This interview with Japanese STG superplayers SOF-WTN (Dodonpachi), SPS (Ketsui), and Hattori (Ikaruga) documents their trip to Stunfest in 2014. Like the interview covering the previous year’s trip, it was originally featured in STG Gameside.

This year MAGES (responsible for Bullet Soul and the PS3 port of Ketsui) producer Masaki Sakari also joined, and here shares some of his insights as a developer about the future of STG and the differences between the Japanese and overseas scenes. Finally, event organizer Jon rounds out the conversation.

Stunfest 2013 Interview
Shooting Gameside #10
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Stunfest 2014 – Superplayer Interview

originally featured in vol. 10 of STG Gameside

—To start off, how did each of you get drafted into Stunfest?

SPS: The operator of the “Game in Ebisen” game center in Egota (who also helped organize Wasshoi) invited me.

SOF-WTN: I was invited by Clover-TAC, who participated in Stunfest last year. I had some reservations about coming, but of course it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. (laughs)

Hattori: I was also asked by the owner of Ebisen. I got a phone call one day, out of the blue, that was like, “Would you like to perform an Ikaruga doubleplay in France?” (laughs)

—This year Masaki Sakari, a producer at game company MAGES., also attended the event.

Sakari: I heard that SPS, one of our employees, had been invited to an event in France, and I was like, “That looks fun…” (laughs) So I created a proposal for my company, that I would go too in a promotional capacity. But they didn’t give me an immediate response, and I figured it was a no-go…

—I see, it was going to be a business trip to France for you, as a STG producer! (laughs)

Sakari: Just days before Stunfest, there was a broadcast of MAGES’ niconico program “Dennin Getcha!“, and live on-air they surprised me by handing me a plane ticket! It turned out my plan had been moving forward all along, without my knowing. (laughs)

SPS’ Ura 2-ALL of Ketsui.

—What were you worries and/or expectations before arriving?.

SPS: My main concern was speaking, of course. I was also worried about the environment I’d be playing in. It was no big deal, but last year I heard about some minor technical problems, like the start button on the 2P side was active during someone’s superplay and it accidentally got pressed, and that the joystick one player brought couldn’t be used.

Hattori: Yeah, I too was more worried than excited. My biggest fear was being jetlagged. How rested I was would have a direct effect on my performance, and there was no way to control that.

SOF-WTN: This was my first trip abroad, so I was really excited about sightseeing and stuff. (laughs)

Everyone: (laughing)

SOF-WTN: It was 70, maybe 80% of the reason I said yes! A chance to visit Europe on the cheap… how could I say no! (laughs) However, in exchange I had a duty to show the people at Stunfest a good performance, so I prepared myself. I hadn’t played Dodonpachi for several years, and my high score hadn’t been updated since 2002, so I was anxious.

—Were you concerned about whether the French audience at Stunfest would understand what they were seeing in the game?

SPS: Yeah. I had heard there were Ketsui players in France, but I wasn’t sure how deep their knowledge of the game went.

SOF-WTN: Stunfest began as a fighting game event, and many of the people who gather around the STG stage actually came to Stunfest for the fighting games. But being there, I felt that getting excited about new things and new worlds is a characteristic of Europeans.

Jon: The live commentators play a big part in creating that atmosphere, too. They did their best to be as detailed as possible about the mechanics and such.

Sakari: But we don’t understand French, so we’re always worried if things are being explained correctly. (laughs)

SPS: I watched some videos of the live performances from last year’s Stunfest. They were always high-tension, and people were unpretentiously enjoying that energy—which I think is good. The thrills of STG make the technical aspect easier to absorb.

For Ketsui, you’ve got to play perfectly to make it into the Ura second loop, so I was nervous as hell. I’ve somehow managed it during my previous live performances, but there’s no guarantee I’ll make it every time.

