Boktai – 2003 Developer Interview

Boktai – 2003 Developer Interview

In this 2003 interview from Nintendo Dream, former Konami creative Hideo Kojima discusses the production of, and inspirations behind, the Game Boy Advance title Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand, an isometric vampire-hunting adventure game with stealth elements that makes heavy use of both a photometric light sensor and a real-time clock chip to simulate the in-game presence of the sun.

Hideo Kojima – Producer

Kojima: I believe this is my first interview for a Nintendo magazine.

—It is, isn’t it.

Kojima: I assume it’s not because you guys dislike me or anything. (laughs)

—No, we’ve been meaning to reach out to you too, for awhile now. Just waiting for the right timing… (laughs) Is this also your first time developing for Nintendo hardware?

Kojima: No, I also made Metal Gear: Ghost Babel (2000) for the Game Boy Color. I worked as the producer and planner then. Boktai would be the first wholly original game I’ve done for Nintendo though. There was a version of Metal Gear (1987) made for the Famicom as well, but I had no involvement in that development.

—All the games you’ve made thus far have a very stylish, “cool” image to them. But this one…

Kojima: (points to Boktai cart in his hand) Hey, this is cool too! Cool and hot, like the sun. (laughs)

—Just from the title alone, though, it seems like a different look for you.

Kojima: Yes, “Bokura no Taiyou” (“Our Sun”), or “Boktai”, as we’ve abbreviated it. (laughs) There are honestly a lot of different types of games I’d like to make someday. Up to now, I’ve developed for a lot of “minor” hardware like the MSX, and one advantage of working in a smaller niche like that is you end up building a nice core fanbase. This has been important to me, because Konami has often told me my ideas are too crazy, and there’s been dark times where the warm letters I receive from fans were all that sustained me.

Hideo Kojima (2004)

I’ve grown up alongside those fans, in a manner of speaking. While I was making the Metal Gear series it wasn’t possible to work on anything else, but the desire was there, to someday do something totally different. I also really wanted to work with Nintendo’s hardware. I originally joined Konami to develop games for either the Famicom or arcade, yet somehow I ended up getting put on the MSX team. (laughs)

—But why did you choose that title, Bokura no Taiyou (Our Sun)?

Kojima: Because I was a child of the 1960s. How’s that for an answer? (laughs)

—As far as titles go, it has a very calming, peaceful vibe to it… “Our Sun”.

Kojima: Nowadays, I think people are forgetting the Sun. It’s not on our minds. When I was a kid, we had the Tower of the Sun… Tarou Okamoto’s famous art sculpture. Then there was Shintaro Ishihara’s book Taiyou no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun), and also the movie Taiyou ga Ippai (Purple Noon). My generation was awash in sun imagery.

—That is definitely true. There was Hibari Misora’s hit song, Makka na Taiyou (Crimson Sun), too. Everyone loved the sun back then.

Kojima: But at some point, it felt like everyone started forgetting about the sun’s existence… and yet without the sun, we’d all be dead.

—Didn’t the game Golden Sun just come out for the GBA, though?

Kojima: That’s true. They kind of beat me to the punch. (laughs)

Some of the 1960’s media that influenced the name “Boktai”: Tarou Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun, Shintaro Ishihara’s Taiyou no Kisetsu (released overseas as Season of Violence) and René Clément’s Taiyou ga Ippai, an adaptation of the 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley released with the French title Plein Soleil and the English title Purple Moon.

—You didn’t let that phase you though, in terms of choosing this title?

Kojima: That’s right. For games I develop, I take the responsibility upon myself to choose the title. Once I’ve decided, I can’t be swayed from it, no matter what anyone says.

—It’s a good title. In a sense it’s surprising it hasn’t already been used. Plus it’s easy to understand.

Kojima: There used to be a manga called “Bokura” (Us), too.

—I know that one, I read it. (laughs)

Kojima: I was a little worried that putting “Bokura” (typically a masculine pronoun) up front like that might discourage women from playing though.

—I feel like it appeals to women too. In terms of player demographics, by the way, who are you targeting?

Kojima: Older elementary school kids and up.

—And adults?

Kojima: I think they’d find it fun too. The story itself is quite heavy. I mean, the hero wears a crimson scarf that’s been dyed in the blood of his old man, hahaha… (laughs more)


Kojima: I’ve already thought of a sequel for Boktai too… actually, I should stop while I’m ahead.

