This thoughtful interview with Mystic Ark director Shinji Imada originally was published in Game Hihyou magazine in 1996. Imada, a former Irem developer, created his own studio “Produce” in 1990, which went on to create a few classic, albeit largely forgotten RPGs for Enix, including Brainlord and Elnard (aka The 7th Saga).

The conversation largely revolves around different conceptions of the idea of an “RPG”, and Imada’s ideas make more sense when considering his arcade background as the planner for R-Type and Image Fight. While his comments on RPGs might not seem strange to western CRPG  fans (or players today who are used to roguelike and open-world games), the prevailing attitude in 1990s Japan was that RPGs were mainly vehicles for big, epic stories.

 

Mystic Ark – 1996 Developer Interview

originally featured in Game Hihyou magazine

Shinji Imada – Planner/Director

—Imada, what kind of RPGs do you want to create?

Imada: First and foremost, I don’t like creating stories. The trend with RPGs recently has been to have these huge, epic storylines, but I want the player to feel like their actions are creating and changing the world of the game as they go. Of the games I’ve made, the one that most closely aligned with my ideal RPG was the one I made before this, Elnard. In Elnard, I was aiming for a “multi-scenario” RPG, although it ultimately didn’t end up that way. Making Elnard gave me a new appreciation for how hard it is to make an RPG. Thanks to my experience with Elnard, I was more mindful of those difficulties when making Mystic Ark.

—You can sense that attention to detail in Mystic Ark, like in the way the dialogue changes depending on whether you select a male or female protagonist.

Imada: Yeah, the person who wrote the scenario for Mystic Ark really went to town on the dialogue. Even I don’t know all the different things he put in there.

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Shinji Imada

—That certainly attests to Mystic Ark’s extremely high level of polish.

Imada: True, though I also feel the game has elements that appeal to hardcore and maniac players. (laughs) I’m also worried we may have set the difficulty a bit too high.

—Are there things you’re dissatisfied with in Mystic Ark, then?

Imada: Lots. (laughs) You start your development with a vision of all the things you want to include, but in the end, you always come up against time limits and deadlines, and many things get left out. There are a mountain of things I’d like to have fixed, or places where I’d like to have explained things a bit more clearly to the player.

If I could have a complete, uninterrupted year in which to develop a game, though, I think I could make something “perfect”.

—What game has made the biggest impression on you?

Imada: Gradius.

—What do you love about Gradius, and what do you love about RPGs? How are they different?

Imada: I think it’s basically the same—what I love about them, that is.

—And what is that, precisely?

Imada: The level of completion and polish. And the attention to detail—for Gradius, it feels like they thought out every last detail. That’s a big part of it for me.

Regardless of the genre, the games I get sucked into are the ones where I feel like I’m being challenged in some way. There are many games where, once I’m actually playing, I can tell the creators were just imitating some other game. I think it’s fine to imitate other games, but your own creation still needs to have that special spark. I’m also pretty bad with sequels and series in general, though. To tell you the truth, I’m not even especially into RPGs. (laughs)

—That really surprises me to hear.

Imada: I think the original Dragon Quest is the only RPG I’ve even managed to complete.

—Why is it that you don’t play RPGs very much?

Imada: Not having time is a big part of it. I tend to pick up the big titles and play them. When it comes to games I do actually finish, it has to have something in it that I really like. I can only really get into things with a high degree of originality. I also like games that are fun in a more simple way, like driving games.

—So originality is the most important thing in a game, for you?

Imada: I think the same is true of short stories and other art, but when a person creates something, it often revolves around some specific thing(s) they’re wanting to share with others. In a song, there might be one certain phrase you come up with, and the rest of the song exists as a vehicle for that one part you really wanted to share. In a game, that’s what I call originality: the part(s) of the game where you can clearly tell “this is what they wanted to show me.”

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The cover art for Elnard, by manga artist Haruhiko Masuda. Produce seems to have had a knack for hiring great artists, with Hitoshi Yoneda, Haruhiko Masuda, and Akihiro Yamada contributing to Elnard/Mystic Ark.

—And what parts of Mystic Ark do you feel have that originality?

Imada: Definitely the whole temple area. I was very insistent on that silent atmosphere being the first thing the player encounters.

—The journey of Mystic Ark takes place before the birth of humankind. That small island with the temple on it has such a solemn, almost sad atmosphere to it…

Imada: “Oneself”—the very concept implies solitude, I think. I felt an island would be perfect for conveying this mood. I was also careful to make sure no other people/party members ever visit the island temple.

There is the lone fireplace that talks with you, and even that I didn’t want at first. But then the game would have been far more difficult than it already is, so I finally relented.

—Will all those worlds continue to exist after the advent of humanity?

Imada: In the setting as we wrote it, there are an infinite number of different worlds. Each person carries with them several hundred different worlds, and the game explores only a handful of them. The personality of the person associated with that world changes depending on how the hero clears the world.

—So Mystic Ark is a kind of test or trial to determine their personalities, then.

Imada: Yeah, you are constructing their personalities.

—You mentioned you played Dragon Quest a lot, but why that game?

Imada: I think a big part of it was just wanting to learn by example. As a game that’s been embraced by so many people, you have to recognize its monumental status.

—And what do you think the source of that popularity is?

Imada: I think it’s the attention and care paid to the player. I feel like it was made with a player’s perspective in mind. Normally when you make a game, you’re thinking “I want to show players this, and this, and this…”. There’s also a tendency for your game to become more and more difficult as the development goes on. But with Dragon Quest, in certain parts of the game I saw how the creators were very aware that people as young as first or second graders would be playing it.

—Which parts made you think that?

