We’ve reached a point at which rhythm-action games are largely differentiated by the numbers in their names, but it’s easy to forget that the genre has traditionally been one of the least conventional. A rockstar fantasy can take many forms – the romantic aspirations of a rapping dog, an anthropomorphic lamb’s urge to prove herself with the power of rock, a squad of male cheerleaders and their benevolent efforts to motivate people. In Gitaroo Man, it’s the sugar-high hallucinations of a little boy with a talking dog who comes into possession of a magic instrument that turns him into a mixture of Gundam robot and musical superhero.
Gitaroo Man was not the first guitar game – that distinction belongs to GuitarFreaks, and UmJammer Lammy predates it as well – but it was the first to concentrate on melody rather than rhythm, structuring its stages as epic instrumental battles between the player and an increasingly insane sequence of fiendish, costumed rivals from a bee-suited trumpet virtuoso to a trio of percussion-obsessed skeletons. It was made by a team of 15, led by Jazz Studies graduate and passionate saxophonist Keiichi Yano, who formed developer iNiS along with his wife, her brother and one other artist in 1996.
It was a while before Yano found a way to integrate his studio’s ideas into a workable videogame. At first, iNiS created music software and utilities, but game development was always an eventual objective. “The idea for Gitaroo Man didn’t come to me until two years later, when the company felt like it could take a first step into games,” he explains. “I had seen a movie, Crossroads, that featured this insane guitar battle against the devil, who was played by Steve Vai. I thought the concept of a musical battle was really interesting, especially because I am a jazz musician myself and I understand the fun of improvisational music battles.”
It’s that unique structure that makes Gitaroo Man quite unlike other rhythm-action games. NanaOn-Sha’s gently insane creations were a great influence, most noticeably in the colourful madness of its presentation and madcap storyline, but the method of play is entirely different, focused on melody and intoxicating call-and-response musical patterns rather than beatmatching. “When we set out to design Gitaroo Man, I had it in mind that I wanted to fundamentally change how music games were played at the time,” Yano explains. He cheerfully acknowledges Masaya Matsuura’s spiritual contribution to iNiS’s work: “There is no denying that I might not have been doing this if it weren’t for Parappa The Rapper, and I have a great respect for Matsuura-san to this day.” But NanaOn-Sha’s gameplay style wasn’t something that iNiS was seeking to emulate. “Games like Parappa and Beatmania were focused on the rhythm, but I wanted to create a game that focused on the melody of songs, because I think you recognise a song that you like more by its melodies and harmonies than its rhythms,” Yano says. “And since we wanted to tell a passionate story, I think that the inherent short story that is told through a good melody fits well with that.”
Gitaroo Man’s story is uplifting, bonkers and even redemptive, guiding young hero U-1 on an intergalactic journey of self-discovery punctuated by some of the best original music ever to feature in a videogame (original Gitaroo Man soundtrack CDs still regularly fetch eyebrow-raising Ebay prices). It’s also varied, throwing U-1 into completely inexplicable situations with every new level; one moment he’s dodging a giant space-shark while drum-and-bass blares from the speakers, then the space-shark turns into a robot and begins assaulting the senses with bizarre electro-reggae. “We were initially planning on doing ten stages and we were looking for the hook that would glue all of these disparate songs together,” Yano explains, accounting for Gitaroo Man’s delightful structural randomness.
Once iNiS earned Koei’s backing to work on a music game, the development process was brutally quick. While working with the publisher on a separate project, iNiS gained the support of staff within its audio department, and Gitaroo Man rapidly emerged as a game concept. “We developed the entire game from start to finish in a record ten months,” Yano says. “Needless to say, it was a gruelling ten months, but I’m glad we released the game when we did.”
The game went through considerable changes in that short time, too, as the developer’s small team struggled to integrate its ideas into a workable structure. “The first time we got the prototype for the gameplay mechanic working was a monumental moment for us,” Yano remembers. “We had the demo that we’d originally showed Koei, but the final game turned out really different, and we were trying to find the right balance of gameplay and revolutionary interface. We didn’t have answers to those questions for several months and the team really started to get worried about whether we could produce a game at all. But when the prototype actually got up and running, people were excited. Heck, I was excited!”
Koei kept a close eye on the project throughout its development, which Yano recalls as a mixed blessing: “It was good and tough at the same time. We had never developed a console game up to that point, but we had technical expertise. We didn’t have an army of developers, just 15 people spanning everything from programming to art and sound. Whenever we were late, [Koei staff] would come to our offices and hang out there just to see whether we were working diligently enough. They had every right to be worried but sometimes they would just hang out until the early hours of the morning to make sure that we’d do the same!”
Despite Yano’s extensive musical background – he has been playing the saxophone for 28 years, and occasionally performs with his various bands at gigs around Tokyo – he was not Gitaroo Man’s lead composer. Each track was recorded by either his stepbrother Tomohiro Harada or the Japanese rock band COIL. “Some songs were done by each team in a vacuum, but others they collaborated on,” Yano recalls. “For example, Bee Jam Blues was a joint effort, and I played the Bee part with my EWI [electric wind instrument] as well.” Now we know who to blame for those endless evenings trying to dodge Mojo King B’s infernal jazz solos on Master mode. “The songs were all crafted to maximise the game design, so we had to keep the composition very close to us. In the end, I really like all of the songs that we produced for the game and I’m proud of the guys for what they accomplished.”
The game’s excellent soundtrack incorporates a vast range of influences. Its various stages are designed around different musical genres, from operatic metal to brain-frying hyperactive J-pop, campfire acoustic folk, weird, loopy electronica and, of course, jazz, Yano’s personal musical passion. “We selected the types of songs that we wanted to do first and then designed the characters to match the genres of music,” Yano explains. “We would have long brainstorming sessions where we would listen to tons of music and pick up things we liked – sometimes when we picked songs we also talked about the story and the kind of characters that could be the bosses for that song. I don’t quite remember how we got a lot of these zany ideas but it sure was fun! One was based on the name of a very famous saxophonist – David Sanborn. And voila! The Sanbone Trio was born. In Japanese the pronunciation is the same for Sanborn and Sanbone, which means ‘three bones’.”
The character designs were the result of a collaboration with the Japanese artist Mitsuru Nakamura, more popularly known as 326. “He was very popular at the time in Japan and we wanted to give our game some extra credibility and an original style with flair,” Yano asserts. “When we first approached him about doing a music game, he was very excited at the possibilities. His first couple of designs were all used in the game and it wasn’t long before we had all of the major characters in place. 326 has a great musical sense, having worked with bands in the past doing music videos and album covers, and I think he understood our groove right away. He was really fun to work with and inspirational for the project.”
Gitaroo Man is a deft synthesis of inspired soundtrack, eye-catching visual design and innovative, intuitive interface, but it’s perhaps the unexpected emotional impact that makes it so memorable. “We knew from the get-go that it would be a story of passion, love and growing up,” Yano says. “I think the first game of any company is monumental, and its success, or lack thereof, influences our thinking in more ways that can be explained… What is most important is that we are proud of what we accomplished to this day, and the principles of trying to create new ways to experience music interactively still hold true for us.”