Chatting Music & Production with Kingdom Hearts' Yoko Shimomura & Shinji Hashimoto
When Square Enix called us and offered sit-down time with two of the most important people behind the Kindgom Hearts series, the answer was only ever going to be yes. Nintendo Insider's Alex Seedhouse dropped in to a UK event to celebrate the launch of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX, and while there took some time out to sit down with Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series Producer Shinji Hashimoto and legendary gaming composer Yoko Shimomura to talk about all things KH-related.
Consider this a companion piece to our previous interview with series boss Tetsuya Nomura and our FF-focused chat with Hashimoto from earlier in the year. More retrospective, this chat focuses on the pair's involvement with the genesis of the series - only fitting, given that we were there to celebrate the launch of the impressive HD remake of that game.
Shinji Hashimoto: It's of course been 11 years since we've released the first Kingdom Hearts, but the actual development was going on from a couple of years before. So it's actually been an even longer time!
The Kingdom Hearts project was started with Tetsuya Nomura, myself and a couple of people at Disney, so whilst it started as a really small project, it has become such a large franchise. I've been very honoured and very happy to have been a part of that.
Yoko Shimomura: In terms of the music, when the HD 1.5 ReMIX project started I revisited my archive, which holds all of my old [Kingdom Hearts] tracks, for the first time in ten years. Just listening to those made me feel really nostalgic, but it also felt fresh to hear them again. With the graphics being improved so much, I did my best to make the music sound much better too.
RPG Site: Are many of that original core team still working on the series as it is today?
Hashimoto: The key members of the development team have actually stayed the same from the original. But it has still been 11 years, and so there have been changes to the rest of the staff during that time. We have new, younger development talent as well, and the Osaka studio now doing the main development for the Kingdom Hearts series. So, the same core members, but it has obviously expanded a lot.
RPG Site: How challenging has it been to take the PlayStation 2 assets and remaster them in high definition? Has it been a long process?
With the original game having released such a long time ago, some of the data actually didn't exist any more, so we had to dig around the archives to put everything together. Some of them we even had to start entirely from scratch, so that's been the most difficult part.
Shimomura: Compared to the actual in-game data, we actually had all the music archived so that was ok. With the game having been improved so much, we still needed to make the music sound better. Obviously we can't just make one track sound better, so ended up having to re-record everything and that's been the most difficult challenge for me.
RPGSite: Having played the Japanese version already, I feel that it's really raised the bar for what can be expected from HD remakes. With Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster now also on the way, has it allowed Square Enix to streamline the process to consider revisiting more of their PlayStation 2 output?
Hashimoto: To be able to make all those different Kingdom Hearts games within the series in HD we need your support and we need everyone's support worldwide. If everyone played HD 1.5 ReMIX and they loved it, then we could then move on to the next one...? At the moment, we'd just like everyone to enjoy HD 1.5 ReMIX.
As you know we've done HD 1.5 ReMIX, Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster, and Final Fantasy VII on PC, so the art team is currently working non-stop at the moment. It's very difficult to catch up with all the latest technology alongside that.
RPGSite: If Kingdom Hearts II HD was ever considered down the line, it would obviously help bridge the gap ahead of Kingdom Hearts III on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. 1.5 has only seen release on PlayStation 3 - but could Xbox owners ever see a HD version to help prepare them for the next title hitting their platform of choice?
Hashimoto: I've been asked so many times about this! I need to ask one in return -- would you like to see the games on Xbox?
RPGSite: I'm personally already familiar with the games on PlayStation, but obviously there are a lot of Xbox owners in the West, especially the UK and North America, who won't be. It may seem like something of a dodging answer, but I just see it as an area of the market that might currently be missed - even if it wouldn't effect me personally.
Hashimoto: [chuckles and nods] Thank you for explaining. We'll continue to consider this prospect.
RPGSite: We're here at a fan event, so it makes sense to ask some more fan-oriented questions - who are your favourite characters within the series?
Hashimoto: Of course, Sora. I've been with him for such a long time now. If you buy the Limited Edition we have some exclusive artwork included, and in there we have a first draft of Sora that Nomura actually drew, which is completely different! I remember seeing that sketch when Nomura was struggling to create and finalise Sora, so if I had to choose one it would be him.
Shimomura: As with my music tracks, it's really hard to choose just one character out of so many. If I had to choose one, it would have to be Riku. It's always like Riku is very miserable, despite whatever effort he puts in. So, I feel sad and want to support him all the time!
RPGSite: What are your favourite worlds or moments, within the Kingdom Hearts series?
Hashimoto: I loved the scene of the sunset in Twilight Town from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, with all three main characters eating ice cream on top of the building. So that's definitely my most favourite scene.
Shimomura: I love Traverse Town! As well as Twilight Town... There are a load of amazing worlds and levels that I love, so it's very difficult to choose one. If I had to choose, it would be Hollow Bastion actually. I really love the atmosphere, but I really don't like playing Hollow Bastion... [laughs]
RPGSite: Kingdom Hearts has had strong ties to Nintendo on the DS and 3DS. With Kingdom Hearts III skipping Nintendo machines, is that relationship going to continue, or is it on hold for now?
ashimoto: Unfortunately we don't have any update on our plans beyond what is announced at this time.
