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Interview: Magical Planet - The Music of Hiroki Kikuta & Yoko Shimomura

Interview: Magical Planet - The Music of Hiroki Kikuta & Yoko Shimomura Exclusive

August 31, 2009 | By Jeriaska

August 31, 2009 | By Jeriaska
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this interview, Gamasutra catches up with Square Enix's World Of Mana and Concerto Gate series composers to discuss their history in the business, as well as their work on the franchises.]

Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura have both contributed music to Square Enix's World of Mana game series.

Kikuta's score for the 1993 Super Nintendo title Secret of Mana has left a lasting impression on international audiences, while the soundtrack to the epic sequel has yet to see an English-language release outside of emulation.

His first soundtrack album for a Square Enix game in years, Kikuta's Concerto: The Extraordinary World of Concerto Gate, was released in 2008 on the musician's private record label Norstrilia. An English-language version of the game to which it belongs, Concerto Gate, is currently undergoing beta testing.

Shimomura brought the first vocal track to the World of Mana series in 1999 with the opening theme to Legend of Mana for the Playstation. It appears together with "To the Heroes of Old" from Heroes of Mana on the orchestral arrange album drammatica -The Very Best of Yoko Shimomura. More music from the composer will arrive next month with the release of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days? in North America.

In this interview, Kikuta and Shimomura discuss the history of their videogame music. The conversation centers on the intentions underlying the artists' first songs for Square, their early memories of working together at the fledgling game studio, and what it means to strike an independent course in Japan's game industry.

Kikuta-san, previously you have spoken on what you set out to achieve with the opening scene of Secret of Mana. Could you explain what was significant in your opinion about the game's introductory sequence?

Hiroki Kikuta: First of all, planning synchronicity between sounds and images was not so common in games back then. My background was in animation, so I knew the kinds of results you could get from designing an interplay between the sound and screen, but it was so hard to explain it to people in the game field. There really were few precedents for it at the beginning. That was what motivated me to give it a try.

When I was working on the sound for Secret of Mana, I was paying attention to the visual style of the introduction. At the time, members of the staff told me that due to the technical specs of the Super Nintendo, the title screen would take some time to load. It seemed like an obstacle at first, but I thought about it as an element of the overall presentation.

The introduction was just a single screen, but I experimented with making the swell of the music match the gradual appearance of the image while loading, even going as far as using a stopwatch to get the precise measurements down. Once the song had been written, I explained the timing to the programmers and it was implemented in the title sequence.

Yoko Shimomura: You're right... this sort of thing wasn't so common in the Super Nintendo days.

HK: Back then there was time for trial and error in the production cycle of games. Game designers would run experiments, fail, and start over again, knowing eventually they would discover something that worked.

YS: Kikuta-san, since those days I think such creative uses of audio has become a requirement.

HK: It just goes to show that you have to give these kinds of experiments a try. Over time, people start to grasp the concept.

There are many cases like this in the game industry. Take for instance that whale noise, which is the first thing you hear at the start of Secret of Mana. Everyone asked me why on earth that needed to be in there... but to me it meant something.

YS: Yes, I remember listening to that whale sound when Secret of Mana was in development. I was like, "What is this?!" (laughs) You were so proud of it, and you asked me, "What do you think it means?" You worked so hard to put that in there, and now I understand it was those memory limitations on the Super Nintendo that made it so difficult.

HK: That's right, those were real limitations. Even I had second thoughts about including such a big sound file.

YS: No one expects to hear something when they first boot up the game, apart from a noise like: "ping!"

It was like from the very beginning you heard this whale calling, and the story had already begun.

HK: It was not the electronic tone you have been conditioned to expect, but I think it starts the game off on a more evocative note. To put it more concretely, isn't the Mana series all about these magical creatures, these divine beasts? It felt more meaningful to place a sound there that was more deeply connected to the spirit of the game.

Maybe most people who hear it cannot say for sure what it means, but I felt the concept was conveyed nonetheless, and was difficult to forget.

