Alundra – 1997 Developer Interview

Alundra – 1997 Developer Interview

These two interviews from the late 90s discuss the genesis and development of Matrix Software’s much-beloved Playstation action-RPG Alundra and its sequel, Alundra 2. While the sequel turned out to be the less memorable game, it is interesting to note the design continuity discussed by the developers, particularly in terms of difficulty and gameplay that rewards players with a sense of accomplishment.

Yoshitaka Tamaki (Designer)
Character designer and illustrator known for his work on the Shining series, and Landstalker, among others. He served not only as character designer, but also as general project manager, on Feda: The Emblem of Justice. He’s in charge of character design on Alundra.
Ichirou Tezuka (Writer)
Published fantasy writer, and author of the novel Gensou-Ou. The intricate scenario he wrote for Ring of Sias was highly acclaimed. On Alundra, he was, of course, in charge of writing the scenario.
Kouhei Tanaka (Composer)
After graduating as a composer from the Tokyo University of the Arts’ music department, he worked at Victor Music for three years. From there, he went abroad, doing post-graduate studies at the Berklee College of Music. He composed the music in Alundra, and his compositions for Sakura Taisen, as well as the TV anime, The Laughing Salesman, are also well-known.
Yasuhiro Ohori (President)
Company president of Matrix Software. Worked on games such as Landstalker, Mappy, and The Tower of Druaga. When he decided it was time to develop a real, genuine action RPG, he assembled a team of experts, and served as Alundra’s director, planner, and creative spokesperson.

United under one common cause – a hardcore action RPG. From an assembled staff that rightly considers itself something of an all-star team, comes the much talked-about Alundra. We had the chance to interview the main members of that creative team, and now we present their vision to you. Normally, such an illustrious group coming together would feel like a one-off jam session, but these guys have the vibe of a real, cohesive team about them.

—When did the planning for this project get underway?

Ohori: I suppose it was just before the PlayStation launched… About three years ago. I put together a group, mainly of guys who worked on Landstalker, and who thought, ‘I want to make a hardcore action RPG.’ He’s not sitting with us right now, but I’m talking about guys like Kenji Orimo, who was the map designer on Landstalker.

—Three years have passed. You’re not concerned at all about whether audiences today will respond to the game?

Ohori: Even as a Mega Drive game, Landstalker was successful, sales-wise, so we’re hoping that audiences will migrate over from the Saturn. Of course, we’re hoping to connect with the PlayStation audience as well. This is a game worth playing, in terms of content, and in terms of gameplay time.

—I’m sure the game is tough enough that players are going to need all that time. And to get the hang of the controls/mechanics.

Ohori: You will throw your controller. (laughs)

Tezuka: You’ll need the time to recover. (laughs)

Ohori: There are no experience points in Alundra. Instead, the player accumulates experience himself. By the end of the game, even someone who sucked at the outset will find they’ve gotten way better at the action.

top: Yoshitaka Tamaki (l), Ichiro Tezuka (r) bottom: Yasuhiro Ohori (l), Kouhei Tanaka (r)

—Tanaka-san, the Saturn has been something of a traumatic experience for you.

Tanaka: Now you’re scaring me. But, well, as far as 32-bit machines go, I’m working on both of them. For this project, I started with the concept of wanting to make something that says, “Listen to what we can do with these internal sound processors!” But, taking into account all the different factors, working with these processors was the best choice after all.

—As for musical genres, what kinds of choices did you make?

Tezuka: There are certain things you can only really achieve with music, so I started thinking about those sorts of things, and then groups like Enigma, and Deep Forest, and so-called ‘Mixture Music’1 came to mind, those kinds of techniques… In a game, if we apply those to the sound effects, weaving the sound effects into the musical tracks, I thought we could come up with something really interesting.

Tanaka: It’d be good if the tracks are long, I thought. In an RPG, if the music changes every time the scene changes, I end up grumbling, because I’ve never liked that very much. So the final boss music is four minutes, 44 seconds. Looped, it’s about 10 minutes. If the player spends a long time there, say 30 minutes, and the same music repeated once every minute, they’d have to listen to the same thing 30 times. If it repeats every five minutes, that’s six times. That was my way of thinking. And then, speaking in terms of technique, I wrote the dream section, for example, bitonally. Meaning the music is written in two keys. So, two keys, plus the time is different. The tempo is different. But, they play simultaneously. I was allowed to do a lot of different things on this project… If even one of these melodies stays with the audience, I’ll be pleased.

—At its core, the game’s story has a religious element to it.

Tezuka: I proposed the idea of the game having one village, and the adventure beginning when stepping into the world of dreams, and that was accepted. That suggested to us that we had to have the villagers gradually try to get to the bottom of this mystery. So when trying to think of a persuasive reason for this happening, the best expression of it seemed to the strong urge inside of human beings to believe in something. It was effective, having the protagonist be cast out, or knowing there’s an enemy amongst the members of the village, because those are the kinds of fears that can be associated with religion.

—There’s a lot of death in the story as well.

