Interview with Joe Down Studio
Conducted by Jeriaska, with translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Coordinated by Chris Winkler.

February 17, 2008 Joe Down Studio, the Hokkaido-based music development house, has recently completed the original score to a Square Enix role-paying game for the Nintendo Wii. Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon: Labyrinth of Forgotten Time puts the player in the role of a chocobo charged with the task of saving an ailing town whose denizens have had their memories stolen. The game features a soundtrack composed primarily of remixes from Final Fantasy titles stretching all the way back to the original game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. You may have heard the arrangements by Joe Down Studio in Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales for the Nintendo DS. This time out, utilizing the audio capabilities of the Wii and the studio's library of equipment, the Joe Down team has furthered the aim of re-imagining the classics of Final Fantasy music on a new generation of consoles.

Arriving in Japan in January, Labyrinth of Forgotten Time original soundtrack contains 31 songs from the game, most of which are composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Some might find the music reminiscent of the arranged albums that Square published in the Super Nintendo days, back when in-game audio could not yet emulate acoustic sounds or match top tier synthesizers. Take for instance the song "Memory of a Distant Day," which can be sampled on the soundtrack's official website. An arrangement of the Final Fantasy V town theme, the tune incorporates sparse vocals in an homage to "My Home Sweet Home" from the arranged album "Dear Friends". Cross-pollinating videogame album genres, Labyrinth's remix entitled "Pop-Up Duel" transitions from a nostalgic chiptune rendition of the battle theme from Final Fantasy II to an orchestral version of the same song. Even the arrangements of more recent numbers noticeably receive some attention, such as the lightly ticking clocks and whirring gear effects used for "Guardian of Light 1," a remix of Masashi Hamauzu's Thunder Plains theme from Final Fantasy X.

Shouji Tomii is the representative director of Joe Down, the producer responsible for overseeing the company's various music projects. Mr. Tomii took time during the mastering process of the new title's original soundtrack to offer RPGFan some background on the company. The following interview is meant to offer English-language players some background on the music studio and an introduction to their latest collaboration with Square Enix.

Q: The island of Hokkaido is separated geographically from the center of videogame development in Japan, but the region is well known for being the hometown of quite a number of celebrated musicians. How long has Joe Down been around and what can you tell us about the home of the studio?

A: As it so happens, this year marks the 20th anniversary of our company. We are located in Sapporo, the center of Hokkaido, which is situated in a northern region of Japan. I was born and raised in Sapporo, and I just love it here. It's a big city, with a population of 1.8 million, yet the environment is rich in natural landscapes. We have four distinctive seasons and you could not hope for more impressive surroundings.

History in Brief
Q: Your studio has a tradition of making music for a variety of media. When was it that Joe Down first started working on game scores?

A: We began making videogame music projects about 15 years ago. We started out with the Super Famicon and Gameboy consoles, which were manufactured by Nintendo. In time we branched out onto the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. Now we're working on projects for the Wii, Nintendo DS, XBOX 360, you name it.

We offer full-time employment to a team of music production members and recording engineers. Our operations include composing, writing lyrics, and arranging existing songs, while we record sound effects, vocals and instrumental performances in our own studio. The office is equipped with everything that's necessary to create audio for games. Our directors are hardcore gamers and supervise all our projects, which allows us to aim for the highest quality sound. We aim to impress listeners in every way possible. Outside of videogame music, we also work on ads, cell phone ringtones, and various TV and radio programs. We're a small team, but we believe our enthusiasm would be hard for any sized company to match. That's the kind of spirit that drives our studio.

Regarding Original Compositions
Q: Labyrinth of Forgotten Time continues the tradition of previous Chocobo games by including a few recognizable themes from the Final Fantasy series. But the new title might be particularly notable as far as long-running enthusiasts of the series are concerned due to the fact that most of the score includes arrangements from classic titles. How many of the composers who have created music for the series over the years contributed their themes to this title?