Sakari: I wasn’t worried. SPS worked on the PS3 port of Ketsui here at MAGES, so it was no problem for him to reach the Ura second loop—that was our thinking at least. Besides, his salary depends on it. (laughs)

SOF-WTN’s clears Dodonpachi.

SPS: Yeah, there was that additional pressure that if I didn’t give it my all, it could affect the sales of the Ketsui port.

Hattori: For me, I felt like I was good with the amount I’d practiced before this. In my case I was only going for a double play clear of Ikaruga—I didn’t need to try and score. I did try and get a high score for my own purposes, but I mainly played with the intent of showing the audience a good performance.

SPS: Someone set up Dodonpachi and Ketsui pcbs at a local arcade here in Paris, so I was able to practice a little the day before. Hattori didn’t have that opportunity, unfortunately.

Hattori: I sure was relieved when I finished the second doubleplay on Sunday!

—How was the reaction from the audience?

Hattori: It wasn’t that large, but one player came up to me and said, “Your performance… it was like watching something from another dimension. I don’t think anyone could understand it.” (laughs)

Sakari: Ikaruga is already a game with a lot of story. And during a doubleplay, in order to protect the side that has less lives, the other side often has to sacrifice itself for a bullet cancel etc. That’s another thing for audiences to appreciate during a doubleplay.

SOF-WTN: In Dodonpachi I defeated Hibachi on my second playthrough, but I failed to clear it on my first playthrough, which stings a little. But when you combine both playthroughs, I guess I was able to show the audience everything I wanted.

Sakari: What percentage of the time would you say you defeat Hibachi, on a normal playthrough?

SOF-WTN: Probably 70 or 80%. By the way, on my first playthrough at Stunfest I no-miss no-bombed to 2-5. I thought I was going to make it, but right after that I died and then it all fell apart. After I got back, I heard that the owner of Ebisen had just tuned in right then, when I was on stage 2-5.

Hattori’s doubleplay of Ikaruga.

Hattori: It’s kind of a joke among us STG players, that when the operator of Ebisen starts watching you play it jinxes you. Game over. (laughs)

SOF-WTN: It’s funny, I did feel really nervous then. I started stiffening up and had a sense I was about to die. Putting that experience aside though, if I NMNB to stage 2-5, I almost always clear it… so yeah, there must have been some unseen force jinxing me. (laughs)

—How was the mood at the performance stage, in general?

SPS: It was just like a big concert hall.

Hattori: Yeah. When I saw it, my first thought was, “Wow, we get to play here?!”

SOF-WTN: I think it could hold about 5000 people, if it was packed.

Sakari: It was a lively event. In addition to the people who came for the fighting events and superplays, you had people who just came to play all these old games. The overall vibe was “let’s enjoy games!” It felt somewhat nostalgic to me, that simple enjoyment of games that the Japanese have forgotten.

Hattori: That’s true. There were women and children just having fun with the games—it didn’t feel like a gathering for hardcore gamers or otaku.

SOF-WTN: Everyone was really into it and having a good time. It was sort of like a summer matsuri, to give a Japanese analogy.

—Do you think that atmosphere has something to do with the fact that Stunfest is organized by fans?

Hattori: Yeah. The exhibits and cabinets on display were from their own collections.

Sakari: I was envious. Several years ago I went to a game center in Taiwan, and it was bustling. There were even couples there with kids. It was part of a movie theatre complex, but it felt like the game centers in Japan of 20 years ago. They were all there enjoying something you could only get there. Stunfest felt similar.

—If this was a game event in Japan, the first thing you’d see would be all the corporate booths…

Sakari: Yeah, the business side would take priority.

Jon: At the main hall, game fans of all stripes bring their games for everyone to enjoy. STG games, too. As someone who likes STG, it made me happy to see people who normally don’t have an opportunity to try these different STGs, really get hooked on a single game. No doubt they’ve just discovered a whole new world!

—Did you talk much with the local STG fanbase?

