trapped in revamp hell
- Nov 1, 2009
"Kingdom Heartsy visuals and story"
--Hazama and Suzui, with you having worked on the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and Theatrhythm Dragon Quest rhythm action games, we're sure the concept of a Theatrhythm Kingdom Hearts had crossed your mind. Did you go with the Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memories title because the content felt more suited to the main KH Series?
Hazama: Actually, when we put together the proposal doc about five years ago, the working title for the project was Theatrhythm Kingdom Hearts.
--So the concept has been in the works for a while.
Hazama: I wouldn't go so far as to say that. I just thought it would be cool if we could make one for Kingdom Hearts. But, Tetsu (Tetsuya Nomura) proposed something "more Kingdom Heartsy".
--What does "Kingdom Heartsy" mean in specific terms?
Hazama: It means instead of a new installment in the Theatrhythm series, we do a title with Kingdom Hearts series visuals and story. Plus, to give some more specific details, the in-game sound effects are one example; the KH series sound team made them for us. The character animations and models were also created using assets from KH -HD 1.5 Remix- although in the end the KH team made us brand new animations. Even the effects were approved by the OG creators. The in-game times were decided by Tetsu. With so much collaboration from the original team members, this game is Kingdom Heartsy in all the most important ways.
Suzui: The cursor sound effects are another example. I know you'll hear them and immediately get into that Kingdom Hearts mood.
Hazama: All this to say, a staggering amount of people were involved in this game (laughs).
--By the way, Theatrhythm features cute chibi characters. Will this title feature Kingdom Hearts chibis too?
Suzui: Not in the actual game, but the load screens do feature some chibi shenanigans, kind of like as mascots. Although you know what, even just that meant we needed to rig the models with bones and create animations (laughs).
In early plans the game was going to be from Chirithy's POV!?
--I'll be asking about the content of the game soon, but first I want to know about this title's story. The box art has already been revealed. The composition seems to imply that Kairi will be the protagonist and the game will be from her perspective. Is that right?
Nomura: That's right. This story is about Kairi as narrator reflecting on the past, which is why I drew that picture. Sora appears in three of the framed pictures: those are the final scenes of KH1, KH2 and KH3 from Kairi's POV.
Nomura: You know what though, of everything we faced building up to the master, this art put us in the most peril (laughs).
Suzui: That art will be in the title screen, but he didn't finish it until right before the deadline. At about 7PM that day we showed Nomura what the title screen looked like with the art, got his opinions on it, then called the office and got them to make edits, then showed Nomura the edited version again… and it took two more round of this before we were done. We cut it so close to the line we were basically cutting the line (laughs).
--So it was that difficult?
Nomura: This artwork is meant to form a pair with the KH3 art of Sora sitting in the chair. But, in Sora's picture, the frames behind him didn't contain any pictures, right?
--Now that you mention it, no.
Nomura: When I came up with the idea for this artwork, I knew drawing so many characters was going to be very difficult to get done on schedule, but I steeled myself and decided to do it anyway.
--This story is about reflecting on the past, but we have seen a couple of new scenes.
Nomura: Yes. But, there are only a few. The plot of KH3 was finished with KH3 Remind, so the amount of sequel style content is limited. In the earliest plans, the narrator was going to be Chirithy, not Kairi. But, as I wrote the plot I began to feel that Kairi made a much more fitting narrator, which also meant I had to add a bit of plot. In the beginning we also weren't planning to use outright cutscenes for the flashback scenes, but I suddenly made up my mind that we should. Everyone else was like "what!?" though (laughs).
Suzui: We didn't have anyone on the team who could make Kingdom Hearts cutscenes, So when Nomura was like, "Let's make new cutscenes," we were stuck like, "Okay but we don't have anyone who can… what do we do," (laughs). But, Nomura called on the Kingdom Hearts team, and the OG staff made them for us. Not only did our worries evaporate, it also made it a better game, so we are very thankful.
Nomura: This game doesn't have a secret movie or anything like that; the main story is all there is. As to the content: I'd like you to play it and see for yourself.
