You could say that developer Game Freak has form when it comes to turn-based battlers - the makers of the Pokémon games have stewarded the largest RPG franchise on the planet for over two decades. Nice work if you can get it, although a never-ending cycle of Pocket Monster development can take its toll on a team. Game Freak have devised a scheme whereby staff can filter out and stretch their legs on other projects before returning to the studio's most famous franchise refreshed and rejuvenated.
The latest fruits of 'Gear Project', originally revealed to the world as 'Town', launches next week on Switch. In comparison to the juggernaut PR build up to the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield, Game Freak has kept a pretty tight lid on Little Town Hero, and we were lucky enough to have its director Masao Taya answer our questions about the game and discuss how he's attempting to create an RPG that busy gamers might actually have a hope of finishing...
Nintendo Life: Firstly, please introduce yourself and explain your role at Game Freak.
Masao Taya: I applied to be a programmer here at Game Freak 20 years ago with the hope of one day being able to make a game I came up with on my own. Since then, I’ve been working mostly on the battle system in Pokémon. I’ve programmed all of the systems after Black and White. And the dream I had when I entered the company came true when I got to direct Pocket Card Jockey. Little Town Hero, too, was born out of the desire to make the type of RPG my friends and I have always wanted to play.
Could you tell us a little about the story of Little Town Hero? Why is Axe so desperate to leave his idyllic village?
He’s not trying to leave his village. He is just curious to know what the world outside his village is like. And that curiosity is only strengthened by the fact that he’s “not allowed to leave.” You’ll find out more as you play but there is one more reason that Axe himself is not aware of. It has to do with his father.
Game Freak has released several non-Pokémon games in recent years - Gear Project games including HarmoKnight, Giga Wrecker Alt. and the brilliant Pocket Card Jockey on 3DS (a personal favourite) - although most players will associate Game Freak with that other famous turn-based series. What was the idea behind developing another turn-based RPG?
First, I’d like to thank everyone for enjoying Pocket Card Jockey. Thank you! I’ve been playing turn-based RPGs since I was a kid, around the time they hit their boom with games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I believe Pokémon came about in large part because of the steps those first big games made.
But despite my love for this genre, I haven’t really been playing turn-based RPGs other than Pokémon as of late. Of course, becoming an adult has reduced the amount of time I can devote to games, but I believe that’s not all. RPGs are really time-consuming, and with how big the maps are, you can easily get lost and stuck in areas where you only get to battle weak opponents. That was a large part of the reason that I stopped playing as much.
So with Little Town Hero, we’ve been careful not to prepare maps that are infinitely huge, or maps filled with opponents that can defeated just by spamming the attack button. Instead, we’ve aimed for an interesting battle system that really makes you consider how to go about defeating your enemy, each and every time.
In Little Town Hero you battle using ‘Ideas’ – could you tell us a little more about the battle system? How is it different from other turn-based systems?
The battle system uses something like Digital CCGs (Digital Collectible Card Games) as a base. In those games, your units face off, and you need to select characters carefully to put yourself in an advantageous position to win. It’s the same in Little Town Hero— if you don’t get yourself into advantageous position, you won’t be able to chip away at your opponent’s HP.
If you compare other turn-based systems to CCGs, the actions are simple and the number of enemies you face off against at once is limited. (Pokémon is a little different because I painstakingly worked the system so you can face off against a huge number of enemies and go through great hardships… The fun kind of hardship though!)
So unlike other turn-based RPGs you can’t beat the higher-level enemies by just using your strongest move over and over, or simply choosing the best units for the job. You must think about the moves you make.
The Gear Project games seem to allow Game Freak developers to flex their creative muscles. Is Little Town Hero an opportunity to do things you’re ‘not allowed’ to do in the Pokémon games? Is it a testbed for certain ideas you’d like to develop (and perhaps transfer) in the future?
Well, I am just a programmer for Pokémon, so I don’t have any influence on the story or the characters. It’s due to my experience playing other RPGs other than Pokémon when I was younger (Like Dragon Quest etc.) that I wanted to make a game with a story I came up with, so I’m happy that my dream came true with Little Town Hero.
I don’t really think of it as a testbed for ideas, but I do have thoughts like “It could be fun to make a sequel to this part of the story.” Or “If I do this, it could be more interesting…” That’s true of Pocket Card Jockey as well.
You describe the game as having ‘Compact story progression designed with the busy gamer in mind’, which sounds fantastic to us considering all the Switch games being released! There might be fans coming from the Pokémon series expecting something similarly epic in length, though. Could you elaborate on what players should expect and some of the design decisions you came to in this regard? How long will the average player take to complete the game?
This game is not an adventure game with huge maps. The only area the main character will be able to walk around in is a single, small village. Think of it as the amount of space a middle schooler could ride about on their bike in, I guess? (There are no bikes in this game.)
The monsters are big, scary, and you can’t capture them in balls by weakening them. Of course, that means you can’t nickname them and go on adventures with them either. The main character is battling these monsters to protect his village. Protecting an entire village is a grand task. However, there is always a way to win.
As for how long the game will take, for people who catch on to the battle system quickly, about 10-12 hours. If it takes a little longer to understand the system, you’re looking closer to 15-20 hours.
The announcement that Little Town Hero would feature music from Undertale creator Toby Fox went down very well with fans. How did this collaboration come about?
It all started thanks to Ichinose, who is a composer and game creator at Game Freak. He’s friends with Toby on Twitter. I myself am a big fan of UNDERTALE and when I asked Ichinose to ask him to create the music for Little Town Hero, he agreed.
After that we sent him the visuals and information on Little Town Hero and met with him when he was in Japan, taking him out to dinner with the other staff. We parted ways late that evening, but by the time I had arrived at work the next morning, Toby had already sent me the key phrases of what would become the main theme for Little Town Hero. And it was so good. It fit the game perfectly. I was so shocked, I shared it with our staff immediately. Everyone smiled brightly.
As we’ve seen with Pokémon Sword and Shield, the Pokémon series comes under intense scrutiny from fans, with every frame of every trailer analysed and every alteration becoming the source of intense online debate. Conversely, relatively few details about Little Town Hero have been revealed before release. From a development perspective, is working on a fresh IP much different from working on a Pokémon entry? What are the pros and cons?
As you said, Pokémon attracts a lot of attention and there are many staff members looking after the PR, so there are things that fans can enjoy before and after the release. As game developers, we don't have to worry about the public relations.
However we have less staff concentrating on the PR for new games such as Little Town so us developers have to also think about what needs doing. This is something I really enjoy but sometimes I feel I need 48 hours in a day, or perhaps a twin me to help out.
Finally, with Little Town Hero arriving so soon, is there any feature or aspect of the game you’d particularly like to highlight to players awaiting its release?
I’m sure I sound a bit like a broken record now, but this game was created from our desire to create an RPG that challenges the player and can be completed in a short amount of time. The battle system is something worth learning, so for people who enjoy highly strategic games like Digital CCGs, please try picking it up. Even if you’re not a fan of games like that, you’ll be able to win once you figure out the system, so please give it a try!
Many thanks to Mr Taya and Tony at Rainy Frog for his help with this interview. We don't know about you, but a bite-sized RPG sounds like just the ticket at this busy time of year with so many games either out now or waiting in the wings. Do you like the sound of what Little Town Hero's putting down? Itching for a Pocket Card Jockey sequel? Feel free to type your thoughts into a snappy comment and share it below.