—No, please, tell us. (laughs)

Kojima: Ok. It’s called… Zokutai. (a play on words: substituting zoku, which means “sequel”)

Everyone: (laughs)

Kojima’s silly name gag was more than a mere joke: the second Boktai game was indeed titled Zoku Bokura no Taiyo: Taiyo Shonen Django, or “Zokutai” for short.

—You’re right, maybe you should have stopped. (laughs) How did the development of Boktai get started, by the way?

Kojima: I’ve been saying for a long time now that I want to make something weird. I had an idea, for example, for a CD game where if the player dies, the disc itself actually breaks. I want to make something *that* weird. Of course it sounds like a commercial disaster waiting to happen, right? (laughs) Plus I had the Metal Gear series to contend with, which always got prioritized over other projects. But in my head all these game ideas have been piling up, being warehoused for future use, and one of them was a hazy idea for a game that used the sun somehow. Then the GBA came out, and it was more powerful than the Super Famicom. Wow—handheld hardware is starting to get really good, I thought.

For a game that uses the sun, I knew a sensor would be the best choice. But I had absolutely no idea how to make that happen. As it happened, a little before that Konami had been designing some portable, handheld medical devices equipped with a variety of sensors. And so when that got released on the market, my previously vague concept of “catching the rays of the sun” came into clearer focus—if we attach this sensor to a GBA cart, it could work! That was the official start of everything. It was right around the end of the Metal Gear Solid 2 development.

—Around 2001, then.

Kojima: Originally, I thought we’d make a different type of game. It wasn’t going to be a sequel to Ghost Babel or anything, but I actually wanted to use the “hiding” (stealth) concept in Metal Gear 2 to create an entirely different kind of “escape game.” It would have begun with you being caught and imprisoned by the enemy… I thought a game like that could work really well on a portable system, but after a lot of planning, it turned out we just couldn’t work it into something satisfying. At that point, although it was quite a risk, we decided to challenge ourselves with an entirely new game.

Boktai’s transparent, solar-sensing cartridge; the solar-sensing chip is the black chip visible in the center-right of the upper half of the cart, and it primarily detects sunlight through the back side of the cartridge.

—There had been games that used infrared rays before, but a sensor for sunlight was something new.

Kojima: Sometime last year, I think, I approached Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo and gave a presentation pitch. In the beginning then, it wasn’t just a sunlight sensor—I actually had wanted to include a sensor that measured how your breath smelled too! I *really* wanted to add that! The enemies are vampires, right? So if you ate something garlic-y and breathed on the mic, they’d all die. (laughs)

Everyone: (laughs)

Kojima: “Guys, we have to do this!!” But the rest of the staff all hated the idea.

—I could see it being interesting. After you eat gyoza, you get a power boost. (laughs)

Kojima: Yes, then I could have had a sunlight version and a breath version. (laughs) A holy water version might be neat too. Sprinkle water on it and they die.

—That sounds dangerous. You’d break your GBA real fast. (laughs)

Kojima: So anyway, for that first presentation, I just explained the basic gameplay system to Nintendo. Their response, though, didn’t seem especially enthusiastic: “Sure, that sounds cool, why not.” It was sort of like, if you want to try this, go right ahead, be our guest. (laughs)

—They probably had their doubts about whether the whole thing could be realized.

Kojima: Yeah, there was the matter of the sensor itself, and also being able to furnish enough sensor parts for cart production. But the cost was a biggie too. It was hard to see it working as a commercial product.

But then, Miyamoto made a few requests for the project, and those actually proved very helpful. Also, at that presentation, I had prepared a little song for Boktai that I sang for them (to the tune of Pikmin’s love theme). The lyrics were “hipparidasarete~ atsui~ kogeru~ moeru~”1

Everyone: (laughs)

Kojima: But they were completely, stony silent after I finished. It was like some typical comedy routine, with me the fool and them the straight guy. (laughs)

—The lyrics sound like you’re describing a kid playing the game: he whips out Boktai and starts burnin’ up some vamps! (laughs) By the way, how many people are on the Boktai development team?

Kojima: It’s a lot. If I told you, you’d be surprised.

—Ok then… how many?

Kojima: About 15. That’s about 1.5 times the normal amount.

—Yeah, that’s a big team. Now, for the previous games you’ve directed, such as Metal Gear, they’ve all seemed to be aimed at a more mature, adult audience, with plenty of heavy themes. Being aimed at children, Boktai feels different.

