The Naoto Shibata Project: Requiem for the Forgotten Riffs

by C. M0use

Psst ... hey kid ... wanna hear the hardest rockin' video game arrangements ever made? And no, it ain't that Black Mages weaksauce ...

The roots of hard rock and heavy metal are primarily a United Kingdom innovation, with some heavy collaborative influence from the United States. While Japan typically isn't associated with the genre, they embraced it with gusto there right from the beginning - more so than any other country outside of Europe.

Why did loud wailing guitars, hockey hair and Space Fuckboi outfits entrance the Japanese psyche so? I don't pretend to know. What I can tell you is that Japan embraced metal in a big way right from its inception in the 1970s, and was the only Asian country that had a thriving scene that developed while the genre was mainstream popular all the way into the early 1990s.

The fingerprints of metal are all over the video game soundtracks of that time, particularly the 8-bit / 16-bit years and arcade games. That's also the ground where Konami did their most consistently great game development work. These two great tastes came together in a big way courtesy of one Naoto Shibata.

As a young man, Shibata got his start as a bass player in the band Black Hole before forming his own group, Anthem, in 1985. Though it's likely unfamiliar to anyone outside of Japan but the biggest metal enthusiasts, Anthem was one of the country's pioneering and most influential acts in the genre. Also the longest-running, as aside from a temporary breakup period in the mid-1990s it has remained active until today.

Thank goodness for that breakup period, though, as it's the reason why we have the music we'll be covering in this article.

Convergence of Nascent Scenes

Anthem's sound is fairly straightforward "classic" heavy metal, never really seeming to go more experimental or sub-genre even in their later years. It's just done really really well. The standout qualities tend to be the lyrics, with a consistent "Judas Priest but in Japanese and without Rob Halford's impossible vocal range" quality to them regardless of who the singer is, and some very fast and technically impressive yet melodic classical-influenced guitar riffs and solos. Shibata's bass is also a constant steadying, driving presence with some sweet fills from time to time.

Shibata and Anthem got involved with video games very early in the band's life. In 1986, Nihon Falcom approached Anthem about doing a two-track LP to promote their upcoming expansion pack to the Dragon Slayer sequel, Xanadu. Though the Dragon Slayer series never really got a foothold outside Japan, it was massively popular there and is considered a pioneering computer RPG series. Xanadu sold somewhere north of 400,000 copies, which was a sales record there at the time.

So that collaboration married a high-profile computer game with a rising powerhouse in the Japanese metal scene. Apparently, someone at Konami took notice. However, Anthem was traveling around being a kickass metal band and seems to have had no time for further video game tie-ups ... at least until 1992.

The Naoto Shibata Project

Street Fighter II was tearing up arcades, Windows 3.1 came out, George Bush the I yuked in the Japanese prime minister's lap, and the previously red-hot market for all flavors of metal was drying up internationally thanks to a bunch of depressed hippies from Seattle. In light of market changes, Anthem decided to split up and do other stuff.

Details get a little thin at this point, because this is "Japanese supernerd stuff from 25 years ago" territory and I don't speak the language. But if anyone knows more about the formation of the Shibata-Konami partnership and has some Japanese-language sources, I would absolutely love to hear about it.

What I do know is that Konami and Shibata combined for a series of what would end up being five albums of metal arrangements from some of Konami's highest-profile games. Going by what discographies I can find online, this appeared to have been Shibata's main (possibly only) work from 1993 to 1995, or about the first half of the Anthem separation period (he would join other popular 80's metal band Loudness as their bassist from 1995 to 1999 before getting Anthem back together in 2000).

The albums were called the "Perfect Selection"; Shibata's band for them is credited as the Naoto Shibata Project. They are:

  • Perfect Selection: Konami Shooting Battle (1993)

  • Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle (1994)

  • Perfect Selection: Snatcher Battle (1995)

  • Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle II (1995)

  • Perfect Selection: Konami Shooting Battle II (1995)

There was one further release worth noting - Konami Battle: The Best, which was mostly a compilation package of old tracks but did add two completely new ones - from Super Contra, of all things! Possibly aka Super C or Probotector II depending on where you live.

It's interesting how much each one captures strong elements of the Anthem sound, even though (aside from Shibata) they were performed by a rotating cast of what appear to be session musicians for the most part, with a lot of turnover between each album. Not to disparage them - a lot of talent is on display in all of the albums, and some of these bit players went on to impressive careers after this. For example, keyboardist Tatsuya Kase (Shooting Battle II) went on to become something of a Japanese heavy metal legend of his own right (like a Japanese metal Prince who plays every single instrument), and Koichi Seyama (Dracula Battle) can be heard kicking out some wicked work on the Guilty Gear soundtrack.

The one thing that mirrors Anthem the most throughout these albums is the soaring guitar work. That's because guitarists Akio Shimizu (Shooting Battle & Dracula Battle) and Kazumasa Saitoh (Dracula II & Shooting II) were the only Anthem members along for the ride, and performed as the featured leads.

