This 1995 interview covers the development of the Square action-RPG Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to the beloved Secret of Mana and a game that was famously denied, and has still yet to receive, an official overseas release. Over the course of this discussion, director Tanaka, designer Ishii and composer Kikuta outline their initial concepts for the game’s cast, the realization of ideas that couldn’t be implemented in the previous game, and the points of differentiation between Seiken Densetsu and its sister series, Final Fantasy.

Seiken Densetsu 3 ROM patches incl. translation & 3-player mod
Seiken Densetsu interview (1991)
Kazuko Shibuya interview (2013)

Seiken Densetsu 3 – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Family Computer Magazine and Famitsu

Hiromichi Tanaka – Director
Koichi Ishii – Designer
Hiroki Kikuta – Composer

—When did you begin planning Seiken Densetsu 3?

Tanaka: We started drafting the plans for SD3 two years ago. We then went through a period of trial-and-error, where we programmed a lot of different systems, erased them, programmed them anew, erased them… and so forth, until finally we came up with something we now like.

Ishii: We more or less wanted SD3 to be a continuation of Secret of Mana, but we ended up scrapping all the code from Secret of Mana. It was like, “All these parts that weren’t interesting, let’s try starting from a blank slate and finding another way.” So we essentially reconstructed all the programming for SD3 anew.

—Are there any connections between Seiken Densetsu 3 and Secret of Mana…?

Tanaka: SD3 takes place in a completely unrelated world from Secret of Mana. It’s similar to how each Final Fantasy game changes everything but always keeps the crystals. However, our overall mindset—how we think about the games—is something we’ve carried over to this sequel, including our underlying ideas about mana. It’s similar to the first Seiken Densetsu game, maybe. The mana tree and the mana sword, which have been important throughout the series, again make an appearance here.

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Koichi Ishii (top) and
Hiromichi Tanaka (bottom).

The rabite monsters are also back. Ishii drew the concept art for them, which our graphic artists then converted into pixel art. They look more full and three-dimensional this time. We were especially focused on making them look full-bodied, not flat like before, which has in turn increased the sense of realism in the battles.

We’ve brought back some characters from the first Seiken Densetsu (aka Final Fantasy Adventure) too.
There were also some monsters in Secret of Mana who we had to cut moves and attacks from due to memory limitations, and those have been added back for SD3. There’s about 100 monsters overall.

—What can you tell us about the new Motion Battle system?

Tanaka: In Secret of Mana you leveled magic and weapons, but we’ve removed that system for SD3. In exchange, we’ve increased the number of different magics. However, we wanted to make players feel like the magic their character used was special, so the number of spells each character learns is more limited. Some characters can only use support spells, and overall we want players to think more about how to use the magic effectively in battle, which spell is appropriate to use when, and so forth.

Also, in Secret of Mana, you could swap weapons between all the characters and level them individually, so there was no sense that “this character has to use this weapon” or anything like that. For SD3, however, we wanted to emphasize the distinct classes/roles of each character, so the weapons types are specific to the characters now.

Visually, the battles in SD3 resemble those of Secret of Mana, but the programming is completely different. In turn-based RPGs there’s ample time for the processor to calculate everything, display damage, etc. But in the Seiken Densetsu games, everything has to be done in real-time, and the load on the processor is much larger. It’s more cpu-intensive than Chrono Trigger, actually.

—When I think of the Seiken Densetsu games (and this was true for Secret of Mana as well), I think of the heavy use of pastel colors and overall bright tone of the graphics. Was this a conscious choice?

Tanaka: Seiken Densetsu isn’t meant to be “realistic” like Final Fantasy—it’s composed more with fantasy imagery in mind.

Ishii: We had been saying since Secret of Mana, that if we had 32mb for SD3, we could probably make something really amazing, so we threw everything we had into this development. We wanted the map, the characters, and the monsters to all feel visually integrated, like they had a real, three-dimensional presence.

—How did you go about creating that “three-dimensional” quality?

Ishii: For example, take a boss battle like the fight with Mispolm. That battle is presented to the player from a certain visual angle. If you completely ignore the background when you’re creating the sprites, then the sense of orientation of the scene gets completely messed up. That’s why we had the sprite artists and the background artists work in tandem for SD3, communicating closely with each other as they went.

We’re aiming for something better than Disney. Also, for shadows and the like, we’re using deep blues and purples instead of shades of black, to impart a sense of softness. If you use black for that there’s a tendency for things to look cold and sterile. As I mentioned, visually we wanted to go for a more storybook, fantasy vibe rather than something realistic. It’s the same direction we went with in Secret of Mana, but in that game we didn’t have enough memory to fully express what we wanted.

—I imagine the programming side must have been very challenging too.

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Seiken Densetsu 3’s Mispolm, the God-Beast of Wood. Many late-era SNES games tried to add visual depth (and consequently immersion) through judicious color design and perspective tricks.

