It’s not often you get to speak to somebody as influential on your own interests as Tetsuya Nomura is to some of my favourite video game franchises of all time like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Even something as simple as a 20-minute chat about the upcoming rhythm game Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a nerve-wracking prospect, given how important Nomura-san is to so many different people and fandoms and how much restraint it would take not to quiz him about so many other things (not to mention that, to my knowledge, this would be his first ‘official’ Australian interview). It’s also difficult to know what to expect when you’re told you’ll be jumping on a Zoom call with not just Nomura, but Kingdom Hearts’ series producer Ichiro Hazama and Masanobu Suzui from Final Fantasy Theatrhythm developer indieszero. All I could have anticipated is it was going to be an interesting call – and it certainly was.
I’ll do my best to set the scene. It’s 7.50pm on a Wednesday night and I’m sitting in my study, at my computer. I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt – quite a change from my typical ‘isolation’ outfit of pajama pants and a jumper. Behind me on some shelves is every piece of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts-related media and merchandise that I own, all of which were moved from another room in an effort to make some kind of impression on my interviewees. The call starts and I’m greeted by about nine faces, most of which presume are people from various global arms of Square Enix here to make sure I don’t suddenly start quizzing Nomura-san on what’s next for Final Fantasy VII Remake, but they all eventually disappear save for my three new developer friends and our translator, Ellen.
After some general introductions, I try to kick things off with something of an icebreaker question, the kind that always goes well to open an interview like this.
“Would you mind giving us a brief explanation of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, and where does it fit into the Kingdom Hearts universe?”, I ask.
The three immediately begin to deliberate among themselves about who gets to answer, with the responsibility eventually falling to Ichiro Hazama. Despite playing a key role within Square Enix and serving as the current producer of Kingdom Hearts, Hazama-san immediately strikes me as the most approachable of the three. Perhaps it’s just that the slightly comical angle of his webcam, pointed to the ceiling with only his eyes and the top of his head showing, put me at ease somewhat.
Of course, Hazama-San doesn’t say much that we don’t already know – this is essentially the Kingdom Hearts equivalent of the Final Fantasy Theatrhythm series of rhythm-action RPGs stuffed with a huge back catalogue of iconic music from the franchise, now coming to home console platforms for the first time and in a new 3D format.
Nomura-san jumps in to answer the second part of my question, “So the main part of this game is sort of an overview or a summary of everything that’s happened in the past games all the way up to Kingdom Hearts III. But the new story content that is there will be just after the latest installment, so set slightly after the events of Re:Mind, the DLC expansion for Kingdom Hearts III.”
Good news for fans craving more of Sora’s saga in Kingdom Hearts after that DLC dropped at the beginning of the year, perhaps not-as-good news for those of us who still don’t really know what was going on in Re:Mind. But that’s okay, I think to myself, this is a rhythm game after all and if I’m honest I barely remember what ‘story’ there was in the old Theatrhythm games, if any. That prompts me to ask how Memory of Melody compares to those games, and is it a natural extension of the rhythm gameplay from those titles?
“There are three, sort of ‘main’ rhythm-action modes”, Suzui-san explains. “The first is the Field Battle, in which you’ll be running across the top of a musical score and defeating enemies in time to the rhythm. The second is the Memory Dive, which is diving through past videos and cutscenes from previous installments in the series. Lastly we have the boss battles, in which boss fights from past Kingdom Hearts games will be recreated and you’ll be able to use the rhythm-game mechanics to defeat them.”
That’ll no doubt sound quite familiar to anyone who’s played one of the Theatrhythm games on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s nice to know that indieszero has been able to build off of some success with those games and expand the concept not only to a new franchise in Kingdom Hearts, but to a new dimension – Melody of Memory is a fully-3D game coming to home consoles after all, which is a something of a departure for the developer. I come back to Suzui-san to ask how it was to make that transition from 2D to 3D.
“As you said the Theatrhythm games were made with a 2D side-view, so those games did obviously give us a lot of technical knowledge about creating rhythm games and a lot of experience in designing levels that players find enjoyable and how to build that kind of rhythm game”, says Suzui-san. “When it came to creating this game and making it in 3D and making sure that Sora and the other characters were fun to play as and it was fun to have that ‘action’ style as well we really had to start from zero in creating that whole playstyle from scratch.”
Diving further into Melody of Memory from a gameplay perspective, the line of questioning moves to some of the finer details such as how the game’s party system works, and what sort of multiplayer modes, if any, will be available. Suzui-san, perhaps being the founder of indieszero and with the most to say, continues to be my top source of information.
“There will be four main parties of three characters. You won’t be able to change the members of those parties but you’ll select them as a whole”, he notes. “And then in addition to those characters there will be Disney guest characters depending on the world that you’re currently in, and so they’ll be able to replace one of the sub-members of that party (but not the leader themselves who will always stay in that party).”
And as for multiplayer, Suzui-san excitedly explains, “It actually has both modes! So there’s the ‘versus’ mode which is a 1v1 online mode [against another player] or against the computer enemy, or on the Switch version through local communication. And there’s also the co-op mode in which one person will play as Sora and one person will play as Riku and then you’ll work together playing the same song to try and get a high score.”
