Tomba! – 1997 Developer Interview
originally featured in The Playstation (JP) magazine
Translated by Jayson Young
—It’s hard not to get the feeling that you’ve given yourself a big challenge here. Especially with a side-scrolling action game like Tomba!, which in today’s marketplace has the odds of becoming a big hit stacked against it.
Fujiwara: You’re right. These days there’s an increasing number of games where you can move around in full 3D. However, the “TV” in “TV games” (console games) is a part of the experience, and I think 2D presentation is fundamental to that. I feel like 2D is able to let players feel the fun and excitement in a straightforward way. If you want to call it a challenge, then sure, it’s a challenge, but rather than letting 3D graphics determine what we were able to do, I guess you could say we decided to prioritize making something that’s really genuinely fun. That’s one reason we went with 2D.
—You left Capcom, and started your own company, and the first thing out of the gate was Tomba! A lot of people would probably wonder: why?
Fujiwara: Basically, I guess I just needed to make an action-style game.
Tomba’s mix of 3D environments and 2D character sprites meant that only very subtle, context-specific perspective shifts were possible in order to maintain the illusion of full three-dimensionality. (Image via Itay Keren.)
—So what is it about action games that’s interesting to you?
Fujiwara: First of all, it’s the feeling of the action. That’s really where it begins and ends for me. I mean, there are lots of different types of action. For example, you can think of side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros. as kind of being action games, and fighting games are by nature action games. Plus there’s the fixed-screen type as well. Of all the different genres we have, I think ‘action’ is the most all-encompassing. In short, if you’re required to move something on-screen in order to achieve a goal, that’s an action game.
—So, based on what you’re saying, it’s about interaction. Or maybe, it just feels good to push a button and see a character move on-screen?
Fujiwara: What the player wants to do is reflected in the character. They do what you want them to do. That kind of situation, of being able to perform the action the way you want to, is essentially what I wanted to achieve.
—As a game, what is it that’s special or distinct about Tomba!?
Fujiwara: It’s got the pure fun of an action game, combined with the way the stages change after certain story beats or events. As your goals or your objectives change, you accordingly think, I should do this, or I should do that. So instead of the kind of timing-based action games that we’ve seen so far, it’s like there’s a high degree of flexibility and freedom, which includes thinking and decision making. And that’s what I think makes it different.
Tomba, as a character, grows and changes throughout the course of the game. His speed will get faster, and he’ll get different items, and clearing certain events will also trigger changes. That was the model we started out with, at the earliest stages of development. Our basic principle with this game is to let users define their experience, so we had to get as close as possible as we could to the mindset of the players. By having the characters reflect the player’s own thinking, the events come alive. If you can start out with a mindset that says, ‘I don’t know anything,’ then if some character in the game asks for help, you have the option of saying, ‘Sorry, that’s none of my business.’ Or, you could also say, ‘Sure, I’ll help you.’ We can leave it up to the player to decide what moves to make.
—So you’re saying, as you keep progressing toward the story’s conclusion, your play style will start to change?
Fujiwara: That’s right. For example, if you get this new ability, then of course you’ll be able to access new areas. But as you progress through the game, the way you control it will also change. So in that way, even people who have never played a game like this will be able to get accustomed to the speed as it’s increasing.
The point is, we want players to feel that transformation, and along with it, feel the way the gameplay changes. That’s what Tomba! is all about. With this game, we wanted to keep in mind people who have never touched action games before as part of our target audience. If we’d only made this game feel good to people who have always been playing action games, then I think that those who haven’t would be stuck thinking, ‘Yeah, action games are too difficult,’ or, ‘I can’t do this.’ If the speed is too fast from the start, then just the idea of jumping from one point to another will be difficult. People tell me, ‘Action games are too difficult,’ so it’s starting to seem as though the number of people who are able to play them is getting smaller.
—Action games on the new generation of hardware all have a little something extra to them. For example, in Crash Bandicoot, the position of the camera changes around, or in NiGHTS, there’s this special feeling of floating and drifting around which is central to the experience. What is the ‘something extra’ that Tomba! brings to the table?
Fujiwara: First of all, the events. Instead of just making the character run around to clear each stage, you’re following storylines and events, and that’s a fairly big part of the game. It’s not like games up until now, which require you to have completely different strategies for different stages. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that you’ll need event strategies. For example, even the way you make use of the field of play is different. You might have to go forward for a while, but then you’ll have to double back, and end up going all over the place. So it’s not the type of side-scroller where you’re only moving from left to right. It’s simply that the perspective is from the side.
Rather than explicit RPG-style quests,
Tomba’s objective-driven “event” system
could be considered a parallel evolution of
the progression loop popularized by
3D action games from the same era
like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie.