Imada: Well, for one, those early games often taught you the controls and gameplay in-game, so you didn’t have to read the manual. They also didn’t waste your time and make you re-do things, or put you in too many annoying situations where you can only advance the game by taking one specific, preordained route. Though whether all that is ultimately good or bad, I can’t say.

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It was perhaps out of respect to Enix as a publisher that this interviewer talked about Dragon Quest so much, but the series had a much larger influence on Japanese gaming than is often recognized in the West (image source).

—They were made with great care, weren’t they. And those were some of the qualities you modeled in your own games?

Imada: They were reference points for me, at least. I actually only played Dragon Quest for the first time, about 3 years after it came out. The reason why is that I was terrified of being influenced by it: afraid that after playing it, I would use that as the starting point in my own games. Then, when Enix hired Produce to make RPGs, I figured I had to take a closer look at those games, and I finally did. (laughs)

—And how was it?

Imada: I think it was about 4 or 5 years ago that I played them? Before that I had played Dragon Quest II a little bit on my own, and I thought it was great… I was starting to get really sucked into it. But it was then that I feared being too influenced by it, so I resolved to stop playing, and quit midway through.

—I feel like recent RPGs have really emphasized the importance of the story.

Imada: In one regard, if you’re thinking of making an RPG, you necessarily have to include a story. For Japan, I think “RPG” pretty much equals “Dragon Quest” in the minds of most people. When most people think of RPGs, they think of something with a story, and the game is all about simply enjoying the unfolding of that story. For Japanese players, they would probably say an RPG without a story isn’t an RPG. They’d call something like Wizardry a different genre.

Of course there are many people who recognize that Wizardry is an RPG too, but for those who are used to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, it probably feels a little different. And if you want to make a game that appeals to that player demographic, I think you have to have a good story.

—What kind of game would be your ideal RPG, then?

Imada: I like creating gameplay most of all, so I like games you can enjoy even without a story. Games like Torneko no Daibouken have given me a lot to think about.

Figuring out how to make the player really identify with the protagonist—to feel that they are the protagonist—I’ve been thinking about how important that is. As things stand today, most people see RPGs as games where you talk with people and level up your character, and I don’t think that is necessarily wrong.

However, within the scope of what makes an RPG, my ideal would be to not create a specific scenario or story. Player characters would be free to live their lives how ever they wanted in the world of the game, and depending on your actions, the computer would create different events for you. If I could really make this happen, it would be a true “multi-scenario” game. Many game designers have taken on this challenge, but it doesn’t appear that any of them have realized a full multi-scenario experience. Someday, it’s my hope to do just that.

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Brainlord, Mystic Ark, and Elnard contain many similarities in graphics and names that have caused players to wonder if there is a connection between them. According to Haruhiko Masuda, who did the cover art for Elnard, Imada simply re-used the assets because it was convenient, and there was no official connection between the games. While not reflected in the credits, Masuda also claims to have worked on both the character design and monster design for Elnard.

Hitoshi Yoneda – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Dengeki Super Famicom

—Yoneda, you’ve done a lot of illustration work for video games. How was your new project, Mystic Ark, different this time?

Yoneda: Up to now, most of the illustration work I’ve done has been for games where the settings and world are already created, and I’m just drawing the packaging art as directed, not designing the actual characters myself. This time, the art I created for Mystic Art got used for the in-game pixel art too. The other developers had a lot of requests for me, so I tried to honor their vision while adding my own originality.

—Are you satisfied with your work on Mystic Ark?

Yoneda: Well, if I could have my way, I would have liked to draw more non-humanoid, grotesque monsters, maybe. Not monsters where you see it and think, “Oh, it looks like a crab”, but rather things that make you go… “wtf is that?!” That said, for Mystic Ark I really like the enemies like the boss ‘Yami’, which came out very close to my personal ideal. He’s my favorite character, you could say.

—There’s a lot of monsters in Mystic Ark, but how many of them did you draw?

Yoneda: About 40 regular monsters. Then there were bosses for every world… I also had 5 or 6 monsters I drew that were rejected. For example, they wanted a flower that attacks with poison, but I drew something that ended up looking very far from a normal flower, and they asked me to re-draw it.

—Which are some of your favorites, and which were particularly easy/fun to draw?

Yoneda: The bosses were easy to draw because I had a lot of freedom with their designs. That doesn’t mean I think all the bosses came out well, though. I struggled to make the Candy Mountain area boss look scary. (laughs) In that regard, the regular monsters who already had their general descriptions written for me were easier to draw. I really enjoyed drawing all the insectile monsters.

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Concept art for the boss enemy “Yami” (Darkness) in Mystic Ark. (you can see the in-game version here)

—Do you play games yourself?

Yoneda: I haven’t lately, but I’m an RPG fan, as you might guess. When I was asked to do some artwork for Final Fantasy for a magazine feature, they asked me to play the game to get a feel for it, and I got addicted. That was my introduction to the series, in fact. Since then I’ve played nothing but RPGs. Unlike action and shooting games, anyone can clear an RPG just by playing a bit at a time. Unfortunately playing RPGs really sucks up the time that I should be working. (laughs) For that reason, these days I’ve only been playing Puyo Puyo, since I can play something like that in between my work breaks.

—With Akihiro Yamada working on the character design, Mystic Ark is something of a “recital performance” for artists.

Yoneda: I knew how good Yamada was, so when I heard he was going to be the character designer, I was very relieved. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times during the development, and we also talked on the phone. With him working on characters, I could relax and concentrate all my efforts on the monster design. It was great.

—What other kind of work would you like to do in the future?

Yoneda: I’d like to create something where I’m involved with the entire story from the beginning, something with the feel of a picture book. If it were a game, I’d love to work with the other developers and help create the entire setting and world.

—Thank you for your time today.