Interview: Izuho ‘IPPO’ Numata On Working At Early-’90s Sega And Composing Phantasy Star IV

There are so many songs from the 16-bit era that evoke nostalgic flashbacks to my first experiences playing games. Those tracks weren’t just catchy tunes, but were a big part of what made many classic games so special. In a time when memory limited what games could do, music, working cohesively with the graphics and story, could weave together a cinematic narrative that conveyed a whole lot of emotion.

Which brings me to Izuho “IPPO” Numata, the ex-Sega composer behind some of the most memorable soundtracks of the 8- and 16-bit era. She began by adapting existing music for Sega Master System / Game Gear conversions like Psychic World and Sega Genesis arcade ports like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Forgotten Worlds. Then she began composing original music for games like Phantasy Star III, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium, the SMS/GG Land of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and the Sega CD strategy-RPG hidden gem, Dark Wizard.

Generations of Doom

Speaking with me over email, IPPO explained how her musical roots go back to when she was a student at a technical college. “There were very few female students and even fewer students who could play keyboard instruments like the piano, so I was a member of multiple bands. At one time, I belonged to five bands and was very busy at the time of the school festival. When I played in those bands, I used to transcribe the music by ear, an experience which proved very useful in my later years.”

While she was finishing college, Sega sent recruiting forms to her school. She learned it was looking for new hires in the music department and she was interested in applying. But Sega had an examination for recruits, which involved composing a new song, and she had never composed anything before.

Sega / VGM Archive (YouTube)

“I didn’t have any tools when I was a student, even a personal computer,” IPPO explained. “The only thing I had was an analog synthesizer (POLY800, KORG). I bought this with my savings to use in the bands. Sega required me to bring a cassette tape with a tune I composed to the job interview. I only had a cassette recorder which could play/record two cassette tapes at the same time. So I played the bass guitar and recorded the sound, then played the next part to the sound of the cassette tape and recorded the combined sound. I played the next part to the previous sound and repeated this classic method to compose. It took a very long time because if I made one slight mistake, I had to record the tune all over again. Somehow, those two player/recorder’s speeds were slightly different, and as I played the pitch shifted gradually. So I had to tune the instrument every time I played the new part. I didn’t have a tuner, so I depended on my own ears. Now come to think of it, I’ve wondered to myself, ‘How could I do such hard work!’ I composed three tunes and brought the tape to the job interview.”

Fortunately, they liked the compositions and she got the job, joining Sega in 1988.

One of the first assignments she received was converting the music from the side-scrolling arcade platformer, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, to the Mega Drive (the Japanese counterpart of the Sega Genesis). It was difficult because the two versions had very different sound data. “Capcom had given me the sound data of the arcade version and I was supposed to transfer the data to the console. My boss told me not to change the sound data but to change the sound driver and I wasn’t used to that kind of programming. I managed to do the job asking questions to my colleagues and the programmers. The latter were a big help, advising me that, ‘You should do this,’ or ‘You can do it this way, too.’”

Sega / The Cartridge Twins (YouTube)

IPPO found that when she changed the sound driver without changing the actual data, the music and sound effects played but sounded very different. She had to edit each tone to make the sound similar, but it was hard because the timber changed. Compounding the issue was that to know how the music should sound, IPPO had to play the arcade game many times. But, she says, “I was not good at playing games at the time.” It didn’t help that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was part of a series notorious for its difficulty.

It was a long process, but she pushed through. After the Ghouls ‘n Ghosts conversion was complete, Sega put her in charge of another arcade-to-Mega Drive port, the shooter Forgotten Worlds. That time, though, she didn’t change the sound driver, but instead wrote a new tool (with the help of a programmer) which converted Capcom’s sound data to a more Mega Drive-friendly format. “To tell you the truth, I worked quicker and more easily using the converter. I’m telling this secret for the first time in my life,” she said.

The first game she composed original music for was Phantasy Star III. The third part in Sega’s epic science-fiction RPG series, it also changed up the Phantasy Star formula, taking bold leaps with the narrative and gameplay. The music was exceptional, from the haunting rhythms of the dungeon track to the dynamic overworld theme that increases in complexity depending on the number of members in your party.

Sega / Edgy Bear (YouTube)

I was surprised to learn IPPO only had a month to do all the tracks. She enjoyed the task, but recalled that they didn’t have much time and were in a great rush. Aside from the ending score, she composed all the tunes in that month (with a little extra time for revisions and adjustments). It was also her first time using Sega’s proprietary program for creating the music, sequencing software called Prelude. The usual workflow involved her composing the score in Prelude, then asking the planner/director to listen to the track.

“If the director likes it, I started making data for Mega Drive. But you can’t use data from Prelude (SMF) directly on the Mega Drive. You have to convert the SMF data into Mega Drive sound data, then you make revisions. During these revisions, I had to try and optimize the sound to utilize the least amount of data possible.”

