LIVE A LIVE: a conversation between Yoko Shimomura and Toby Fox - part 1LIVE A LIVE composer Yoko Shimomura and UNDERTALE creator and composer Toby Fox discuss the link between two of their most famous tracks: MEGALOMANIA and MEGALOVANIA.
LIVE A LIVE has returned! Originally released in 1994 for the Super Famicom in Japan, it’s back as a HD-2D remake, on PS5, PS4, Steam and Nintendo Switch!
As well as the visuals, the music tracks have also been reborn! They’ve been rearranged under the supervision of the original composer, Yoko Shimomura. The game’s soundtrack is beloved by many, including Toby Fox - the creator of the acclaimed UNDERTALE.
When developing the game, he composed a track called MEGALOVANIA, which was directly inspired by one of the most popular tracks from LIVE A LIVE: MEGALOMANIA. The two composers connected for a special interview, conducted by vocalist Anemone Mournian, to commemorate the release of the LIVE A LIVE HD-2D Remake Original Soundtrack.
It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion that covers everything from their respective compositions to their experiences with each other’s music. In fact, it was so good, so deep, and so enjoyable that we’ve split it into multiple instalments to ensure we didn’t have to cut a single thing!
In this first part, Shimomura-san and Fox share discuss their first meeting, the origins of the tracks MEGALOMANIA and MEGALOVANIA and the impact LIVE A LIVE has had on Fox’s own games!
PLEASE NOTE: this interview includes spoilers for both LIVE A LIVE and UNDERTALE.
Yoko Shimomura: Are you Toby-san?
Toby Fox: (in Japanese) Yes, nice to meet you.
(Toby holds an image of a white dog in front of his face. When Toby appears in public, it’s said he transforms into a white dog…or no, perhaps this is his real form…?)
Shimomura-san: Ah, Ikemen-inu! Ike-inu! Ike-inu! (Note: Inu means dog in Japanese.)
(Toby bursts out laughing.)
Fox: Ike-inu! Hahahaha!
It is a pleasure to meet both of you. First, I would like to ask Toby: I hear that you love games from Japan. What was the first game that you played?
Fox: I don’t remember which Japanese game I played first, but the first “traditional-style” JRPG I played must have been FINAL FANTASY VI. I got completely absorbed in its music and atmosphere.
Just from the opening notes... “Na… na… na… na… DAAA!!! NAAAA!!!” (sings the start of the track Omen) I don’t know how to explain it, but it made me tremble with uncontrollable emotion. I remember thinking… “Wow, this is cooler than a movie!” I must’ve been around four (years old) or so.
No, wait! As far as Japanese RPGs go, I think I might have played “Secret of Mana” before that. I would go back and forth endlessly in the same cave, fighting monsters and listening to the music… Since I was so small when I first started playing them, I feel like games became a part of my DNA, my flesh and blood. Their existence was as natural to me as water, and they existed in my head as the cornerstone of my culture.
…Ah! And Super Mario RPG! Can’t forget that one.
Does that mean that Super Mario RPG was your first contact with Shimomura-san’s music?
Fox: If you mean within the first game I beat myself, then yes...
If we’re talking about the first time I EVER heard her music, it was when I went to a beach with my friend and his mom. There was an arcade there that had STREET FIGHTER II. I put a coin in and Dhalsim instantly wrecked me so bad, I cried in real life.
The memory of Dhalsim beating up my child self was so intense that honestly don’t remember much about the music... but I think that would be the actual first time that I “heard” Shimomura-san’s work.
The first time that I really got to appreciate her music was Super Mario RPG. I loved it so much that I even recorded the forest song on to a tape recorder to listen to later.
Of course, as a kid I had no idea who composed the soundtrack, or any game soundtrack really. It was years later when I finally started to take notice... I think it was when I played KINGDOM HEARTS that I finally realized, “Wait, this musical style is familiar… Could it be the same person?!”
From then on I learned all about Shimomura-san, Nobuo Uematsu-san, Yasunori Mitsuda-san, and many other great composers...
Encountering “LIVE A LIVE”
Fox: I first played LIVE A LIVE when I was around 8th or 9th grade. It was recommended to me by a friend who was a fan of it. Since I loved Square’s games and heard the music was by Shimomura-san, I thought, “Well, I definitely have to play this!” and gave it a shot.