RPGSite: How do you feel about fan events like the one being held today, and would Square Enix welcome fan interaction in helping consider the future of the series?
Hashimoto: At this time in the world social media has become very strong and has provided more opportunities for us to meet fans in person. We would obviously want to talk to those people, and listen to what they want us to do. So we're trying to have more opportunity for engagement as often as we can.
RPGSite: How are the development teams finding working on next-generation consoles? Are they finding that it gives them a far greater degree of flexibility in what they can achieve?
ashimoto: With the next-gen, their capabilities and features, we can do everything. It's kind of like there are tons of opportunities and possibilities we can do with the future of Kingdom Hearts, but we don't want to lose our focus. We want to remain focused on the main themes of Kingdom Hearts itself, rather than concentrating too much on the technology.
RPGSite: Shimomura-san, we're mostly familiar with you working on projects such as the Kingdom Hearts series, but there have been so many games that you have composed for that I played whilst I was growing up that I was probably too young to even realise. How have you approached each different game, and how did you draw inspiration for them individually?
himomura: I have composed for many different genres of games, but when I concentrate on one thing I can't see anything else. It's a benefit and also a good side to my personality anyway. When I was working on Kingdom Hearts, I was just composing for that and only once that was done would move on to my next project. It's difficult doing so many at the same time, but I just focus on them separately.
RPGSite: How did you find composing music for the Kingdom Hearts series, especially with many of the Disney characters already being associated with such well-known themes?
Shimomura: It's a really, really challenging task to do, to create music for Disney characters and worlds that already exist. It was difficult, it is still difficult, and it will be difficult for the future [laughs]. They're already so wonderful, and what I try to do is not ruin any of their reputation and do my best to create some great tracks for the series.
RPGSite: How much creative freedom do you have? Do Disney ever ask you to compose in certain ways?
Shimomura: Disney actually haven't ever said anything about any restrictions or guidelines, it's usually more Nomura-san who asks me to compose music in a specific way.
RPGSite: How many tracks have you composed for the series in total?
Shimomura: Actually, I've never actually counted them before [laughs]. But I knew this question was going to come up so I checked my iPod, because I've got all my tracks on there.
There is a playlist called "Kingdom Hearts All" and it's more than 300 tracks, though there must be some re-arranged versions in there.
RPGSite: Do you have any particular favourites from that playlist?
Shimomura: I've been asked this question so many times, and it's so difficult to answer. All of my tracks are my children, and so I can't choose just one as a mother. It's one big family, so it's difficult and my answer would be all of them.
RPGSite: How do you get the inspiration to write the main themes for the characters? Roxas' theme, for instance, strikes me as really perfect for that character.
Shimomura: When I composed Roxas' theme, it didn't actually take much time. It was quite quick to compose that track, as I didn't think to write something really sad. I just looked at the illustration and understood about the background of his character and personality, and it just came straight to my head. Fortunately Nomura-san really liked it, and approved it straight away. All the feedback I get is that 'the theme is really sad,' 'it made me cry,' but I didn't actually intend for it to be something sad.
RPGSite: How have you found working with Nomura-san throughout the series?
Hashimoto: From my point of view as a producer, Nomura has got a lot of ambitions and dreams about how he wants to create the Disney worlds within the Kingdom Hearts games. Of course, Disney have their own creators over there as well, and so maintaining the balance between Nomura's ambitions and Disney's is one of the most difficult things for me to do!
Shimomura: From the music point of view, it's very difficult because he asks me so many impossible requests! I can't even remember how many kind of requests I receive from Nomura-san. So many times I say 'No, no, no, that's not possible' but he never listens to that! [laughs] I always have to deliver!
For example, there is a track called Fion's Theme in 358/2 Days, and the battle theme which is based on this. Nomura-san's request was 'Please make it more like a piano concerto,' but obviously because the game was originally released on [Nintendo] DS the audio compression and restrictions were completely different. Now, we can make music and stream it into the game with no problem, but the DS limitations were obviously different. That was a really difficult challenge, but we had to do because Nomura-san wanted me to, so we did.
RPGSite: Were there any big disagreements between Square Enix and Disney, in relation to characters or worlds?
Hashimoto: In truth, Disney have been great with us. They're always very co-operative and supportive, and no matter what, if we wanted to use a certain world they always listen. Obviously all the Disney animations have different creators behind them, so the balance and negotiations can often get heated and difficult. But still they've been very supportive.
RPGSite: Shimomura-san, one quick question about your other big project - You composed "Somnus" when Final Fantasy XV was originally Versus XIII. Obviously the change to being a 'main' FF title is quite a big one - they often have pop-style theme songs, for instance. Has much changed musically with the name change?
Shimomura: Well... regarding Somnus, I really want Nomura-san and the Final Fantasy XV team to continue to use it... otherwise I'll cry! [laughs]