The "Memorial Music Box" was a hint
--One easy way to tell the difference between this and the Theatrhythm series is that this game isn't a side-scroller, it has 3D graphics that move forwards into the screen. How much trial and error did it take before you settled on this POV?
Suzui: When we first talked to Nomura about making a Kingdom Hearts rhythm action game, he told us that he preferred we find a way to enjoy rhythm action with the Kingdom Heartsy 3D visuals. Right around that time, we got a request to try making rhythm action style memorial music box visuals for the Kingdom Hearts series 15th anniversary site. From there, it led to the current gameplay where Sora, Donald and Goofy run and destroying enemies to the rhythm via Kingdom Hearts controls
--So, the fundamental screen orientation was easy to decide on.
Suzui: Well, everything was uphill from there. When we tried out the controls, we discovered they gave people motion sickness very easily.
Hazama: We ourselves don't get motion sickness, so it was very difficult to adjust. We would think we had fixed it for sure, and it would still affect people who get sick. So, we'd adjust the camera angle a little more… There was a lot of trial and error in that vein.
--In the end, how did you make it so that people won't get motion sickness?
Suzui: It was a collection of things, such as the timing and speed of the camera turning back-to-front, the height, how much characters moved up and down, how much the course itself wound around, and how the camera followed it. We changed these things and were able to solve the problem. Kingdom Hearts has to be dynamic and cool, but a rhythm action game is too difficult to play if your line of sight moves around too much. We worked hard to fine-tune things until we pinpointed how to make it both easy to play and difficult to get motion sickness.
Nomura: Adjusting things to stop motion sickness took the longest. But, when we had finished, the game screen looked pretty simple and desolate. So, from there we added effects, raised the degree of difficulty a little, and adjusted the controls… and at every step we made sure to check how fun it was to play, and I had them fix anything that concerned me.
--By the way, how difficult it is from a development perspective to make a rhythm action game?
Suzui: Well, I don't think it's easy (laughs). It's impossible to play if you can't see the targets, and sometimes there will be multiple inputs within the same second, so the most important thing is adjusting the timing of the inputs. Plus, people who aim for high scores will be looking for something that focuses on the gameplay, while casual players are here to appreciate something with flashy visuals; but go too flashy and it will be too hard to see the targets. We had to aim for a balance between ease of play and flashy visuals.
On top of that, we also had an issue with optimization. Rhythm action games need to move with utter smoothness, otherwise they are difficult to play and don't feel good to control. So, first we were creating our ideal visuals, and then testing to see if we could keep the look while lightening the processing. But, as soon as we thought we'd found a balance, then the staff working on the sheet music would add in a bunch more enemies and raise the load. As soon as we thought we'd lightened it enough to put the enemies in, then Nomura would come in wanting even flashier effects (laughs). It took a lot of changes before we could finish it.
--This game included over 140 music tracks. Was the music remixed in any way, or did you use the original music as it is?
Suzui: We thought that the most important thing was that the music would bring back memories of previous games, so yes, just like with Theatrhythm, we mainly used the original music.
--How did you choose the tracks?
Suzui: All the music is so popular, so we looked at the concert setlists for reference, but also sometimes there were tracks where actually a track with a different title but with the same base music was more popular. So that's how we would choose. Also, we selected a few tracks that were necessary for structure, as we have created world trips that allow you to experience the story.
--The full series has a massive amount of music. Even just checking them all would have been a huge job, right?
Suzui: As our starting point we made a list from all the CDs that have been released so far, and then refined it from there. Although I just said we used the original music from each title, the musical arrangements that play at the title screen and staff credits were created for this game by Shimomura (KH series main composer Yoko Shimomura).
--What did Shimomura say about this game?
Hazama: Apparently she really enjoys playing the Theatrhythm series, and she has asked us many times over the years if we would make a Kingdom Hearts one. I am sure she is looking forward to this game, and I think we have made something that will satisfy her.
Suzui: Once I met Shimomura at a cherry blossom viewing picnic, and she gave me the full set of Kingdom hearts series CDs. She gave me this "you know what to do now, right?" smile (laughs), so I am sure she's been hoping for us to make a Kingdom Hearts series rhythm game for a long time.
The same gameplay feel as the KH series
--Now, please give us a simple run-down of this game's gameplay.
