M-Kai is the developer of Judgment Silversword, Cardinal Sins, Eschatos, and most recently, Ginga Force. This interview was found on the personal webpage of autumnmotor, and was apparently conducted via email. As such, it affords a level of detail often missing from spoken interviews. The remarks on shmup design are particularly thoughtful.

Also noteworthy is the rare look at M-Kai’s earlier MSX efforts, which include an RPG and several technically impressive shmups.

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Qute homepage
M-kai’s MSX games
STG Weekly #5 – Eschatos

M-KAI Developer Interview

Covering Eschatos, Judgment Silversword, Cardinal Sins
Interview by autumnmotor, by email, November 2011

—Let’s start off with something light. Since releasing Eschatos, you’ve had various opportunities to talk about your games, but do you like doing interviews?

M-KAI: You said “light,” but this puts me on the spot right away. (sweat) I’m not used to doing interviews, so I’m already nervous about what you’re going to ask.

—What games have you been playing lately?

M-KAI: You probably mean video games, but lately there’s been a ton of medal games coming out. I’ve been playing a lot of the big push lever style games, but lately those have been going away. (tears) It would be nice if there was some new shooting game at the arcade to play, but lately I’ve been more satisfied by console releases, mainly the X360. I’ve been checking out all the ports and re-releases on the X360.

—Please tell us about what games have had an influence on you as a player and developer.

M-KAI: In the sense of what games have influenced me, probably all the early Famicom titles. It was the start of a new era of games and everything seemed brand new to me. I was also a young kid in elementary school, which has a lot to do with it. The largest influence, though its not a game, would be the Family Basic computer that my brother-in-law bought. That was very important for me. After he passed it on to me, I spent the next several years tinkering with it and learned to write my own programs (although it could only compile BASIC). Without that moment of feeling the pride in my own capabilities, I may not have become who I am today.

—In 1995 you released your first game, “Izumic Ballade” for MSX. At the time there were other development platforms like the X68000, but why did you choose the MSX to develop on?

Izumic Ballade gameplay.

M-KAI: It was because the MSX was similar to the Family Basic I had worked with before. As for the X68000, I simply didn’t have the money for it as an elementary and junior high student. I also think the age group for that system was a few years above me. But there was a time when I somewhat regretted not having worked with the X68000. Its hardware for handling sprites was unrivalled among personal computers, even now, I think. And if I had learned how to use it, I might have been able to find work programming arcade games.

—What do you mean by that?

M-KAI: I mean, I get the impression that many arcade shooting games used the same 68k CPU.

—Izumic Ballade was an RPG. RPGs have an image of being harder to program than STGs. What did you think about that, once you tried creating one?

M-KAI: There are many difficult aspects to developing RPGs, such as inadvertently creating bugs in the code that prevent the player from progressing in the story, or forgetting to add the right hints and clues to allow a player to progress, or difficulty adjustment issues, where you end up having to re-adjust everything from the beginning. I remember ironing out a lot of bugs in Izumic Ballade, though it still didn’t get very good reviews. One the rare occasions I play it today, I always think I’d like to do a remake.

Compared with STGs, though, RPGs are basically about programming battle parameters. For example, if you want to change something in the middle of an RPG you don’t have to rewrite every attack pattern like you would in a STG, so in that sense I think its easier.

—Your next game was “Kanzen Kouryaku Kyokugen“, 1 which was also your debut as a STG developer. How was it received by players at the time?

Kanzen Kouryaku Kyokugen, a caravan STG.

M-KAI: I began developing this around the time I was working on the final version of Izumic Ballade. I included a Time Attack demo version with Izumic, so thanks to that I think the about same number of people who bought Izumic Ballade also bought Kyokugen. (laughs) Because of Kyokugen I had the opportunity to meet many different people, so I think as a game it was a major turning point for me in several respects. It was worth the 2 years of effort it took to make.

—With the characters and the sounds made when you score (done by seiyu), there’s an aspect of Kyokugen that appeals to the hardcore M-KAI fan. I’m curious as to what your interests and hobbies (novels, animation, manga etc) were at the time?

M-KAI: I began working on Kyokugen when I was in high school, so I was really into robot school anime. Along with that anime, there were a lot of commercials in my area for “Shounen no Fune,” so a hybridization of those two things naturally was on my mind. For the next two years I would live a student lifestyle, so gradually I really got into STGs and anime seiyu. Now that I’m over 30 the obsession has mostly calmed down, and I don’t really know much about recent anime or seiyu… 2

—After the vertical STG Kyokugen, your next game was the horizontal STG “Pleasure Hearts” (distributed through the disk magazine “Sanriku Ouja #0”). How did players receive that one?

