Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Interview With Hiroki Kikuta (Seiken Densetsu 3).



Late in 2018, a project I had long, LONG been involved with and eventually climbed my up to assistant director of was an Ocremix project that served to remix the ENTIRE audio score of famous SNES RPG Secret of Mana 2 (Seiken Densetsu 3). This project had more roadblocks and difficulties than Duke Nukem Forever, but we persevered and got it released.

One thing I got to enjoy doing was I got to interview Hiroki Kikuta himself for the project as part of a "bonus material" type element for the project. Hiroki is famously easy to approach and talk to from a non-industry denizen vantage point and he agreed to shed some more light on what it was like working on Seiken Densetsu 3 where his contractual obligations with Square-Enix allowed, as Square evidently prefers to keep some aspects of their behind-the-scenes stuff to corporate confidentiality and we respect both Square's and Hiroki's wishes on that.

Furthermore, for some reason, this interview has had quite a bit of difficulty in getting posted. It's been lost more than twice by all people involved with it and I had to ask Jahan Zoltan, who very generously translated the interview TO Japanese and then BACK from Japanese, to do it again because we lost the first version. Eventually, I just decided it was easiest all the way around to post it myself to my websites jslawhead.com and meteoxavier.com for people to read.

This interview was written and conducted by me, MeteoXavier.
It was translated into Japanese and back to English by Jahan Zoltan.
Date the interview was conducted was... I don't know, somewhere between 2010 and 2012 I think.

Thanks again to Zoltan, Hiroki Kikuta for allowing this interview to happen and Ocremix for being patient with us long enough to produce the project. See more on the Seiken Densetsu 3 project at http://sd3.ocremix.org/.


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How did you go about creating the Seiken Densetsu 3 soundtrack? What were you goals? What kind of preparation did it require? Were there any specific influences? How did SQUARESOFT approach you about doing the game?

For starters, I can say that I already had an idea of the direction I'd like to take Seiken Densetsu 3's soundtrack while composing for Seiken Densetsu 2. That game's music was limited by the Super Famicom hardware, but I wanted to emphasize a feeling of translucence and grandness. So I wrote that soundtrack in a very particular and special way. In my opinion, it came out perfectly, but I knew that if I did Seiken Densetsu 3 the same way, I wouldn't be able to surpass Seiken Densetsu 2. So I thought long and hard about a way to surpass Seiken Densetsu 2 with such strict hardware limitations. The answer was not to focus on translucence but on atmosphere and presence. So I threw out what made the Seiken Densetsu 2 soundtrack so attractive to create a completely different kind of attractiveness for SD3. I ended up keeping the number of simultaneous sounds down to 6 and reducing the number of samples. That extra capacity allowed me to create an atmosphere that nobody thought possible on a Super Famicom. I started considering what kinds of melodies and harmonies I could make with this structure at a very early stage. I think the fans already know this, but the Seiken Densetsu 2 arranged album, The Secret of Mana, contains a melody from Seiken Densetsu 3. That arranged album was being made after I had already established the atmosphere for Seiken Densetsu 3.


The Seiken Densetsu 2 soundtrack was energetic and focused on melody while the Seiken Densetsu 3 soundtrack was more rhythmic and progressive sounding. What was the inspiration for this?

Making game music means working under a lot of restrictions. There are hardware restrictions and data capacity restrictions in addition to restrictions related to the game's world, system, and sound effects. There are so many factors to take into consideration. The composer can not simply create whatever strikes his or her fancy. I chose to emphasize atmosphere and presence when composing for Seiken Densetsu 3, but in order to help create a brilliant world with a colorful map, I decided that regular instruments would be insufficient. So I sampled a lot of tribal instruments. Short and impressive sounds complexly interlaced into music has the flexibility to portray any atmosphere from fun to scary and the convenience to allow you to freely change up the arrangement. This resulted in music that was labeled "World Music" and "progressive" even though that was not specifically what I was trying to achieve.


Seiken Densetsu 3 came out 15 years ago, yet the Wii and 3DS rereleases do not at all look like old games. The soundtrack still sounds great to this very day. When you listen to that music today, how do you feel? I would imagine that it feels quite different from the time that you composed it.

The short answer is no. It doesn't feel different at all. For example, the other I was looking for the midi data from when I produced Genesis from the Seiken Densetsu 2 arranged album, and when I heard it, I thought it sounded amazing. Even I was surprised to hear that the musicianship and my ideas for composition didn't sound old. This is just my opinion, but I think the fact The Beatles still sound so good despite the advancements in recording and instruments says it all. If we could create great things simply by using high-performance machinery, humans would be obsolete. We could just let the machines do it.


What was the process to convert your compositions into game code? In the 90s, when you worked at SQUARESOFT, what kind of equipment or programs did you need to get your music into the game?

