Valhellio Developer Interview
with Masaaki Nagaura
Published in Shooting Gameside #5
—Valhellio started out as a mobile phone game. What points did you struggle with in porting it to the PC?
Nagaura: From the start I had planned to release it for PC and mobile phones, so there weren’t any particular difficulties. When developing a game, the graphics are always expensive to create, but once you start thinking about improving their quality there’s really no end to it, and I always struggle with where to draw the line. But since I started development on the mobile platform, which has hardware limitations, I knew what the minimum requirements were beforehand. From there I brushed things up for the PC version, and I think it was a really efficient way to develop. With the mobile version my goal was to make “the best shooting game ever for a mobile phone,” so I worked hard tuning it up.
—When did you start the development itself?
Nagaura: I believe it was around the beginning of 2008.
—Its somewhat rare to have a STG take 2 to 3 years to develop, isn’t it?
Nagaura: Well, this will probably be bad for me to say (laughs), but as you know, STGs don’t sell very well today. You could make a game, but how will you sell it? My distributor and I were both worrying about that when, in the middle of production, we ran out of development funds, and I had to do some other work and save up money to continue developing. We were all really enthusiastic about the game though, and everyone worked other jobs while doing their best to keep developing, but that’s what it took to get it done.
—One of the charms of Valhellio is Tony’s 1 illustrations. How did you come to work with him?
Nagaura: My company is located close to his, and we were on friendly terms. STGs have a repuation for being only for the hardcore, so I felt it was important for the game to appear inviting to a broader audience. I thought Tony would help us attract a wider userbase, so I asked him.
—How did you come up with Valhellio’s main feature, the “EX BURST” system?
Nagaura: If the controls in a STG are to be as simple as possible, you can only have 2 buttons. With one button for shot, if you use the other for bomb, you’re already out of buttons. So I was thinking about how to add to the controls with that setup, and I took a page from action games, which often feature a system in which rapidly tapping the fire button changes the main attack. So the EX BURST system came from wanting something that would be advantageous to the player when he used it on an enemy and also fun for scoring. It can of course be used like an emergency bomb, but I meant it to be used more aggressively.
—During the development of Valhellio, were there any games that influenced you, or that you made reference to?
Nagaura: There isn’t really anything where I said “I’m going to use this.” But I’m from the generation that has been playing STGs since the Famicom era and earlier, and STGs were flourishing then and everyone played them. But the market for STGs has been gradually shrinking, and lately there are many people who say they don’t play them anymore. One reason I made Valhellio was I wanted to make a game that would give those people another chance to play STGs.
If you asked me what the most interesting aspect of STGs is, I would have to say its the fun feeling you get shooting down enemies. The downside of pursuing that intuitive, easy to understand style is that people will tend to think of the game as outdated.
—The autobomb feature is one thing that shows a lot of consideration for beginners, while experienced players can really sink their teeth into the Hard and Ragnarok modes. Did setting the difficulty give you any problems?
Nagaura: I made Normal mode fairly easy, such that even people without much STG experience could enjoy it. I struggled to get just the right balance there, though it seems very easy to me personally. In that sense I wondered if I should have made it even easier. To that end I struggled with balancing the difficulty so as not to damage the essence of what makes the game fun. For Hard and Ragnarok modes, I was well aware that STG fans would find Normal mode lacking, so I made it more severe to satisfy them.
—I feel there’s a lot of consideration for beginners throughout Valhellio.
Valhellio Hard mode clear.
Nagaura: Yeah. For example, people who have never played STGs often remark that “Something just hit me and I didn’t die?” when they get hit by a bullet. It isn’t immediately apparent that the hit box and character sprite are different. Nonetheless, in practice I couldn’t make those things align in the game, but as far as rules of a game go, its somewhat strange. I was thinking about things like that throughout the development of Valhellio.
—That can definitely be a blind spot for people who play STGs and think such things are completely natural.
Nagaura: Yeah, I tried to incorporate comments from general users like that and adjust the game so that even beginners could enjoy it. To make a difficulty that would be more satisfying to a wider audience, I added things here and there to make it easier to clear, like life restore items appearing if certain conditions are fulfilled, and the appearance of the reconnaissance ship. 2
—One way Valhellio seems easier is that there are very few non-zako enemies that can take a lot of damage. Though the reconnaissance ship seemed really tough. (laughs)
Nagaura: (laughs) The recon ship will raise the difficulty of the game if its destroyed with EXBURST, so I made it tough to kill so that players wouldn’t accidentally destroy it with EXBURST unintentionally. I also meant for it to convey a bit of flavor for the game, like “don’t let this guy escape!” The truth is, at first the stages felt kind of lifeless and unexciting to me. I added the recon ship to the stages to help spice them up.
—I certainly didn’t feel that the stages dragged on when I played!
Nagaura: That makes me happy to hear. You can lower the difficulty by destroying the recon ship, but I didn’t start off designing the stages that way, so it was very difficult balancing everything after I included it. The difficulty lowers by 1 degree if you pick up that item, but even in Normal mode I had to program a bunch of different levels of difficulty. And of course I had to do the same for Hard and Ragnarok, programming every single different level.
Unleashing the EXBURST attack.
—There are hardly any STGs made today that have such detailed levels of difficulty. Were there any other similarly detailed adjustments you made to Valhellio?
Nagaura: After burst chips appear, their glow gradually gets darker, so the quicker you pick them up the more your burst gauge refills. I thought I should write this in the game manual as well, but I didn’t include it because I thought it would scare new players away if I included too many details about the game mechanics all at once. On that note I’d also like to add that if you fulfill certain conditions in the stage, a life restore item will appear. Your remaining lives give you an end bonus, and if you have full life when you pick up the restore item you’ll get bonus points. This is also very important for scoring.
—Now that you mention it, there are almost no hints about scoring techniques in the manual.
Nagaura: With recent games there’s been this tendency to explain every single aspect of the game to the player. I personally don’t like that. I think there’s a kind of enjoyment in finding those things out for yourself.
—How did you come up with the story and world of Valhellio?
Nagaura: I came up with the general outline of the story and setting, and I had a writer fill in the details. Valhellio takes place in a near future Earth. Human lifespans have been greatly extended, and the birth rate has continued to decline. Food and energy are all provided by robots. Humans live in city-states where the population is controlled, and “humanoids,” robots that are physically indistinguishable from humans, are developed to assist in the care of the humans. The Humanoids, living forever, see the deaths of generation after generation of humans, thereby developing free will and internal conflicts. Doubts about humanity begins to grow in them and they start a rebellion.
Maria’s long-lost sister.
Nagaura: Meanwhile, outside the city-states there exists a class of impoverished humans, and the gap between those in the city-states and the poor outsiders is extreme. Valhellio depicts the world of the ruling class, the humans which control the robots. There’s various things I’d like to develop with this world, like a sequel to the main story, and the tale of Rukia’s father from the previous generation.
—Is there a chance then for a sequel, or
a console or arcade port of Valhellio?
Nagaura: I’d like to port Valhellio to other platforms. I’m currently looking for a partner to help with distribution. I also really want to do a sequel. If the timing and circumstances are right, I definitely want to.
—Finally, please give a message to our readers.
Nagaura: Valhellio was designed so that people who don’t play STGs very much could enjoy it too. I think both STG developers and STG fans will be happy if the number of people who enjoy these games increases. If you’ve enjoyed Valhellio, please surely recommend it to your friends… the most important thing is that we increase the ranks of STG players!