Under Defeat HD Interview – Shooting Gameside #5
with Hiroyuki Maruyama of G.rev
Interview by Tane Kiyoshi
—Under Defeat was originally advertised as the final jewel in the Dreamcast’s crown, wasn’t it?
Maruyama: That was our intention at the time, but other companies soon put out games after us. (laughs) I personally love Sega, and as a company we already had our sights on the next big thing, so I wasn’t particularly hurt by it.
—The PS3 and X360 were around the corner.
Maruyama: Actually it was the original Xbox that I meant. We had an employee who really loved the Xbox and owned 5 units. (laughs) When we approached Microsoft about developing for it, they asked us if we wouldn’t develop for the X360 instead. And for Senkou no Ronde Rev. X’s network battles, XBOX Live was the only option, so it made sense.
—Can you tell us what led up to your decision to a 2012 re-release of Under Defeat HD?
Maruyama: We had hinted at it before, in the superplay DVD that was released a year earlier. We’d been wanting to do this for awhile, but we had to wait for the right timing with regard to development circumstances and personnel, so with this release we’ve finally managed to get everything aligned. We also heard the voices of our fans who wanted a remake/re-release, and they gave us a lot of motivation to continue, which I’m very grateful for.
—Why did you opt for a packaged release, as opposed to a download-only release?
Maruyama: Our sales for Strania on XBOX Live were only slightly higher than the sales of our average packaged game. To a certain extent I think STG fans prefer something they can physically hold and touch. Also, we wanted to do more than just a bare port, and be able to memorialize the release with a physical limited edition and such.
Under Defeat art by pixiv user sakasayueni
—There aren’t too many developers who have released STGs for the PS3. Why did you choose it?
Maruyama: There’s a number of reasons. First, there was Mamoru-kun wa Norowarete Shimatta, which we didn’t actually do the sales for, but it didn’t sell poorly. Also, the image of G.rev as an X360 developer is strongly engrained in people’s minds, but we actually will develop for any console, and we wanted this release to act as a declaration of that. Within the game industry, if you’re seen as only developing for the X360, it will be hard to get other work.
—Yeah, I did have the strong impression that G.rev supported the X360.
Maruyama: Well, you can say we supported the X360 to the hilt, but look at STGs… they’ve still been on the decline. I think when a genre disappears it’s more related to the lack of titles at a storefront. But anyway, at G.rev we had our own plans, and we didn’t feel really like the X360 was our final gambit or anything. We selected the PS3 because we wanted to work on new hardware which we hadn’t tried before. And we learned this later, but the PS3 is region free, which was a nice bonus. (laughs)
—You thought the PS3 could be the doorway to other work, then.
Maruyama: Sony was also very enthusiastic to have us on-board, and they really listened to us. I was happy they advertised us on the front of the Playstation Store. We were glad we got to participate as an actual publisher, not just a subcontracted development company.
—The Dreamcast was said to be an easy console to develop for; how about the PS3 and X360?
Maruyama: Although both have higher specs than the Dreamcast, I wouldn’t say they were so powerful as to make it a simple port. Off the bat there was difficulty with the screen resolution; the PS3 and X360 have more than twice the vertical and horizontal resolution of the Dreamcast, so we had to redo and enlarge the pixel art x4 (and in wide screen)… that was tedious. Besides that, the Dreamcast also had the PowerVR graphics chip, which allowed deferred background polygon rendering. It’s a function that almost no other hardware has. It would be easier to port this to the PS Vita, since that also uses the PowerVR. Reproducing the functions of the PowerVR chip for the PS3 and X360 caused discrepancies in the slowdown as well, sometimes slower, sometimes faster… getting it all correct was like playing a game of whack-a-mole.
—The original Dreamcast version of Under Defeat was quite a programming feat itself, wasn’t it?
Comparison of Under Defeat’s
visuals, PS3 vs. Dreamcast.
Maruyama: To be honest, I think the Dreamcast hardware still has certain merits even today. But it was a real pain doing partial transparencies on it. Under Defeat really got the maximum performance out of the Dreamcast in terms of transparencies. It was something even Sega themselves couldn’t do, and we took a lot of pride in that… but it was also a real struggle.
—You also redid all the graphics for these ports in HD, which I imagine was an extra burden?
Maruyama: We actually drew the original Under Defeat graphics at a high resolution to begin with, and these ports are a chance for us to show off that work properly in an HD format. So we didn’t have to re-do everything from scratch.
—So it’s like the Dreamcast was a standard definition version, and this is a “remastered” HD version?
Maruyama: Yes, our original graphical assets are being displayed in their native high resolution. The textures in the Dreamcast version were somewhat lossy, so they didn’t look very good… but they’re done right now.
—You’ve also added the New Order mode, which uses a horizontal screen format.
Maruyama: Yeah. If you’re going to release an actual physical disc, then you’ve got to add a new mode, right? And as much as it pains me, the traditional 4:3 tate resolution will not be coming back… so we started by thinking, how could we adapt this game to a 16:9 horizontal format? There’s two routes to take there… the first is to make the game multiplayer. The second was to see if we could integrate a multidirectional shooting element into the game. Under Defeat HD opts for the latter, which made sense because the game originally had the mechanic of “changing your shot direction.”
—It sounds like a new approach to vertical STG.
Maruyama: Yeah. We aren’t giving up on vertical STGs, but the demise of the 4:3 tate shmup draws near. Nowadays, even with arcade machines at game centers, pretty much only Taito makes a cabinet with monitor rotation capabilities.
—Dual stick controls, which Under Defeat HD can use, really opens up the possibilities for danmaku STG, doesn’t it.
