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The Pioneers: Hitoshi Sakimoto

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Hitoshi Sakimoto is currently one of the most prolific music composers in the game industry. He began his career working with Quest on the Ogre Battle series, and later joined many of the same core collaborators for Square games Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. From Medieval strategy RPG's to sci-fi sidescrollers, the composer maintains a complex yet recognizable style across his diverse and influential titles.

Hitoshi Sakimoto
Hitoshi Sakimoto has been involved in composing and arranging music tracks on countless projects. Nevertheless, as the composer has mentioned in interviews, while his overall number of projects is large, for many he was involved mainly in synthesizer operation. Focusing on a selection of the composer's most prominent titles offers a representative overview of his estimable career in the game industry, one that is just now receiving international recognition. The composer has described himself as being influenced by older forms of techno and progressive rock. "I actively listened to Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, ELP and King Crimson," he told RPG Fan. "I guess you could say my personal preference is for jazz, fusion and techno." Musical journeys featuring variations in rhythm are a primary characteristic of the fusion genre, and a hallmark of Sakimoto's songs, which often bring together various disparate styles and tempos together. At the same time, classical music maintains a strong presence in many of his works, especially the tactical strategy titles, where formal composition and complex orchestral arrangements feature prominently.

The composer being interviewed for the special edition of Final Fantasy XII in 2006

The lead composer of such Square titles as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, both of which earned perfect scores from Famitsu magazine, never received any formal training in music composition. "In elementary school I belonged to a Brass Band," he told the PAL Gaming Network, "and learned to perform with the piano and electone, but I never had any training in composition. I never went to a music school or received lessons from an instructor. However, since I started working professionally in music composition, I haven't lacked the opportunity to practice."

Sakimoto's first exposure to electronic music composition came in senior high school when he began working part-time for a computer magazine called Oh!FM. "Back then, I wasn't writing any compositions," he told RPGFan. "Basically, I was pulling data from existing songs being played on the computer and reporting on them for a few articles. At the same time, a computer-based shooting game called Revolter was being developed by some volunteers there. That was my first experience being in charge of composing game music." It was through his work on Revolter, at age 17, that Sakimoto first came in contact with professional game designers. Not long after, he began receiving assignments programming music drivers and sound effects for computer games. "I guess you could say that was how I found my way into to the game industry."

Magical Chase, "おちつきがないわよっ !"

Having graduated high school, Sakimoto became a freelance musician, composing music and arranging tracks for videogames under the handle "YmoH.S" During this period, the composer worked with a colleague from his Revolter days, the prominent game composer Masaharu Iwata. "The company that created Ogre Battle was called Quest," he told RPGFan. "There, I was doing the music for a game titled Magical Chase, created by Mr. [Hiroshi] Minagawa and his development team." This was how together, the two fledgling musicians were assigned Magical Chase, a classic schmup (shoot-em-up) title for the PC.

Already in the title theme of Magical Chase it is apparent that the composer has great energy and creativity, taking advantage of the music synthesizer's inhuman capacity to lay dense tapestries of successive notes one on top of the other. At the same time, the title theme leads in minimalistically, with a single, long-held note. This manner of counterpoint, between simplicity and complexity, and the natural transition between the two, figures prominently in the later Sakimoto soundtracks. For such an early work, modeled after the iconic themes from such shooters as Gradius, Salamander, and Twinbee, it is a delightful soundtrack, and evidences the variety of innovative musical ideas possessed by the young musician.

"That was when I first met Mr. [Yasumi] Matsuno" said Sakimoto, describing his experience with Magical Chase. "He had been directing another title at that time, and the first opportunity I had to be directly involved with him on a professional level was with Ogre Battle. You could say he is a sensitive person. He is, in fact, very helpful and very considerate, in a friendly way. I believe these characteristics are reflected in his games. As far as music is concerned, he gives you very clear directions. It is very easy to work with him, because if he is willing to work with you, he offers you an enormous amount of trust."

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, "Overture"

For Sakimoto's second major title with Quest, Masaharu Iwata was designated the principal composer for the project. Ogre Battle would also include music by Hayato Matsuo, notable for his facility with symphonic arrangements. At that time, Sakimoto had largely been acclimated to electronica, though his lack of experience proved to be a minor handicap, as evidenced by the game's famous overture. The soundtrack to Ogre Battle, as with other albums shared by Sakimoto and Iwata, was divided in two parts. Represented on the music album are both the original sound versions found in the Super Famicom title and enhanced MIDIs of superior sampling quality, suggesting that the score was truly meant for a fully symphonic arrangement.