YS: That's true. There are times with music when you can convey a subtle message, something that comes from your imagination and sticks with the listener, without being overly specific about what it means. You do something and people perceive it in their own way. I think that is an important aspect of the creative process behind music.

The less limitations are placed on game designers in terms of the capabilities of the hardware, the more it seems people are reluctant to be adventurous. I truly want to see more ambitious experimentation these days!

HK: Being from Osaka, Shimomura, you understand the importance of having some force underlying what you express.

YS: So many of the games that are made today seem so light and stylish. You can't really understand the storyline or anything, but because the game has a pleasant atmosphere, the player is meant to find it pleasing. However, I feel something essential is lacking.

HK: Instead of making games that immediately make sense to everyone and everyone agrees about, it would be better to have dimensions to games that cannot easily be explained. That's the kind of game that people remember ten or fifteen years down the road. There were more of those games during the Super Nintendo era compared with today.

YS: Back then the project team was so small. Everyone on board was so passionate.

HK: That's what I think game players were responding to. Kids in elementary school, they pick up on that enthusiasm immediately. They retain that excitement in their memories of games even as they grow up.

YS: That's true. It makes me happy whenever I hear from people who say they played those SNES games when they were younger.

Kikuta-san, a number of listeners have remarked that your original album Alphabet Planet has the quality of a Super Nintendo Mana game soundtrack. How did this music project originally come about?

HK: Alphabet Planet actually was requested by a fan of my music, one who is involved in online games. The album sounds similar to the music from Secret of Mana because I composed these pieces based on this request. A lot people seem to have developed an appreciation for this album because it reminds them of Secret of Mana.

In our lives, we encounter incidents each day which make us feel differently. I wanted to compose music that helps brighten our day. In fact, I wanted to compose many different types of music to suit the various feelings we have, like a music box full of flavors, so that the listener can choose a different type of tune for each occasion. There are many different events in our lives, from A to Z. I wanted to write songs that make the listener happier or encouraged in a variety of ways.

What intention was behind naming tracks after each letter of the alphabet?

HK: I thought listening to the songs might feel more like choosing from a variety of chocolates if the songs were not in a set order. The idea was for the sequence to be as unexpected as the many unrelated incidents in our lives. Although events may have no deep significance the moment they occur, we sometimes realize later on the meaningful connections that exist between them.

One of the tracks on Alphabet Planet is called "Queen Charlotte." There is also a character named Charlotte in Seiken Densetsu 3. Was the track meant to reflect a contemporary view of this game character?

HK: That's right. I do believe that there are more stories in the World of Mana and that each of the characters that have been revealed could have a future. Each of these stories feels like it deserves a continuation, and I think many people share that belief.

YS: That's right. Compared with novels, which leave a fixed impression, music has a more abstract quality. Listeners are able to imagine the continuing story of a protagonist based on their musical theme.

HK: I do sometimes think about how I would continue the story of these characters through music.

YS: Okay, I'm ordering your album off Amazon.

HK: Well, it's just the same style as back then.

YS: But that's remarkable. My style has changed dramatically over the years, though the passion for music stays the same. I always found your care for sound design to be remarkable. Back then, I had not yet heard about your elaborate arrangement methods, and I wondered how you were able to make sounds that fit the Super Nintendo so well. Then I found out that you were sampling the system's instruments on your synthesizer. (laughs)

HK: That's right.

YS: It all makes perfect sense. Here I was creating MIDIs and imagining how they would sound on the game hardware, only to be surprised by the results, and sometimes disappointed. Your music was really tailored to the Super Nintendo, though, wasn't it? When I discovered that you were sampling the instruments, it confirmed in my mind what I had suspected all along about Kikuta-san... which is that he's a weirdo. I asked other people at work, and they said, "Yes, Kiku-chan is totally weird!"

HK: Yes, I remember hearing everyone say that about me. (laughs) Nevertheless, I still think it's important to stick with your intuitions and see difficult problems through. The attention to detail is critical for the overall quality. As they say: god is in the details.

