One aspect of Sega games almost universally revered by the company’s fans is the memorable music that was so consistent throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. No matter what type of arcade game it was, if it was produced by Sega of Japan, there was more than likely to be great music involved. What makes this quality so amazing is that so many legendary soundtracks came out of the company during this period. Even more amazing is that many of them, including some of the most classic Sega soundtracks of all time, were all created by one man: Hiroshi Kawaguchi.
For 30 years, Kawaguchi has been an integral part of Sega’s music and sound production, and he is responsible for many of soundtracks that people automatically associate with the company. His work ran parallel to the evolution of Sega’s arcade hardware, pushing the technology as much as the designers and programmers did. Most of Kawaguchi’s music was made for arcade games, but there isn’t a Sega fan in the world that hasn’t hummed along to some version of his work on the Master System, Genesis, Sega CD, and Saturn. The man’s résumé reads like a list of the top 50 of the best Sega soundtracks of all time, and even after almost three decades, he’s still producing music at the House of Sonic.
Sowing the Seeds of Legend
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, also known as “Hiro” or Hiroshi Miyauchi, was born in the Chiba Prefecture, Japan on April 12, 1965. Early on, he had little interest in music but began to develop an appreciation for it as he reached adolescence, becoming interested in folk music and learning to play the guitar. Soon, he was in band and writing his own music. During this time, he had also gained a fondness for programming, having taught himself on the Commodore VIC-1001. It was actually because of his talent for programming that he was initially hired at Sega in 1984, and he spent time working with other future Sega greats, like Yuji Naka, on arcade titles.
Kawaguchi never lost his interest in music, and when he wasn’t programming Sega games, he was composing. The two skills often overlapped, which was fortunate for him. Creating game music at the time was no easy feat, and Kawaguchi’s process involved playing a song on a keyboard and then recording it as a draft on a cassette tape. Once the song was perfected, he would have to enter each sound as numbers into a development PC and compile it, and finally transfer it over to the game board.
His work soon came to the attention of Yu Suzuki, who was working on his second arcade title, Hang-On. Suzuki loved Kawaguchi’s music and asked him to write some songs for his game. The young musician quickly came up with four songs, a theme he would often repeat. Kawaguchi believed in quality over quantity, and felt that a few memorable songs were preferable to a large soundtrack that would be largely forgotten. Among the songs he wrote was Theme of Love, which was selected as Hang-On’s main theme. Few arcade games of the era featured music with a rock style, and Kawaguchi took advantage of the new Sega hardware, which allowed for PCM sampling, to create a realistic rock soundtrack. Hang-On was the first Sega arcade game to incorporate digitized drum samples, pumping the soundtrack out of four built-in speakers in the deluxe motorcycle cabinet. Along with realistic sound effects like the buzz of passing motorcycles, the music recreated the thrill of racing and helped make Hang-On a hit for Sega.
The chance to write music for Hang-On was a major breakthrough for Kawaguchi, as it allowed him to apply his programming skills to get the most out of the hardware. Around the same time he joined Sega, arcade manufacturers began to incorporate FM sound chips in their machines. This was a major leap in technology, and composers could now create themes that focused more on melodic development and progression. In addition to the music, Kawaguchi also created the game’s sound effects, applying pulse-code modulation and pushing the YM2203 sound chip beyond what was expected. The success of Hang-On afforded him the chance to work on music full-time, and he began to distinguish himself by using high-quality audio samples and emphasizing solos in his themes.
Kawaguchi’s next title would be his first major soundtrack in both size and legacy. 1985’s Space Harrier featured a significantly larger selection of themes than Hang-On, and it would give Kawaguchi the opportunity to try his hand at scoring a space-themed game. With almost a dozen tracks, it was three times the size of his score for Hang-On, and Kawaguchi delivered a set of themes that matched Space Harrier’s frantic pace and action. Those lucky enough to play it in the deluxe cabinet enjoyed a singular experience, as it rocked in the same direction Harrier moved. Along with Hang-On, Space Harrier was a great example of Suzuki’s drive to create immersive gaming experiences, and Kawaguchi’s blistering soundtrack played a huge role in producing that effect.
