I’ve always had a thing for June Chikuma’s music, though it took me a while to realize it. Even today, I often find myself humming the “mantra” track from Faxanadu, the difficult, side-scrolling action-RPG for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Faxanadu resonated because it conveyed a fantasy world that was so different from anything I’d seen before; the World Tree was in decay, its corruption palpable every step of the way. The sepia-stained visuals and difficult gameplay were perfectly complemented by its moody, evocative soundtrack.
And that, it turned out, was Chikuma’s work. These days, she is best known for her massive contributions to the Bomberman series, almost single-handedly defining that series’ energetic, eclectic sound in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s.
Inspired by my fond childhood memories of her music, I reached out to Chikuma to learn more about the history behind Faxanadu, Bomberman, and the rest of her impressive musical oeuvre. We chatted via email.
Chikuma, who lives in Tokyo, studied to be a composer from her childhood. “I always had elementary knowledge about music, such as the harmony and rhythm, since I was very small,” she said. “When I was practicing the piano, I often became bored and started to improvise. I became accustomed to writing down the melodies I improvised, which made me a composer without knowing exactly what it was. I began to think about becoming a real composer when I listened to Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet on TV. I was very much moved by his novel melodies and harmony, and wanted to create something like that as well.”
When she was a student, someone she knew tasked her with composing the title music of news programs for TBS, as well as background music of documentary films. She drew influence from the styles of early 20th century modern classical music composers like Paul Hindemith, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and so on. “It was necessary for a professional musician to change constantly according to the producer’s intention,” she told me, “so I tried to study various music to learn this kind of responsiveness.”
Chikuma entered the game industry in 1986 thanks to her agent at the time, who had a connection at Hudson Soft. She began by composing the soundtracks for Famicom (NES) games like Bomberman and Adventure Island before being asked to write the music for Faxanadu.
I still remember the first time I played Faxanadu. I had moved to Korea from the States for two years as an elementary school student. NES games, of course, weren’t available: Local stores only had Famicom cartridges, meaning I hadn’t gotten a new game in some time. Fortunately, a relative traveling from the States brought a gift in Faxanadu. At first the bland tan cover and difficult-to-pronounce title aroused my suspicion, but I was in for a surprise.
The game wasn’t just good...it was awesome. There was an opening cutscene, which was rare back then, showing the unnamed protagonist approaching a dying city. The depressing state of the villagers was more pronounced by the animated faces (even if they blinked way too much) and the numerous towns featured actually-interesting dialogue. The equipment you found and purchased helped the character grow stronger—my favorite were the winged boots that let me fly.
Faxanadu’s password-entry music felt somber yet somehow hopeful. Hudson Soft / I Am Spider (YouTube)
Meanwhile, the monsters looked like something out of a Giger nightmare with their insectoid forms and pulsing flesh. The backgrounds’ art direction evoked visceral disgust, and the environments felt alive. The game was creating dense atmosphere before I even knew what that was. A sprawling, labyrinthine journey that had elements of a metroidvania, Faxanadu became the entirety of my gaming life until I beat it. Even then, I went back and searched every nook, trying my best to find every last secret.
Its music was my constant companion throughout that journey. There’s a gravitas to the soundtrack as it weaves together tonal shifts with every layer the unnamed protagonist unravels. The mystery behind the World Tree’s corruption is onerous, conveyed by the increasingly oppressive music that hammers you as your character approaches its inner core. The soothing rhythms of the towns and the aforementioned “mantra” screen, what the game called its progress-restoring passwords, were rewards for some of the game’s more difficult areas.
“Faxanadu is a side-scroller and an RPG at the same time. So I tried to express both the rhythmical and vivid mood of an action game, as well as the storytelling beats of a RPG,” Chikuma told me. “I tried to compose universal music favored by all listeners, using various methods of classical music, jazz, pop, etc.”
Faxanadu’s overworld theme showcased the soundtrack’s infectiously upbeat side. Hudson Soft / I Am Spider (YouTube)
Since games were a new type of medium, Chikuma was excited about composing for them. But she had to accomplish her compositions working within the narrow confines of the modest Famicom audio hardware. That’s where her jazz background became invaluable. Since jazz could produce a high variety of chords with a small number of voices, she found many of its lessons important in her approach to NES music.
“The tone generator of the NES had just three channels (two pulse waves and one triangle wave), and one noise channel,” she said. “So it was necessary to express the music through melodic movements and construction in place of colorful tones. The jazz technique was useful to express chord progression in the three main channels.”
She was assisted by the sound programmer at Hudson Soft, Toshiaki Takimoto, who did his best to help the team implement the darkly eclectic VGM of Faxanadu. In terms of feedback, Chikuma said, “They left everything completely up to me: from general directions to sound-making details. I was able to work quite freely under these good circumstances.”
In contrast to the atmospheric tracks of Faxanadu, the music of Bomberman was a jubilant romp. Most of the series’ action focuses around the strategic placement of bombs. The stories vary, with the first NES Bomberman putting you in the role of a robot who has to navigate a string of mazes in order to find his humanity. Accompanying many iterations in the series is Chikuma’s wonderfully uplifting and energetic music which, at times, is as explosive as the bombs being flung around throughout.
