Inside Joe Down Studio's Labyrinth of Forgotten Time

Jerry on 2009-01-26
The presence of the amiable yellow avian known as the chocobo has been an indispensable part of the Final Fantasy series since the second title. In Final Fantasy V, the chocobo outgrew its role as a mere means of transportation, becoming a supporting character by the name of Boco. The mythical bird became the main protagonist for the game Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon on the PlayStation.

Along the way, the chocobo theme song composed by Nobuo Uematsu has been treated to practically every remix style imaginable. Now that the character has its own Nintendo series, Final Fantasy Fables, the responsibility of scoring the music of the chocobo has passed to Joe Down Studio of Sapporo, Hokkaido.

Previously, the company has arranged Uematsu's Final Fantasy themes for the soundtracks to Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales. The latest installment has just been released in Japan, a sequel to Chocobo Tales for the Nintendo DS developed by h.a.n.d Inc. and published by Square Enix, entitled Chocobo and the Magic Picture Book: The Witch, The Maiden and the Five Heroes.

Shoji Tomii is the representative director of Joe Down and has overseen the company since its start two decades ago. Yuzo Takahashi arranges themes from the Final Fantasy series and writes original tracks. Composer Chiemi Takano wrote songs for Culdcept Saga, while her voice can be heard in Chocobo's Dungeon's "Memory of a Distant Day," and Kazunori Takahara creates sound effects and voiced the character of Bahamut in the Wii title.

Their perspectives help illustrate how the music of Final Fantasy has retained its luster over the years as the chocobo has become an increasingly recognizable figure.

Shoji Tomii: There are many different instruments here at Joe Down Studio. Quite a few of them are stringed instruments like guitars, bass guitars, shamisen and koto. One of the rarest instruments here is this Egyptian oud. I traveled to Egypt a long time ago and found this there. I brought it back with me, holding it in my arms the entire trip. I've been fascinated with guitars for as long as I can remember, so whenever I run into an interesting instrument related to the guitar family, I pick it up when I can.

What is the meaning behind the company name "Joe Down"?

Tomii: The name "Joe Down" comes from... well, let me start out with the disclaimer that I've always been serious about my work. Anyway, one of my friends who was senior to me by a few years used to say about my company, "I bet you’re doing this as a joke!" "Joke" translates as "Jo-dan" in Japanese. I thought about how this Japanese word would sound spoken by an American with a guitar and a Southern twang. I bet it would sound like "Joe Down." That’s how the name originated, though I'd like to emphasize that all of us are very serious about the work we do here.

Yuzo Takahashi: I'm a 29 year-old musician, and I've worked on arrangements of songs for four Final Fantasy Fables titles. They include Chocobo Tales, Chocobo Dungeon, the sequel to Chocobo Tales and the Nintendo DS port of Chocobo Dungeon, known as "Labyrinth of Forgotten Time" in Japan. If given the chance, I'm interested in exploring this role further in the future.

What are some of the responsibilities attending working as a composer and arranger on the Nintendo DS series?

Takahashi: At the moment I'm writing songs for the next Chocobo Tales. For the first DS title, I only composed one original song, which was Irma's Theme. This time there will be a few more. Nobuo Uematsu's fans might be disappointed when they find out that it isn't just arrangements of Final Fantasy songs on the soundtrack. You could say the music of Final Fantasy Fables is beginning to set its own course.

This is a new Chocobo Tales, so there will be improvements upon the previous title. The staff is becoming more adventurous about exploring themes that are not directly related to Final Fantasy, so we are challenging ourselves to see how many new ideas we can introduce while maintaining a good balance between the novel and familiar. Our goal with the sound design is to help create a fantasy atmosphere.

What stands out about the sounds of the Final Fantasy series is that they are both beautiful and easy to remember. We set out to retain those two aspects in the new arrangements to the best of our ability. In terms of my work as a composer, I wanted to capture something of the texture of the music we remember from the NES and Super Nintendo era. If that comes across to the listener, I couldn't be happier.

Since beginning work on this series, has there been the chance for you to meet Toshiyuki Itanaha, the character designer for the Chocobo and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series of games?

Takahashi: Just briefly. (By the way, Hello Mr. Itahana, if you happen to be reading this!) We met at a party celebrating the release of the first game. I wrote the song for the character of Irma after being shown an illustration by Itahana, so it's fair to say that without him there would not be an Irma's theme.

What are your impressions of the music of the traditional Final Fantasy titles?

Takahashi: Uematsu's songs for Final Fantasy are pleasing and hard to forget. There is something distinctive about the flow and chord progressions of his songs. The emphasis is placed less on how complexly the notes are layered or how forceful the sound comes across than on the fact that so many listeners never get tired of the melodies, no matter how many times we hear it.

For the Nintendo DS port of Chocobo's Dungeon, which was previously released for the Wii, you have remade the score from the ground up. How would you describe the difference in the sound capabilities of these two game systems you have worked with?