Tezuka: I thought we might have to do a retake.

Ohori: Since we had this advanced hardware to work with, we went around asking the various members of staff what they wanted to accomplish. In the past, even with Tamaki-san on board, he’d give us these wonderful illustrations, but we’d always have to tell him, ‘Oh, actually, we only have four colors to work with. Sorry!’ (laughs) We were never able to bring his visions to life one hundred percent.

Just one of Alundra’s multiple funeral scenes.

Tamaki: A CD-ROM is 640 megabytes. Back in the day, we were counting in megabits. Using simple calculation, one bye is about eight times the size of one bit, which is just unimaginable. Of all the projects I’ve been involved with so far, I’m being told that this is the one where the colors are popping the most. Honestly, though, it’s all a result of the hard work of Matrix’s pixel artists.

—This game is considered difficult.

Tanaka: While I was playing through to the end, I don’t know how many times I got angry, or wondered what we were thinking, making a game like this. I’m serious. I wondered whether I just suck at the game, or whether we made the difficulty malicious. But, I got through it, and realized that’s not the case. I’m very happy with the results.

Tezuka: From the way your sweat was pouring, I can tell that’s no lie! (laughs)

Tanaka: Maybe that’s my fighting spirit!

Tezuka: I think that really captures how we were feeling, though. Recently, there’s nothing but kind, gentle games, right? Not only when it comes to RPGs. But even just a little while ago, I don’t think it was like this. Dragon Quest II was tough.

Tanaka: ‘The Spell is wrong.’2

Tezuka: That’s not quite what I meant. (laughs)

Tanaka: I really do think there’s more and more people now who are used to being given too much. Like, say there’s a test. Maybe there’s a kid who can solve the test in one hour, and one kid who takes all day to do the test, but scores one hundred percent. But if that second kid can’t force himself into the system, where he only has one hour to complete the test, then he’s not going to succeed very well in the world these days, right? If that’s the way you’re brought up, it’s just easier to have things given to you.

Tezuka: Maybe it’s just a different way of achieving a sense of accomplishment, but with games of the old days, you’d feel like you really solved the game, and that’s where the sense of accomplishment came from. But recently, that’s starting to be replaced, so that now, I wonder if maybe the sense of accomplishment comes from just seeing a story through to its end.

Tanaka: It’ll be interesting to see how well Alundra is received by the industry, the way it is these days.

—Yeah, for sure. In a way, it’s kind of counter-cultural.

Tanaka: This might not be a very good example, but like I was saying before… Right now, Komuro-san is everywhere, isn’t he? Well, he wrote the Teikoku Kagekidan song (The Imperial Assault Force’s theme song, from Sakura Wars). So even back then, there were pieces of that kind of high quality being produced. That song could be called old-fashioned, but he forced the people around him to go along with it, and wrote it. And it sold really well. We’re supposed to be living in this time of musical abundance and diverse genres, yet when one genre breaks through, everyone just jumps on the bandwagon–that’s the Japanese way for you. (laughs) I guess it’s because that’s the safest way. That must be it.

Ohori: Games are getting closer and closer to being movies. I think that’s fine, for what it is, but then, why even bother holding a controller? I wanted to make the kind of game that you really get engrossed in, and makes you feel like you achieved something when you beat it. That’s why we dared to not use polygons… I think it would have been much simpler to use polygons. The programmers would get mad at me, asking why they couldn’t just use polygons. But I’d tell them, nope, I don’t want to. I wanted to be particular about every single pixel.

Tanaka: You’ve got a policy.

Ohori: I think polygons would have been fine if I wasn’t trying to be meticulous, or was just going for a fun, easygoing vibe. But I wanted every strike to matter, to make players feel like they’re really exchanging blows with the enemies. That’s not about atmosphere, or vibe, but about the actual gameplay. I thought we simply wouldn’t be able to capture that if the game wasn’t 2D.

—Tamaki-san’s characters really jump off the screen, thanks to the power of the PlayStation.

Tamaki: I hope that’s true. The first time I saw Street Fighter II at an arcade, the art was beautiful, and it looked like fun, but I thought, ‘Nah, this kind of game is for obsessive people. It’ll never catch on.’ But then it went on to be a huge hit. I think that the beautiful graphics were a factor in such a demanding game was able to attract such a big audience. That’s kind of the reason why I tried to put everything I could into Alundra. No matter how good a game itself might be, if for example it has lame music, or the story is boring, or the characters don’t have any personality, and it’s just this difficult game, then you start to feel like kind of an idiot for playing it. Alundra, however, has substance. And it’s not just some fiendishly difficult game.

Everyone: “Fiendish.” (laughs)

Tamaki: I mean, sure, it’s difficult. But it’s the kind of game where, if you put enough time into it, you’re guaranteed to beat it eventually.