Ishii: We built the bosses up section by section, and we wrote out what their movement patterns should be from the start. Each boss part, therefore, had to be programmed independently, and that was very tiring. We wanted the boss fights to have a bit of an action game feel to them, so we spent a lot of time there. Your typical RPG just uses a static image or something for boss fights, but of course, this being Seiken Densetsu, we have a certain pride about “movement”, and we poured a great deal of effort into making it interesting.

—So bosses like Dolan and Mispolm, then, with their moving arms and tentacles—that was all planned from the start?

Tanaka: Yeah. The player characters have so much freedom of movement, we wanted to make bosses that could match them.

—The bosses seem to me like they’re modeled on different animals. How did you come up with them?

Ishii: Our concepts generally start out as visual ideas. For example, Tanaka might say “Let’s make this boss a beast of some kind”, then we’d build on that, “Ok, how about something with horns”, gradually fleshing the idea out and solidifying it as we went. The design process continued into the actual graphics work, too, where we would continue to develop the bosses as we saw them take shape as actual sprites.

There were also a number of leftover ideas we had from Secret of Mana that we wanted to give life in SD3.

—Like what?

Ishii: Dolan, for instance. There’s a lot of these really huge bosses in SD3. In Secret of Mana, we were limited in terms of the size and shape for the bosses, and we had to constrain our boss battles within those boundaries. The bosses in SD3 were like a big reaction, or backlash, to those limitations, which explains why so many of them are so huge…

—It was all about size then.

Ishii: Well, we went to the trouble of making a game where the player characters and the monsters can inhabit the same space, so we wanted the visual comparison to be immediate and clear. You’ve got to create a situation where the strength and fearsomeness of the boss can be instantly appreciated, on a visual level first and foremost. We’re always especially conscious of that when designing the final boss. We want to make players think, “You’ve got to be kidding, there’s no way I can beat this thing!”

—Funny you mention that, just a few hours ago I was getting my ass handed to me by a boss. (laughs) Seiken Densetsu 3 also features a very rich backstory, with the six playable characters.

Ishii: In the beginning, we thought we might go for a lighter mood for each of the characters, a more light-hearted adventure. But we came around on that idea: if your characters don’t have some kind of heavy burden to shoulder and eventually overcome, then the ending won’t be satisfying or have any weight. Given that fact, well, suffice it to say that personally, I’m very partial to darker stories. (laughs) But Tanaka’s image for the characters was more vibrant and spirited, so he ignored the darker overtones. It turned out to be a blend: the characters, despite having these tremendous burdens to shoulder, nevertheless display an indomitable and bright spirit through their actions. That was the feel we aimed for.

It was a bit of a gamble but we did that because we wanted to portray the process of the characters growing up, emotionally and psychologically. To that end, each protagonist has some kind of “complex” that they’re working through. I would say the big theme of SD3 is independence.

—Which character do you think has the heaviest past?

Tanaka: Well, they’re all burdened by something. As for the character who has the most thankless lot, though… hmm… Charlotte, maybe.

—Speaking of Charlotte, where did you come up with that unique way of speaking she has, where she ends everything with “dechi”. 1

Ishii: There’s already so many characters that say “dechuu”, so we went with “dechi” instead. Of course if you heard a real kid talk like that, you’d probably think there was something wrong in the head with them.

—Was it the plan from the beginning to make Charlotte like that?

Tanaka: Before the characters’ backgrounds and personalities were fixed, we had illustrator Nobuteru Yuki create some concept art for us, and the pictures of Charlotte were bright and cheerful through-and-through.

Ishii: It was the kind of wonderfully expressive image that only Yuki is capable of.

—So did Yuki’s illustrations cause you to re-imagine the character of Charlotte, then?

Ishii: Yeah, they did. In the beginning, she was a bit more of a dependable, serious, down-to-earth character.

Tanaka: But when we saw the illustrations—how great the character Yuki had imagined was—we felt we had no choice but to go in that direction.

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Nobuteru Yuki’s final, official illustrations of the once-stoic Charlotte (renamed “Carlie” in the fan translation).

—So “dechi” almost didn’t happen!

Ishii: If we had gone with the more serious-looking Charlotte, then yeah, she might have turned out as a more stoic character, someone who stands alone and goes their own way.

Tanaka: Also, if we’re talking about characters… originally, I wanted to have “love triangles” be a feature of the three-character party system. But when we tried it, and had people actually play through those scenes, their reaction wasn’t good: “Huh, why are these two getting together? This isn’t what I would of wanted.” So I decided to drop the idea.

It’s funny, because the whole reason our original plans called for 3 male and 3 female protagonists, all older teenagers, was specifically for that love triangle system.

Ishii: We came to realize that our image of how these characters should be, as creators, was subtly different from the feelings the players had for them. Creators shouldn’t trample on the feelings the players have for the characters. And if you try to force players to accept things, “this is how it is, deal with it”… players will rebel against and reject what you’ve made.

