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Sketching out Moondays: Thelonious Monkees and the music of Moon

Masanori Adachi and Hirofumi Taniguchi discuss the band's origins and work on the collaborative sounds of Love-de-Lic's remix RPG

The games industry has thousands of examples of RPG music. But what does the music for a remix RPG -- an upside-down, 'fake', anti-RPG -- sound like?

Moon, or Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, is a game developed by Love-de-Lic that was first published in 1997 by ASCII Entertainment for the original PlayStation -- but only in Japan. Though it remained relatively unknown overseas, developer Toby Fox mentioned it publicly as an inspiration for his 2015 indie darling Undertale, and eventually had the opportunity to speak to the game's designer, Yoshiro Kimura.

According to an interview with Vice Games, this conversation inspired Kimura to bring the game West, resulting in a partnership with Onion Games to port it to Nintendo Switch last year, and then localize and release it globally this past August.

Moon is an RPG full of eccentricities, and among them is its sound design and music. Like most games, Moon features background tracks in certain areas such as the main town, the castle, Granny's house, and a few other areas, but most of the game's world is silent save for ambient sound effects such as birds chirping, wind, or footsteps.

"We knew that mixing games with things that were culturally unrelated could create a certain chemistry, given the right conditions"

Masanori Adachi

However, the game's menu also includes a music player that, at the start of the game, is empty of tracks. Players can collect Moon Discs, or MDs, around the game world that can then be played at will through the menu, and even inserted into a playlist with a handful of other songs. What's more, each MD is composed by a different artist and features its own unique album art.

It's not just a gimmick: the artists for each of these tracks are real bands, and their work was organized, suggested, and collected by a band called Thelonious Monkees. The group as it appears in Moon consists of Masanori Adachi, Hirofumi Taniguchi, and Taro Kudo -- a collaboration that occurred thanks to a fortuitous seating arrangement.

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz via email through Onion Games, Adachi says he met Kudo when the two worked at Konami in the mid-80s and sat next to one another in the office. When Kudo left, he joined a number of Square Enix veterans forming Love-de-Lic, and invited Adachi to join them. Adachi then invited Taniguchi, who had also worked with them at Konami around the same time.

Moon is described as an "anti-RPG," and its gameplay and story very deliberately turn RPG conventions such as a hero fighting monsters and saving a kingdom upside down. Adachi says that Thelonious Monkees decided early on to take a non-traditional approach to its musical composition as well.

"Up until we worked on Moon, a game's director, or the team as a whole, would consolidate their ideas as to what they wanted from the music, then match that up to the individual scenes of the game," he says. "In other words, you'd just be creating background music. However, for Moon, we came to a consensus with the game designers to not go this route.

"Instead -- even though we knew it was risky -- we decided as a new, independent developer to shake off this tradition, as we knew that mixing games with things that were culturally unrelated could create a certain chemistry, given the right conditions."

Though this approach thematically resonated with Moon's twist on classical RPGs, Adachi acknowledges he wasn't sure at the time whether or not the unique music design would resonate with what the rest of the game was trying to convey.

"When there was nothing to work with, most times I'd just get a single keyword and flesh the image out from there"

Hirofumi Taniguchi

"At the time, I wasn't sure whether it fit or not, but looking back I think it matches the overall move the game was making to break away from conventions. There was a definite influence from Nouvelle Vague, a notion that anything goes, and no one will stop you. In fact, Love-de-Lic as a company had this atmosphere of freedom -- that stopping was not an option."

For Moon, Thelonious Monkees composed the music for areas such as the castle, town, haunted house, as well as all the game's story moments. Though the player can keep MDs playing through most of their adventure, these areas are where the MD player is forcibly stopped -- and for good reason, Adachi says.

"The majority of places where MD music is forcibly stopped are themselves music-related events, and, at first, we didn't even stop the music there," he says. "These events were planned out in great detail. The game designer would come over with their blueprint, and we'd hammer the details out with the programmer, down to the very last note.

"Routine game events, like the dream conversations you have with the Queen, or Dolottle's TV segments, are another example of a section where we needed to compile numerous different music genres into a single package. For these scenes, we brought in concepts from the music of European cinema, and soft-rock style. I've actually been collecting soundtrack records from the likes of Ennio Morricone and [Burt] Bacharach since I was a pre-teen, so that taste came out naturally."

Taniguchi adds: "On the tracks where Adachi had already prepared the motif or base track, I'd take the MIDI data, add sounds to it, or compose the next part. When there was nothing to work with, most times I'd just get a single keyword and flesh the image out from there. I was into what was grouped into the mondo music genre back then -- Morricone, [François de] Roubaix and the like -- so I had in mind that style of a cinematic soundtrack, while also focusing the musical theme somewhere between the late 1960s and 1970s."

"I didn't think about the MDs as 'background music'. It was important to me for players to be actively listening to the MDs"

Masanori Adachi

Thelonious Monkees was also responsible for all the Moon Disc tracks, albeit in different ways. A few of the MDs are their compositions, including one (Blue) from Taniguchi alone under the name he uses for his solo projects: Dioramic Phono Odor.

