Shota Nakama
Image: Shota Nakama

When I was younger and more full of bad decisions than I am now, I used to go to gigs and watch rock bands sweatily flailing around the stage in cramped, smoky bars. Nowadays, I'd much rather sit in a concert hall and close my eyes while a bunch of talented orchestral musicians play a fancy version of the Skyrim soundtrack (which I did, at the London Palladium in 2016).

But I don't necessarily have to choose, and neither do you: the Video Game Orchestra has both a rock band and an orchestra, which makes for some extremely cool covers of video game soundtracks. As part of our Nintendo Life Video Game Music Festival, we've been speaking to a lot of composers, from Darren Korb to Lena Raine, and today, we're talking to musician, composer, and conductor Shota Nakama.

As the founder of the VGO (as well as arranging, performing, and conducting many of the songs), Nakama has a deep love of video game music, but that's not all — he's also worked on creating new video game music, too, for games such as Final Fantasy XV and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

Read on to find out about Nakama's history with music, the coolest moments in his career, and why live music keeps video game soundtracks alive...

Nintendo Life: First of all, can you tell us about your background, and what you do today?

My name is Shota Nakama. I am from a small island called Okinawa, Japan, and I have been in the US for about 20 years pursuing my musical journey. I run my music production company soundtrec and a concert project called Video Game Orchestra. I have worked on numerous video game soundtracks as well as anime and films. Some of the big titles on my credit are Final Fantasy XV, No Straight Roads, the God Eater series, and many others. I have also been involved with some cool online concert projects such as the Sonic 30th Anniversary Concert and the Marvel Future Revolution World Orchestra.

When you were a kid, which video game music stuck with you the most, and why?

I must say that I grew up in the golden age of video games, the late 80s to mid 90s in Japan, and I was fortunate to witness the gradual evolution from the Famicom, Super Famicom, and to the non-cartridge consoles. I spent quite a lot of time playing games back then. Some of the music is perhaps in my genes at this point. The one I can remember the most is the opening fanfare from the Dragon Quest series because I played that series probably more than any other games.

Out of all of the opportunities you've had in video games, which made you the most starstruck?

When I saw the power of 16bit - the very first moment I played Super Mario World on Super Nintendo. The graphics and music were so beyond. The industry sure has come a long way since then.

When it comes to arranging music for the VGO, do you assume that your audience knows a little about games already when picking tracks? How does that change which tracks you choose?

What VGO does is pretty specific - we have a rock band and orchestra. That influences our choices too. I normally listen to a bunch of tracks that people suggest and figure out what could work with our format. Once it sort of clicks in my head, I go ahead and start sketching the arrangements.

How do you think live renditions can add a new dimension to video game soundtracks?

I think live concerts are the best way to truly enjoy your favorite video game soundtracks. That’s how music was always played before the recording devices got invented. The excitement and joy you can get from being at concerts is irreplaceable, and it should be a big part of the video game music industry.

You went to university for music, and mentioned in other interviews that video game music wasn't really recognised academically at the time. Do you think that's changed, and do academics take VGM more seriously these days?

It definitely has changed. There are some schools that offer interactive media composition classes, which were pretty much non-existent just 10 years ago or so. I am happy to see the people coming into the industry with a lot of education. That helps the standard to be raised in the whole industry.

Has the pandemic affected your work with orchestras?

Yes, for the concert work. No, for the production work. Obviously the world has hit a break for any large gathering events, and concerts were no exceptions. However, the production side really did not stop. TV shows, Anime, Games, and all the media never stopped coming out. We kept getting all the soundtrack works because of that.

What music do you usually listen to in your spare time?

Many music workers might agree - I don’t listen to anything during my spare time unless I want to study certain music. Your ears get tired just like your muscles and brain. All the intense and critical listening activities require enough rest. Silence is golden.

Which composers and/or musicians would you love to work with next?

I would love to work with more rock and metal musicians whom I have always looked up to. A few years ago, I got to work with the legendary artist and guitarist Jason Becker. It was so surreal because I have been his huge fan for years. Working with your idols actually inspires you to be more creative and makes you better.

What's a recent video game that blew you away with its music?

Our gig stream has been so continuous, and I have not played a game for months...I should feel guilty about this. Please ask me again next month! I promise I will have an answer then.

If you want to check out the Video Game Orchestra's extensive catalogue of live performances, you can head to their website, or their YouTube channel, or their Spotify page. Thank you to Shota Nakama for speaking to us, and for the irresistible opportunity to listen to the VGO catalogue for the rest of the day.

Don't forget to take a look at our other VGMFest features, too — we'll have plenty more coming over the next couple of weeks!