Takahashi: The Wii features CD-quality streaming playback. The DS is not quite optimized for the same level of audio quality. It puts a lot of strain on the processor if the music files are not compressed. Instead of streaming music, we have arranged the audio specifically for use on the DS. Basically, it isn't feasible to reproduce the exact same soundtrack that appeared in the Wii game, so we remade all the songs so that the music would have a bright, crisp quality when heard on the DS speakers. In some cases, the arrangements turned out even better on the DS.

How did it come about that your company became involved in the Chocobo Tales series of games?

Chiemi Takano: The game production company h.a.n.d. Inc. has been a client of ours for some time. They were the ones who approached us with the idea of collaborating on this project.

We were, of course, very interested in participating on the sound design for Chocobo Tales. I think we were very fortunate to have been afforded the chance to join. Square Enix has been happy with our arrangements, and allowed us to stay on as the series has broadened in scope. We've grown a lot as musicians during this time and have done our best to offer a worthwhile experience for game players.

You are credited as a composer on the soundtrack to Culdcept Saga, whose score was written by Kenji Ito. As it so happens, the musician has made his own arrangements of the Final Fantasy songs for the Playstation title Chocobo Racing. What kind of work was involved in assisting the composer on this project?

Takano: Development on Culdcept Saga took place just over two years ago, and the game was released in 2006. Ito-san sent us various compositions and asked us to arrange them. He listened to these drafts and provided us with notes on how to refine them further. He gave us a lot of constructive feedback, and I was very pleased with how our involvement in the project turned out.

What has been your experience in contributing to the Chocobo series?

Takano: Being in the position of working on this series has brought us tremendous enjoyment and pride. It feels wonderful that many people out there are listening to our music. It is the dream of many people to work in a creative field and reach a wide audience, so in that sense it is very gratifying to contribute to these titles.

Kazunori Takahara: I'm the sound effects creator for the Chocobo series. I've worked on Chocobo's Dungeon for Wii and Chocobo Tales for the Nintendo DS. For Chocobo and the Magic Picture Book: The Witch, The Maiden and the Five Heroes, the approach to sound design has remained the same as on previous titles. Because the game is for the Nintendo DS, it was necessary to strip some of the sound effects from the Wii version down to their component parts to recreate them using less data on the DS.

This is an entirely new game, so the graphics are improved over the original title, and we have been studying the storyboards to reflect that increase in quality in the sound design. Judging my own work, I would say that my skills have improved with time. All of us at the studio have been working to match the visual design team's high standards of quality.

In transitioning between the Wii home console and the Nintendo DS portable, do you make a point of keeping the effects consistent across the board?

Takahara: In terms of what we kept from the Wii game, the voice of the chocobo remains constant. We don't want to throw people who have an idea in their mind of how these characters should sound. The effects used for many of the attacks have been retained as well.

How do you approach the use of sound effects in full-motion video sequences, such as the monster summon segments in Chocobo's Dungeon?

Takahara: Sometimes cutscenes are not available for us to look at while we are creating the sound effects. We receive a script which contains detailed descriptions of these scenes and are left to imagine how this two-to-three second image will turn out. Once the computer graphics are finally completed, we take another look at the sound effects and adjust them as necessary to match the image. It's a multi-step process.

What goes into making some of the more layered sound effects for the Chocobo series?

Takahara: Some of the simpler sounds include things like a character jumping or taking damage. When it comes to more complex sounds, I take a look at the script and put together a mix of effects to match the situation. In Pro Tools, there is a library of sound materials you can choose from. These include things like sounds heard inside a factory, a fire being lit, a spinning helicopter propeller, that sort of thing. You can put bits and pieces of these noises together to create a unique new sound.

There are sounds around us all the time that we are hardly aware of on a conscious level. In a game like this, it's easy just to go ahead and present them as they naturally occur, but that's not so interesting. It's more fun to hear how the noise of a cork being pulled out of a bottle can accentuate the feeling of rocks crashing against the ground. A sound lasts only for a second or two, so it's all the more challenging to make it something to remember.

How often do you use the microphone to record audio effects?

Takahara: Using a microhpone is particularly effective for recording sounds for the monsters and summon creatures in the game. When the monsters strike or when they're vanquished I record my own voice, going "Aaargh!" Afterwards, I manipulate the sound to make it resemble the tone of the creature. It's a lot of fun. Also, if you listen to the sound that plays when Bahamut is summoned, you can hear the noise of some shattering glasses and cups I added.

Now that the series has grown to four titles, do you have a personal impression of this series as a whole, having been involved since the original DS game?

Takahara: My introduction to the RPG genre was with Final Fantasy III for the Famicom. Saying that I have grown up with the Final Fantasy series is no exaggeration, so it is personally satisfying to have the opportunity to contribute to the Chocobo series. As a child you don't really think about how it is that the sound effects in the games you play are created, but I've come to learn just how intricate a process it can be. It's gratifying to think that there are people out there immersing themselves in the game that you helped to create.

This article originally appeared on: Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Read it in Japanese on