M-KAI: I can’t deny that compared with Kyokugen, this game was aimed more at the hardcore STG crowd. But I think it still received pretty normal reviews.

—Pleasure Hearts develops at a really nice tempo for a STG. It doesn’t include a preponderance of stage gimmicks like your typical horizontal shooting game. What were your goals in developing a game like that?

Pleasure Hearts.

M-KAI: It was simply the case that I wasn’t very familiar with STGs that used a lot of terrain features. With arcade games too, by that time danmaku STG had become the main style, but since I was young, I didn’t receive much influence from them.

Also, speaking of horizontal STGs on the MSX, there were many well known series, and I wanted to try throwing a style into the mix that was different from players’ pre-set ideas of what a horizontal STG should be.

—Each of your games until then had taken about 2 years on average to create. Please tell us a little bit about your development schedule (are there games you abandoned in development?).

M-KAI: As far as scheduling goes, I pretty much didn’t do any of it. I just worked on this as a hobby, and basically started out first making the parts of a game I really wanted to make. Back then I was totally ignorant of efficient programming methods, and I ignored any concerns with profitability or production costs, and just doggedly assembled the game day by day. My data creation tools were all done in BASIC as well. My method of working was very particular to myself, since I wasn’t concerned with learning quicker or more convenient methods. In particular, for the sound MML data entry method, I’ll leave out the details, but when I look at it now I can’t believe I used to do it that way. I just really wanted to make games back then, and I didn’t want to spend the time learning to use development tools. (laughs)

Between Kyokugen and Pleasure Hearts, there weren’t really any projects that I abandoned. But back then there was no one to oversee or review my work, which I made according to my own desires. And I think I was too young to feel ashamed about the things I released. When I look back on it now, I see really bad parts in those games, things so embarassing I’d like to remove the game from circulation.

—Please tell us the reason you switched development to the WonderWitch platform (I believe there was a similar mobile game platform, “P/ECE” that was out at the same time…)

M-KAI: I had just started to become aware of the possibilities and need for my program code to be reproduceable on other platforms. I also felt I would be limited if I only knew assembler, which was limited to certain CPUs. So I was attracted to learning the general programming language C to make games. I remember that P/ECE came out a little bit later than the WonderSwan Color, but with the monochrome screen and button layout of the P/ECE, the WonderSwan appealed to me more.

—What attracted you to the WonderWitch and WonderSwan?

M-KAI: I think the main appeal of the WonderSwan for me was that the system was cheap and it could do vertical scrolling games. The programming language for the WonderWitch was C, and compared to other platforms on the market, I liked that you could program things for it quickly that were in no way inferior. Also, this isn’t something many are aware of, but you could write programs that could use a larger SRAM than was used in most other commercial software. This SRAM is usually set aside for save data, but it could also be used for working memory for program execution, and it could handle very large objects. I think Judgment Silversword would have been very difficult to make without this special feature of the WonderSwan cartridge.

—Judgment Silversword is different from your average STG in that extends are very frequent, and you feel like you can play for quite awhile on a single play. What were your intentions there?

M-KAI: At the time there were many STGs coming out that didn’t feature extends at all. I wanted to give players that sense of relief that only comes from an extend. Its that feeling of momentary relief you get when you have no lives left and you pick up an extend. But I adjusted the difficulty on the last stage to depend on how many remaining lives you had stockpiled, which I think was my reaction to having a generous extend system.

—In Cardinal Sins the range of the wide shot differs between Trial Mode and Normal Mode. Why is that?

M-KAI: Mach 3 had been saying for awhile that the wide shot was too powerful.

—I’ve been wondering, did Qute make any overtures to you about selling Cardinal Sins? To be honest, its very strange to me that a game of such high quality wasn’t released commercially from the start.

M-KAI: The positive response to the commercial release of Judgment Silversword had exceeded our expectations, so from the start I planned Cardinal Sins to be freeware as a way of showing my gratitude.

—In your next game, “Project E-Force,” which was released as “SelfProduce“, you used basic stages similar to traditional STGs, compared with the unique sequences of Judgment Silversword and Cardinal Sins.

Self-Produce, released in 2006.

M-KAI: As for my motivation for making it, and this is connected to your question below, at that time I made it just because I wanted to. I was also annoyed that people kept saying that my games were “80s” games, though that feeling has lessened now. I’ve given up further work on these two games, though. Given the WonderSwan’s specs, its difficult to come up with graphics and music by myself. Even so, I don’t think it was a complete waste of time, as they are still available on the WonderSwan.