It’s all sounding like a nicely thought-out suite of features and modes, and armed with the knowledge that there will be at least 20 playable characters and over 140 musical tracks to play across the game’s four modes I’m keen to keep digging for more information. Alas time is short with the interview already running late, and doubly so with the use of a translator, so I decide to use the time I have left as an opportunity to change tact a little and ask some bigger-picture questions. Starting with one that Hazama-san was keen to jump in and answer about the game coming to the Nintendo Switch, a platform that until now hasn’t housed a single Kingdom Hearts game.
“To answer from my own perspective”, the Kingdom Hearts series producer clarifies. “Obviously Suzui-san and I worked on Theatrhythm in the past and these were also on Nintendo consoles and they were very popular with the fans that played them on there. So as well as this being a Kingdom Hearts game obviously I would also like people who were fans of the Theatrhythm games to be able to pick it up and to play it so I hope that by bringing it to Switch we’ll also be able to reach them.”
It makes sense, and while it’s easy to assume there is at least some crossover of fans of Kingdom Hearts games on other platforms and those that own a Nintendo Switch given that console’s massive popularity, Hazama-san seems confident that the strength of the rhythm games themselves will draw people to Melody of Memory. Of course, there’s another subset of players that may look at this game and wonder if it’s for them and so I ask, what about the Kingdom Hearts fans that might not be confident about playing a rhythm game?
“I think there are plenty of fans out there who maybe love the music but aren’t so good at rhythm games”, Suzui-san admits. “I mean, Kingdom Hearts is a game that has people who will go to Kingdom Hearts concerts, so I know there is really a lot of people out there who love the music. So we want all of those people to be able to play this game and we have put in specially a one-button mode where all of the controls will be simplified down to one button and so even if you’re not the best at rhythm games you can use that on all difficulties – Beginner, Standard and Proud – to just enjoy it as you go through and have a more enjoyable ride.”
And after all, at the end of the day these games are really about celebrating the music of these iconic franchises. Games, and music, beloved by fans of all kinds. At this point Nomura-san has been quiet for a while, and somehow still remarkably intimidating as he leans over a desk in a room that looks about how you’d expect from someone as eccentric and elusive as they are creative – something between an upscale penthouse and a grizzled detective’s home office from a yakuza film. To my delight though, the revered Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy director hurries to answer when I quiz the group about what they think makes Kingdom Hearts’ music so special to its fans.
“I think it’s really because Kingdom Hearts has a lot of really dramatic and emotional scenes in the story and the music is really integral to that as well”, says Nomura-san. “So when fans will hear a particular track or piece of music they’ll think about those themes and they’ll remember them and the emotions tied up in that. So I just think that the music and the story are really sort of integral and really tied together.”
Pleased that my chosen topic of conversation had piqued the interest of the bona fide celebrity in the (Zoom) room, I decided to continue to appeal to my guests’ personal feelings towards Kingdom Hearts and its music. I may not get to ask another question after this, so I intend to go out on something that hopefully everyone can be a part of. “This one is for all three of you,” the very amateur games writer dares to suggest. “What would you all say your favourite pieces of music are from across the Kingdom Hearts series, especially in terms of playing them in Melody of Memory?”.
The first to answer is Hazama-san, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. “For me, and first of all obviously in creating this game we’ve included a lot of original Kingdom Hearts songs, but as it’s a Kingdom Hearts game we’ve also got some Disney songs in there and one that I would personally like to recommend because it’s just got such a great tempo and it’s really suited to the rhythm game style itself is ‘Under The Sea’! So I hope you’ll all enjoy playing that one.”
Suzui-san comes in with something a little more traditional, and clearly a favourite among the studio. “For myself personally it would be ‘Vector to the Heavens’, I just think this is a really ethereal, beautiful song and it was also really popular among all the developers and everyone was saying “No, I want to design the level for that one!” and “I want to do the music for that”. So in the end it’s a song you can enjoy both as a piece of music and as a level within the game so I really hope that everyone can enjoy playing this one, too.
Nomura-san keeps it, well, simple with his choice. “For me personally it would be ‘Simple and Clean’, the English version. I remember that the first time I heard it I was just really impressed and it really left an impression on me and was very memorable.”
Despite the almost-criminal omission of ‘Sanctuary’ as a contender there, it’s a surprisingly varied response from all three, and a nice look into the mindset of the people behind the scenes on a game like this. We’re also running dangerously close to time, but I think that I can squeeze in one last, important question – the question of just when Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory will be released.
“Uhh, the announcement will be coming very soon. Um, probably even sooner than you’re thinking”, Nomura-san says as he and the others laugh quietly to themselves. Little did I know at the time, but a surprise Nintendo Direct was scheduled for mere hours after our call that would announce the game’s release date of November 13, 2020. So it seems I was able to make a tiny bit of a fool of myself that night, after all.
Despite that moment of awkwardness, my time with these three ended on something of a fun note as I was making my goodbyes and Suzui-san stopped me to ask, “You’ve got a very nice room there! What’s that behind you on your shelves?”. Hazama-san and Nomura-san become intrigued, and Nomura exclaims that he can see (Final Fantasy VII and VIII characters) Cloud and Squall behind me.
“Squall is my favourite”, I excitedly proclaim.
Nomura-san does not approve.
Of course, between the time of our chat and now, the world knows a lot more about Melody of Memory, with new trailers and information to pore over. Plus, we don’t have long to wait! The game comes to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Witch this November 13.