Interview with Namco-legend Junko Ozawa

junko ozawa

Junko Ozawa created the music and sound effects for many classic arcade and console games.

If you grew up in the eighties or early nineties, you’ve probably got fond memories from playing games on arcade machines. After feeding the machines some coins, you got to enjoy some of the biggest classics of the era, for as long as your lives – and coins – lasted. Arcade games were usually far more technically advanced than their counterparts for consoles and home computers, thanks to expensive and specialized hardware we could only dream of at home, and playing these games were often a bit like peeking into the future of gaming.

Namco was the home of Pac-Man.
Namco was the home of Pac-Man.

One of the great pioneers of the early era of arcade games was Namco, a Japanese company originally founded in 1955. They started out producing mechanical rocking horses and other devices, and grew to become a large maker of amusement machines. In 1976 they began importing arcade games from Atari, which became a huge success in Japan. It didn’t take long for Namco to start making their own titles, with classics such as Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaxian, Pole Position and Galaga becoming iconic games in what is often called the golden era of arcade games.

They kept making successful games throughout the eighties, and if you’ve played some of their games from that decade, you might very well have heard music and sound effects created by Junko Ozawa. She was hired in the early eighties, and worked on games such as Dig Dug II, The Tower of Druaga, Skykid, Gaplus and Rolling Thunder.

– Nyamco is calling me!

Junko Ozawa (in pixels).
Junko Ozawa (in pixels).

It wasn’t actually their hit games that tempted Ozawa to apply for a job at Namco. Instead, it was a robot. In 1980 Namco sponsored the national Micromouse-championship in Japan, where robots built by amateurs from around the country would race to find their way out of a labyrinth in the shortest amount of time. For the occation, a team at Namco created their own maze-solving robot, Nyamco. It was designed to look like a cat, and could move it’s head and tail, as well as make exclamations. Ozawa loved it:

– When I was a college student, I went to see a Micromouse tournament with a friend, where I met the maze exploration robot «Nyamco» and fell in love at first sight. After that, when I was thinking about getting a job, I learned that Namco, who made Nyamco, was looking for a student majoring in music, and said, «Nyamco is calling me!» And I went to get it.

The hiring exam was a success, and Ozawa got the job. Her tasks at Namco were to make sound effects and music for their arcade games. According to an earlier interview with Ozawa, Namco’s game development division was a place where she and other young developers were encouraged to challenge themselves, and she described the workplace as full of vitality. But, as she tells us, it was also a fun place to be:

– When I joined the company, all of the seniors and bosses were in their twenties, and the development room and desks were full of computers, toys, musical instruments, and other things that interested them, and they were making games in an atmosphere that felt like a college club, whether they were working or just enjoying themselves.

Had to be kept a secret

What the neighbours thought about the place is an entirely different question. Due to strong competition the game development division of Namco was kept as anonymous as possible:

Ozawa showing the waveforms she created. Snapshot from the documentary The Rise of VGM, copyright Red Bull Music. See below for the full video.
Ozawa showing the waveforms she created. Snapshot from the documentary The Rise of VGM, copyright Red Bull Music. See below for the full video.

– The building that housed the game development department didn’t have a company name on it to protect development information, and a number of young people in their twenties came in and out of the building until midnight, which made the neighbors suspicious of what they were doing.

The first game that Ozawa worked on was Gaplus, also known as Galaga 3. This game featured no music, but plenty of sound effects and fanfares. Back then, it was not as simple as using samples and playing with them using advanced music software  – Ozawa instead had to program the sound effects by hand. When she later worked on The Tower of Druaga, which was her first game to feature music, she had to write her own music driver to translate numerical data into music:

– Back in the 70’s, when games only had sound effects, they used programming to make sound effects. When I joined the company in the 80’s, I could make music and sound effects by typing in data that could be treated like musical notes. But when I made the engine sound of a car and the sound effect of a ball flying high, I made it by programming.

She still owns a notebook full of waveforms that she designed herself, in order to make different sounds for the limited hardware employed by the early Namco arcade games.

Creative freedom

Junko Ozawa got a fair amount of freedom with her music and sound effects:

Dig Dug 2. Screenshot from Mobygames.
Dig Dug 2. Screenshot from Mobygames.

– There were no strict instructions. While reviewing game proposals and holding meetings, I imagined the game’s world, time period, location, and tempo of the game, and then created songs based on my own ideas of what kind of music would best express the excitement of the game. Once the song data was created in the editor and the sound came out of the game, everyone listened to it, and sometimes I got the OK on the first try, and sometimes people would say, «That’s not quite right…»

Although it wasn’t the games that attracted her to Namco in the first place, Junko Ozawa enjoyed playing them:

– I love playing games, but I’m not good at it. When I was in development, I was often called in to monitor newbies to see how well they could play.

Like most game developers in the eighties, a majority of the emplyees at Namco were men. Ozawa tells us that approximately 10% of the employees in her division were women back then. We wondered if she experienced any issues being a female in a male-dominated industry:

– I didn’t experience any gender discrimination from employees of the company, but in Japan at that time, men and women were paid differently. The members of the department were all of the same age and had distinct personalities, so I think the difference in personalities had a much greater impact on them than the difference between men and women.

Making game music again

Junko Ozawa stayed with Namco until around 2008, when she retired. During her years at the company, she created music and sound effects for games for a variety of systems, and her work can be heard in games such as Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures, Mr. Driller, Donkey Konga, Klonoa and more. We even get to hear her voice in the cult classic Katamari Damacy. But when asked which game she was the most proud of having worked on, she mentioned a much newer release:

Space Mouse 2.
Space Mouse 2.

– I’m proud of most games when I finish making them, so right now it’s Space Mouse 2. I’m proud when I’m able to use the music and sound effects to enhance the game more than the songs themselves. In Space Mouse 2’s Piyolove mode, the songs change depending on the number of chicks you take with you, and I think we were able to create an interesting performance with the programmer, Mr. Ichikawa’s love for the game.

Space Mouse 2 was released this summer, and is an indie game from a small, Japanese game developer called Mindware. It is actually the sequel to a game from 1981, and the style was very much inspired by classic arkade games. So that was also true for Ozawa’s music:

– The game was like a classic arcade game, so naturally the music was like that. We used software called Korg Gadget, which is capable of reproducing sound sources from Namco’s early arcades, and made it sound like it was made in those days, with no more than eight notes. I used the same waveforms as in the old days, but I also created a lot of new tones for Space Mouse 2.

You can learn more about Space Mouse 2 in a larger interview, where I also talk with the designer and programmer of the game, Mikito Ichikawa, as well as voice actress Sensu.

I’d like to thank Junko Ozawa for answering my questions, and Mikito Ichikawa for his invaluable help with this interview.

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Here is an earlier video interview with Junko Ozawa, from a documentary on video game music. You can see her book of waveforms (and even hear how they sound) here:

Article written by Joachim Froholt.