Maruyama: For console STG, I think dual stick controls are one answer. We had Under Defeat here to experiment with, and I feel we’ll probably do more with dual stick controls in the future.
—But I noticed the default controls are for a standard button setup…
Maruyama: I think a lot of users have arcade sticks, and I didn’t want joysticks to not work with the initial settings. We also wanted to show that this was how the game originally was designed. (laughs) But consoles are consoles, you know, so I do want to recommend that players try the dual stick controls. For PS Vita and other systems where you can’t use a joystick, it may become the new standard.
Under Defeat promotional video.
—I also feel like the difficulty balance in Under Defeat New Order has been adjusted so as to emphasize a fun experience.
Maruyama: We wanted to raise that feeling of fun and exhiliration, so enemies swoop in from the left and right and are more like popcorn enemies (easier to shoot down).
—Right, though the item carriers are as tough as ever. (laugh) New Order mode is easier to play and it seems like that will broaden the appeal of the game for people.
Maruyama: Well, for one, we wanted to show people that the PS3 could do games like this. And the way people grapple with the difficulty of a game differs from person to person, but I think Under Defeat is a game that even beginners can get into. We haven’t released it yet, but I have a promotional video of average gamers playing Under Deafeat HD. Even without any special skills or knowledge they can clear the game–and of all our games, I think it’s Under Defeat that allows this. I hope many people have a chance to play it.
—If you know the tricks for each section, it isn’t as hard as it looks.
Maruyama: That’s right. There’s an impression of our games that they’re “difficult” games, which we haven’t been able to shake off, and I think that’s unfortunate.
—To convey to players that it’s “easy to play” is sort of the opposite of the traditional STG credo, that things will get harder and harder as you go. (laughs)
Maruyama: Yeah, it’s something we’re going to have to revise in the future. However, as a player I dislike games which are *too* friendly or easy for the player. I think it’s ideal when the designer can give a hint of some sort to the player, which he then uses to figure out a given section.
—G.rev’s games have many moments like that, where it’s a gradual process of learning what to do each time you get killed.
Maruyama: That’s basically our approach. I like games where you earn your stripes as you fight through the game, and I think leading players by the hand really damages the fun of the game. Now, I’m not saying everything has to be as inhospitable as Tower of Druaga (laughs), but I like to make games where you figure things out and progress by your own abilities.
—Under Defeat does that, where it teaches you about the mistake you made by pausing the frame for just a moment whenever you die: “ah, that’s where I got hit…” (laughs)
Maruyama: When I saw that had been programmed in, I was surprised myself. (laughs) “Ah, it stopped! Oh, it was intentional.”
—How is the development of Kokuga going?
Maruyama: It’s going well… and late. (laughs) Our project lead Iuchi Hiroshi is very particular about releasing a product with a high degree of polish, and as producer, I want to assist him in that as much as I can. However, in reality there’s budgets and schedules. I stand between Iuchi and this reality as it were. I do all I can to provide Iuchi with the best environment we can give to work his magic and create a good game. The release has been pushed back from fall to summer, but please look forward to it.
Kokuga promotional video.
—Judging from the promotional video
I saw, it looked mostly completed.
Maruyama: When we develop a game, we don’t start from the first stage and go in a straight line from there; rather, we test out different ideas as we go. For instance, the last stage was special, so we did the modeling for it first. So the level of completion lurches along in intervals. If you don’t do it this way, you end up not being able to test out everything as you’d like.
—I thought Kokuga’s system would be a simple one of “aim and fire”, but it turns out there’s cards and many other special mechanics.
Maruyama: Iuchi has made various STGs with a strong Space Invader’s influence, that is: don’t waste your bullets. All his games have been that way, even Battle City, the Famicom tank game he made. In that game, like his others, there’s a risk involved in getting a shot off… and in a sense, that mechanic is one of the fundamental roots of the STG genre. In Kokuga, after you’ve fired you’re at a disadvantage, and there are items for recovery as well as random items, deepening the strategy. The player will also discover new ways to play cooperatively in multiplayer mode. In the end I think it’s shaping up to be a game Iuchi would want to play himself. (laughs) But I think that’s good. I think creators should make games that they themselves would want to play.
For Kokuga, though, there isn’t too much of the Iuchi puzzle feel. I’m looking forward to it as a player myself–it’s turning out to be a very exhilirating game, with a broad appeal (in a good sense).
—And with Kokuga on the 3DS, you’ll be able to play it wherever you go.
Maruyama: Yes, and multiplayer is also available through a single copy. That way if your friends like it, hopefully they’ll buy it too. (laughs) We had to shave off some things to make it happen, but it’s shaping up nicely. Multiplayer at 60 FPS should be fun.
Iuchi Hiroshi, creator
of Ikaruga and Gradius V.
—Being an Iuchi game, it might attract even more players, too.
Maruyama: We hope so. And that it makes G.rev a profit. (laughs) I’m always looking for new ways to expand and evolve our company.
—Is the new entry in the Senkou no Ronde series for PS Vita another step in that evolution?
Maruyama: We talked about porting the original Senkou no Ronde to the PSP two years ago. However, Under Defeat took precedence and it was put on the backburner for awhile. In the intervening time, we had some new ideas, so now that it’s time to resume development on it we’ve decided we might as well make a new entry.
—Did you choose the PS Vita because the control interface was easy to use for it?
Maruyama: That’s right. The right stick being there gives us a lot of possibilities, and the PS Vita has the specs for us to realize our new ideas. The new projects we’ve got planned are the fruit of 10 years of development. Thank you to everyone who has supported us.