It wasn’t localised into English so it took a long time to play, but it of course it felt amazing to complete it. The first chapter I chose was “Prehistory”, and the second was “Present Day”.
Since the remake was released, another friend of mine asked, “I’m playing LIVE A LIVE for the first time - which chapter should I start with?” I replied, “I started with Prehistory, but I don’t have any particular recommendations”. Honestly the fact that you can start with any chapter and go in any order you like is part of the appeal of the game, right?
I could actually go on for hours about every chapter, but maybe it’s best if I hold off...
We would love to hear that, but we are limited for time. Could you please tell us your favourite elements of LIVE A LIVE?
Fox: Story-wise, my favorite part was the finale where all of the protagonists unite. I’m sure I’m not the only player that felt that way!
As far as individual chapters go, I really loved the “Middle Ages” chapter. After all the scenarios with atypical game protagonists, finally revealing a standard fantasy setting with a knight hero as one of the “final chapters” was such an excellent twist for a JRPG, and a perfect lead up to the actual last chapter itself. To think that our heroic knight of justice would end up like that… It’s the kind of wonderful betrayal of expectations that influenced me when I created UNDERTALE as well. You know, the thought process of, “to think the protagonist could actually...” Anyway, I don’t think I’m supposed to say any more about that.
To be honest, if anything this LIVE A LIVE influence is even stronger in my current work. DELTARUNE. Not only is the story separated into different chapters, but the player’s character is also a sword-wielding fantasy knight, who may play another role than just a simple “hero”.
People familiar with my previous works may feel the need to say “Wait, that’s not all! Didn’t THAT take inspiration from LIVE a LIVE, too!?” … You would be right. I don’t want to mention this here, but... Do you know “Garfield”? I once made a really bad joke game in RPG Maker were the last boss was a giant version of Odie, called “ODIE-O”.
(No one in the room knows who Garfield is.)
Let’s not talk about this anymore.
Was the mechanic to show MERCY to enemies in UNDERTALE also influenced by LIVE A LIVE?
Fox: I did think it was really interesting in LIVE A LIVE, how in the “Twilight of Edo Japan” chapter, you get a special item as a reward for not killing any of the enemies. This definitely stuck in my head when I was making UNDERTALE’s MERCY mechanics.
Before I ask you about MEGALOVANIA, please tell us about how you actually met Shimomura-san. You attended the live event “LIVE A LIVE A LIVE 2018” in Uguisudani, correct?
Fox: Yes, that was my first meeting with Shimomura-san. This is the second.
Shimomura-san: I was actually told on the day at the venue that “Toby is here to see the show”. I remember having a quick chat together on that super-dark balcony in the VIP area after the show.
Fox: That’s right. I’ll never forget that conversation. I couldn’t speak Japanese very well at the time, so when I tried to say “hajimemashite” (nice to meet you) in Japanese, I said “hatsumemashite” instead because I had misread the kanji when I was learning. I was so embarrassed.
Shimomura-san: You’re speaking very smoothly right now, but at the time, I was wondering if you were just a super shy person. Now it all makes sense!
It seems like you can understand Japanese pretty well now. I can tell because you’ve been getting all of the jokes I’ve been making, and laughing. Me, I’ve been telling myself that I’d better study English for around 10 years now…but anyway, it’s amazing.
Fox: The live event was awesome, by the way. Even though the game came out 20 years ago, the audience was full of fans who were all cheering so passionately. When Takashi Tokita (Director of LIVE A LIVE and Producer of the LIVE A LIVE remake) shouted, “You will repay my loyalty…”, the audience all yelled back, “with death!”
Tokita-san was amazing, by the way! He sang “Go! Go! Steel Titan!” by himself up on stage! It would be great to be like him one day, singing up on a stage... Not “Go! Go! Steel Titan!”, but a track from my own game. (laughs) Although, if I was asked to sing “Go! Go! Steel Titan!”, I would happily do it!
Shimomura-san: You could totally do that too, Toby! (Shimomura-san demonstrates a call-and-response with the audience) “UNDER...?” “TALE!” “MEGALO...?” “VANIA!”
(Toby bursts out laughing)
Shimomura-san: When my music is performed, it’s often at orchestral concerts, so that show was actually the first time I had a call and response. When I saw the excitement of everyone at the venue, I was really moved by the love I felt from the fans.
MEGALOMANIA and MEGALOVANIA
Shimomura-san, how did you find out about Toby’s MEGALOVANIA?
