Early Life and Influences
Tanaka was born in Japan and at the age of five enrolled by his parents in the privately run Yahama Music School. He also studied piano playing from age nine to age eleven and his mother often played classical music and movie soundtracks around him as a child which gave Tanaka his appreciation for these forms of music. Tanaka also gained an interest in rock music from the age of nine when he saw the TV series The Monkees first air in Japan. It was this that prompted him to start a band with some friends. During his youth he was also greatly inspired by other rock performers such as The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Burt Bacharach.
From the age of nine to thirty Tanaka played music in various styles, including rock and jazz, on the keyboard, guitar and drums, both in and out of bands. He entered college to take a major in electronic engineering but had little success with the course as he was more interested in electronic applications for music than what his professors considered more useful pursuits. During the 1980s Tanaka found himself greatly inspired by Reggae and was also inspired in his life by the visual arts, particularly portraiture and photography.
Work with Nintendo
In 1980 Tanaka saw a newspaper advertisement for the position of sound engineer at Nintendo and secured the job. At the time the band he was part of had made the finals of a music competition, a significant step in their goal of getting signed with a major record label, but Tanaka left the band to begin his work at Nintendo.
Tanaka's first work with Nintendo was on their arcade machines where music was very primitive, meaning the majority of his work was in sound effects. Specifically, sound design on Space Firebird was his first job. Tanaka designed and installed the sound equipment on Nintendo arcade machines and personally programmed the sound for the games he worked on in binary. When he later worked on a number of early games for the NES (such as Duck Hunt and Kid Icarus) , despite the NES's sound systems being far more complex than the arcade machine's and the pre-built sound tools that had been written for the platform, he still insisted on coding alongside his custom playback libraries in assembly language and attributes this fact to part of what helped him set his work apart from his colleagues. By 1986 Tanaka was writing music for over one third of games on the NES.
The rise of the popularity of video game music around the time of the NES was credited to the improvements in sound technology and the composing talents of Tanaka and his various Nintendo co-workers such as Koji Kondo. However, this increase in the popularity of video game soundtracks led to good-spirited rivalries between many video game composers, something that Tanaka disliked as he felt it forced composers into writing music in a way that was unfitting with the atmosphere of the games they were writing for. It was this which led to his inspiration for the more subtle music of Metroid. In composing for Metroid he tried to create sound where there was no distinction between the music and sound effects and tried to deny the player a simple melody to hum along to.
Tanaka began work on the score for the original Japanese episodes of the Pokemon anime in 1997 (although very little of it was retained in the western translation), but was told that as the series was not directly produced by Nintendo he could not continue to work on it. For this reason Tanaka left his position with Nintendo in 1998. Since leaving however, his music has also been featured in the recent game Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Tanaka was also notable for working alongside Keiichi Suzuki to create the music for Earthbound and working in a programming capacity for Nintendo.
Work with Creatures Inc.
When the former President of games developer and producer of Pokemon toys and trading cards, Creatures Inc. stepped down in 2000, Tanaka took his position, which he holds to this day. During his time with Creatures Inc. the company have mostly produced Pokemon spin-off games.