YS: You believe in gods, then?

HK: Yes, there are little gods in all the details of my music.

YS: A little one in the trackball of your mouse, too? I want to see him! (laughs)

HK: That's right, he's a little guy and he rolls around whenever I use the mouse. (laughs) "Hey, don't spin meeee!"

YS: "Wahhhh!!!" ...

Shimomura-san, is it true you sought work at Square because you wanted to compose music for different genres of games?

YS: I did want to join fantasy RPG projects, since they were so popular. It was something that I wanted to try, writing classical-style music for a fantasy game setting.

Was writing a vocal piece something that you had been interested in doing prior to the Playstation era?

YS: I do like writing vocal themes, but this was of course something that only became possible on the Playstation, because there were memory restrictions on previous consoles. I wrote a vocal theme for the ending of Parasite Eve, which was very well received, and paved the way for more.

For both Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana, I wanted to stay away from working with someone popular that everyone already knows. The vocalist on Legend of Mana was a Swedish singer named Annika.

I had been talking with the staff of the game about the kind of vocal quality I was looking for, and they provided a few suggestions. Among them was Annika, and when I heard a recording of her voice, I fell in love! Straight away, we flew to Sweden. (laughs) As soon as I heard her during the taping, I knew I had made the right decision. We actually dragged our equipment all the way there to do an analog recording.

HK: Life was rough back in the old days, wasn't it? Now you can just save the audio to your hard drive.

Not many people are aware of your role in writing the music for Street Fighter II. How many of the songs found in the first iteration of the arcade game did you actually compose?

YS: All but three, as a matter of fact. Sagat's stage music and two of the other tracks were by another musician. The rest I composed myself. Back then, our names were not included on the staff roll, though I was credited by my nickname "P-chan." (laughs)

HK: I thought there was a photo of you somewhere in the game.

YS: I think that if you finished the game with one coin there was a graphic generated from an original photo of all the staff members. I completely forgot about that.

HK: I think I saw it in a magazine. I was like, "Oh, there's Shimomura!"

When you were a member of Alph Lyla, did you ever perform live?

YS: Yes, on two occasions. It was embarrassing, though. I was in my early '20s and was mostly a pianist, but they asked me to shake the bell during Chun-Li's theme.

I love receiving attention, but I'm also shy, which is not a good quality for performing music. While composing you can rewrite whenever you make a mistake, but in live performances there's no turning back. I can handle minor errors, but I'm always scared of making some major mistake during the performance.

After I left Capcom and started working for Square, our desks were right next to each other though, weren't they?

HK: That was when business just started booming and Square needed more employees.

YS: I remember being asked during the interview why I wanted to work at Square, and I said that I wanted to write music for RPGs. At Capcom I had worked in the arcade department and would not be able to transfer to the console department to compose for the Breath of Fire series. In all truth, that was the situation.

Is it also true that your parents were disappointed when they discovered that you had taken a job as a game composer at Capcom?

YS: They were very sad about it. They had paid my tuition for an expensive music school and couldn't understand why I would accept such a job. Before I was hired by Capcom, I received an offer to teach piano at a music store. My parents were really happy about it. I later had to apologize and tell them I had changed my mind.

HK: What other jobs would be open to a music school student upon graduation? Piano instruction?

YS: For many, yes. Others just leave music entirely for some other career. It seems to me that not all that many chose to continue with what they studied in school. For instance, one of my school friends is a flight attendant.

HK: That sounds like it would be cool.

YS: I'm sure you're right. Still, it makes me feel all the more fortunate that I was able to find a job making music. I went to my junior high school reunion last year in Osaka. It had been so long since I last saw my friends. I got a text message a few days later and they said, "Your name is on Wikipedia! That's amazing!" (laughs)

Kikuta-san, can you remember what made you decide on the cover art for Secret of Mana+?