It was during his time with Quest that Sakimoto first began to develop his approach to the demands of interactive media as a particular venue for live and synthesized music compositions. "When writing for a movie, the timing is fixed, and you can plan things very precisely to match every cue," the composer said in a video interview. "Writing for games is very different. Although the music cannot always be written to match the scene, you have much more time to develop themes and impressions over the course of the game. Using sounds, melodies and chords, this can influence the impact the game has on the player. When composing game music, I am always aware of the importance of these subtleties. Since I have begun this job, it has been something I have pursued. And it's still a matter of trial and error to get it right."

Yasumi Matsuno himself was an enthusiast of music and fan of the rock band Queen, as illustrated by the many references found throughout Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. In Valeria can be located one of Freddie Mercury's "Seven Seas of Rhye," while the 1993 sequel is named Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, after a song found on the virtuoso rock band's "A Day at the Races." Following Tactics Ogre, in 1995 Yasumi Matsuno and his core team, including art designer Hiroshi Minagawa and character designer Akihiko Yoshida, left Quest to develop Playstation titles for the developer of the Final Fantasy series, Square. In the interim, Iwata and Sakimoto were invited to join a team of five other composers to create the soundtrack for Square's last hurrah for the Super Famicom, entitled Treasure Hunter G. Developed by Sting, later responsible for the Evolution series, the game's strategic elements slightly resembled the Ogre series, while the plot, character design, and semi-3D graphics were more playful and childlike in quality. Sakimoto and Iwata's compositions appear mostly in the latter half of the game, but the high quality of their efforts were recognized by granting them the honors of the main theme and introductory pieces.

Treasure Hunter G, "Hamarira Hahihi"

In 1995, Yasumi Matsuno and his team had been offered the position of developing a Final Fantasy title incorporating the design elements of the Ogre series. Final Fantasy Tactics was set in the new world of Ivalice, a complex amalgamation of the Square series monsters, summons, and spells, but populated by the professional sorcerers and knights of the medieval Valeria. Sakimoto and Iwata were selected to create a two disc soundtrack, and thanks to the improved music quality of the CD-based Playstation console their compositions would be endowed with all the quality of their Ogre Battle MIDI selections. The trailer of the game that came packaged with Tobal No. 1 began memorably with the image of a spinning crystal, accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture. The classic theme transitions into the signature orchestral style of the Ogre series, interspersed with a montage of tactical gameplay. In the earliest days of the Playstation, the visual and aural confluence of these two eminent series into one next-generation title was a spectacle to behold.

Final Fantasy Tactics, "Antidote"

"Antidote" from Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the soundtrack's most compelling themes. Immediately involving and ethereal, the song only grows richer as it develops. As wind instruments play a subdued melody, strings are introduced mirroring the same theme, while in the background high notes climb up and down the piano. Hardly discernable elements, such as spare drumbeats and the seven chimes introduced just as the melody is set to repeat, tie the entire arrangement together. Even with the tremendous complexity of the various interacting instruments, the overall feeling is that of harmony, as when viewing a wintry forest from a mountain peak.

Following Sakimoto's introductory work for Square, Radiant Silvergun is perhaps one of the composer's darkest and most unrelenting techno soundtracks. The score returns to the tradition of the Orge series in the martial themes evident in the soundtrack, bringing to the forefront artificial-sounding samples, such as synthetic horn instruments and chimes, to convey the futuristic aspect of space flight together with the familiar military theme of engaging in war against an opponent. In spite of the tremendous energy present in the compositions for this dystopian shooter, the music still reflects the composer's ability to balance tension and turmoil with contemplative melodies. Even in a high-octane track like "Debris," while war drums are pounding in the distance, certain passages verge on the soothing and meditative.

Radiant Silvergun, "Debris"

Of his next collaboration with the Matsuno team for Square, Sakimoto told PAL Gamer, "I remember feeling very free in composing the music. There were certainly limitations imposed by the quality of the synthesizers, but I was able to express my musical tastes without much compromise. I hope someday to encounter that kind of experience on a project again." Never was the richness of the composer's collaboration with the Matsuno team more evident than in certain tracks of the brooding and atmospheric score to Vagrant Story. Here the refined classical elements of the Ogre titles meet the driving techno beats that infuse Sakimoto's science fiction titles with energy. The combination, when taken together with the game's rich visuals and compelling storyline, form an unforgettable whole. Speaking to RPG Fan, the composer maintained, "Vagrant Story is a title which I have deep memories of, for various reasons. It is the one title which most noticeably reflected my personal preferences when it comes to music."