—It’s not a game where you only go to the right.
Fujiwara: Yes. Of course there are events that require you to move to the right, but when the player discovers those, it’s up to them to think about what course of action to take to clear those events. Those decisions will impact the action, the location, the strategy, and sometimes even the level of difficulty. For example, maybe you’ve had to travel down a certain path for a long time, but then, you’re told that you need to turn around and go back up. That’s going to be more difficult.
Side-scrolling action games in the past have had players moving vertically up and down, but often, you only have to go in the easier direction. But if you’re asked to go both up and down, the difficulty can change even in the same stage. But, if the higher path is too difficult, then you have the option of only taking care of the events on the lower path. So rather than think only about the aesthetic ‘something extra,’ I hope people will think of the gameplay itself as having ‘something extra.’
—During the course of play, multiple events will pop up at the same time, and sometimes, it’s hard to know where to start.
Fujiwara: Essentially, your big goal is laid out for you, so you can focus on that, but you can also start with any of the smaller events that you think you’re able to tackle. That decision is completely dependent on the player, so you can start with any event that pops up. You can start with the easy ones, and give up on the more challenging ones. Of course there are mandatory events which you must clear in order to continue the story, so you can keep progressing as far as you’re able, and when you get stuck, come back and see what else there is to do.
—It almost seems like the closest analogy might be The Legend of Zelda.
Fujiwara: Yes, that’s true. The action itself is different, but the progression and overall feel is kind of like Zelda. If we’re comparing Tomba! to Nintendo properties, then it’s definitely closer to Zelda than Mario.
Tomba! 2 – 1999 Developer Interview
with producer Tokuro Fujiwara
When working on the first Tomba game, our concept was to combine 2D and 3D graphics, but in actuality, we weren’t quite able to achieve the effect we were going for. So, knowing the constraints we faced in making the first game, we deliberated as to whether we should take the same approach, and decided on going fully polygonal because we thought it would give us greater freedom of expression. In Tomba! 2, the graphics may have changed, but the systems and gameplay have been carried over, so I think that players of the first game shouldn’t feel out of place.
While the sequel essentially remains an on-rails game, Tomba! 2’s fully-3D player-character and environments allow for a more immersive experience, albeit one that occasionally sacrifices visual precision for the sake of showing off.
In most typical action games, there’s a goal, or a target, and you’re just going forward, trying to reach it. But Tomba! is full of stories. There’s a whole world, with lots of different stories unfolding alongside each other at the same time, and it’s fun to encounter each of them and wonder, what am I supposed to do here? So some people might find themselves wrapped up in a major event, while others might sort of just bop along, and in the midst of it all, Tomba has his own objectives… And while those objectives are important, my hope is that some players might think to themselves, hey, I’d rather stop and help this person in need who I just met. Maybe if I want to finish the game, it would be a good idea to help them.
Recently, while visuals and other technical aspects have improved, that “quintessence of video games” hasn’t been so easy to perceive in a lot of games. So with Tomba 2!, we wanted to strengthen that aspect, because if it’s lacking, then the game’s fun factor is cut in half. We came up with a lot of different ideas this time, many of which were only possible with the shift to 3D. There are so many things in this game that we weren’t able to do in the first Tomba game. Something like the direction of cutscenes is a perfect example. Or the movement of the camera. In the first game, since the characters were 2D, the camera would always end up stopping. But this time, we could move it around as much as we wanted, so players are able to enjoy some really dynamic camera work.
Of course, this had an effect on the team responsible for making all these systems-level changes. We had all these great ideas that we’d never thought of before, but as the overall quality kept going up, so did the amount of development time… And in the end, the team got more and more angry with me (laughs).
Also, color in Tomba! is something we’re very particular about. Fresh, invigorating colors, bright colors, as well as the colors that help each of the areas in the game come alive. We want them to be powerful enough that you’ll be able to feel the heat, or the cold, on your skin. Depending on the location, attacking the Evil Pigs might change or open up areas you were completely unable to see before. To make those feel different, we drew from the essential power that colors possess. It definitely makes a big difference, and the impact is eye-catching. With this game, it wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to make it brighter, but it was especially important to us to create a more gentle feel by using bright colors.
Video games have spread all over the world, and I think the reason for this growth is of course that sense of “play.” Games demand a completely different kind of engagement than things like movies, novels, or books. Throughout the experience, you have this real feeling of controlling it yourself. I think that’s the best thing about games. Needless to say, I think we need to continue finding ways to make good use of this strength. So it’s with this thought in mind—that games are essentially meant to be played—that we made Tomba! It’s fun in the way that only games can be, and I hope that everyone will play it.
Tomba and Koma Pig promotional plush toys, distributed in extremely limited quantities in 1997.