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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Melatonin Is the Pastel Rhythm Heaven-like I’ve Been Dreaming Of

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When I say Rhythm Heaven, which minigame pops into your head instantly? Is it the karate guy punching plant pots? The choir kid trio singing? Plucking hairs off of vegetables? For me, it’s the wrestler interview in Ringside.

Whichever one it is, there’s no denying there’s something deeply memorable and satisfying about those rhythmic minigames, which is why I was instantly drawn into Melatonin. It’s a new indie release from developer Half Asleep that successfully (if ironically, given the sleepy theme) replicates those serotonin hits from landing perfects in a Rhythm Heaven minigame. Set within the mind of a very sleepy person, Melatonin’s rhythm games are all loosely themed around their fantastic dreams of mundane activities: food, shopping, exercise, work, gaming, and so forth. It’s a soothing, pastel backdrop for the pleasant audio and visual call-and-response gameplay I desperately miss from the Nintendo DS days.

And, like many of the games I’ve covered in this series, it’s mostly the brainchild of one person: David Huynh, the founder and only member of Half Asleep. Melatonin is his first game, a huge first milestone on a career path he only recently began to envision for himself.

Huynh’s educational background is in general design – graphic, audio, UI, architecture, the works. While he was always a gamer, he explicitly didn’t want to get into game design at first.

“I intentionally wanted to keep my work stuff away from games since I already spent so much of my day listening to podcasts and reading reviews and stuff like that,” Huynh says. “But I don't know, at some point, I just got really burnt out of work and I decided who cares if my entire day is focused on games and stuff. I want to try this out, so I started making games as a hobby maybe around early 2019.”

Hobbyist game making quickly turned into a career as he quit his job near the end of 2019 to work on Melatonin. One of his colleagues quit with him, intending to do the art for the project, but dropped out just a few weeks in. Still, Huynh wasn’t discouraged – he had a lot of savings and was inspired by stories he had read about game development from sources like the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels.

Huynh thought Melatonin would take him roughly a year to finish – it took him three.

Melatonin wasn’t always a Rhythm Heaven-like, either. It started out as more of a WarioWare situation, a minigame collection of sorts. Because Huynh was new to programming, he found that making simple, short minigames was more within his then-skillset than making something continuous and complex. But because just regurgitating WarioWare didn’t feel original enough, he began adding more Rhythm Heaven-like elements to the minigames…only to find that the rhythm games were his favorite parts. So he ditched the WarioWare bits and began working to innovate off of Rhythm Heaven entirely.

When you're hitting the pea with the fork, even just that feels good because it's like a ‘smoosh.’

However, that wasn’t an easy task for Huynh. In our interview, I noted that while there are certainly other games that have copied the Rhythm Heaven formula out there, they are few and far between. Huynh has a guess as to why – it’s very hard to make a rhythm game with the level of precision players expect from a Rhythm Heaven-like. It’s one thing to ask players to match button presses to timing but quite another to also account for latency on screen, latency on speakers, on button inputs, and all of that within very strict timing windows on countless different machines. And even ignoring all that, it’s just difficult to design in general due to the marriage of gameplay and music. Both elements needed to match up throughout development, but anytime Huynh wanted to make even the slightest of tweaks to a level’s design, he had to contact the composer of the song in question and have them change that too – a shift that could conceivably cascade and impact the entire level.

“Some of the songs early in the game, the music is really aligned to the gameplay, like the shopping level for example,” Huynh says. “But it was really hard to keep that up because it is hard to be flexible. [If] I need to change this little thing…I have to mix the music again or ask some people I’m working with for the music to rewrite a section just for this little [change]. And then I might change it again.

“So it's just hard to make it feel like the gameplay flows with the music. You have to do a ton of work and re-edit stuff. Later in the game, it's a bit more free-flowing; the music has a lot more loops. It still feels good and I was really happy about it. And there were still a few levels where even the sound effects were harmonizing with the notes of the music. But it's really hard to keep that going.”

Huynh didn’t want Melatonin to be a total Rhythm Heaven clone, of course. And one of his biggest issues with Rhythm Heaven was the level of precision it requires from players to get a “Perfect!” He loosened the window up a little bit in Melatonin, and also added cues for players to know if they tapped early or late, so they can improve.

Melatonin Launch Screenshots

But he also took some very specific cues from Rhythm Heaven’s design in making his own games. He says that since most games only use a single button input, the key to a good, memorable rhythm minigame is making that single action really, really satisfying. Something like swinging a bat and hitting something, or (ala Rhythm Heaven) stabbing a pea with a fork.

“When you're hitting the pea with the fork, even just that feels good because it's like a ‘smoosh.’ There's always like an onomatopoeia you can have in your head whenever you do these actions. And that just fits well with the sound design. So near the end, that's kind of what I always paid attention to is if we're doing one action, it has to feel like it really pops and has some power behind it.”

Which is likely why I have so quickly fallen in love with Melatonin myself, right from the first level, where the action is eating. The satisfying “brp” of the box opening and flinging a pizza, burger, or donut into my mouth and the guttural chomp sound of eating it as I hit the button right on time has stuck in my head and fingers for days now. While I’ve been playing on PC, the Switch version was simultaneously announced and launched today – so I’m doubly excited to keep playing this homage to a series that hasn’t gotten any love on the Switch yet. With enough practice, I’ll land those perfects eventually.

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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