1986 was an incredibly prolific year for Kawaguchi. In addition to writing the music for the arcade versions of Alex Kidd: the Lost Stars and a single, intense track for Enduro Racer, he also worked on what would become two of Sega’s most beloved franchises. Kawaguchi wrote the music for both OutRun and Fantasy Zone simultaneously, a remarkable feat given how different the two soundtracks are. OutRun pitted players against the clock and its sense of speed and lush scenery were meant to give players a sense of escape, as though they were actually driving a convertible on the open highway. Suzuki always considered OutRun to be about driving and not racing, and he took his team to Florida and San Francisco to scout locations that would inspire the game’s route design. Though Kawaguchi remained in Japan while the team was in the U.S., he benefited greatly from the pictures and video of American highway design that they brought back. They helped him imagine what it was like to be casually driving the straight roads in America. Suzuki wanted a rock soundtrack for the game, but the technology of the time prevented guitars from being included. He asked Kawaguchi for “eight-beat rock rhythms at a tempo of 150bpm.” These brainstorming sessions inspired Kawaguchi to create three main themes for OutRun. He decided to make the first song fusion and the second one rock, but the last theme would have a Latin flair to it. His goal was to make players feel as though they were actually driving a car down the highway with the radio on, an experience that the deluxe OutRun cabinet came quite close to emulating. The machine added to the atmosphere by letting players select which song they wanted right from the start of the game, and this helped give them gain a greater appreciation for OutRun’s entire soundtrack.
Kawaguchi was also assigned a musical style for Fantasy Zone, and the game’s director, Yoji Ishii, instructed him to give the score a samba feel. He was impressed by Kawaguchi’s creative drive and his ability to multi-task, especially since he did such a great job of conveying the visions of what he and Suzuki had wanted for both games. Though most people outside of Japan never got a chance to play Fantasy Zone in arcades, the game was ported to many machines in the West, including the Master System and NES and featured adaptions of Kawaguchi’s music. Versions of some of his themes were also included in the Mega Drive sequel Super Fantasy Zone, which was released in Europe and Japan.
In December of the following year, Kawaguchi wrote the music for After Burner, the game that many within AM2 considered Sega’s first arcade blockbuster. According to Yu Suzuki, the team was instructed to “make a game that surpassed previous profits.” Members were given a flexible schedule, allowing them to work away from Sega’s office and set their own hours. The theme for the game was obvious. The movie Top Gun was wildly popular at the time and served as inspiration for the follow up to OutRun. Suzuki told Kawaguchi to make After Burner’s soundtrack guitar-based, something he had wanted for OutRun but was denied due to hardware limitations. Kawaguchi was not about to disappoint his boss, so he bought an electric guitar and began practicing. Little by little, he shared riffs and phrases with Suzuki, trying to capture the essence of what After Burner was supposed to be. Some of the songs Kawaguchi wrote were used as code names for the game while it was in development, including Red Out. In all, Kawaguchi estimates that he wrote and discarded almost 100 songs. Though he also listed as having scored After Burner II, no additional songs were written, as that game is essentially an upgraded version of the original (the ability to control plane speed as added via the throttle control). Interestingly, additional “melody versions” of his themes that were available on the After Burner 20th Anniversary Box CD set but not originally featured in any version of the arcade releases of After Burner or After Burner II were retrieved off of Kawaguchi’s original 8″ floppy discs and remastered for the 2015 release of After Burner 3D for the Sega 3D Classics line on the Nintendo 3DS.
Kawaguchi finished the decade as a member of the Sega Sound Team band (SST), which was formed in 1988 to play live rock versions of popular Sega arcade soundtracks. The band was composed of Sega music alumni, including Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, who would go on to score games like Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA, and Shenmue; and Katsuhiro Hayashi, who wrote the music for Quartet and Super Hang-On, among others. The group released several albums, and Kawaguchi played keyboard on three of them, from 1988-1990.
