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.
Honestly I'd try to distance myself from Pokemon too.
Good on him for branching out, it's just a shame this game doesn't look good, in my opinion.
From what I have seen, the attack animations like the fire shield hit thing make contact with the ground and not the monster...like how fire doesnt come out of the pokemons mouth...yup, he definitley worked on pokemon in the past alright
This game does not look good
I’m gonna get it. Excited to give it a chance. Also it’s the perfect size game to tie me over until Pokémon comes out.
It sound like an interesting game honestly and it's nice to see an RPG not desperatly trying to be huge.
That said... I really hope they are serious about the challanging part.
Afterall if there is a turn-based RPG where you can just abuse strong attacks and right unit to win without thinking, as he seems to imply he wanted to avoid, is ironically the Pokémon serie he worked on.
Honestly would love to get this game at launch to check it out and experience it first-hand, but I don't think I have space in my backlog even for a mini RPG right now...
Thought this one looked interesting in the first reveal. This interview has caught me interest again. I like the idea of a strategic battle system, and not having to wondering around a world not knowing what to do or where to go next.
This is a wait n see for me.
Hmm 2 points that concern are the length of the game and the fact the only place you can walk around is a small village, I honestly thought you may be able venture outside the village and maybe some side quests but no. Will still get it though once it's on a sale
I’m pretty excited about this one, honestly. I love the Undertale soundtrack enough that this is probably worth a pickup based on that alone. I’ll wait and see what the price is but I’ll definitely get it at some point.
“about 10-12 hours. If it takes a little longer to understand the system, you’re looking closer to 15-20 hours.”
That’s quite a lot of hours one might have to devote to learning the battle system... kinda of odd to put it this way, but I guess it’s just like saying a more skilled player will go through it faster.
That said, for $25 the length seems fine to me. Let’s just hope it brings joy to our hearts.
@jerrycoeurl It's $24.99 in the US, while it seems to be £22.49 in the UK. There's a country picker in the EU website that should adjust the price accordingly, if you happen to live in another area of that region.
I'll pick up when its on sale
This game looks worse the more I hear about it.
Just like Pokemon.
I'm interested to see how this pans out.. more than likely to buy it when in a sale..
Nevertheless NL any chance you can reduce the number of adverts with your articles. I think 15 on this page alone is overkill and off-putting.
Sounds intriguing to me, from what little I’ve seen and heard of the battle system. Also, FWIW, I enjoyed Pocket Card Jockey quite a bit. Hope this turns out well.
No, it's 16, I just counted them.
Just scroll down my friend. Why would I want to fly to Canada anyway (my most popular ad)?!?
The game does interest me but will have to wait and see what reviews say.
Really though I'd like Drill Dozer 2.
So if I understand correctly, the battle system is sort of card based like Battlenetwork or Circle of the Moon?
Sounds like it respects your time
I just can't binge-play anymore, now it's interesting how dedicating 10 hours to one single thing is considered 'short'
Anyway, interested because of the overall presentation and Toby Fox soundtrack, but better check a bit more about the battle system
Interested in this one, but I'll wait for reviews. I remember really enjoying Pocket Card Jockey's demo, though, so this could definitely turn out well if the same director's behind it.
...If nothing else, this game will deliver on its soundtrack.
I have a lot of games to play right now, but this sounds fun to me. I'll probably buy it when I get some backlog finished off.
definitely waiting on some reviews to see what people think of it.
I'd like to know what Game Freak's idea of "huge maps" are, because I'm not even sure SwSh qualifies.
Whatever the case, saying that this game isn't an adventure game with huge maps is an automatic pass for me. That's the only type of RPG I want to play.
This has actually made me a lot more interested in this. I had sort of mentally passed on it but will be paying more attention now; shorter RPGs for busy people are all I need to hear to get my attention these days
Also, "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.". I have never heard about this but heartily endorse it, that's fantastic and I hope it continues.
For $25, 10-12 hours of boss battle focused gameplay sounds like a good deal, especially since I'm interested in more titles I can play once and be finished with. I like the longer games, but like everyone, I only have so much time and there are a lot of games out there. Honestly, my biggest concern is the game getting lost with everything else, which is unfortunately likely with all of the games on Switch, along with the usual 'how does the game feel?' kind of thoughts I can only get from first hand knowledge.
That being said, I'm still looking forward to it. Game Freak's original titles are always unique, and I'm happy to see the devs taking a breather from Pokemon (still hoping they go back to having ALL Pokemon in future entries). Plus, it's cool that Toby Fox is on this, looking forward to his tracks.
Lastly... Drill Dozer 2? Maybe?
(...A man can dream...)
Hope they plan on releasing a demo
NL: Taya-san, we're sure you've noticed that Pokemon fans are pretty much universally total bungholes. Is this what inspired you to make Little Town Hero instead of your usual method of stapling your fingers to your desk to dull the pain?
Its ironic seeing this now, considering the game is so reliant on rng it can take an hour just to defeat the first boss.
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