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interview: Little King’s Story producer Yoshiro Kimura follow-up

Since my last meeting with producer Yoshiro Kimura, Little King's Story was finished and has since been released in Europe where it has received high praise for its originality, polish, challenge, and depth. As of this writing, it is amongst the top ten highest rated Wii games on both MetaCritic and GameRankings. Needless to say, LKS is probably a game that you should be paying attention to if you're looking for a 3rd party Wii game that's actually worthwhile.

A few weeks ago at E3 I had another chance to talk to Kimura about Little King's Story. Last time he talked about the story and play mechanics as well as what he did to set the game apart from the competition. This time around, he covered the music selection, how he came up with some of the game's unique characters and creatures, the US version's new mode, and much more. Because this is a follow-up interview to the one that I did at TGS last year, you might want to read that before continuing as I did not bother to repeat any of the questions that I had previously asked.

Note: This article is made up of two parts - an interview in which Kimura talks Little King's Story followed by his account of what got him to start working on the game in the first place.

Q&A with Yoshiro Kimura

Who is Little King's Story's target audience?

All the gaming maniacs of the world. I wanted to create something that even players that play realistic looking games can play and enjoy.

How about the hardcore gamer? Why should he or she care?

[Little King's Story] looks like a cute title, but its pretty action oriented at times. In the boss fights, for example, you really have to get into it. So, as a core gamer, you'll have more of an advantage over the casual crowd; it'll be easier to play. And for this version, unlike the European one, we've implemented a super hard mode called Hell Mode.

Note: Hell Mode was renamed Tyrant Mode in the US.

Tell us about Hell Mode.

Hell Mode is a higher difficulty option that is only available when you finish the regular modes. In it, the enemies are super strong and the citizens are really weak. Also, something special happens to the bull named Pancho, the one that Howser rides on, in Hell Mode only. The ending will also change a little bit and you will feel like you've accomplished something if you beat it.

I was looking at some videos and screenshots of the game and I saw some enemies that are pretty... unique, I'd say. How did you come up with them?

I just look at things sometimes and all these ideas start popping into my head. Even something like this pet bottle or this fire engine [points to a water bottle and mini fire engine on the table]. It's like - "wouldn't it be interesting if there's a little creature living inside this pep bottle or something?" Any time I have that kind of epiphany or idea I jot it down in a notebook and I show it to my character designers and from there they start creating stuff for me. I used the same process when thinking about Little King's Story - all this stuff popped into my mind so I started drawing things on paper. Right now, this is something that I'm trying to put together in my mind [Kimura opens his notebook and shows me a drawing]. It's a werewolf, but he has bad legs, so when he's chasing after you he uses a wheelchair that's super fast.

So are we going to see that character in a future game?

Most likely...

So the character designers for Little King's Story - Kurashima-san (Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, Super Mario RPG) and Minaba-san (Final Fantasy XII) - they are really talented and they come up with funny ideas, and one of the ideas they came up with was to make all of the enemies vegetables. At first I thought it was funny, but later on I decided "yeah, let's not go that way..." However, in certain areas, you'll see a lot of vegetable-looking animals, and that's kind of a throwback to that earlier concept.

How about the flying cows? How did those come about?

They don't really fly, but they do have wings. Those are called the wild cows. Basically, it's an evil version of the regular cow. How that happens is these small creatures called Onii make these evil pickles. I call them "ganja pickles" [laughs]. When the animals or plants eat them or come in contact with them, it makes them evil. Going back to what I said about Pancho the bull earlier, there's a connection between him and his family and the pickles that will be unveiled in Hell Mode.

I don't know if the other places can really write "ganja pickle," but that's what I call them. You are free to use that if you want. That was what I had in mind. I wanted to push that name forward, but... So even after localization is done, I'm going to keep pushing it so people will start calling them "ganja pickles."

Alright, I'll call them that.

Thank you!

Tell us about the game's music.

I chose to use mainly classical music since a lot of people don't listen to it that much any more. I don't believe that it's rigid if you really listen to it; it's really relaxed and mellow.

The funniest thing that I've noticed is that when people hum classical music, they often forget the middle portion because they don't remember the melody. When I've called my staff members over and asked them to sing that song from Beethoven, they'll start going [Kimura hums the intro for Beethoven's Symphony No. 5], but in the middle, they forget how the melody goes and they start making things up. To me, that's really humorous and cute, so I actually put that element into Little King's Story - in the middle of the night, you can talk to the citizens and sometimes they'll be humming songs incorrectly.