The Evolution of Genius
The second half of the 1980s was a golden age of creativity for Kawaguchi, and he loved exploring the capabilities of each new Sega arcade board. The evolution of arcade technology especially interested him, as it pushed his creativity in new directions and made him explore every facet of the each game’s possible sound. His music was featured in several arcade hits, like Power Drift (1988), Turbo OutRun (1989), and Super Monaco GP (1989). Versions of Kawaguchi’s work also continued to be included in the home ports of many of Sega’s arcade hits on the Master System and home computers.
As Sega entered the 1990s and both arcade and console hardware began to become more advanced, Kawaguchi was able to delve deeper into the technology and explore new types of music. By now, he was highly regarded for his ability to diversify his sound, making him Sega’s most prominent in-house composer. He was among its most prolific, creating compositions for all sorts of games, from the established arcade rock of G-LOC (1990) to the cartooney themes of SegaSonic The Hedgehog (1993).
While primarily remembered for his wondrous arcade soundtracks, Kawaguchi did also compose for Sega’s consoles, primarily the Mega Drive. He was behind the brilliant soundtrack to AM2’s first foray into the role-playing genre, 1991’s Sword of Vermilion. While opinions have varied over the years regarding the overall quality of the game, many consider the music to be its strongest feature and one of the best on the console. Powerful and varied, the set proved that there was no genre that Kawaguchi could not tackle He further proved this by providing music for the offbeat Japanese-exclusive RPG Rent-A-Hero (1991).
In time, Kawaguchi’s service and skill were rewarded by Sega, and he was made the sound section manager for the internal development group AM3. At the time, he was also still overseeing work on games produced by the sibling group AM2. His managerial duties left him little time to actually compose music, and some of the sequels to titles he had originally scored, such as OutRunners. Meanwhile, he contributed songs to Sega amusement rides and to indie music labels like Synergy. By now, the arcade market was in decline, and while Sega was still one of the major arcade manufacturers in operation, many of the coin-op games it was releasing were niche titles and never left Japan, including several that Kawaguchi scored.
Into the Modern Era
The ’90s signaled the decline of Sega’s arcade greatness, as more and more people turned to increasingly-powerful home console for their gaming. Though not as productive as he once was, Kawaguchi continued to write music for Sega’s arcade division and innovate, providing his trademark jazz fusion and rock style for soundtracks to Cool Riders (1995) and combining it with licensed tracks from other artists for Sega Touring Car Championship (1996).
More than a decade after leaving the Sega Sound Team, Kawaguchi joined with other Sega composers in 2000 to form a band called [H.], which has taken up the mantle of playing Sega’s arcade music live. He also wrote the score for Sega’s rhythm game Crackin’ DJ (2000) and later for Air Trix (2001), which gave him the chance to try his hand at hip hop. More and more, his focus was becoming centered on writing remixed versions of his classic arcade themes to new sequels or remakes. For OutRun 2: Coast to Coast (2006) and After Burner Climax (2006), he brought his classic ’80s soundtracks into the modern era, much to the joy of Sega fans everywhere.
Kawaguchi has continued to play with [H.], as well as write music for Sega’s games, among them the recent hit Bayonetta (2009). He still loves to write music, and his vast knowledge of sound production was tapped for the Yakuza series. In 2014, he teamed with several other artists, including Katsumi Tomono and Pokémon composer Shota Kageyama, to form H.K.S. (each letter stands for their initials). The group has played live and plans to release an album soon.
With more than 30 years of service at Sega, Kawaguchi is one of its longest-tenured composers and has seen the company’s rise and decline in both the arcade and home console market. Whether they know it or not, gamers worldwide have likely played and enjoyed one, if not several, arcade games featuring Kawaguchi’s music. His melodies are catchy, his rifts infectious. For more than three decades, he has defined the sound of Sega and earned a solid place in the annals of gaming history, and he provided the soundtrack to countless childhoods. For this, every Sega fan owes Hiroshi Kawaguchi a debt of gratitude. Think of him every time you play OutRun or Space Harrier. Hum along and remember to give thanks to the man who defined Sega game music more than anyone else.
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