Hirokazu Tanaka has a history most game composers can only dream of. As a young sound designer working at Nintendo in the 1980s, he crafted the soundtracks to classics like Metroid, Earthbound, Dr. Mario, and Tetris. Later on, he would write songs for the original Pokémon anime. Now, a few decades later, he’s releasing his first proper solo album, a collection called Django that fuses chiptunes with techno and reggae.
Tanaka — who is releasing the album under his stage name “Chip Tanaka” — describes the new collection as “the culmination of my harder side, the kind of game music you hear in EarthBoundʼs battle tracks.” The 13 songs jump around from genre to genre. The opening track, “Ringing Dub,” starts out as a thumping electronic track, before easing in some 8-bit bloops and a more breezy reggae sound. For the most part, the album is lighthearted; it can be loud and powerful, but it never feels dark or depressing. It’s part modern pop, part tribute to classic video games.
The infusion of reggae shouldn’t be too surprising for Tanaka’s fans: the genre has been a steady influence on him throughout his career. At live shows he’s been known to mash up dub sounds with game classics like Balloon Fight. “During my 20s and 30s, I was a total reggae-head,” he told The Japan Times. “I had to cut down after a while, as I realized if I was only listening to reggae, I wouldn’t be able to make other kinds of music.”
With Django, Tanaka joins a growing list of Japanese game composers branching out into solo work. In 2015 Ninja Gaiden composer Keiji Yamagishi released the first half of his chiptune odyssey Retro-active, while Red Bull has hosted an ongoing radio series called “Diggin’ in the Carts” about Japanese game music, which included the launch of a new album this week. Meanwhile, Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae is also in the midst of working on her first solo album.
What these albums have in common is that they set these musicians free from the often restrictive world of game development. Tanaka has said that making music at Nintendo was more like a typical job than an artistic endeavor. With Django, he’s finally showing exactly what he’s capable of.