—Please tell us about the Windows development utility “ShootingRPG.”

M-KAI: Its just an RPG battle development tool that I converted to a vertical STG tool. The content of it was all just my experimentation, so it was never finished or anything. I found some old screenshots (1, 2) and an explanation I wrote for it, so I’ll write this out for you here. Remember, this was nine years ago… (sweat)

“Windows Shooting RPG Construction Tool (REV.2503)

Created for the Direct X environment
Publicly released with with the Visual C++.net (Standard Edition) individual license

I ran out of patience and never finished designing this, so its been left in a half-finished state.
The usable characters are also just placeholders.
Please think of the content in the same way. (sweat)

If someone can release a full game using this I will be happy.
I just have too much work going on right now.”

—The famous programmers ABA and Murasame Aeju 4 are also connected to the WonderWitch Grand Prix coding competition. ABA is currently releasing open source games, and Murasame is involved in doujin game distribution through a Comiket Market group. While they are each advancing indie games in their own way, please tell us how M-Kai came to do joint commercial development with Qute.

M-KAI: My involvement with Qute came by way of several fateful encounters through the WonderWitch Grand Prix. Actually, there was a period of time when I felt I wanted to keep working on everything solo, like I had in the days of Kyokugen, but to be frank, that approach won’t work with the larger scale projects I’m working on nowadays. So I would love to work with ABA and Murasame, who are quite capable. As for other details, I talk about this a bit more in Shooting Gameside #3, so please check that out.

—Eschatos basically uses the same system as Judgment Silversword (the ship system, stage sequences, etc), but the scoring and level design are quite unadorned and simple. What was the reason for those changes?

Eschatos featured in STG Weekly #5.

M-KAI: With STGs, you begin with a foundation of simple rules and have to find some kind of scoring system that will distinguish the game from others. The scoring system will therefore have a certain degree of complexity, but my goal for Eschatos was to try and make a game free from unnecessary or overly complex scoring systems.

—I feel there’s a very randomized approach to the game overall, with the enemy placement, attack timing, etc. What were your intentions there?

M-KAI: I wanted to make a game that didn’t feel like a strict puzzle game, something that wouldn’t require studying. I think there were many STGs like that in the 80s.

—In Judgment Silversword, you can change levels with a hidden code. But in the re-release with Eschatos, you can’t do this anymore?

M-KAI: I added that hidden command in the event that the ROM cartridge batteries died. With the X360 the possibility for that data loss is very low, and you can erase achievements and make other adjustments directly in the options menu, so I left it out.

—The Eschatos development lead Yonezawa said that he’d like to make a horizontal STG next (from the Eschatos soundtrack liner notes). Do you plan to work with Qute again?

M-KAI: Since Eschatos has received good reviews, I want to work on something with them next time too.

—Please tell us about any habits or particular tendencies you have regarding the story, bullet patterns, and enemy placement. For example, as a fan I’ve noticed you often use high speed continuous spread shots that are aimed at the ship, and there’s also the shield from Judgment Silversword and Cardinal Sins.

M-KAI: I’m careful about not making the enemy bullets too slow. Also, I try to make the player ship’s explosion as flashy as possible, so that it feels good even when you die and the game is over.

—I think we can say that each of your games has had some kind of RPG-like aspect to it, where you accumulate something as you play. (for example, the item collection in Pleasure Hearts, or the scoring in JSS and Eschatos which opens up new areas of the games). Please explain why you chose to incorporate those elements.

Judgement Silversword 1cc by Sapz.

M-KAI: I personally like RPGs a lot, as I’m the type of person who gets into things obsessively. I think the strong point of RPGs is that if you spend enough time with them (assuming you don’t get bored in the middle) you will surely clear the game. Also, as for the item collection and stat growth aspects of RPGs, I’d like to include those in my future games as well. When I was developing Judgment Silversword for the 2001 WonderWitch Grand Prix, I played a lot of STGs on the Sega Saturn, but I noticed there weren’t any games that rewarded you the more you played them, like RPGs did. STGs at the time also had a tendency to make you throw away credits if you messed up, and you’d have to redo the first stages over and over. If I was going to make a game, I wanted to address that shortcoming somehow.

—You said in another interview that you had become used to playing games where the bomb was designed to be an emergency save. What do you think is the appeal (or drawback) of that design approach to bombs?