Shimomura-san (Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG) is the composer who put a lot of effort into arranging some classical music in a techno and rock style. So there are forty songs that are perfectly arranged by professionals - they're real classic songs rearranged the Little King's Story way. But for the twenty secret ones, I actually asked my foreign friends - a lot of different people from places like Russia, Korea, Germany, Holland, and Italy to name a few - to come in. When they went into the recording booth I told them "ok, remember that song? Hum it so we can record it and put it in the game." Usually, when I ask them to do a specific song, two to three seconds are fine, but from thereon they completely forget how the melody goes, but I'll be in the booth saying "keep singing, keep singing," so they have to come up with their own melody to match what they think the song is supposed to sound like. So there are around sixty songs, but there are about twenty that you actually have to find that are a little off and not completely true to the originals.

How do you find these secret ones?

Going a little bit into the gameplay a little - there are seven kingdoms around yours. Each kingdom has a secret jar, and within each jar there is a princess. And when you defeat the other kingdoms you get those jars and are able to open them up to get the princesses. They all want you to get something for them, and one happens to love music. So when you talk to her it's like - "I want to listen to these types of songs," and that's when the song-finding event is unlocked.

So all the princesses are selfish; they're demanding and they want something, and you're supposed to provide them with whatever they want. But the payoff is that by doing so they all become your wives.

So how do you have seven wives?

[jokingly] What's wrong with that? [laughs]

Can you describe the kingdoms?

There is one kingdom where the king thinks that whoever can eat the most sweets is the noblest person. The king in the kingdom of the jolly believes that whoever can drink the most is the best. Though he talks about world peace, he often becomes really wild and starts attacking people when he's drunk. There is the land of the tall - whoever is the tallest or whoever is at the highest point is the noblest. There's the land of the TV where it's said that whoever watches the most is the most important person. Since he used to be a producer, he wants to cause war because that would provide him with more things to film, which would mean more programs for people to watch. There's a kingdom where people are constantly thinking, so whoever thinks the most is the most noble. But their king has a dilemma - on the one hand, he has so many problems and concerns, and by solving them, he will be noble in one way. On the other hand, solving those problems allows him to think more, which means he will be noble in another way. So what happens when he solves all of the problems?

As you can see, each kingdom and king has its own idea of how to be the best, how to be the noblest. So as a player, you can go through all those kingdoms and try to figure out what it means to be noble. That's the question that I'm asking the player.

So are gamers supposed to be learning a moral lesson by playing this?

It's not necessarily a morality lesson or anything like that. It's more like - in regular everyday life, you interact with a lot of people. You may think some people are dumb, some people are stupid, some people are smart, and some people are worth your admiration. So in a way, you don't have to watch television or movies to be inspired, to find interesting people. You can find them by looking around nearby places like your neighborhood and trying to observe the people you find and understand what they're going through - try to learn something from there. More than just playing a video game, it's interesting to look at other characters and see what they're thinking and try to learn what makes them who they are. Of course, while making this game, I really wanted to compete against those natural regular people who are interesting, so I made sure that the bosses were quirky, irregular characters.

Are these characters based on people that you know?

Yes. There's the kingdom of the jolly king Duvroc - I got the inspiration for him from a drinking bar place that I go to in Tokyo. Everybody in that bar that I know - they're funny and they'll talk about something serious for three minutes. Then, a few seconds later, they're going wild and having a tantrum and yelling at each other. That was where I got the idea for Duvroc.

I got the inspiration for Howser Oreganostein, the bull knight advisor who found Corobo, from my friend in Switzerland. His name is Hafis, he works on contemporary arts, he's 70, but he's really young at heart. He over-exaggerates everything, so the way he describes stuff is so interesting and funny. So I took a mental note of that and made Howser out of him.

So basically, what I'm trying to say is - yeah, all the interesting characters that are in the game are based on people who have influenced my life in one way or another.

So you've read the reviews for your game already. What do you think about the response so far?

A lot of reviews from European sites have already come out. The scores have been really high, especially from a place called Edge. They're known for really being harsh with their scores, but we got a really high one from them, so I'm really proud of how Little King's Story turned out. I'm especially happy about Edge's score because they concentrate on core games. Not only that, but the games they do need to be really interesting or have that something else for them to appreciate it.