Kikuta: That's a photograph by Joyce Tenneson. I love photographs and have many favorite photographers.

YS: This is the arranged album, the one with one track that was over fifty minutes long?

HK: That's right. Shimomura, have you made any arrange albums?

YS: Well, in terms of remixing an entire album, it has not happened yet. I made an arrangement medley that came on a half-sized compact disc together with the Live A Live strategy guide. The Parasite Eve arrange album also had a single track that I worked on.

What genres of music interest you, as far as arrangements are concerned?

YS: I try not to categorize music according to my tastes, because I like whatever strikes me as enjoyable. For a long time I have been into lounge-style jazz, but my background is in classical music. I love Rachmaninoff, also Chopin, Ravel, Scriabin and Beethoven.

HK: That's a weird combination.

YS: I like emotional music, hence Rachmaninoff. One time I was listening to his second and third piano concertos over and over again before going to bed at night.

HK: Oh yeah? That's a difficult piece.

YS: Of course I can't play it. My hands are too small, first of all. But I like passionate music that comes from the heart. Sometimes I get so excited about music that I forget about my surroundings. I start singing without even thinking about it, and I've been told others find this habit of mine distracting. (laughs) When I work on a sad piece, I put myself in as low a mood as possible, and even after I have finished composing I feel like a shadow of myself for awhile. I sometimes need to feel the emotions of a piece in the extreme before I am able to write.

How did you go about choosing the language of the vocal track found in Parasite Eve?

YS: A theme of the game is the emergence of the human species, so I chose Old Latin for the idea of ancient origins. Also, since the game was created in Japan and America, I decided that a language other than Japanese or English ought to be featured.

Will you be composing for the three upcoming Kingdom Hearts titles?

YS: Yes, for the PSP and DS games I will. Not all the tracks will be my compositions, but I am going to be writing the most prominent themes. There is a cellphone title in the works as well, so it turned out to be too much for me to tackle all on my own.

Would you have any interest in returning for another installment of World of Mana?

YS: Good question. Kikuta-san, next time would you like to work on the score together? The results would be gorgeous all around, don't you think?

HK: You may have a point there. (laughs) It's not really up to us though, so who knows how it could turn out?

YS: That's true, we might both be passed over in favor of Ito-Ken.

Shimomura-san, seeing as you were interested in composing for fantasy RPGs, like certain segments of Live A Live, how did it come about that you were given the responsibility of composing the score together with Noriko Matsueda for the futuristic strategy RPG Front Mission?

YS: Working on the Front Mission soundtrack was a request from the vice president, [Hironobu] Sakaguchi. At the time I had already been assigned to compose for Super Mario RPG, but in the meantime production on Front Mission was underway. Matsueda was just starting her career in videogame music, so they wanted me to share the duties on making the soundtrack.

Sakaguchi said to me, "You have plenty of time to work on Mario RPG, so why don't you compose for Front Mission for now?" I was concerned about being too busy and stressed out, so I went to Sakaguchi's booth one day to say that Front Mission was a no-go. However, as soon as I began speaking, he knew what I was going to say and jumped in. "Shimomura," he said. "Are you sure you want to say that in front of the company president?" I looked around and realized President Mizuno was right there beside him. I was so embarrassed that I kind of muttered, "Oh, you can count on me," and walked away.

HK: Mizuno-san had a very gentle personality.

YS: That's what made it difficult for me to say no in front of him. Matsueda and I went ahead and composed the score. We were both so motivated that it turned out to be a very passionate soundtrack.

HK: I played that one to the end. The music was really good.

YS: Thank you so much. It means so much to me when Kikuta-san compliments my work. He so rarely praises me. He always scolded me back in the day. (laughs)

HK: That's not true!

YS: Maybe, but I was scared of you when I first started working.

HK: Oh, well, I'm just cranky sometimes, that's all.

Kikuta-san, your music for Concerto Gate was published independently through your record label Norstrilia. Could you explain a little about what went into the unique naming of the track titles?

