When I say Rhythm Heaven, which mini-game immediately pops into your head? Is it the karate kid who punches through plant pots? Child choir trio singing? Pulling hair out of vegetables? For me, it’s meeting the wrestler at Ringside.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying there’s something memorable and satisfying about those rhythmic little games, which is why I was instantly drawn to melatonin. It’s a new standalone release from developer Half Asleep that manages (if ironically, given the laid-back theme) to replicate those serotonin hits from a perfect landing in a Rhythm Heaven mini-game. Melatonin rhythm games are in the mind of a very sleepy person, centered on their fantastic dreams of ordinary activities: food, shopping, exercise, work, games, and so on. It’s the soothing pastel backdrop of the fun, connect-and-response audio-visual games I sorely miss from the days of the Nintendo DS.
And like many of the games I’ve covered in this series, it’s mostly the brainchild of one person: David Huynh, founder and sole member of Half Asleep. Melatonin is his first game, the first milestone in a career path that he has only recently begun to envision for himself.
Huynh’s education background is General Design – Painting, Audio, User Interface, Architecture, Business. While he was always a player, he was outspoken he did not do You want to get into game design first.
“I purposely wanted to keep my work stuff away from gaming because I already spend a lot of my day listening to podcasts and reading reviews and things like that,” says Huynh. “But I don’t know, at some point I got really burnt out from work and decided who cares if my entire day was focused on games and stuff. I want to try this, so I started making games as a hobby maybe early 2019.”
Amateur game making quickly turned into a profession as he quit his job near the end of 2019 to work on melatonin. A classmate quit with him, intending to do the art for the project, but he dropped out after a few weeks. However, Hoen wasn’t discouraged – he had plenty of savings and was inspired by stories he’d read about game development from sources like the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels.
Huynh thought melatonin would take nearly a year to finish — it took three.
Melatonin wasn’t always like Rhythm Heaven, either. It started as a stand for WarioWare, a small game collection of sorts. Since Huynh was new to programming, he found that creating simple, short mini-games was more in his skill set at the time than making something continuous and complex. But because the WarioWare incarnation wasn’t feeling original enough, he started adding more Rhythm Heaven-like elements to the minigames… only to find that the rhythm games were his favorite parts. So he dumped the WarioWare parts and set to work on creating Rhythm Heaven entirely.
However, this was not an easy task for Huynh. In our interview, you point out that while there are certainly other games that have copied the Rhythm Heaven formula, they are few and far between. Huynh has a guess as to why – it’s very difficult to create a rhythm game with the level of fidelity players would expect from a game like Rhythm Heaven. It’s one thing to ask players to match button presses to timing, but it’s quite another to calculate on-screen latency, speaker latency, and button inputs, all within very strict timing windows on a myriad of different devices. And even ignoring all of that, it’s difficult to design in general because of the marriage of gameplay and music. Both elements had to match throughout the development process, but any time Huynh wanted to make even the slightest alterations to a level’s design, he had to contact the composer of the song in question and have them change that as well—a shift that could be cascading and affect the entire level.
“Some of the songs at the beginning of the game, the music really goes with the gameplay, like the level of shopping for example,” says Huynh. “But it was really hard to keep going because it’s hard to be flexible. [If] I need to change this little thing…i have to mix the music again or ask some people i work with to rewrite a section just for this little bit [change]. Then I might change it again.
“So it’s hard to feel like the gameplay flows with the music. You have to do a lot of work and tweak things. Later in the game, it’s a little bit freer; the music has a lot of loops in it. It still felt good and I was really happy with that. And there’s still A few levels where even the sound effects blended with the beat of the music. But it’s really hard to keep going.”
Huynh didn’t want melatonin to be a complete clone of Rhythm Heaven, of course. And one of his biggest issues with Rhythm Heaven was the level of precision it required players to get “Perfect!” It’s toned down the window a bit in melatonin, and also added flags for players to see if they tapped early or late, so they can get better.
Melatonin release shots
But it also took some very specific cues from Rhythm Heaven Design in making its own games. He says that since most games only use one-button input, the key to a good rhythmic and memorable mini-game is to make that single action truly satisfying. Something like swinging a bat and hitting something, or (to the beat of heaven) stabbing a pea with a fork.
“When you hit the peas with the fork, even just feels good because it’s like ‘smoosh’. There’s always like onomatopoeia that you can be in your head whenever you do those actions. And that fits right in with the sound design. Near the end, that’s kind of what I always raved about.” Is if we do one, we have to feel it really pop and have some power behind it.”
Which is probably why I fell in love with melatonin so quickly, right from the first level, as the action eats. The satisfying “brp” of the box that opens and tosses pizza, burgers, or donuts into my mouth and throat Chomp The sound of his eating as I press the button at the right time has been stuck in my head and fingers for days now. While I’ve been playing on PC, the Switch version was announced and released simultaneously today – so I’m doubly excited to continue playing this homage to a series that has yet to get any love on Switch. With enough practice, I’ll eventually get those perfect ones.
Rebecca Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @tweet.
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