Nobuyuki Ohnogi, former Namco composer and "father of game music", dies at 63

The architect behind Namco's golden age arcade sound is no longer with us.

Nobuyuki Ohnogi, the composer and designer behind many of the most beloved and influential arcade games released during Namco's "golden age", recently passed away at the age of 63.

Born on January 27, 1956, Nobuyuki Ohnogi grew up in the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan. As a young adult, he developed an interest in electronics and synthesized sound in particular, and casually pursued an engineering degree at Chiba University. Despite having little to no knowledge about the company's business, he successfully applied to Namco in 1980 at the behest of a friend who'd applied previously and determined it'd be a perfect fit for Ohnogi's talents.

Ohnogi was initially assigned to general programming work, with neither party requesting or expecting any particular expertise in sound design, but after a tune Ohnogi had written and sequenced for the high score entry screen of the overhead racing game Rally X, released in November 1980, caught the attention of colleagues who were impressed by knack for both composition and soundscaping, Ohnogi quickly found himself assigned as Namco's first dedicated sound creator.

Nobuyuki Ohnogi, pictured here in the June 1986 issue of BEEP magazine. Among his friends, he was remember for his slightly odd penchant for overalls.
Nobuyuki Ohnogi, pictured here in the June 1986 issue of BEEP magazine. Among his friends, he was remember for his slightly odd penchant for overalls.

Ohnogi's contributions to the massively successful shooting game Galaga, released in September 1981, helped establish Namco as the premier arcade developer of the early 1980s, with the game's distinctive, ear-grabbing audio design being perhaps its most immediate appealing feature. Ohnogi would make further breakthroughs with the soundtrack to the side-view maze game Mappy, released in September 1982; Mappy's immensely catchy and skillfully-arranged tunes were at the forefront of broadening the perception of video game audio with mainstream Japanese audiences, and Ohnogi's penchant for bouncy jazz- and ragtime-influenced ditties established a signature sound that Namco's competitors, and even Ohnogi's colleagues, struggled to match. Of all Ohnogi's compositions, Mappy is still singled out most frequently as an influence or inspiration by game and non-game musicians alike, and it was famously cited by composer Koichi Sugiyama as being the catalyst for his interest in composing for video games.

Alongside composers Yuriko Keino (Dig Dug, Xevious, Dragon Buster) and Junko Ozawa (Gaplus, Tower of Druaga, Sky Kid), Ohnogi continued to cement Namco at the cutting edge of video game audio, not just in arcades but also on Nintendo's burgeoning home console, the Famicom, for which Ohnogi not only wrote and arranged music and audio but wrote the sound driver that Namco would continue to use for the next several years. During this time, Ohnogi also collaborated with Yellow Magic Orchestra composer Haruomi Hosono on Alfa Records' "Video Game Music" album, released in 1984, which contained slightly arranged versions of music and sounds from Namco arcade games and is widely credited with being Japan's first commercial video game sound track, and one that would start a boom in commercial video game music releases. (Of the ten included tracks, Ohnogi was responsible for five.)

With Xevious creator Masanobu Endou, Ohnogi quit Namco in 1985 to form the independent game production company Game Studio, which produced several, mostly Japan-exclusive Famicom games for Namco and other publishers, including the Family Circuit series, Mobile Suit Gundam Z: Hot Scramble, Sanrio Carvinal and the extremely popular conversions of the first three Wizardry games. For one of these games, the fighting action title Tenkaichi Bushi Keru Naguuru, Ohnogi sarcastically credited himself as "the father of game music", a title adopted by fans and critics with utmost sincerity and admiration.

Ohnogi continued to participate in sound production and composition and, in collaboration with former members of Alfa Records, would form Scitron & Art, a multimedia sister company to Game Studio which became one of Japan's premier video game music producers, releasing over 100 video game soundtracks through its Scitron Label imprint between 1988 and its dissolution in 1999.

From the Dengeki Game Music Legend event held in 2007, an impromptu gathering of the Mappy development team: from right to left, Nobuyuki Ohnogi, artist Hiroshi
From the Dengeki Game Music Live event held in 2017, an impromptu gathering of several members of the Mappy development team: from right to left, Nobuyuki Ohnogi, artist Hiroshi "Mr.Dotman" Ono and planner Hideharu Satou. Incidentally, Ohnogi not only wrote Mappy's music and sound effects but also designed the game's bonus stages. (Source: Natsumi Takagi)

Ohnogi somewhat abruptly retired from both the game and music business in the mid-'90s, reportedly to take over his family's struggling ramen bar, and maintained a relatively low profile for the remainder of his life. He recently made a surprise return as a composer, contributing a track to the unlicensed Sega Mega Drive game 16BIT Rhythm Land, which was developed and produced by longtime friend and former Namco colleague Norio Nakagata.

Ohnogi passed away in mid-August; out of respect, his close friends and associates chose not to make the news public until now. He will be remembered by enthusiasts for his ear for melody and timbre and his role in broadening the audience for video game music, and by an entire generation for his unforgettable tunes that defined an era of arcade gaming. Rest in peace.

Selected gameography: (fuller gameography here)

New Rally X (1981, arcade)

Galaga (1981, arcade and Famicom)

Bosconian (1981, arcade)

Pole Position (1982, arcade)

Mappy (1982, arcade and Famicom)

Libble Rabble (1983, arcade)

Metro Cross (1985, arcade)

Battle City (1985, Famicom)

Hopping Mappy (1986, arcade)