—Can you tell us more about the different characters in SD3?

Ishii: Duran is your “orthodox”, typical hero character. He’s somewhat rough and uncouth. He can be quick to anger, but he’s also got a lot of pride. It’s an injury to his pride which initially causes him to set out on his journey. He’s got that “respect your elders” father complex.

We made Kevin because we wanted a transforming character. He sets out on a journey to conquer his own personal complex. He’s half-beast, half-human. His Mother died when he was young, and he was raised as a cold, unfeeling killer—raised to become the next Beast King. His more human side gradually begins to take root as the story progresses, however.

Hawkeye has a carefree personality but he cares greatly about the people around him. He has the opposite personality of Duran. He tends to think more about others than himself, when deciding what to do. Of the six, he’s the most adult.

Angela never received any love from her Mother. She is always trying to think of ways to get her Mother’s attention and affection. That is what accounts for her apparent selfishness. She tries to win people’s attention by teasing others.

Of all the characters, Charlotte has had the hardest lot, but she’s also the most cheerful and optimistic. She’s similar in some ways to Popoi (the sprite) from Secret of Mana.

Riesz has a “brother complex”. She lost their Mother at an early age, so she has taken on that role for her younger brother. From her brother’s viewpoint, though, it’s something of an imposition. She’s younger than Angela, but far more stable and responsible.

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From left to right: Duran, Kevin, Angela, Charlotte, Hawkeye, Riesz.
If you take a close look at illustrator Hiroo Isono’s art for the instruction manual cover, you can see a hint of the “love triangle” system Tanaka had initially planned, with the characters paired off together and Riesz’s arm around Hawkeye. It’s a real shame Square chose the more generic and crude “look at all these characters!” cover over Isono’s inimitable art, which had so beautifully set the atmosphere for Secret of Mana (possibly, it was a concession to the 90s marketing fervor for “character games”).

—Can you tell us about the music for SD3?

Kikuta: I’m using a different methodology for composing SD3, so I think players may find it sounds different from Secret of Mana. One of my concepts is “not doing the same thing” as the last game. The hardware is the same as before, so I can’t do anything more hi-fi… which means there’s really a need for me to narrow my focus to a few key points.

In Secret of Mana, my goal was a clean, pretty sound, clear and hi-definition. For SD3, I’m instead trying to bring out the nuance of each individual instrument. I also want to have a greater variety of high-pitched and low-pitched sounds. While I aimed for a transparent, clear sound in Secret of Mana; this time I wanted more resonant, impactful bass tones. I think if you listen to the SD3 music on a stereo (or good headphones) with good bass response you’ll be quite surprised at what you hear there.

I wrote over 60 pieces of music for SD3. Game music is there to support the emotional impact of a scene, and that’s how I try to write my music: to heighten the emotional experience.

—How do Seiken Densetsu and Final Fantasy differ in style?

Ishii: With Seiken Densetsu, we want to do things that are impossible with the Final Fantasy gameplay system. Final Fantasy divides the battle screen from the map screen where everything else happens, and that makes the battles feel less realistic. In Final Fantasy’s battles, you don’t really feel like you’re damaging the enemies, in a visceral sense. The battles are fine in terms of strategy, but they’re limited in what they can express. For battles in video games to be engaging, it’s better to have a stronger core of action gameplay. That’s certainly one of the main selling points for this series.

—Final question: what would be your ideal battle system for an RPG? I’m thinking of things you’d ideally like to include for a Seiken Densetsu 4…

Ishii: The direction we went in with the very first Seiken Densetsu was already pretty close to my ideal of an RPG battle system. But I think every person has their own different version of what an “ideal” battle system is, so I think the best system would be one that accommodates each individual’s idea of what’s best. In other words, basically, I suspect there isn’t a single ideal system you can just shove in people’s faces, “Here you are, play this.” That said, I do have my own personal vision of what would be best.

—And what is that?

Ishii: Well, I think it’s just what you’ve seen in the Seiken Densetsu games. I see Seiken Densetsu as one way of breaking free from the mold of “turn based” RPGs. Final Fantasy’s ATB (Active Battle System) was its own evolution, and the Seiken series likewise branches into a different direction. I think it’s cool seeing all these different riffs and evolutions on turn-based RPGs. If we do actually make a Seiken Densetsu 4, I expect it will probably have a completely different battle system.

Tanaka: Yeah, a flexible battle system where players can play however they like would be best… in that sense, we’re trying to present players with a kind of “sandbox”. SD3 is us saying to users, “Look at all the things you can do in here.” How you play in that sandbox is freely up to you.

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Director Hiromichi Tanaka (right) and designer Koichi Ishii (left). Seiken Densetsu 3 would be Tanaka’s last Mana game; Ishii continued to direct and produce the series up through 2007’s Heroes of Mana.