Her sound room and the development team were on separate floors. So every time she finished composing, she had to go on a walk to deliver a floppy disk to the developers.

The dynamic music system that changed with the flow of battle and the number of party members took some trial and error. “That was Mr. S, the director’s idea. (He does not make his name public, so I just call him S. In the staff roll of the game, he is credited as S2.) When he told me that he’d like the music to change, I thought, ‘He has a fresh idea!’ At the same time, I wondered how I should do it and deal with the sound data. Mr. S has a vast knowledge of music, so he had a clear idea how he wanted the music of Phantasy Star III to be and explained it to me. Since both of us loved classical music, it was easy for us to share ideas. At first, I was asked to have the music change depending on who was in the party, rather than the number of members. But there were problems, like there were too many types of characters who can join the party, and if all the characters have their own unique music, the game wouldn’t work in the later stages as it took up too much memory, so we had to give up that idea.”

As for the music in the battle sequences, she states, “I think I could’ve done more to link the music in better ways, and I could have used more musical patterns. Yeah, I have some regrets. If I were to do Phantasy Star III music now, I would think too much, and it would take so much more time than I did back then!”

Sega / RETRO OST (YouTube)

Successors Of Time

For IPPO, composing the music involved lots of research. She would generally start by reading documents that gave a synopsis of the game and details on characters and settings. In some instances, she had the director explain what they hoped for.

“The sound work is harder if the graphics are not made at least to some extent (because you make sound effects watching the graphics), so I usually start working much later than the programmers and the artists” she said. “In this way it’s much easier to integrate the director’s idea of the music with mine. Sometimes I draw pictures to get ideas. When I have to compose for the scenes whose graphics are not drawn yet, I try to discuss with the director to know what they want. Some directors just say ‘Any music will do,’ or ‘Do whatever you want to.’ In such instances, I find it hard to integrate our ideas.”

As for the actual composing in her mind, she relies heavily on her imagination. “If a director ordered me to write music in the woods, I’d just imagine I’m in the woods. Then suddenly music starts in my head and I catch it and start composing. When I’m doing this, I keep my eyes open without moving at all, if you see me, you’d think I’m creepy…”

In 1993 IPPO went to work on the fourth game in the series, Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium. The game is considered by many to not just be the best JRPG on the Sega Genesis, but one of the best of the 16-bit era, alongside SNES JRPG epics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. The music was equally grandiose, covering the plight of the Algol Star System as a new cast of characters fights a generational battle to vanquish evil once and for all. The manga-style cutscenes with panels were a big part of what made the story so impactful.

IPPO made one big request of her boss. As she worked on a separate floor from the rest of the development team at Sega, she asked to be in the same room with the other staff. “You might be surprised and say ‘What?!’ at my saying this,” IPPO said. “In developing consumer software, the programmers, the graphic designers, and the planner (the director) were all working in the same room, but not the sound designer. So if there were some minor revisions, and if they weren’t directly linked to the sound aspects, the sound designer just goes on without knowing about those revisions. Of course, if they think the sound designer must know, they always contact them. Working in a different room, I couldn’t always check the graphics of the game. For example, if I wanted to see how the combat sequences with weapons were animated, or the effect of the magic spell, I had to go to the room where the consumer software development took place.”

Sega / VGM Archive (YouTube)

After her boss agreed to her request, she moved all her gear to the floor where the other Phantasy Star IV were. “I could ask any programmer to show me any scene, a graphic designer to show me any effects, chat with staff, have lunch together. This might not sound special, but I hadn’t been able to do these ‘normal’ things. The chance to have bonding moments like chatting with the staff and having snacks with them may seem irrelevant in the job, but is very important in developing games. Working together in the same room made it so much easier for me to compose or make sound effects. I had little difficulty seeing the images I needed. I remember thinking ‘I knew working in the same room would be good, but never thought it was this good!’”

She composed many of the tracks for the cutscenes in Phantasy Star IV before she saw the graphics because they weren’t completed until almost the end of the project. But she had seen the hand-drawn storyboards, and had a general idea of what kind of scenes they were and what the actual dialogue was.

“I looked at the storyboards over and over again, imagined the scenes, and composed,” she said. “Unlike battle sequences and walking on the overworld, the script is important in drama sequences, so I composed trying not to make my scores too dramatic. Only with the ending sequence did I wait for the graphics to be completed before I composed. This is because I had to adjust the timing of the graphics and the score to be in unison with each other. When the graphics were completed, I measured the timing of every scene and wrote them on paper. I wrote down the dialogue and explanations of each scene. I started the work by making a long, long time sheet. I thought it would be very hard to compose scores for that long ending sequence with perfect timing. To my pleasant surprise, I had little trouble. I knew the players of Phantasy Star IV must have spent a long time to reach the ending, so I composed the score to be peaceful and happy. Though saying goodbye to the characters within the game must be sad, I wanted the players to have bright feelings as the saga came to an end.”

