February 4, 2023

When I say Rhythm Heaven, what mini-game immediately comes to mind? Is it the karate man who hits plant pots? Does the choir child trio sing? Picking hairs off vegetables? For me it’s the wrestler interview in Ringside.

Whichever it is, there’s no denying there’s something deeply memorable and satisfying about those rhythmic mini-games, which is why I was instantly drawn to Melatonin. It’s a new indie release from developer Half Asleep that successfully (albeit ironically, given its sleepy theme) replicates those serotonin hits of perfect landings in a Rhythm Heaven minigame. Melatonin’s rhythm games take place in the mind of a very sleepy person and are all loosely themed around their fantastic dreams of everyday activities: eating, shopping, exercising, working, gaming, and so on. It’s a soothing, pastel backdrop to 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 sole member of Half Asleep. Melatonin is his first game, a huge first milestone on a career path he’s only recently begun to carve out for himself.

Huynh’s educational background is in general design – graphic, audio, UI, architecture, the works. Although he was always a gamer, he explicitly did so not wants to start with game design in the first instance.

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

Making hobby games quickly turned into a career as he quit his job towards the end of 2019 to start working on melatonin. One of his colleagues quit him, intending to do the art for the project, but dropped out after a few weeks. Still, Huynh wasn’t discouraged – he had plenty of savings and was inspired by stories he’d read about gaming. development of resources such as the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels.

Huynh thought it would take him about a year to finish melatonin – it took him three.

Melatonin wasn’t always Rhythm Heaven-like either. It started out more like a WarioWare situation, sort of a minigame collection. Being new to programming, Huynh found that creating simple, short mini-games was more within his skill set at the time than creating something continuous and complex. But since spitting out WarioWare didn’t feel original enough, he started adding more Rhythm Heaven-esque elements to the minigames… only to find out that the rhythm games were his favorite parts. So he shut down the WarioWare bits and started innovating completely outside of Rhythm Heaven.

When you hit the pea with the fork, even that feels good because it’s like a “smoosh.”

However, that was not an easy task for Huynh. In our interview, I noted that while there are certainly other games that have copied the Rhythm Heaven formula, they are few and far between. Huynh suspects why: It’s very difficult to make a rhythm game with the level of precision players expect from a Rhythm Heaven-like game. It’s one thing to ask players to match button presses with timing, but quite another to also consider latency on screen, latency on speakers, on button inputs and all within very strict timing windows on countless different machines. And even ignoring all that, it’s just hard to design in general because of the marriage between gameplay and music. Both elements had to match during development, but whenever Huynh wanted to make even the slightest tweaks to a level’s design, he had to contact the song’s composer in question and have them change that too – a shift that could potentially end in a could gain momentum and affect the entire level.

“Some songs early in the game have the music really in tune with the gameplay, like the shop level for example,” says Huynh. “But it was really hard to keep that up because it’s hard to be flexible. [If] I need to change this little thing…I need to remix the music or ask some of the people I work 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 feel like the gameplay flows with the music. You have to do a lot of work and rework things. Later in the game it’s a bit freer; the music has many more loops. It still feels good and I was very happy with it. And there were a few more levels where even the sound effects harmonized with the notes of the music. But it is very difficult to keep that up.”

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

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

“When you hit the pea with the fork, even that feels good because it’s like a ‘smoosh.’ There’s always an onomatopoeia that you can have in your head when you perform these actions. So towards the end, that’s what I’ve always been looking for, is if we do one action, it has to feel like it really pops and has some power behind it.

That’s probably why I fell in love with melatonin so quickly myself, from the first level, where the action is eating. The satisfying “brp” of the box opening and popping a pizza, burger, or donut in my mouth and the guttural chomp the sound of the food as I pressed the button right on time has been stuck in my head and fingers for days now. While playing on PC, the Switch version was announced at the same time and launched today – so I’m doubly excited to continue playing this homage to a series that hasn’t yet found love on the Switch. With enough practice, I will eventually land those perfections.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *