Star Ocean: Blue Sphere – Developer Interview
Star Ocean: Blue Sphere has never officially been released in the West, but this lengthy interview with the young tri-Ace team offers some nice insight into how it was made. While a complete French fan translation apparently exists, an English translation is not yet available. Nonetheless, for fans of the other Star Ocean games, including Star Ocean: Second Story, this is a fascinating look at a lost gem.
Tetsu Takayashiki – Game Design
Takushi Asanuma – Planner
Hideaki Ichihashi – Graphic Design
Teruki Ookushi – Programmer
Naohisa Kamei – Programmer
Natsuki Nishimura – Programmer
—The biggest mystery, and the first thing I’d like to ask about Star Ocean: Blue Sphere, is why the Game Boy? There is a lot of new, more powerful hardware coming out right now.
Takayashiki: After Star Ocean and Star Ocean 2nd Story, it was decided that we would make Star Ocean 3 for the PS2. The question then became how to fill in the gap while we waited for that project to begin. From the beginning, our plans were to make a compact game.
—What was your development concept for Blue Sphere, then? I mean, the thing that really animated the team, what was most important to you.
Takayashiki: Everyone was telling us they wanted us to make something small and simple. So at first we wrote up some plans for a very simple game, but midway through we became unsatisfied with it. We want every game in the Star Ocean series to be fun, not just the main numbered installments. We felt like if we stripped all the interesting stuff out just for the sake of being simple, it would simply be a boring game.
—So you switched gears to something super ambitious. (laughs)
Takayashiki: Normally we start out with a mass of ideas at the beginning, then most of the work is carving out the details. This time it was the opposite, where the project just kept getting bigger and bigger.
—Could you tell us some more about that? What kind of things, specifically, were being added?
Takayashiki: Definitely the combat. That was one area that kept expanding. I had made a Game Boy game before, so I knew the limitations of the hardware, and I was really worried about how much we were adding. For awhile we were planning to use a traditional turn-based battle system, but somehow the programmers didn’t get the memo and actually implemented a real-time system. (laughs) Once the rest of the team saw that—”oh, hey, they’re moving!”—we revised the whole gameplay system to match.
—That reminds me of something I heard about regarding the development of Valkyrie Profile, that the transmigration system came first, and the rest of the story was built around that.
Takayashiki: I didn’t care that much about the overall story or scenario. (laughs) I did really like the private actions in Star Ocean 2, though, and I wanted to expand on those. In the end we didn’t quite accomplish that, though.
—Because of memory limitations?
Takayashiki: Yeah, that was part of it, and eventually we realized it was impossible. If we just threw in a bunch of private actions without any story, it would hardly feel like a game. So we designed a main scenario first, and then added them. But as we trimmed more and more content from the game, the private actions became exceedingly rare. It’s too bad, I would have liked to fix that imbalance somehow.
From SO2 to Blue Sphere
—Did you know from the beginning that you would use the story and setting of Star Ocean 2?
Takayashiki: Yeah, Enix’s initial request was that we create a side-story or sequel to SO2. I think they wanted something light and casual, but this being tri-Ace, you can see how it went. (laughs)
—In Blue Sphere, Precis and Ashton have a lot more screentime, while Claude and Rena are relegated to side roles. Was that done because of the popularity of certain characters?
Takayashiki: I think that was a big part of it. At the very beginning, we wanted to focus on 3 protagonists only. Those three would have been Precis, Ashton, and… who was the third now? (laughs) But ultimately commercial concerns won out, and we added the rest of the cast. Actually, at one point we had four extra characters, for a total of 16. (laughs) Our original plan had been to add new playable characters, you see.
—I remember that was announced about a year ago, in some magazine.
Takayashiki: There’s always a high chance things will be removed, and I do remember asking them not to say anything about it, but… (laughs)
—Was it difficult to realize your vision, when you only had 2 colors to use for all the character art and animation?
Ichihashi: Yeah, it was.
Takayashiki: For monsters, thankfully, we could use 3 colors.
