Composers: Koichi Sugiyama, Part 1 (Dragon Quest 1)

Many of what we know about video game music today was influenced by Koichi Sugiyama.  Here’s some exceedingly brief background information.

A classically trained conductor, Sugiyama graduated from University of Tokyo will full honors in 1958.  After a brief stint in broadcasting, he shifted his focus to composition, writing many movie and anime sountracks.  In the 80s, he was contacted by Enix to work on Dragon Quest for the Nintendo Famicom (aka Dragon Warrior in the US).  His career took off and Sugiyama, at age 79, is still composing game music today.  There’s so much to talk about when it comes to Sugiyama, I’d rather split it up into a couple blog posts.  I’m very excited to get to his orchestral contributions rather than bore you with his life story (though it is really fascinating).

That being said, Sugiyama is credited as being the first game music composer to have his works arranged and composed live.  In 1987, Sugiyama arranged and conducted his music from Dragon Quest II at the first “Family Classic Concert” series (performance by the Tokyo City Music Combination Playing Group on August 20th, 1987).  He has since then participated in many other orchestral game music concerts as a conductor and arranger.

(A wiki aside:  the wiki for Koichi Sugiyama is horrible- I’ll highlight all the errors soon enough.  For one, it says that he released Dragon Quest 1:  Symphonic Suite on CD in 1986.  Right… considering I took two seconds to google this and found that the CD was released in 1994.  Plus the fact that Sugiyama hadn’t written the music to Dragon Quest II yet so… how would he know it was to be called Dragon Quest 1 ?  Bahhhhhhh!!! Reference here.)

Okay, let’s listen in on a track of his original Dragon Quest music and orchestral arrangements:

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This is the “battle theme” from the game.  It’s effective and epic in its own regard if simplistic.  I spent many hours listening to this (and being frustrated).  It never got old.  Here’s Sugiyama’s orchestral version from Dragon Quest I:  Symphonic Suite:

(credit:  )

As you can see, there was… considerable orchestration done here.  This (I BELIEVE) is Sugiyama conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  It is a live recording (hence the really bad french horn clam at around 0:18).  What is fascinating is that it was largely cited that Sugiyama wrote orchestral arrangements first and then “dumbed” them down to fit the sound limitations of the Famicom.

What is interesting to note is that Sugiyama has re-recorded many of these tracks 12-15 times making alterations, orchestration changes, etc many of which are recent and actually of a better quality.  There is a large amount of misinformation I’m finding on the exact releases of his works and their original forms.  It could be assumed that perhaps his works in the 80s were released on LP (a Japanese friend of mine confirmed that he did indeed own Dragon Quest LPs.  I’ll have to look into this).  I’ll have to research this.  At any rate, this has been Part 1 of an introduction to Koichi Sugiyama.  Comments welcome.

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About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

3 responses to “Composers: Koichi Sugiyama, Part 1 (Dragon Quest 1)

  • ted mahsun

    I remember reading somewhere (sorry no citation) that when Enix first asked Suigiyama to compose for Dragon Quest, he came back to them with notes for classical music.

    Due to the limited way the Famicom handled music, they were initially at a loss how to convert the classical music into chiptunes but eventually assigned a specialised sound engineer who managed to transfer Sugiyama’s compositions as accurately as possible.

    Anyway you probably already know that, but I mentioned it here because you didn’t. Appreciate your blog very much as while I’m not a student of music I do love classical music + video games.

    • progressivetuba

      That’s fascinating, actually. I knew I read somewhere that he wrote orchestral scores first so that would make sense.

      I started looking up Sugiyama online to attempt to get some kind of overall view of him. There’s like… 25-30 interviews with him. Someone could actually probably write a book about this guy, easily. I’m planning on doing maybe… 8-9 posts on the guy in the next coming months but frankly his output is overwhelming.

      I remember being in Toy Tokyo in NYC and they were playing something over the sound system there. It sounded so familiar. It wasn’t Dragon Quest but it…. sounded like it. I asked the person working in the front- it was the soundtrack to Gatchaman and I was pleased that I could recognize Sugiyama’s style, even in a non-video game form. He definitely has his own way of orchestrating things, particularly in his treatment of the brass sections (considering he’s released brass only arrangements of his works). I plan on going into more detail later. Thanks for stopping by!

      -Steve

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