'Sonic the Hedgehog' Music Creator Masato Nakamura Reflects on Video Game's 30th Anniversary

Masato Nakamura
Ryuji Tatsumi/Billboard Japan

Masato Nakamura

Released in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was the ace up Sega’s sleeve in the U.S. video game market dominated by Nintendo at the time. Its cool blue hedgehog character, vibrant graphics, and high-speed action that was ahead of its time took the country by storm, and Sonic quickly became a social phenomenon. The 16-bit game console Mega Drive went toe-to-toe with Nintendo -- which had just introduced the Super Nintendo Entertainment System -- and ended up logging the top sales share in its era. This achievement can undoubtedly be attributed to Sonic’s breakthrough in the U.S. -- a real-life “SONIC GOT THROUGH" moment for the company.

However, the artist behind the game music, such as the memorable melody of the "stage clear" fanfare, is unfortunately not as well known as the franchise. The soundtrack was written by Masato Nakamura of DREAMS COME TRUE, one of the biggest bands in mainstream J-pop. More than 30 years after his debut, the composer and bassist of the massively popular duo continues to be a leading figure in the Japanese music scene. Masato wrote all the music for Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released the following year. The numerous game music classics including the iconic melody of "Green Hill Zone" and the airy, fast-paced "Emerald Hill Zone" -- featured in the trailer for the recently announced live-action movie Sonic the Hedgehog 2 -- are all his compositions.

The Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2 Soundtrack collection -- which had long been only available on Apple Music -- was recently released worldwide on all major streaming platforms, allowing fans to easily access some of Masato’s contributions to game music history. This soundtrack is a three-part set, with part one featuring the original recordings made with the equipment at the time, part two containing demos by Masato of most of the tracks, and part three including the songs DREAMS COME TRUE provided for the game series, such as “SWEET SWEET SWEET,” featured as the ending theme of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Thirty years after its release, the sound of the YM3438 -- the FM sound chip on the Mega Drive -- still resonates in a dynamic, robust way. Although the Mega Drive was cutting-edge at the time, it could only generate six simultaneous tones, meaning it was far more restrictive than ordinary commercial music production. In an interview with Billboard Japan, Masato shared his process of creating music in such a limited environment.

“From a vertical standpoint, only six notes could be played together including the drums, chords and melody. It wasn’t about chords anymore, it was about expressing the music with just those six notes, so I only used six notes when composing on MIDI,” Masato says. “I allotted two notes to the hi-hat and the kick, the third to the melody, and used the remaining three to generate chords. It probably seems restrictive now, but that was just the given at the time, so I worked on the assumption that game music could only generate six notes. I created it purely from the point of view of, ‘This is all I can really use.’ So the challenge was how good the music could be with just a good melody, a good bass line, and a minimum of drums.”

The resulting music for Sonic the Hedgehog is a densely packed soundtrack of pop music from a variety of genres that precisely enhances the many different zones in the game. What is remarkable is how the game console played some full-fledged funk music, with "Spring Yard Zone" from the first title being the most notable example. The bass tones emitted from the FM sound chip are clearly outlined and three-dimensional, asserting their presence with a distinctive, bouncy quality. The way they link with the solid and lean drumming is also impeccable, to the extent that Thundercat has commented about the song on Red Bull's Diggin' in the Carts: "That was like one of my first experiences with funk I think, honestly.” This example of a Japanese pop artist’s influence on the contemporary funk scene through video games is a fascinating phenomenon.

Masato describes his first impression of Sonic the Hedgehog -- which was still in production at the time of the creation of the soundtrack -- as being cinematic. “When I first saw Sonic, I thought the graphics were groundbreaking for its time. Side-scrolling, really fast, and there were storyboards for various zones,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘I want to make the music like it’s a movie.’ Before I debuted as DREAMS COME TRUE, I’d been composing music and songs for visual works and commercials for a long time. I loved movies and always wanted to do film scores, so I started thinking of Sonic the Hedgehog as a movie and began working on the music as if it were the soundtrack accompanying the tale of Sonic's great adventure. MTV was at its peak at the time, and there were many movies that had hit theme songs, like Footloose and Flashdance. Every song [in the soundtracks] was a hit. I wanted Sonic to be like that, so that's how I wrote each track for it.”

Years after the game’s release, Sonic the Hedgehog was adapted for the silver screen. Masato’s cinematic gems in the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack have retained their special glow over the years, just like the movies they were inspired by.

Those who came to know Masato Nakamura through Sonic the Hedgehog might want to check out the latest song by his group DREAMS COME TRUE called “Tsugino Seno! De - ON THE GREEN HILL-.” As the title suggests, the track is a majestic pop number inspired by and using the original game music, a rich crossover collaboration that only he could pull off, 30 years after the birth of the game.

DREAMS COME TRUE’s latest song and Masato’s tracks for Sonic the Hedgehog can be heard here.

This article by neu_mura originally appeared on Billboard Japan.