Phantasy Star IV also had one of what she considered her best decisions when it came to the usage of a score. After the final cutscene and the credits start to play, she used the same score as the opening cutscene, though with slight adjustments to the tempo and speed. She was originally supposed to compose a totally new score for the end, but when the programmer showed her the ending and the staff roll, she strongly felt, “It must be very cool to end this game using the same score again.”

It added to the sense of a cycle, the game in many ways wrapping up the series that had begun with the first Phantasy Star. “Some accused me of cutting corners,” IPPO stated. “They are wrong. Nobody wants to cut corners in working on the important scenes. Though I admit, it’s rare that the same score is used for the title and the staff roll.”

End of the Millennium

IPPO’s role wasn’t just limited to composing music. Creating sound effects was an important part of her work as well.

“In some companies, different people make sound effects and music, but that is rare,” IPPO said. “There are games in which sound effects are very important to make the game exciting. There are two kinds of sound effects. One is ‘the imaginary sound,’ the others are ‘realistic sounds.’ ‘The imaginary sound’ is the sound you use when a wizard makes magic. No such sound exists in this world, so you have to create it. It’s hard, but it’s also fun to invent a sound which doesn’t exist.”

She continued, “When you use ‘real sounds,’ you don’t just record the sound and use it, you always adjust it to the graphics. Many times you have to look for a ‘similar sound’ and record that instead. I mean, what would you do if the developers ordered the sound of a sword and a shield crashing? Do you have a genuine sword and shield in your house? In my case, I begin by hitting the things in my household with a metal stick searching for a ‘similar’ sound. Once they ordered me to make a ‘wall-hitting sound,’ so I hit the wall and recorded the sound but they said ‘No.’ I tried everything and eventually gave them a sound of me shutting the door of the refrigerator and the client said, ‘Yes, this is it!’ The ‘real’ sounds in a person’s head aren’t always the real sounds which exist, but are strongly influenced by prejudices and images. That’s the hard, but also fun, part in creating the sound. Sometimes, I create sound effects that are completely different from the one ordered. I once processed a piano sound by using the spring of a music box to create a roar of a monster. Sometimes you have to be a bit reckless.”

Her instincts have led her to make choices that are as bold as they are effective, as she believes silence can sometimes be more dramatic than music. “On a few occasions, I think, ’This scene should be left without any music.’ But when I suggested that, the developers used to disagree since they were worried players might mistake it for an audio bug or that players might think we’re cutting corners. I experienced this too many times. After I quit Sega and became a freelancer, I sometimes felt the same way. And in the case of Starship Damrey (a 3DS survival horror game) I didn’t feel ‘This short scene should be without music,’ but ‘This entire game should be without music, with only sound effects.’”

Level-5 / MaverickPRVideos (YouTube)

“Since Damrey was an adventure game,” she said, “the decision to make it free of music was tough. I expected to be opposed again. But the story writer said ‘I feel the same way!’, and the game was completed without BGM except for some event sequences. The tension becomes stronger without BGM. I still think it was the best decision for that game. Sometimes, gamers think creators are cutting corners, but many times we are not. Creative staff think and think before making the final decision. Any creator must work that way to make the best decisions and choices.”

IPPO left Sega shortly after wrapping on Phantasy Star IV. Due to personal reasons, she declines many of the offers she gets. She does have one project going on, but can’t say anything at this stage in development.

Looking back on her career, she revealed how iterative her composing process is and how with every soundtrack, she writes many more tracks than are actually used. “I discard many songs, especially when I feel it isn’t what I imagined or if I just don’t like them. Then I start composing the next tune. I repeat this process ‘til I get what I imagined. Maybe this is not so efficient a way. Maybe I’m too indecisive, But I go on until I can say to myself, ‘This is okay.’ Sometimes I find the tune which I thought okay the previous day isn’t okay at all the next day and discard it. It’s like a Japanese ceramic artist who breaks what they have just made one after another.”

As for advice to aspiring musicians, part of her philosophy to composing shined through as she described the visceral nature of making music.

“It’s important to listen to all kinds of music,” she said. “It is better if you don’t just ‘listen to’ the music but to ‘feel’ the music with your body if possible. I mean, if they want you to compose a Flamenco, you should go see Flamenco dancing. If they want you to compose a classical style music, you should go to a classical music concert. You should have experiences by which your heart is shaken with the live performances. As for composing, nowadays all you need is a laptop, and there are many ways to let people listen to what you’ve composed. I’m sure those of you who are interested in composing are already doing this, and to continue that is the best way, so I don’t think you need advice from me.”

This interview was translated by Daisuke Onitsuka.