Of course, I'm not fully happy with what I did. I can never be 100% happy with what I create. I always get the feeling that "I should have done it this way" or "maybe this would have been better." So it's always a learning experience.

Care to elaborate on that?

This game used to have a 2-player mode, but we couldn't make the QA and debug in time, so we had to take it out. And this is one of the things that I really wanted to have. But if Little King's Story does well and a lot of people get to play it and if I have a chance to make a sequel, that's definitely something I want to implement.

So, there's definitely a possibility then?

There is a possibility in everything, but really - it's up to the US gamers to play the game and support us.

I have one more question - what can you tell us about your next project?

There isn't anything that I can really reveal right now. Yeah, I can't really talk about the next project, but every day I do come up with new concepts and new ideas to create something new. I'll play around with all these small ideas and try to make it into a concept for a new game.

The Story Behind Little King's Story

The transcribing work and cleanup for most of this article was actually done a few days after E3. However, I sat on it for the past few weeks mostly because I had a hard time trying to figure out how I was going to do this piece. Apparently, Kimura liked the interview that I had previously put together a lot, so he decided to let me in on something that he usually only tells his friends. He indicated that he hoped that I could find a way to properly convey what he was trying to say in this article. After giving it some thought, I decided that going the easy route and using the Q&A format as I did above would not work. Instead, I figured that going with a first-person narrative would be best. Fortunately, I had close to fifteen minutes of dialog to work with and I was also able to ask a few questions for clarification throughout, so I am fairly certain that I could express what Kimura was trying to say.

Prologue: "A friend of mine suggested that I tell other people what I am about to say, but I quickly responded that 'if I say it, people will think I'm really strange.' So, I haven't told too many people."

Yoshiro Kimura on what motivated him to work on Little King's Story -

I usually put my heart and soul into my projects, which often leaves me exhausted and burned out at the end. So, after the completion of a game, I traditionally take long breaks to unwind. Accordingly, after finishing the project that came right before Little King's Story, I took three months off and went to Switzerland.

During my stay, I would often go on daily hikes in a forest close to where I was staying. This particular forest was really beautiful - it's really misty and there's a river that runs through it, and I usually find myself just walking around for thirty minutes at a time. Now, before I go on, I must say that I am not one to get high on anything or get completely drunk or wasted when drinking. In fact, I was completely sober during the following event -

One day, while on one of my hikes through the forest, I spied a squirrel that had just popped out. It was holding a chestnut or some other kind of seed, and was working on getting it open. And - true story - when it cracked it open, it looked directly at me and said "I'm busy! Leave me alone!"

Actually, this wasn't the first time something like this has happened. The first was about fifteen years prior, about a year after I joined Square. I was twenty-four at the time. I travel and go backpacking a lot, and I just happened to be on a small island close to Tokyo. It's a really small island where one can pretty much get around by just walking. At one point I was really sleepy, so I decided to lie down and take a nap on the side of a road. That's when I noticed an eagle flying over my head. Suddenly, it came directly at me and right at the last second it flapped its wings, stopped, and said "welcome" in English before flying off. When I got back, I told people that "during my break I spoke to eagles." Of course, nobody believed me, so I decided not to tell that particular story any more.

Now, I know what you're thinking, but I truly believe that that squirrel talked to me. I've spoken to others about this and I actually met two people that assert that they had spoken to an animal as well, so I think that you really can communicate with animals.

Back to the story - the squirrel got the seed open, he looked at me, and said "I'm busy, leave me alone!" Though I was really surprised, I found that I wanted to say something back, so I responded with "I'm busy making games!" This was actually a turning point in my life. I thought - "oh, I should actually create more games since I made a promise to the squirrel." In the past, every time I finish a game, I usually think something along the lines of "ok, that's the last game I'm ever going to make." Whenever I get to the end I think "that's enough, I've done everything I can." The same thing happened right before Little King's Story. But because of the squirrel that I encountered, I had the energy to go back up to Wada-san, one of heads at Marvelous, and ask, "you want to make something together again?" And the rest is history...

After Kimura told me his story, I asked a few questions, most of which I integrated into the narrative above. The following question is the only one that I could not fit into it.

Did either the squirrel or the eagle make it into Little King's Story? If not, are they going to be in a future game?

I didn't put it in Little King's Story, but I do have a lot of appreciation for that squirrel, so when I do put it into a game I want it done in a good way...

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