There isn't much I can say publicly about the techniques that were used. The way I went about composing music for the Super Famicom was to play on a synthesizer or a regular instrument and then rearrange it in a way that it would work on the hardware. You have to restructure the music and you can't hear exactly what it is going to sound like during the composition phase, and that makes it less satisfying. So I would make my own samples for the Super Famicom, play them through the Super Famicom, record those into an AKAI sampler, and then play them through a sequencer and compose with them that way. That way I can hear exactly how it is going to sound on the Super Famicom. I think I was the first person to come up with this method.


A lot of gamers know that programming music for old game consoles can be tough. (For example, FFIV and Chrono Trigger) What kind of hurdles or challenges did you have with the Seiken Densetsu soundtrack? I read a rumor that you once stayed in your office for 24 hours to work on a surround sound application.

Generally speaking, there isn't enough space. Compared to today, memory was too expensive for too little space. Seiken Densetsu 3 takes up just 32 megabits. In other words, 4 megabytes. That is but a tiny fraction of the hard disc space people commonly used today. But that is all we needed to create a world where for 50 hours children can play, go on adventures, feel moved, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Of course, that involved endless hours tedious labor. We had to perform every possible trial and error, type every individual command, and keep optimizing the data little by little. It was like we lived there, and staying at the office for 24 hours was a possibility. But the result was like a crystallization of effort.


This question is for people who aspire to be game music composers. What was the budget and schedule of Seiken Densetsu 3? How much did the budget and schedule affect your music?

Although there wasn't a budget specifically for music production on Seiken Densetsu 3, I was allowed to buy the AKAI sampler and the LEXICON reverb unit. So, there is a small degree of freedom. I also bought a charango from a traditional instrument shop to record samples. Much more important is the schedule. Before anything had been made, the team was formed, and I had two whole years to spend on music production. The first six months I did nothing at all musical. Everyday I was just eating with the team, chatting away with them, gathering information from them, and trying to get a grasp of the image they have. That was by no means a waste of time. In order to understand the world they are creating right in front of me and to be able to create the most suitable music for that world, that much time is needed. That's because you need to have a deep understanding of the game's system, graphics, and the various inner workings to create great game music.


When Seiken Densetsu 3 came out, there were a lot of Americans who wanted to play it, and we were all upset when we heard there would be no English version. There was so much demand that fans made the first English translation of the game. How was the reception of the game in the West compared to Japan's reception.

Well, Seiken Densetsu 3 didn't have much name recognition with the overseas audience. When talking to foreign fans at conventions and such, I got the feeling that lots of people knew about Seiken Densetsu 2, but hardly any had heard about Seiken Densetsu 3. I was surprised when I met people who knew about the game. Those people would tell me that they went ahead and played it in Japanese, even though they couldn't read Japanese. They just loved games that much. I remember feeling quite happy when I heard that.


What are some of your favorite songs from the Seiken Densetsu series? I feel like you were really enjoying composing for the series. Whenever I listen to Sacrifice Part II, I can't help playing air drums. And I have to head bang whenever I hear Faith Total Machine.

I wouldn't say that I was enjoying the work. (Hahaha) Composing game music is just hardship followed by sadness over and over again. Still, it was a great experience because I had full jurisdiction over the music and could do whatever I wanted. The appeal of game music for me was that there were no common practices or theory about how to do it. It was all through trial and error, fumbling around, and experimenting over and over that I was able to come up with my own original style and method of composition. Being a composer itself is nothing but surprises. The normal state of things is always changing, we get new equipment to use. . . It's like opening a gate to the unimaginable. It's fun in that way. I don't expect it's very fun if you can imagine exactly the song you're going to make before you compose it. I tend not to write music for drums, strings, and chorus because it'll sound like everybody else's music. When you're aspiring to produce something great, I think more people need to learn the lesson that "Boredom equals death."


Do you have any interesting stories or happenings you can share? Please don't hold back.^_^

It's not really that interesting, but we were having trouble getting all the bugs out of Seiken Densetsu 3. Even at the very end we couldn't work out all the bugs. I remember the entire team being completely exhausted, but we kept on working on it forever. To be honest, I don't really know when we actually finished the game. We were debugging for so long that everything was turning blurry. (hahaha)


Thank you so much for your time. All of us at OCREMIX are huge fans. Are you working on anything right now? We're all looking forward to the next Hiroki Kikuta project.

Recently I finished the soundtrack for a board game called Werewolf, also known as Mafia. The soundtrack is called Jinrou Bansou Ongaku Shuu (人狼伴奏音楽集) (Werewolf Musical Accompaniment Collection)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap4GwTXC1L4

If you have the chance, I'd love for you to listen to it.



Photos of Hiroki Kikuta come from his Facebook profile page.
Artwork posted here comes from the Seiken Densetsu 3 website and was created by Keiiii (Min Kwon).

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