Suzui: In the basic "normal style," you use three buttons to attack. When there is one target, any button will do. When there are two targets, you need to press two buttons at the same time, and when there are three, you need to press three at the same time. If you hold the jump button you can also glide through the air.
Hazama: The controls for this game are very close to the rest of the Kingdom Hearts series. In the Playstation, circle button is attack, x button is jump, and triangle is for abilities, so it is exactly the same.
--It sounds like these controls will be very easy for Kingdom Hearts series fans to adapt to.
Hazama: We also put a lot of effort into the tutorial, so we don't think people will have issues with the controls.
--The stages are taken on in parties. Can you select your own party members?
Suzui: There are four parties, and each of them have fixed members. You cannot freely select party members. But, there are guest party members who are specific to certain worlds, and a Disney character will replace either of the two characters who aren't the leader, or have King Mickey join as a 4th party member to save you.
Hazama: King Mickey saves you, you can use healing items, and you can level up to increase your HP: we designed it so that even people without much experience with rhythm action games will be able to clear the stages with enough repetition.
--When do the guest members appear?
Suzui: When you are playing that guest member's corresponding Disney music, they will appear once out of every few turns. An announcement pops up letting you know in advance that a guest member is about to appear next. King Mickey comes to restore your HP as well as appearing during action inputs so you can earn more Rhythm Points. By the way, Rhythm Points are points you can collect as you play, and fixed amounts allow you to unlock items and tracks.
--Do the characters each have their trademark abilities?
Suzui: When it comes to abilities, there's an "Ability Symbol" that pops up, and if you time the right button well, you can do magic attacks or defeat large enemies.
--Just now you mentioned that we can glide in this game. How does gliding affect the rhythm action?
Suzui: It's basically the controls for what you would call a long note or held note in a usual rhythm game. When you glide the character floats, and you can then interact with what we call glide targets.
--So as a whole, how does the game progress?
Suzui: The plot advances as you complete missions called "world trips." On top of clearing the tracks for each world, you must fulfil conditions to get "stars." Once you have gathered a set number of stars a gate opens allowing you to progress to the next world.
--How many worlds are there?
Suzui: There are 47 regular worlds. Among them are 16 Kingdom Hearts original worlds, and 31 Disney worlds. Other than that, there are also 33 "Dark Holes," which are areas which only contain boss tracks.
--That's a lot of worlds.
Suzui: Yeah. It takes about 10 hours to just go through the world trips and reach the ending, which I think is a volume that's easy to enjoy. Then of course you can replay the tracks you unlocked to get high scores, battle your friends online or the AI, or enjoy co-op play with your friends on the same screen. There's enough content to keep you satisfied for a long time.
--Why did you add three different control styles: Normal Style, One Button Style, and Performance Style?
Suzui: I know there are people out there who will want to try the difficult tracks despite not being very good at rhythm games. But, trying to make it easier by reducing the number of target enemies would just make it monotonous. So instead we created One Button Style, which lets you play a difficult track without worrying about double presses or assigning different buttons to targets. The game keeps different scores for each style, so the value between a One Button Style score and Normal Style score for the same song will be different.
--There are three different types of stages: Field Battle, Memory Dive, and Boss Battle. Can you tell us how each is different?
Suzui: Field Battles make up the majority of the tracks. Modes like VS Battle also take place in Field Battles. In Field Battles you make your way along the staves of the musical score, destroying enemies to the music.
In Memory Dives, you input targets to the rhythm as you enjoy memory clips. You can think of these as an evolved form of the Event Music Sequences from past Theatrhythm titles. Boss Battles are few in number. You fight boss characters at critical points during world trips.
These three modes are the result of all our problem solving and trial and error finding the right mix of Kingdom Heartsy direction, action, dynamic cutting, and fun gameplay that won't make you motion sick.
--Among the online battles, the Nintendo Switch version has a Friend Battle Royale mode that uses local wireless. This is a unique mode, isn't it.