Shimomura-san: UNDERTALE was already quite famous at the time, and several people recommended it to me saying, “It’s a masterpiece, you should play it!”
At the same time, I was told that there is a track called MEGALOVANIA, which is apparently inspired by MEGALOMANIA. Fans actually asked me about MEGALOVANIA a few times, and I started to think “wow, it must be pretty popular.”
So I listened to the actual track, but the structure and melody were completely different, so while I was honoured by the reference, I did wonder, “Why did he name it that?”
Fox: So, let me explain… First of all, I was 15 years old, okay? I was working on a project, and I actually just wanted to use MEGALOMANIA in it...
However, In order to do that, I would have to remake it. And so after a few minutes of trying to transcribe it, I thought “this is too hard, wouldn’t it be easier to just make a new track?” So I tried to do so, inspired by MEGALOMANIA and another song.
As for why it’s called “MEGALOVANIA”, the theme of the project was Halloween, so I thought adding “VANIA” so the end made sense… Transylvania = Vampire = Halloween…was my chain of thoughts.
If I can talk about what makes MEGALOMANIA great for a second… Obviously the song itself is really cool, but the “secret sauce” that makes it really stand out isn’t just the composition, it’s the context within which it’s used in the game. Because it always played at the end of the chapter, the player starts to get an almost Pavlovian-style response to it. No matter whether you're in a prehistoric world, the future, or ancient China, as soon as that track plays, your brain fully activates with “This is it… this is… the end...”.
Anyway, 15-year-old me wanted a track that also gave that feeling for my own project. Hence, the similar name… Or something.
Shimomura-san: Oh, so that was it! Today, thanks to asking Toby himself, the years-long mystery has finally been solved! It’s the kind of thing you can’t really figure out unless you actually meet, right?
Fox: Can I ask a question too? How long did it take you to compose MEGALOMANIA?
Shimomura-san: I composed it pretty quickly. I’m not the type to really worry about a big plan when I’m creating, I just sort of go with the flow and make it!
With MEGALOMANIA, it took a long time before I started writing… I ended up being rushed to create it for the demo since it was the boss track, and when I actually started it, I ended up making it extremely fast. It probably took around 30 minutes to an hour to finish writing it.
Did it take so long to start writing because you were waiting for an idea for the piece to come to you?
Shimomura-san: “Waiting to come to me...” That would be cool, but to be honest, I really just tend to spend a lot of time gathering information so I can get the right feel for the piece.
Rather than thinking about the structure of the piece itself or what instruments to use, I try to think about what situation it’ll be used in, what kind of mood is being asked for.
After storing all the non-audio impressions such as the visuals and story, I then think to myself: “Alright, let’s start writing!” and start composing. From there, there’s a split between pieces that take time to write and others that take no time at all. I think MEGALOMANIA took relatively no time at all to complete.
Fox: I knew it! I mean this in the best way, but MEGALOMANIA sounds to me like a track that was “suddenly made,” which is why I wanted to ask you. MEGALOVANIA was the same, actually!
When you compose, sometimes there are those tracks that you just can’t seem to figure out, and you start over time and time again. Meanwhile, you can make a different track in an hour and then think “Wow, this is my best work.”
Anyway, I think that’s another reason that MEGALOMANIA has such a strong impact. It has a simplicity to it that comes from that sudden “spark” of inspiration, which makes it have a highly addictive and impactful quality.
Add the context that I mentioned before, and it’s easy to see why it’s the most popular track from LIVE A LIVE. As long as you can communicate the right emotions and power with the right context, the music will work! And sometimes, it doesn’t take that long! (And sometimes, it does...)
Thanks to Fox and Shimomura-san for their time and insight. Of course, at this point the conversation was just beginning. Join us next time, as the composers discuss how they started making music and their process for creating such memorable tracks.
LIVE A LIVE is out now for PS5, PS4 and Steam, and is available on Nintendo Switch now.
You can hear Shimomura’s exceptional soundtrack in the LIVE A LIVE HD-2D REMAKE soundtrack - available to buy now digitally via services including iTunes and Amazon, and physically via the Square Enix Store:
- Get the LIVE A LIVE HD2D REMAKE soundtrack on the Square Enix Store
- Get the LIVE A LIVE HD2D REMAKE soundtrack on iTunes
- Get the LIVE A LIVE HD2D REMAKE soundtrack on Amazon Music
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