M-KAI: I think the appeal there is that the bomb allows you to skip parts you aren’t good at for now, and you get to see a little bit further into the game. It also gives a sense of accomplishment for skilled players who get through without using bombs. I think its good when a game can allow for that division between “bombs saved for points” and “bombs for escaping.” Bombs are also supposed to be flashy weapons that add a certain flavor to the presentation of the game, so I think its a waste when you’re penalized for using them, and the bomb button simply becomes the “thou shalt not press” button.

—Of all the games you’ve developed, which ones have been particularly memorable for you?

M-KAI: I would say Eschatos, for sure. Before Eschatos I had been doing all sorts of experiments and prototypes, but it had been 6 years since I had last completed a game. I feel like I’ve grown very old! Also, from the very beginning I started Eschatos with the help of several others, and I am deeply moved and grateful to them.

—Of the reviews you’ve received, there’s been a number which praise your games as spectacular homages. Up till now about half your games have been released as doujin titles. With Eschatos, you’ve joined the ranks of so-called “legitimate” consumer games, but you maintain the stance that your games are homages to others. I think this is a style unique among shooting game developers (Radiant Silvergun would be an exception). How do you ensure that this “homage” doesn’t descend to the level of mere parody or plaigarism? (I apologize for the difficult question. But I think this is an important factor in all of M-KAI’s games. Please share your thoughts about it.)

M-KAI: All I can say about this is that the experiences I’ve had with all the games I’ve played in my life are very important to me. I don’t think I’m particularly conscious of it, but their influence naturally comes out in what I create. Also, leaving out the time I made doujin games, I’ve never had the intention to just blatantly imitate other games. For instance, I’ve thought I might want to use a certain part of a certain game, but I’ve never tried to actually recreate something note for note. Therefore I think it comes across more subtly.

—You’re something of a star among doujin STG developers. As our senpai, please give us a message (or advice).

M-KAI: When I look at it objectively, I’ve had a lot of totally blank periods where I produced nothing, so it feels a little awkward to say I’m a “star,” but…

What I can say for others, though, is that if you think something is impossible to do on your own, see what you can manage alone, but also seek help from others. Also, I think its important to be aware of what’s going on in the world, see where people are active, and learn new development platforms. It was frustrating for me since I had spent so much time learning other platforms, and I was stressed out by the massive amount of new things I had to learn, but as a result of those struggles I was able to release both Judgment Silversword and Eschatos.

Its also important to have absolute trust in yourself. This was the only thing that got me through my blank periods.

—You’ve said that you made Eschatos with the hard difficulty as your point of reference. I would expect you to have a certain level of skill as a STG developer, but are there any other STGs which you can clear, or are good at scoring in?

M-KAI: For arcade danmaku shooting, my skill is such that only rarely do I achieve glory. As for scoring, I don’t focus on it too much, and I’m not the type who can really get into scoring.

—Do you play any doujin STGs? If there are any you like, please tell us about them.

Cardinal Sins, rank S clear by SFKhoa.

M-KAI: Up until about 10 years ago
I played them a lot. Nowadays I hear about new doujin titles almost everyday. It seems the number of people involved in doujin games has exceeded the commercial STG market.
I check out titles on Nico Douga and such, but as I haven’t been able to put anything out for Windows myself, a certain feeling of jealousy tends to well up within me. (laughs) But I haven’t been able to actually play many doujin games. I’m sorry.

—Do you play the so-called “danmaku” games?

M-KAI: I check out all new console and arcade releases, whether they are danmaku or not. As for the appeal of danmaku games, I think they have relatively simple controls, the bullet patterns can express a very geometrically beautiful aesthetic, and since the hitbox is small, if you’re lucky you can dodge and escape things… there’s a sense of stress and focus there people like, I think.

—Finally, please give a final message for fans of M-KAI’s games.

M-KAI: I feel bad that I made everyone wait so long for a new game since Cardinal Sins. Since many other people were putting out doujin STGs, for awhile I thought I would just rest and stop making games, but I have been moved by the response of all the people who waited for Eschatos. It has really motivated me. I never thought I’d be able to release a game on a console, and I hope to continue being able to surprise people (in a good way) with future games.

—Please give a final message to readers of this interview.

M-KAI: Knowing that people will check out the games I made by myself so long ago, and how filled they are with “huh?” type moments because I was young… well, its embarassing, but if you can enjoy them in a lighthearted way I’ll be happy. On that note, with Judgment Silversword and Eschatos I had many people check, adjust, and review the game until I was satisfied, so please try them out! Thank you for reading to the end.

—Thank you.