Suzui: Friend Battle Royale came about during the final stages of development, when Hazama came to me and said he wanted to expand gameplay. Kingdom Hearts games usually have a super hard mode called Critical Mode, and this feels similar to that: a maximum of eight people can play together, and if you miss once you immediately drop out. This is fairly unusual for a music game, and we added it in the hopes that it gets you all fired up.
--Can you choose how many misses allowed until you're dropped?
Suzui: You can choose from once, twice or three times. But, GOOD and over counts as a hit, so unless it's your first time or you're super nervous, I don't think you will miss much. I don't think it is that difficult to stay in to the end.
--Incidentally, indieszero has until now focused on developing games for Nintendo consoles. Did you have any difficulty developing for multiple platforms?
Suzui: In the 24 years or so since indieszero was established as a game developer, we had never developed for a home console that wasn't Nintendo. Each platform differs both technically and culturally, which was difficult in various ways (laughs). But, releasing a game on multiple platforms means it will reach even more fans, which makes me happy. This game is available in ten languages, including Arabic, and I hope the world of Kingdom hearts will reach even more places and even more people.
--Ten languages? That's amazing.
Suzui: We were told lightly "it's just a rhythm action game, you should be able to do it," but it was pretty hard (laughs).
Hazama: Of course there is less text compared to other Kingdom Hearts series titles and, to generalize, this type of gameplay can be understood by intuition, so we thought this game was the perfect chance to try multiple languages.
--You would have been working during the COVID-19 disruptions. Did that affect how you worked?
Suzui: We did what we could remotely, while being careful of security issues, but no matter what you do there are limits to how much you can adjust rhythm action remotely. Perhaps if we were still at the resource and asset creation stage it would have been easier, but as we were in the end stage of development - final fine-tuning, making adjustments for each console - it was very difficult. I think we were able to solve the issues well and made it to the other side.
Nomura: I'm sure voice recording was extremely hard. I think there was a big impact on the overseas recording in particular.
Hazama: Yes. Recording had to continue despite voice talent being unable to leave their homes. I'm sure all titles that needed recording around that time faced the same hardships. We were mostly able to stick to our original development schedule, but the one thing that got tough at the end was definitely the recording. Although in Japan the studios re-opened comparatively quickly, that wasn't possible everywhere overseas, and that made things hard.
The future of the KH Series
--We also want to ask about the future of the KH series. KH3 was the end of the Dark Seeker saga, but there are still mysteries left unsolved, and the secret movie suggested brand new developments. What is in store for the KH series?
Nomura: 2022 will mark the 20th anniversary of the KH series, you know.
Nomura: So… I'm looking to the 20th anniversary and doing my best (laughs). As for me, my mind has already switched to the next title, and the Kingdom Hearts team is already working on something new. Melody of Memory was before we started work on the next title, so the main staff were able to help out. Everything I could announce next is something that would surprise you, so I hope you look forward to it.
--Having something to look forward to is good news for fans. Then, finally, please give us a comment on Melody of Memory.
Suzui: This game also features a collection element, where you can gather collector cards and view them in a museum. There are over 800 collector cards, which include key art from past games. There's also a music player that allows you to listen to the tracks, and a theater where you can view the movies. There is so much more to this title outside the main game. There's all kinds of alternative gameplay, like the VS and co-op modes, which will have you enjoying the game for a long time. I think you'll still be playing not one year but two or three years from now, or even forever.
--By the way, are there any plans for additional track DLC?
Suzui: There are no plans, no.
Hazama: The fact that we didn't prepare DLC is an embodiment of our wish to create a single game that as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, can enjoy with peace of mind for a long time. I hope you can enjoy the Kingdom Hearts series with your family, friends, and those nearby as well as all kinds of people over the internet.
--Then finally, your comment please, Nomura.
Nomura: This game was a lurking ambush of a Kingdom Hearts title: with everything going on in the world, it was difficult to know when it could be released, but I am relieved that it seems it will release without issue. This game is sort of like a highlights reel of the Kingdom Hearts series so far, so series fans can reminisce over this condensed version of the series, and people who know of Kingdom hearts but are daunted by the number of games in the series can treat this as a super easy entry point. If you play this game and find parts you want to know more about, I really hope you go and play the past titles. And, I hope as you enjoy it your mind starts spinning about the series developments coming up.