Vagrant Story, "Large Chapel"

Legaia Duel Saga is notable for being the first collaboration between Hitoshi Sakimoto and the renowned game composer of such titles as Xenogears and Chrono Cross. "I went for a calm, acoustic atmosphere for this game," the musician explained in the liner notes, "together with some help from my friend Yasunori Mitsuda. The chance to write music like this hasn't presented itself for a while, so I thought back to earlier times, and was able to compose some songs that I found personally satisfying." Arguably the most remarkable track on the Legaia Duel Saga soundtrack, "Lost Forest" is so completely unique to Sakimoto's style as to defy characterization by any genre classification. It includes the spare synthesized male chorus found in some of his earliest soundtracks, and features stringed and flute instruments that feature prominently in Matsuda's works. In between withdrawn stretches where minor chords almost relate a sense of sadness, the sensation of climbing, conveyed by the song's rising chords communicate a natural feeling of wonder and fascination completely at home in a fantasy-styled story.

Legaia Duel Saga, "Lost Forest"

In October of 2002, Sakimoto founded Basiscape, an independent game music production company. "My roles as company president and as composer are so different," he told Cocoebiz. "In order to reconcile them I constantly have to be able to change my entire mindset and figure out the best use of my time. But I think I've gotten better at it than before." The collaboration between Sakimoto and Mitsuda continued with Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, though this time the composer of Xenogears oversaw the project as creative director rather than composing himself. The track entitled "Ranger Base" offers an example of Sakimoto's facility in joining various musical genres together into a coherent whole. The industrial style percussion might remind players of Uematsu's "Devil's Lab" from Final Fantasy VI or Noriko Matsueda's title theme for Front Mission 2, while low notes from an acoustic piano bring in an element of live jazz. A male chorus comes in briefly, replying to the melody played by synthesizer, and while sounding only four notes, the voices deftly introduce an antiquated element to the composition, as if emerging from a Gregorian chant or Greek chorus. The harmonic synthesis of the collection of disparate sounds into a unified whole undergoes a musical journey in under three minutes. The song succeeds in going from places of dark tension to ethereal and airy heights without ever feeling forced or contrived--one of the hallmarks of the composer's unique style.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, "Ranger Base"

In 2003, Sakimoto was given another chance to collaborate with Yasumi Matsuno on a Game Boy Advance iteration of the Square-Quest hybrid: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance would cater to a slightly younger audience. "I was awestruck by the main theme supplied by Nobuo Uematsu," Sakimoto recalled in the soundtrack's liner notes. "Actually, the mood of this game has some gravity to it. The lead character and his friends, passionately attempting to be the voices of reason, all of it reminds of my childhood somehow. When you become my age, you tend to look back at those times with a sense of nostalgia, so on the musical side of things, I tried to shrug off my adult concern for maturity and express my feelings to the same degree as the youthful main character."

The mood in the Game Boy sequel is markedly lighter than that of the Playstation title, favoring curiosity and exploration over the darker themes prevalent in Vagrant Story. The orchestra appears to be assembled less for the purpose of leading an army into battle than to echo the tumult of emotions of an excited child. The foreboding qualities of the Ogre series are noticeably absent, and instruments that would otherwise be brought to bear in creating a mood of anxiety or gravity, such as the heavy drumbeats, are used sparingly. Listening to "Unavoidable Destiny" gives a sense of the precision with which the composer managed to select and illuminate the lighter qualities of his earlier strategy titles.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, "A Walk in Ivalice"

For Gradius V, Sakimoto returned to the shooters genre. Throughout the soundtrack he pays tribute to the classic themes of the Konami sidescrollers, upon which the design of Magical Chase was based. "I also love Gradius and played it a lot," the composer told Cocoebiz. "I was heavily influenced by music from the series. It was a great honor to work on a title like this, also somewhat intimidating. For Gradius V, I didn't really think too much about the previous music in the series. I was given specific stylistic requests from Konami, so while keeping those in mind I tried to work in my own personal composition method." Compare a midi of the boss music from Life Force to the composer's arrangement for the Playstation 2 title. The composition retains the essence of the original, while updating the theme for a new generation console.