—It was an interesting decision to develop Blue Sphere so it would be compatible with both Game Boy and Game Boy Color systems.1
Takayashiki: Actually, during the development, when we drafted the planning documents, we showed Enix all the cool stuff we could do, graphically, if they let us develop it exclusively as a Gameboy Color game, but they said no. Part of it was that when we began development, it was still early for the GBC in terms of sales.
—Even with those limitations, Blue Sphere sure is ambitious.
Takayashiki: Neither the players nor the producers were expecting much, so I think they were probably very surprised—with the real-time combat, but also the item creation system. To an extent, I think those new ideas are owed to the momentum we had built up from the Playstation developments.
—Was it part of your original plan, to have the item creation system be a minigame?
Takayashiki: Yeah, that was definitely one of our earliest ideas.
—With the previous systems, if you have the right components, you would automatically succeed…
Takayashiki: I didn’t like that, I thought it was boring. (laughs) This time, while we of course wanted to preserve the basic idea that combining two good materials will get you the item, we also wanted to add a little something that would involve the player more. We wanted it to be simple enough that you could do it while commuting on the train, so we made it only use the directional pad.
—Right. Yet you couldn’t make it too simple, or it kind of defeats the purpose. Finding that balance must have been tough.
Takayashiki: Yeah, and it felt like we were tinkering with it and adjusting the balance up to the very end.
—In terms of scope, was it your plan to have a game that took ~30 hours to clear?
Takayashiki: Yeah, that was about our (safe) estimate.
—That reminds me, I heard a rumor that Ichihashi managed to clear it in 6 hours…!
Ichihashi: 4 hours, actually…
Ichihashi: You can use the item creation…
Takayashiki: He knows all the shortcuts, of course. (laughs)
—The dungeons in Blue Sphere were really difficult. I was especially surprised at all the action-puzzle elements. And there’s hardly any hints!
Takayashiki: Yeah, it kind of sucks. (laughs) That’s the part of Blue Sphere people criticized the most, the dungeons. Not so much for being hard, but just for not being very fun.
—I mean, I guess you could always use Ernest’s Dungeon Hint field ability.
Asanuma: Ah… (laughs)
Takayashiki: We programmed that ability in pretty early on, but almost no one used it. (laughs) We wanted the field actions to be closely tied, conceptually, to the characters.
—Like Ashton’s Flame Breath ability. He’s making his dragons breath fire.
Asanuma: Early in the development, there was an Ice Breath ability too, if I recall.
Takayashiki: There was, but there were problems with it. The ice effect just looked really crappy, and we were stuck with rectangular-shaped sprite. It didn’t look good on the map, and it was a pain to program too.
—Were there other field actions that changed midway through the development?
Takayashiki: We couldn’t decide on Rena’s ability until the very end. Someone eventually suggested she have a Resurrect ability, and it sounded interesting enough so we threw it in there. The programmers kept saying no, no, no though. (laughs).
—There’s a lot of hidden events in Blue Sphere too. Like in the Gaapu Ruins, if you don’t bring Ashton, his dragons Gyoro and Ururun have a conversation about it. It felt like a nice way to supplement the characters’ backstories.
Takayashiki: After Star Ocean: Second Story came out, it felt like there were a lot of sections where fans filled in the blanks themselves. I thought those were places we should have expanded upon more ourselves. It was my biggest regret for the development of Blue Sphere as well.
World and Setting
—There are always spaceships in the Star Ocean games, but this time you included an orbital elevator. I think if you’re not into sci-fi already, you might not know what that is…
Takayashiki: Well, technically it’s not an orbital elevator… because it doesn’t extend all the way to space. Logically it has to be that way, or it would break. (laughs)
—You’ve got that kind of SF stuff, but there’s also the fantasy elements, symbology, magic, etc. Which do you think is the main one, for Star Ocean?
Takayashiki: Fundamentally it’s a fantasy setting. It’s the same for Blue Sphere, but in our case, we gave the dungeons and such a mechanical / futuristic look.
—I thought that was really cool. You’re walking through the forest, and all of a sudden you come across some weird machine. The game gets you thinking along fantasy lines, but it has a sci-fi heart.
Takayashiki: There are lots of things like that, yeah. It was one of our initial design ideas: rather than putting the sci-fi up front, we wanted it to be part of the background setting and world. You’re stuck on this tiny island, yet there’s all these weird things around… where did they come from?
—I understand that Edifice was once covered entirely in water, with no land.
Takayashiki: That’s right. In terms of the story though, we never really fleshed all that out. Things like the Edifians were kind of like addendums.
—What was the model for the Edifians?
Takayashiki: What indeed… jellyfish? (laughs) Or maybe sea angels? That stuff was designed by an outside company. It was mostly decided along the way, as we discussed the world and setting. We didn’t have a pre-existing motif for them, in other words. I remember us talking, “hey, these guys seem intelligent, so how about we make them look like old-school Martians?” and “they seem hostile, so how about we make them look like Frieza?” (laughs) It was pretty freeform.
The Battle System
—I bet the battle system was difficult to program.
Ookushi: Yeah, it was very hard.
—The way skills are learned, though, has a nice continuity with the previous Star Ocean games. It’s really fun when you discover a new ability.
Ookushi: At first we had a more traditional system, where you learned skills after the battle. The way it is now was something the programmers decided on, actually.
—It is tough when you don’t know the right combination though. It can feel like you just can’t learn anything.
Ookushi: For skills, you mean?
—Also for combos. But I think the difficulty there is part of what makes it so fun.
Ishihashi: We once tried to get a 100-hit combo.
Ishihashi: If you concentrate hard enough. (laughs)
Asanuma: You have to ignore all the chaos on screen and just focus.
—Now that sounds impossible! (laughs) After about 20, I can’t tell what’s happening on-screen anymore.
Takayashiki: Well, we were trying to make something that wouldn’t stress players out. Comboing is pretty simple, after all.
—Yeah, it’s only one button. But the way skills change depending on your range was really well done, I thought. Bowman is the easiest character to combo with, right?
Ishihashi: Yeah probably, since he’s a short-ranged martial artist and all.
Asanuma: It depends on the other characters in your party though, right? There’s characters who won’t combo with Bowman.
—I guess one’s image of the characters depends a lot on your playing style. Some people might say “this guy is overpowered!”, while another thinks “no way, they’re really weak.”
Takayashiki: I’d be thrilled if people were able to enjoy Blue Sphere in that way. It’s exactly what we intended.
—Rena and Claude feel more like bonus, or side characters in this game. Why is that?
Takayashiki: Because I’m a weirdo. (laughs) I’m also not very good with indecisive, mopey characters like Claude.
—Who is your favorite character?
Asanuma: Precis, who also happens to have the most detailed background info on the profile screen. After that, Ashton.
—Precis is very versatile. I knew someone at tri-Ace must love her!
Takayashiki: In our early talks we conceptualized a game built around only three characters. As the development went on, that basic framework never really changed that much. Because of that, we created Precis so she would have all the abilities she needed to get through the game, traverse the dungeons, etc. You could go through the entire game with Precis. The other field actions, things like dungeon hints and so on, were added after the fact. For that reason, we made Precis somewhat weak in battle, but if you know how to use her she’s very strong.
Asanuma: In other words, we recommend her. (laughs)
Ishihashi: If you get used to her playstyle, she’s really good.
—Who has the strongest move in Blue Sphere?
Ishihashi: Ashton’s Tri-Ace?
Nishimura: Spirit Dragon maybe?
Ishihashi: Tri-Ace did get nerfed, yeah.
Asanuma: At one point it was just as strong as it was in Star Ocean 2. During the development, if you just dumped points into MP and INT, Ashton was the strongest character. You could just spam Tri-Ace over and over. You could even defeat Ethereal Queen that way.
—The link-play feature is like a totally different game. Was that planned from the beginning?
Nishimura: Actually, at first it was supposed to be more of an item-creation competition.
—Like Iron Chef or something?
Nishimura: Exactly. (laughs) But we figured it might be better to try and do something new, and that’s what we came up with. It’s like a strategy game, but with action elements.
—It’s pretty rare to see link-play for action games.