“I was trying to mix various genres based on techno and electronic music,” she explained. The first Bomberman was on the NES. Chikuma says the NES’ tone generator was so suitable for techno that it turned out to help form the “bleep” style of techno as well as what we commonly call chiptunes, which is game music sequenced for sound-producing microchips. “Chiptune is a legacy of the NES,” said Chikuma. “On the other hand, bleep [techno] had a root from the analog synthesizers. Game music picked up on it and gave special meaning to the bleep style.”
1991’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) had very different sound hardware than its predecessor. On the SNES, a composer typically generated sounds by uploading brief, recorded audio “samples” to the audio chip that they could then manipulate and “play” as a custom instrument. The main problem was that the system only had a very small amount of memory in which to store those samples.
So when it came time for Chikuma to compose Bomberman music on the SNES, it was a very different process that took the series’ sounds in a fresh new direction.
“[The] tone generators of the SNES were all [based on samples]. So I could apply house music [techniques] and [employ] breakbeats,” she said. “The SNES has an 8-voice PCM tone generator. There were 32kHz and 16kHz as sampling rates. With the former, sound quality would be clear but the total sampling time would be short. With the latter, the sound would be ‘thick’ but the time would be doubled. As I wanted to use phrase sampling and breakbeats, I chose the latter without hesitation. As a result, I got a very unique lo-fi sound and I felt it turned out very good.”
In the 16-bit era, as with Faxanadu back in the NES days, she usually had a lot of freedom in her approach to the music. “In most cases,” she said, “they showed me the game while they were in the middle of working on it and I composed it to suit it.”
Chikuma’s pick for favorite Bomberman music comes on a surprising system: Nintendo 64. The N64 famously lacked dedicated audio hardware, and rarely got much notice for its soundtracks. But that didn’t mean a talented composer couldn’t work some magic on it.
“I’m sure that the most remarkable title in terms of music among the Bomberman series was Bomberman Hero,” she said, referring to the 1998 Nintendo 64 release. “It featured drum and bass and acid techno, which had been known only to fans of club music before then. The track ‘Redial,’ [pairs] electric piano melodies with drum and bass, and is still favored by a lot of listeners today.”
Bomberman Hero mixed up the series’ established formula, augmenting previous games’ straightforward bombing action with platforming elements. Bomberman could actually jump, as well as transform into vehicles. Hero focused on the single-player experience rather than multiplayer, and borrowed generously from the plot of the original Star Wars. Only, Luke Skywalker never had infinite bombs. Going back to the game now, the low-poly environments and characters show their age, but the music stands out. While I haven’t been to a nightclub in ages, if the tracks from the game started playing, I’d be dancing.
The PC Engine’s audio hardware was fairly similar to the NES/Famicom’s, but two extra channels could allow for additional richness. Hudson Soft / Track Station (YouTube)
I asked about another of my favorite tracks which is from the PC Engine’s Bomberman ‘93, which never came out in America.
“I have used this melody since the first NES Bomberman and it was one of the main melodies of the Bomberman series,” she replied. “At the beginning, it was a BGM for battle mode and I later made it a chill-out arrangement according to scenes. The PC Engine had six voices, which made it possible to produce many things. However, in my opinion, the NES had a stronger tone quality.”
Chikuma went on to explain her philosophy behind her music. “Basically, I am a composer who pursues cutting-edge art. In other words, ‘art suprematism’ which I often call ‘absolute music,’” she said. “I don’t like to express other things except music. That might not be suitable for a soundtrack composer, because it requires a professional compromise. However, the combination and the balance of those elements seem to be interesting for listeners, having no connection with the composer’s intent.”
I was curious about what she’d said as the concept of making good music independent of the actual scene in the game was fascinating. “What I call ‘art suprematism’ or ‘absolute music’ is very simple,” Chikuma replied. “I compose music only from music. In other words, I don’t express any ‘feelings’ or ‘backgrounds’ in my composition. However, that has nothing to do with listeners. On their side, they are totally free to feel some ‘feelings’ or dream various ‘images,’ of course. I think it is natural and the contrast is interesting.”
Chikuma has studied many Middle Eastern styles of music which were an influence on her as a composer. “I encountered Arabic music when I wanted to build up my ability to improvise. Arabic classical music had an immense system of modes and rhythms, which enabled me to step forward a lot.”
That spirit of improvisation has translated into a body of work that is both bold and surprising. Speaking personally, Chikuma’s work and her unusual approach to composing the music made me rethink the nature of game music and how it’s created; her work delights gamers even though it’s made in pursuit of artistry rather than with the notion that it must complement gameplay. The extraordinary part, to me, is how this philosophy actually results in music that seems a perfect match for the games, rather than clashing.
Chikuma is currently busy at work on several personal projects. “I am going to release an album which gathers my old pieces,” she said. “It is called the Midas Touch and will be out on March 7th 2022 from Star Creature in Chicago. It [features] smooth jazz, ambient music and so on. And the new album which I will release next is electronic music which I made only with a digital audio workstation, without any acoustic instruments.”
I still think about that time in my childhood playing Faxanadu. Living in South Korea was difficult since English was my native language and I didn’t have many friends. The cultural and linguistic barriers were deeply felt. Videogames helped me a lot during that time, and Faxanadu was a vital part of that. When I hum those melodies, a part of it’s because I loved the game, but a bigger part is what it signified for me; a winged boot to a familiar place that reminds me of one of my favorite memories from childhood.