Gradius V, "Teto Ran"

The freedom of working through Basiscape allowed Sakimoto to return to the thematic concepts he had worked out with Masaharu Iwata, this time for a strategy title called Stella Deus. "Alchemy" builds on the martial themes of the Tactics series, transitioning from the weightiness of a march to the less driven solo by wind instruments. The composer brings together two emotional extremes into a completely natural whole, a perfect explication of the method of counterpoint. Setting the stage for the game world, the song communicates to the player, here you will be compelled to act decisively against formidable challenges, and yet you will also have the opportunity to freely play and explore with leisure. Communicated subtly and through non-verbal means, the piece argues for the universality of the interactive entertainment medium and its various interrelated components.

Stella Deus, "Alchemy"

In an interview with IGN, Sakimoto told how he was offered the job of scoring the first canonical Final Fantasy game composed primarily without the musical direction of Nobuo Uematsu. "About five months before the press conference in Japan announcing the game, Yasumi Matsuno contacted me," the composer recalled. "I went to meet him, thinking we would just have a few drinks, but that was actually when I got the offer. So that's how it came about that I was offered to compose the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XII." For the new game, Sakimoto reunited with the Ogre Battle Trio. Masaharu Iwata was responsible for original music, and Hayato Matsuo orchestrated both the opening and ending themes. "We have been musical colleagues since Ogre Battle," the composer explained, "so it was enormously pleasurable to work together with them on the same project."

"It was a little intimidating working on a project as large as Final Fantasy XII," Sakimoto related in an interview for the special edition disc of the game. "More than the fact that it's a well known title, or that it's going to sell a lot of copies, the mere presence of Nobuo Uematsu's work is a big thing. Fans of the series have come to expect Uematsu's compositions in the game. So deciding what approach to take with the composition was very difficult. In a project like this, where many pieces need to be written, I start with the main themes. I want the melodies to evoke the themes of the game world, and this was something I really struggled with. I still remember pacing in circles around my house, agonizing over it.

"At first I wasn't sure whether to put the emphasis on the battles or the aspect of exploration. Ultimately, I decided the music should match the various game environments. After all, entering and exiting battles in this game is decided entirely by the player. I wanted something that would convey the game atmosphere no matter what was taking place on-screen. So I ended up writing pieces that had parts alternately energetic and more relaxed."

When asked what was his favorite song in Final Fantasy XII, the composer responded, "It would have to be the music found in the field, rather than the music that plays during cut-scenes. The music is generally more dynamic. I didn't want the overall mood in the game to become too dark. If you listen to some of the songs from the battle scenes, for example, I tried to incorporate some lighter elements to offer the overall mood with greater balance. Of these songs, the piece that plays on the Cerobi Steppe resonates most with me."

"The Cerobi Steppe" is one of the most powerful yet understated tracks of the soundtrack. The racing high notes on piano alternate with the pensive melody of live wind instruments and the rumbling bass that comes in as the piece is about to repeat. In less than two minutes the song manages to alternate between various emotional registers in a completely organic way, as if the piece were compelled along that track by some unseen natural force. Playing the song repeatedly, as it appears in the game, the understated nature and complexity of the arrangement are hardly noticeable. Yet a close listening reveals the track is dense and eloquent in its emotional quality.

Final Fantasy XII, "Cerobi Steppe"

This week Hitoshi Sakimoto will appear as a guest of honor at the Eminece live concert "A Night in Fantasia" in Melbourne, Australia. The Eminence orchestra is also providing symphonic tracks for his upcoming anime score, based on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet. When asked in an interview with IGN what piece of music he was most proud of, Sakimoto answered as the film director Akira Kurosawa was known to respond when asked the same question. "I generally always feel proud of the piece I'm currently working on. So at the moment, it is the Romeo X Juliet project that I feel proud of."

Left: The A Night in Fantasia 2007: Symphonic Games Edition poster
Right: A magazine scan of Hitoshi Sakimoto's work
with the Eminence Symphony Orchestra for Romeo x Juliet

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Totz, Square Enix Music Online,

Wikipedia entry, Hitoshi Sakimoto,

Square Haven, People Database,

Chudah's Corner, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance,

Chudah's Corner, Legaia Duel Saga,

IGN, Twelve Days of Final Fantasy XII,

RPG Fan, Exclusive Interview #4,

Cocoebiz, Hitoshi Sakimoto Interviews,

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Awesome to see some Sakimoto appreciation, along with a timeline of his works! Reminds me that I still need to check out Stella Deus, as well.
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