They also composed 'Kera-Ma-Go', which plays in-game at multiple points and is also the credits theme. It -- along with 'Moon Trilogy -- All We Need Is Love' -- is one of Taniguchi's favorite tracks. He says the keyword for Kera-Ma-Go was "festival," and that once the team discussed the image for it, the melody came to him straight away.

"I think it's probably the fastest track I produced for Moon, but conversely, I did put a lot of work into the backing arrangement for it," he says. "...We needed to find a singer who was 'an American girl, about ten years old.' [the song is performed in-game by a young girl who quits a restaurant job to become a pop singer] It seemed like a tall order, but when I started looking I actually found one very close by. It was like Tetris when you get all the right pieces.

"I can very clearly recall the work I did matching up the end credits music with the song in the first half, and the instrumental in the second half, as it was so hair-raising."

"It's completely up to the player to decide whether any given MD fits the mood, and there are some players who don't even listen to the MDs at all"

Masanori Adachi

Adachi says he's especially fond of the tracks 'Departure' and 'Promise'.

"At the very start of development -- when there was still no gameplay to refer to, just the concept of 'Fake and Real' -- I wanted to write a track that encapsulated the mood of Moon, so I used the graphic artists' sketches, the game designers' ideas, and the whole scenario itself to fuel my imagination.

"In parallel with this, discussions were underway about what music to play on the radio at Gramby's house. Debussy's Clair de Lune was brought up as being a good match for Moon's mood, so I started work putting together a variant of Debussy's composition using the same sounds. I considered switching it out before release, but decided to keep it as a mark of respect for the timeless nature of this century-old piece."

But aside from their own contributions, Thelonious Monkees also coordinated all the other contributing MD artists. Around half of the MD tracks by other bands were recorded at the Love-de-Lic office, for which Adachi took on the role of sound engineer.

"I didn't think about the MDs as 'background music'," Adachi says. "It was important to me for players to be actively listening to the MDs, so the request I made to all the artists was that they didn't have 'background music for Moon' in mind when composing.

"I really wanted to combine a variety of musical genres, so I wasn't really thinking about how they all came together. I only had one general restriction -- I felt that including lyrics in tracks limited their worldview, so I requested that the in-game version be instrumental. Otherwise, they had total freedom.

"In the end, it's completely up to the player to decide whether any given MD fits the mood, and there are some players who don't even listen to the MDs at all. The sound effects and voices were designed to withstand that sort of play."

"We chose people who were pursuing their own path. In other words, musicians who believed in their work and were composing out of love"

Masanori Adachi

Adachi says that, in the 90s, without social media, Love-de-Lic had to pitch their idea to bands by taking presentation kits around to various musical acquaintances, explaining what they were looking for. About half of the groups they spoke to turned them down. "I think there was still a lack of awareness around what game music could be back then," he says.

Moon's MDs span a wide range of genres, from traditional Japanese music to pop tunes to a soulful harmonica solo. Adachi says that despite the breadth of style, there wasn't much strict planning about who would compose what. The variety simply happened naturally.

"I suppose you could say we chose people who were pursuing their own path," he says. "In other words, musicians who believed in their work and were composing out of love.

"At first, we had considered creating the MD music ourselves, but we wanted the music to be authentic, rather than just an imitation. A lot of the Love-de-Lic members were big music fans, and their tastes covered a wide range of genres, so in that respect, gathering a range of artists wasn't a huge challenge."

Since its 1997 release, Thelonious Monkees have collaborated under the same name on sound work for multiple games by the Japanese studio Vanpool -- which Kudo also co-founded. Later, Adachi and Taniguchi went on to non-game-related sound work, and Kudo departed the band. Adachi has since contributed to soundtracks including Super Castlevania IV, Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, and Magician's Quest: Mysterious Times, while Taniguchi's work can be heard in the sound for UFO: A Day in the Life, Chibi-Robo, and Black Bird, among other games.

Taniguchi says that while it's hard to say whether Moon influenced his career, he's never had a chance to write anything similar to his compositions for the game since. Adachi says that for him, Moon was an opportunity to broaden his skill set.

"Moon represented a project where I wasn't limited to working on the music alone, but was involved with overall sound production," he says. "I was able to implement sound specifications and ideas that, up until then, I hadn't had the chance to do. I really wanted to focus on the hardware's idiosyncrasies, memory management, and non-music-specific areas of sound design, and I think that's been consistent with my post-Moon work, too."

Though the music of Moon was first created over two decades ago, it's reaching new audiences for the first time in 2020 thanks to the localization efforts of Onion Games. I close our conversation by asking Thelonious Monkees if they have any particular hopes for how new audiences would react to hearing their compositions after so much time has passed.

"This is a game from 1997, and I think the music will give players a taste of the Japanese underground scene at the time," Adachi says. "On top of that, the Thelonious Monkees' approach comes from sound creators who were immersed in the game music of 1980s and 1990s Japan, so while I don't think it's necessarily for everyone, those who do like it will really get into it."

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