A: The background music for the game was provided by Nobuo Uematsu, composer and director of SMILE PLEASE. The game also includes selected tracks composed by Square Enix musicians Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano, Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka. All the pieces originated in the Final Fantasy series of games. Labyrinth of Forgotten Time also includes new songs for the opening movie and demo, composed by Ms. Tanioka exclusively for the title.

Q: How was it decided out of the hundreds of songs that have been composed over the Final Fantasy series' twenty-year history which few would be included in this title?

A: The major decisions regarding the selection of songs for the game were made by Square Enix and h.a.n.d. Inc. While we had little involvement in that respect, we requested ahead of time the chance to arrange songs from the 8 and 16-bit era. We felt that in comparison to Playstation tracks, players would enjoy the chance to hear themes that were once restricted to three and eight chords, and that these selections might be particularly appropriate to a game with "Forgotten Time" in the title.

New Results & Unique Expression
Q: What can you tell us about the songs found on the soundtrack for Labyrinth of Forgotten Time?

A: These are not just straight arrangements of the original Final Fantasy songs. A lot of thought went into matching the feel of the scenes in which the songs take place. We also considered their role in the traditional structure of the dungeon-crawler RPG genre. We felt that no matter how well the remixes turned out, it would be a meaningless exercise if the results did not add to the fun of the game. For themes taking place within the dungeon, we worked on aural cues that accentuated the feeling of danger. For one of the fight scenes we even went as far as to choreograph the visuals of the battle as a way to boost the excitement of this scene. The songs are put together in a way that enhances the playing experience.

We also put a lot of effort into creative choices, adding some unexpected twists to these songs. You might notice in the Fire Dungeon that we incorporated the sound of pickaxes to simulate the atmosphere of an underground mine--Listen closely for the sound of metal scraping against rock. In the Water Dungeon, the eerie quality of the synthesizers we used are intended to evoke the placid atmosphere of the deep sea. For the area of the game where the stolen memories are regained, sections of some songs are played backwards. Though we spliced together fragments of various songs, we managed to retain the character of the original tunes. The background music provides a sense of continuity throughout the entire journey, which is what we were aiming for.

On Chocobo Tales, we ran into a lot of limitations with the Nintendo DS hardware. But the digital audio of the Wii opened up all the options for experimentation we were looking for, even while the arrangements maintain the original compositions. Knowing the context within which each song appears also made it possible to apply all of our ideas with a high degree of confidence. We feel that players will enjoy the game on a deeper level by listening closely to all that went into the sound techniques. We hope listeners will enjoy the songs of Labyrinth of Forgotten Time, not only as reminders of the memorable classics, but also as distinct creations in their own right.

Personal Comment by Yuzo Takahashi
Q: Please tell us about your role in the musical scores for the Joe Down Chocobo titles.

A: I was responsible for composing, arranging and manipulating sounds for Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, and more recently I arranged the jingles found in Labyrinth of Forgotten Time. It has been a pleasurable couple of years, spending time on Chocobo projects and revisiting all the classic songs. It has been a wonderful opportunity I am truly grateful for.

I'm certain that the musical arrangements for this title will be familiar to those of you who have some history with Final Fantasy games. It is a thrill to think that people around the world will have the chance to enjoy the songs that we have arranged! On a personal note, my first daughter was born in December of 2007, the month this game made its debut. In that sense, this is one project in my career that is certain to be unforgettable.

Number One Favorite Pick
Q: Of the Final Fantasy songs that appear in Labyrinth of Forgotten Time, which do you consider your favorite?

A: I like them all! But if I must pick one, it would have to be "Battle with the Four Fiends," which appears during the boss battle. I like it a lot. I can remember being really scared when I heard that song while playing Final Fantasy IV. (That was back in my elementary school days.) It would be great if younger players who hear the song for the first time in this game can experience the same excitement that I did when I was a kid!