SOF-WTN: Yeah, they talked to us a lot.

Sakari: What surprised me was the fan who knew that SOF-WTN also played Great Mahou Daisakusen (Dimahoo)! I wonder how he found that out?

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Masaki Sakari of MAGES.

SOF-WTN: I don’t know for sure, but my high scores are printed in Arcadia, so maybe he read about it there. Or maybe Matthew told him?

Sakari: I heard the local STG fans even brought and set up their own pcbs! (laughs) There were a lot of specific requests to SOF-WTN, Hattori, and SPS to play the games they had installed.

SPS: The core fans who came to Stunfest to see STG superplays were very eager to approach and talk with us, about strategy and techniques. It was a level of motivation and enthusiasm that I haven’t scene lately in the STG scene in Japan.

Hattori: Another thing I thought was interesting was the audience applause. In Japan, no one will start clapping unless someone else starts first, but in France, right when you think you should be clapping, everyone has already started! (laughs) And the timing, they all know to start at the same time.

SPS: I think the people at Stunfest have little experience watching superplays live like this. That’s why I think they were so active about approaching and talking with us. If you want to just learn routes, then watching replays online is helpful, but the video won’t explain to you why the player did what he did.

Hattori: Yeah, without a live, real-time explanation you won’t understand. In Japan that’s possible, but in overseas communities it’s not. I felt that difference in playing environments at Stunfest.

—I’m sure seeing all the fans gathered at Stunfest gave you a good indication of the depth of their passion for Japanese games.

Hattori: I think for STG especially, they’ve been starved for this kind of interaction.

Sakari: It seems that to get arcade pcbs, many overseas fans have had to buy expensive tickets to Japan and visit specialty pcbs shops in places like Akihabara. And compared with Japan, there are very few top-level players, so yeah, it makes sense that they’d have all these different questions for players from Japan. It’s like the release of a lot of pent-up energy.

—Do you think this degree of passion is a hint somehow, for the future of STG?

Sakari: Well, thinking about it from the perspective of a game producer, it’s actually a difficult question. I must acknowledge the fact that right now, STG games don’t easily match up with the demands of the games market. The majority of people playing games are focusing on genres other than STG. Given this state of affairs, I believe change and evolution are necessary, and naturally as a game creator I’m thinking of how we can work within it.

But, on the other hand, as a player I also have that mentality of “STG games should be this way, not that way.” As a producer I’ve asked myself how far we should go in changing those traditions, but I think it’s important for players and developers alike to get on board with new ideas. In the future, I think that kind of flexibility and tolerance is going to be important—for players and developers.

SPS: Yeah. Bringing more new players into STG is going to be key to the survival of the genre.

—I can see how that’s a huge dilemma for developers.

Sakari: I’d like it if those new STG players included people overseas, not just Japanese. If developers start targeting the Western market, it has the merit of giving us a very ambitious challenge to contend with. Looking at France, I felt that we in Japan may be a little behind the current trends.

Jon: There’s special circumstances that help explain that. The mid-2000s was the golden age of danmaku STG, with the Playstation 2 leading the charge. Many STG games were not ported to the West during this time. It was only in the next hardware generation that, finally, STGs started to be ported and released worldwide. All that pent-up resentment from fans exploded, resulting in strong user communities in the West. So definitely, there’s a kind of “time lag” between the West and Japan, in the propagation of STG info and fandom.

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Until the next time!

—Now that your trip to France is over, what impressions are you left with?

Hattori: It reminded me of long ago, when I had just started playing STG games and didn’t know much about the genre. It was nice to experience that, seeing everyone there having their first contact with these games.

SPS: Seeing everyone at Stunfest simply enjoying themselves with the games left an impression on me.

SOF-WTN: Yeah. When you first discover a game, it’s the most exhilarating moment.

Sakari: And one more thing: I realized once again the love people have for watching skilled game performances. It’s wonderful!