Ohori: To all the Saturn players out there, please buy a PlayStation and play this game. (laughs)

Tezuka: Saturn owners won’t be reading this book in the first place, will they? (laughs)

One side of the map included with US versions of Alundra, featuring villager descriptions written with Working Design’s usual “flair.”
Alundra 2 – 1999 Developer Interview

originally featured in Dengeki Playstation

Yasuhiro Ohori: President of Matrix Software. Signature works include Landstalker (Mega Drive), and Alundra.
Supervised development of Alundra 2.

Takahiro Kondo: Began working as a freelancer while attending university, participating in the development of Ranma 1/2 Ougi Jaanken. Responsible for planning and main game design on Alundra 2.

—The first game was 2D, so why did you decide to make this one 3D?

Ohori: When we were developing the first game, we didn’t totally understand how to take full advantage of the hardware.

Above all, we didn’t know how to use polygons to make something that could be ‘played.’ There are a lot of polygon-based games with vague collision detection, right? In our games, there are a lot of tough traps, where the timing of your jump needs to be precise, and if the movement is too sketchy, you can’t feel that thrill. So, we were uncertain as to whether we’d be able to strike that balance. But, we verified a bunch of different things, and determined that it was possible to do, so we went ahead and made this a 3D game.

—Given that this was your first 3D creation, did you experience many difficulties?

Ohori: There were simple issues with modelling and polygon-breakage, but it was cutscenes that gave us the biggest headaches. In total, there’s about one hour and forty minutes’ worth of cutscenes in the game, and that’s a lot, in terms of resources. We were just barely able to fit it all onto one CD. It was a first for us, trying to cram so much in, and it was reckless of us, in a way. (laughs)

Kondo: From a planning perspective, if the game is 2D, it’s relatively easy to simulate what it will look like in your head. But in the case of 3D, there’s also camera movement to consider. It took a while to get used to mentally simulating that, while also developing it.

—It’s not just the visuals that have changed. The game’s world view is more comical this time around. The opening feels like a musical, for example. At times the game veers into parody, and there are bad puns scattered throughout the script, things like that. What led you to this change in direction?

Ohori: No matter how you look at it, the story in the first game was heavy. ‘Too many people die!’ That was the opinion a lot of players had.

Kondo: Important people died, sure, but are you able to finish the game? That sort of question also came up. (laughs)

Ohori: That’s why, this time, from the earliest stages of development, we were thinking about making sweeping changes to things like the scenario and the world. In any case, we wanted to make this game lighter, to make it more accessible, so that a wider range of players could pick this game up and enjoy it. That’s why we made it more comical. Plus, Kondo likes bad puns. (laughs)

—Interesting. But even if the worldview has changed, the traps this time still have teeth to them. (laughs) The first game was considered difficult, but how about this time around?

Ohori: When the player finishes the game, I want them to taste a sense of accomplishment. So I wanted to incorporate bits all throughout the game that would make people say, ‘That was hard!’ or, ‘That part made my thumbs hurt!’ The thing is, this time we were very careful to balance the game just right, so that it’s not too difficult at the beginning, and gradually ramps up the challenge.

An example of Alundra 2’s lighter and inescapably cornier tone.

Kondo: This time, taking into account lessons we learned from the first game, we made sure to include a tutorial section so new players could be introduced to the game naturally. We also got rid of the outrageous traps Alundra had. Even from a systems perspective, we were able to use camera zooms and long shots to make it easier to understand gaps in terrain and comprehend the placement of characters and objects.

—There’s real depth to the way the dungeons are constructed, so that even after the first visit is finished, there are still mysteries left unsolved.

Kondo: We figured, it’s not much fun if a dungeon is over and done with after just one visit. Even after they’ve finished the game, we wanted players to stop and think, ‘Hey, whatever happened to…?’ and then dive back in.

—The boss battles are also really fun. There are various different ways to defeat them, so if you find a strategy that works for you, even if you’re not dealing that much damage, you can still beat them.

Kondo: We paid very close attention to that during development. Once you know what to do, it’s pretty easy to defeat the bosses, but we wanted players to enjoy that ‘A-ha!’ moment, and everything leading up to it.

—The balance in that regard is exquisite.

Ohori: The basic principle of action RPGs is to let the players themselves accumulate the experience points. So, if you try hard enough, even with the initial armor equipped and with initial HP, it’s possible to make it to the end of the game. In that way, Alundra 2 is a game where the players themselves experience growth. Lots of games let you get to the end just by pressing buttons, even if you’re half asleep, but with the Alundra series, we want it to be impossible to fall asleep while you’re playing. Even though I’m sure that might offend some people. (laughs) I’m often told, by players, that they don’t know how many times they threw their controllers while playing Alundra. But, in a way, that makes me happy, because it means they were seriously invested in the game.

Kondo: I think the frustration you feel when playing Alundra 2 is with yourself. Frustration that you just can’t do what you’re trying to do. My hope is that, through this game, players are able to share and talk about that experience with each other.

Takahiro Kondo (l) Yasuhiro Ohori (r)

Translated by Jayson Young

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  1. A term for music in the late 90s in Japan that incorporated multiple genres, like “rap-rock”

  2. Referring to entering an incorrectly-entered password in the Famicom version of Dragon Quest II.

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