HK: The image of the Concerto album is orchestral. Traditionally, orchestral music was not titled. Later it was cataloged sometimes, as in the case of Kochel numbers.

Often orchestral music was classified according to expressive words like "passionate" or "calmly," labeled in Italian. This I thought was a similar requirement of videogames... for example, "quiet in the dungeon" or "passionate in the battle." Instead of giving names to the pieces, I thought that it would be suitable to use expressive words as titles. Because these descriptions are typically in Italian, all my tracks on this album have Italian titles.

Concerto Gate was a "concerto" composed by Kenji Ito and myself. As Ito-Ken was responsible for the theme song, only both of our compositions together made the music complete. For that reason, I felt my pieces alone were not enough for this soundtrack album and would not encapsulate a fully formed concept with a beginning and an end. It was very difficult for me to come up with two new pieces to make the soundtrack complete. I put a lot of effort into the song "Overture," and it's now my favorite track.

What is the current status of Angel's Ware, the t-shirts shop that you've been advertising on your website?

HK: I like the idea of wearing what you want to express. I'm interested in making t-shirts, but I have no intention of using my own illustrations. I have asked a few people to draw designs for clothing, but it didn't turn out right. As you know, I'm very picky about my work. An illustrator can work with all their might, but it still may not be enough.

By the way, I am a good teacher and have instructed several people who have gone on to become professional artists. The character designs for Koudelka and Cho Bukyo Taisen were by this artist who was living in the countryside in Hokkaido. I found this art through a personal website. Later I discovered this one person who was working in a bookstore in Kyushu, who later moved to Tokyo to do illustration full-time on my recommendation. Both of them are now professional character designers in animation and video games. You could say I'm pretty good at finding people's hidden talents and helping them express their gifts.

It is said you also do work in other areas for massively multiplayer games.

HK: A number of companies try to make online games, but they face problems due to lack of experience. They may know what they are doing when it comes to console games, but online games are a different story. Since I have experience in online games, I can point out the problems just listening to their issues.

Are you working on any music projects at the moment?

HK: Yes, a visual novel. I like it because I can work freely. At the same time, I'd like to make more CDs of music that I have composed in the past.

Did you confer with Kenji Ito during the making of Concerto Gate?

HK: Not at all. (laughs) He wasn't listening to my music, and I wasn't listening to his. Nevertheless, when the album was completed, there were no overlaps.

The cover of Concerto is another example of your bringing an art concept to your soundtrack album that is an unexpected turn from the style of the game. Why include this art?

HK: "Concerto Gate" derives many of its ideas from the game Cross Gate. I was thinking that "Concerto" was a meaningful word by itself, in that it implied harmony. I wanted the concept of my album to be something like "harmony among many people".

I had seen this drawing by Lawrence Alma Tadama, an English artist of the 19th century. Many Hollywood movie producers, such as D.W. Griffith, were inspired by his drawings. Tadema created art in the 19th century, and Hollywood movies didn't get their start until the 20th century. While Tadema never could have realized it, he was a pioneer of concept design in film.

I think it's sad that very few know about his influence. I wanted the world to be aware that there were great concept designs hundreds of years ago. This is a foundation of Hollywood movies today. You see it very clearly in the Babylon scene in Griffith's movie "Intolerance," for instance.

Have you seen Tadema's "Spring" in person?

HK: No, I haven't. It's huge, you know. I was attracted by this drawing because there was no information about what these people were doing. There is tremendous energy in this composition. I have no idea why they are all there in this procession, what they're thinking about, or where they are going. They neither look happy nor unhappy. It's very interesting that this drawing has this tremendous energy while standing still, hardly conveying any information at all.

It seems that we are out of time. It has been a great pleasure to hear you both speak so openly about your music.

YS: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

[Concerto: The Extraordinary World of Concerto Gate and Piano Collections Kingdom Hearts can be imported from This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current, French on Squaremusic and in Italian on Interview/ photos by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. Additional art by Mike Moss.]

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