little bit on the music for Go! Go! Ninja san! It's a stoic, hardcore game, so please play it if you get the chance! Just the other day, a video camera app, Toy Clip, was released. Matsushima created the interface and sound effects, and there's no music, but you can easily shoot high speed or low speed video, and it's been well received.

Kayoko Matsushima: Yes. Even though sound wasn't the focus of this app, I took care to balance out the volume levels and length of the various sound effects.

Chris: Many thanks once again for your time. It's been a pleasure talking to you. To finish, is there anything you'd each like to say about yourselves or your works? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to readers around the world?

Naofumi Tsuruyama: There are probably many who think of Super Robot Taisen when they think of Salamander Factory, but we have worked on many other projects as well, and I hope that people will enjoy these other sides of our work in addition to those games. I think you could start by trying out our iPhone apps!

Takuya Hanaoka: In addition to the games that have made us famous, I am glad that I have been able to work across a number of genres. Although I haven't often spoken out before now, I would be happy if afterwards you take this opportunity to learn more about these various games. I'm looking forward to other interesting projects in the future!

Kayoko Matsushima: Salamander Factory will continue to evolve along with video games, so please continue to support us in the future as well!

Many thanks to Christopher Ling and Ben Schweitzer for respectively translating the questions and answers of the interview. In addition, thank you to Don Kotowski, Takuya Hanaoka, and Yuji Takenouchi for various help organising the interview.