This small Alisia Dragoon interview originally appeared in BEEP Megadrive magazine and features staff members from both Gainax and Game Arts. It presents a very different picture from the Game Arts which would later be known for the Grandia series; in many ways, it was the last hurrah for the development of Game Arts’ first action series, Thexder (note the involvement of Thexder/Fire Hawk co-creator Satoshi Uesaka).

This interview also focused heavily on Game Arts’ new software tools for map/sprite editing, “KETCHUP” and “DARI”. I’ve included several images which offer an extra window into both Alisia Dragoon’s development specifically and the Game Arts working environment generally in 1992.

Game Arts – Developer Interview

Alisia Dragoon – 1992 Developer Interview

originally featured in BEEP Megadrive magazine

Hajime Satou – Monster/Background Designer
Satoshi Uesaka – Supervisor (uncredited)
Yoshimi Kanda – Game Design and Setting

—Kanda, what was your role in the Alisia Dragoon development?

Kanda: Chief complainer. (laughs) Just kidding. I helped out with game design. Originally Game Arts came to ask us about working together on a Megadrive port of their earlier PC game Fire Hawk. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of game players enjoy.

—Can you give us some more specifics about your involvement?

Kanda: My company Gainax is an animation studio, and since the demographics for game fans and anime fans overlap, I was asked to analyze what kind of things users would want to see in the game.

—Is that how you came upon the fantasy theme for Alisia Dragoon?

Kanda: I’d have to say the fantasy theme came later, actually. Our first idea was to see if we couldn’t somehow combine Fire Hawk with more RPG elements. The joy of RPGs is found in the combat and the puzzle solving, but unlike STGs, there’s no need to start over or hit reset if you have a bad run. When you’re playing a STG game and you finally reach full power, only to then lose it all in an instant… that’s extremely frustrating. We wanted to try and remove that experience.

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Yoshimi Kanda (L) and Hajime Satou (R). The text for Kanda reads: “Works for Gainax. Game designer for Alisia Dragoon. Known by many for his work in games (Den’nou Gakuen) and anime (Wings of Honneamise and Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water). ” The text for Satou reads: “Originally worked as an illustrator. He helped out with the item design in Dragon Quest IV. To see his skill as an illustrator, he recommends his illustrations from the book Genjuu Dragon.”

—Is that where the idea for the Option Monsters, which can be levelled up in RPG fashion, came from?

Kanda: Yeah. As our discussions progressed, we realized if this is a STG game, we’ve got to have options! But traditional Gradius-style options really tied us into using robots in the setting… Somewhere along the way, someone came up with the image of a girl leading a host of weird beasts into battle, and we all thought this was a really cool idea, and the game gradually took shape into the fantasy game it is today.

—How about the story and setting?

Uesaka: The basic story was created by us at Game Arts. But we also added lots of details here and there. For example, in stage 3 when the giant airship appears, we thought it would be boring if it was just a normal ship, so we turned it into a giant living creature.

Kanda: This is true of both anime and manga, but I think in games too, a lot of the best ideas have already been exhausted and used up. It isn’t so much about coming up with something brand new anymore, as it is artfully and creatively combining existing tropes into something new.

In that sense I suppose there’s nothing truly original about Alisia Dragoon. However, we did work aggressively to remove any elements that would make it a bad game. That was of the utmost importance.

—What were some of the challenges you faced in creating the world and setting of Alisia Dragoon?

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This screen (cut from the final game) shows that Alisia Dragoon originally featured a password system and 4 additional Option Monsters.

Kanda: Something I learned during this development was that game worlds are very unique. Take, for example, an action game: in addition to normal terrain/landscapes, you’ve also got your stereotypical “ice” stages, “lava” stages, and “space” stages. And you’ve got to add the right accents and nuances because it’s a game that you’re designing the world around. So I did my best to create a setting for Alisia Dragoon that deferred in some instances to the needs of the game.

—I imagine it’s difficult to create an action game that really captures and enhances the initial story you’ve come up with.

Kanda: I mean, ultimately, the stories of action and STG games don’t really make any sense, right? I don’t think anybody is sitting down with the instruction booklet, reading the story, immersing themselves in the world and lore, and then saying, “ok, now I’m ready to play!” My personal opinion is that the story is there more to give the creators some boundaries and guidance, and to help unify the overall game design.