Takayashiki: I don’t think versus combat is much fun if it’s not real-time. That was something we kept pushing, it had to be real-time. That seemed like a good enough excuse for us to make a strategy rpg. (laughs)
Nishimura: The three of us talked about wanting to make it like chess.
Asanuma: The item creation system we first talked about didn’t work because of hardware limitations. It would have been boring, so we changed it.
—I imagine that the difficulty balancing must have been very hard. There’s the main game, the link-play, dungeons, the story… they all had to be worked out individually.
Takayashiki: From the beginning, I never thought we’d be able to get everything balanced. (laughs) The team told me they wanted to let players freely assign skill points, and I figured that would totally throw things off. However, if players couldn’t enjoy the experience of seeing their characters grow, then that part of the game would be boring.
—Was the debugging also hard?
Takayashiki: Well, I remember after one night of debugging, it felt like we had a completely different game.
Asanuma: We were debugging 24/7. (laughs)
Ishihashi: It was like being sent back to the starting line.
—What are some of your regrets for Blue Sphere, or things you were unable to accomplish?
Kamei: I wanted to include more interactive elements. We had an idea where, if you equipped multiple pieces of equipment in the same series, it would get stronger. We wanted to do more stuff like that. There were so many things, honestly, that time and hardware limitations didn’t allow for.
—On the other hand, what were some of the achievements you’re proud of?
Asanuma: The difficulty. (laughs) Did we overdo it?
—Honestly, I think Blue Sphere is one of the more hardcore games to come out recently. Were you originally planning to aim at a younger audience?
Takayashiki: At first, Enix told us they really wanted that. For broad appeal, they wanted us to use cute characters in that nitoushin style.2 The first title logo we finished looked a lot like Kinnikuman, even. (laughs) But I told them, “hey, people who like Star Ocean are NOT going to buy this!” Midway through the development Enix realized this themselves, and we took a more thoughtful approach. And by not putting the characters on the cover, we were able to aim at a slightly older audience. That was my intention from the start, so I was happy when Enix relented.
—So the target group for Blue Sphere was about the same as SO2, then?
Takayashiki: That’s how I saw it. Mainly aimed at middle school to high school age, not grade school kids. Of course, we want older players to try it too. I think it’s got that old-school vibe.
—Visually that’s the case, but I think if you play it a bit, you realize that the substance of Blue Sphere is an order of magnitude more complex. By the way, is there any meaning to that pattern on the package cover?
Takayashiki: It’s a design for the home of the Edifians.
—Related to that, what’s the meaning of “Blue Sphere”…?
Takayashiki: It just means the blue ocean of a water planet. There’s nothing more to it.
—What about the blue sphere item, is there any connection…?
Takayashiki: That was added after the fact. Were you able to get it?
Nishimura: Normally you can’t.
Takayashiki: Isn’t it easier to use item creation?
Ookushi: Even that is super difficult.
Asanuma: At tri-Ace, only one person ever succeeded at making it, one time.
The Next Step
—Will your next game also be an RPG?
Takayashiki: Yeah. We’re all working on a new project together. It’s not a sequel though.
—What games had you all made before this…?
Takayashiki: Almost everyone working on Blue Sphere was a new hire. Almost no one had any experience.
—I’m guessing they joined tri-Ace because they were fans of the company, then?
Takayashiki: That’s right. There were also a few people who came to the team from elsewhere.
—Being new, you guys didn’t want to work on your own original project?
Takayashiki: I think everyone had that desire. tri-Ace basically said that sometimes the timing aligns so that new teams can make completely new games, but not this time.
—Finally, please offer a word to our readers today.
Ishibashi: The combat in Blue Sphere is a lot of fun, so please aim for that 100 hit combo!
Ookushi: I think the character animation turned out good, so I hope you enjoy it.
Kamei: The same person can play Blue Sphere in many different ways, so please try clearing it with multiple parties.
Nishimura: I hope you enjoy searching for all the secrets we put in.
Takayashiki: Please don’t be mean to people on the internet. (everyone laughs)
—I’m going to take this moment to post the tri-Ace homepage address here… (laughs)
Takayashiki: That’s what I’m most afraid of. (laughs)
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