Each title pretty much tells you what's in the tin: Shooting Battle is a mix of Konami's arcade sh'mup titles, Dracula Battle is Castlevania tunes and Snatcher Battle is Mario Kart 64.

You're probably champing at the bit for some actual music at this point and not more wordy words, so please enjoy what I feel are excellent representative examples of each album's sound:

Perfect Selection: Konami Shooting Battle:

Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle:

Perfect Selection: Snatcher Battle:

Perfect Selection: Konami Shooting Battle II:

While these are just personal favorites that I feel represent each album well, there are many more can't-miss tracks among this collective three years of material. I feel that the first Dracula Battle is the most consistently epic album of the bunch; almost every track is an instant classic and there is some surprising range, from the epic lighter-over-your-head ballad Requiem for the Nameless Victims to the almost Enya-like Calling From Heaven. This album definitely has the most consistently exceptional guitar work, courtesy of Shibata's former Anthem mate Akio Shimizu.

All of the albums are great and worth listening to, but they definitely drift away from pure power rock / metal and into more of a rock / electronic dance-y hybrid as they go on. Shibata's signature sound is always there until the end, but a little more of a J-Poppy synth tinge keeps sneaking in starting with Snatcher Battle and by Shooting Battle II it's co-habitating with the metal influences if not outright pushing them out on some tracks.

Anyway. Piracy is pretty much the only way to get these obscure discs, and has been for many years. I'm assuming they all got a very limited original print run, they were never officially distributed outside of Japan, and they never got re-printed save a couple of "best of" collections later in the 90s that are just as rare. I bought the original Dracula Battle back in late 1996 or so, and at the time the only way to get these in America was dodgy "import shops" that were selling Soon May bootlegs without bothering to tell people they were bootlegs. Soon May was a prolific and notorious bootleg outfit in video game media back then, not sure if they're still around but they would brazenly put an "SM" somewhere in the jewel case to let your homies know who done it. They actually did quality work as bootlegs go, they even cloned the inserts very closely and everything, but bootlegs none the less.

You might see some of these pop up on Discogs or the usual auction site suspects in the range of like $40 - $75 USD or so, but I would strongly suspect just about all of these are bootlegs unless clearly demonstrated otherwise. If they are bootlegs from the 90s the sound quality will be very good, but if you want to support the original artists with your $$$ that horse left the boat well over two decades ago. Konami hasn't had a means for you to legally purchase these things since the mid-90s and likely never will again.

Naoto Shibata's Post-Konami Involvement With Game Soundtracks

The Konami Battle discs were Shibata's magnum opus in the gaming world, but it wasn't his last brush with game music.

He's credited as the bass player for at least one song on the Sonic Adventure soundtrack - the goofy J-rock intro theme Open Your Heart. He didn't write that one though, it's courtesy of longtime Sonic composer Jun Senoue.

The Open Your Heart experience led Senoue to form the band Sons of Angels with a number of these performers to take on the soundtrack to Sega's NASCAR Arcade in 2000, one of the company's rare arcade titles developed exclusively for Western release. Shibata came along for the ride as bass player, though I don't think he had much compositional input as the style here is definitely directly in the poppy and catchy line of Senoue's lyrical Sonic tracks. This being the soundtrack to a game developed exclusively for the United States, the lyrics are also in English and sung by an American. Anyway, if you're interested, they released this soundtrack as an album called Thrill of the Feel.

Sons of Angels morphed into the band Crush 40 after this, which big Sonic fans may recognize from contributing vocal rock tracks to a number of different titles over the years. However, as best I can tell Shibata parted ways with the band after Thrill of the Feel, as they credit bassist Takeshi Taneda on everything they've done since 2001.

Part of Anthem's 2006 song "Immortal Bind" is used as a track in GuitarFreaks & DrumMania V4 .

The rest of Shibata's career appears to have been devoted to Anthem, though he does have one anime composer credit: the relatively obscure OVA "Devilman: The Birth" from 1987. I have no personal familiarity with this franchise but apparently it started in the 1970s as a manga, had a pretty good following in Japan and the description of the OVA makes it sound pretty metal. It may have been an inspiration for the Megami Tensei series as there are a lot of similar themes.

Non-Gaming Work

So you might be wondering at this point, does any of that Anthem catalog sound like the Konami albums?

Unfortunately, the answer is "not much of it." Anthem has been very consistent in their sound over the years, and that sound has focused on the "Japanese Judas Priest" style centered around the lyrics.

However! They do usually like to toss at least one instrumental track on each of their albums, and these tracks are often quite reminiscent of the Konami Battle stuff - particularly the ones that feature Akio Shimizu's lead guitar.

Some examples? Sure:

* Absolute Figure

* Insomnia

* Unnamed live track

* Double Helix

* Ground Axe

* Pilgrim

Other Links

* Katsu Ohta interview with a mention of his time in the band