—I understand there are a lot of different stages in Alisia Dragoon?

Kanda: There’s 13 in total, and yeah, you visit a lot of different areas. The format was initially decided on by Game Arts, but we then worked together to flesh out and add nuance to each stage. For example, when the spaceship appears that’s crashed into the side of a mountain, we suggested that the stage should be diagonally oriented (and up-side down!). Basically, we really paid a lot of attention to the fine details. And we were careful not to let things get monotonous.

—Satou, I understand you worked on the monster and background designs.

Satou: That’s right.

Uesaka: He also created the background wall art for the opening scene, the Option Monster select screen, and designed the basic layout for the game screen. A little of this, a little of that… we kept giving him more and more to do!

Satou: Hah, as long as it was interesting work, I didn’t mind.

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This image shows Game Arts’ in-house software tool “KETCHUP”. It was used both for detailed map edits, but also (as shown in the lower two images) for quickly defining enemy movements patterns. The algorithm that defines curves from a set of points is touted here.

—You were originally an illustrator, I understand?

Satou: Yeah, I was one of those people who dreamed of becoming a manga artist. But, eh, I guess games turned out to be more interesting for me.

—What was your actual work like on Alisia Dragoon?

Satou: My first step was always to consult with Uesaka, then make some progress, then consult with him again… and so forth.

—Take one of the map backgrounds, for instance: what was your design process?

Satou: First I would write-up a general outline of what I think the stage would be. Then I’d take that to Gainax, and as we discussed it, I’d draw up some rough sketches, “oh, something like this, you mean?” After that I’d start creating the backgrounds, fleshing them out with extra details as I went.

—How about the character design process?

Satou: For the really big sprites, everything would be based off the initial concept art I drew. But for the little characters, we first had to decide on how they’d move and act, and then I made sure my art matched that.

—What did you find challenging about this work?

Uesaka: In our earliest meetings, there were interesting and creative ideas flying back and forth between us, but when it came down to how we’d incorporate those into an actual game, we had to really winnow it down to what was feasible and what was not.

—All these meetings must have taken a lot of time!

Satou: We had meetings most every week. Starting last Fall and through the Winter, we had them twice a week.

Uesaka: Satou was a big help during the meetings, sharing his opinion about ideas others would bring up: “let’s do it like this”, or “let’s try it this way.”

Satou: With so many stages and enemies, things eventually start to feel real same-y. Avoiding that was a challenge.

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These images show DARI, Game Arts’ in-house character editor. Game Arts states that they developed these editors for Alisia Dragoon and intended to use them to speed the development of future Megadrive or X68000 games. It’s unclear whether it was actually used again, though the Lunar series is a possibility.

—Do you know how many different monsters there are, in total?

Uesaka: If you include the Option Monsters, there’s nearly 70 different kinds.

—Was there a big gap between the concept art and the pixel art?

Satou: The person who actually rendered the concept art into pixel sprites did a really good job, so no, I didn’t notice any problems.

Uesaka: Before we start the pixel art process, we do a lot of work with the designs to make sure they’ll work as sprites, so when we finally get to that stage there aren’t many problems. We did have some issues with the colors this time, though. We wanted to add a bit more shading, for example.

—How much time did you spend creating each enemy?

Satou: Hmm… I think I was able to create about 3 per day. The final boss, though, took about three full weeks to make.

—Please give a final message to the readers.

Kanda: The way we made this game was to think of all the things that annoyed us about the different games we’ve played, and then try and remove or eliminate those things one by one. I think that’s the biggest selling point of Alisia Dragoon. It’s my hope that players won’t just rush through the game to the end, but will take their time and enjoy the atmosphere of the world and the art and graphics too.

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(L) Main Programmer Naozumi Honma and (R) Assistant Programmer Osamu Harada at the helm of the DARI/KETCHUP systems, which (like many video game development tools in Japan in the 80s/90s) were run on X68000 computers.

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Concept art, including an intermediary stage of “pixel mapping” which Satou says helped maintain consistency between the concept designs and the finished game.

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An example of the concept art for the map backgrounds.

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Concept art for three enemies from Alisia Dragoon: (L-R) the “Enemy Sorceress-Warrior, Saida”, the axe-wielding “Maata”, and the Slime.