Kojima: Yes, I said the demographic was “older elementary school kids and above”, but I also have a child of my own, so I’m careful about not making something that talks down to children, or treats them stupidly. That said, like the first Metal Gear, Boktai will have a very easy to understand story. I wasn’t initially too keen on having the enemies be vampires though. It seemed kind of hackneyed, plus there’s already the Castlevania series, if we’re trying to think of enemies that you could use sunlight to defeat…

The intro to Boktai’s first dungeon; the game’s aesthetic cribs as much from spaghetti westerns as it does gothic horror, with the protagonist’s name and the curious coffin-dragging mechanic being direct homages to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django.

—Vampires really are the most suited for the idea, though. Everyone knows they hate sunlight. Can you tell us what the story is about?

Kojima: The story is very intense. I wrote it, after all. (laughs)

It takes place in an age when the solar system is nearing the end of its lifespan. There’s a tension between our sun and the huge void of space that surrounds us—it’s kind of like, the void is always trying to swallow our sun—the sooner the better. How would it destroy our solar system and all life we know? Consider how we evolved, by pairing off, reproducing, and bequeathing our superior genes to the next generation. But what if this process was interrupted—what if we didn’t die anymore? Humanity would enter a zombie-like state of existence, living and never expiring, and thus evolution would stop, civilization would die out, and eventually our star, too, would meet its demise. The villain in Boktai is plotting just that, to transform humanity into the “undead”—a species of existence that never dies.

—I see.

Kojima: However, the character Otenko-sama, who embodies the spirit of the sun, he believes that the sun belongs to us, to humanity, and he fights against this villain despite knowing it’s a lost cause. You can’t ultimately win against that void of nothingness that is space—victory’s just not in the cards. And yet still he fights. I think this is actually a pattern that re-appears in all my games, the concept of a battle that’s a lost cause. (laughs)

—What do you think the selling point of Boktai will be?

Kojima: It’s a handheld game, so you can play it in your living room, or go hide in your own room and play. I think the reason the GBA has had such explosive popularity with kids is just that: they can escape the surveillance of their parents.

—Surveillance? (laughs)

Kojima: Yup. My kid told me one day he wanted to go to a children’s center on Sunday morning, and I happily thought to myself, “Wow! What a good son I’ve got!” But he wasn’t doing any studying there. All the kids do is sit around with their Gameboys in a mess of link cables and talk about Pokemon. (laughs)

—Ahahaha. (laughs)

Kojima: Well, that’s how handheld gaming has grown to be such a big thing, but looking at the software that’s been released up to now, it’s almost all stationary—it’s “portable”, but basically you just plop down somewhere and play. The games haven’t really leaned into the portable aspect very much, and it’s more like having a portable TV than anything else. So I thought to myself, “I want to make a game that can *only* be played portably.” I realized then that if the player could go outside, and by moving around change his environment—the weather, the temperature, the terrain—and if those changes could be reflected in the game, it would be an experience unlike anything seen before.

The key to all of it, is the live element. Video games are a form of media in which the developer tries to create an experience that will bring joy to the player. That’s very common. But in doing so there’s an element of compulsion, of the player merely re-tracing the path the developer has laid out in advance for them. On the other hand, if you look at the success of online games today, a big reason for that is the sense that the experience is “live”. Yes, the creators have laid down a framework, but the experience is unpredictable and changes depending on who you play with. I wanted to bring that “live” fun to portable games, and create something where the environment, and even the very gameplay changes as you walk around. Boktai is one answer to that larger inquiry.

—It sounds like you’ll need to check the weather before you play.

Kojima: When we were kids, there was some of that—being mindful of the weather before making plans the next day. We weren’t able to stay inside and play video games either on a rainy day, because there were no video games then. You also can’t play menko indoors. (laughs) So yeah, “I hope the weather is better tomorrow” was a huge part of our youth.

Concept illustrations for the player-character Django’s various actions, including a few Metal Gear-inspired stealth actions.

—I think this might be the first video game that will encourage people to pray for good weather.

Kojima: When it comes to kid’s playing, I think it’s actual second nature already. As a kid, as the sun starts to set in the evening, that’s the time you have to come home, right? The sun has always been linked to children’s lives. But nowadays, I think kids are thinking less day-to-day about the sun and their natural environment.

—Right, even if it gets dark, you still have to go to juku (cram school). Even young kids have to wear watches these days. So, when can we expect to see Boktai go on sale?

Kojima: In the summer. The season of the sun. (laughs)

—But after the monsoon rains have passed, right? (laughs)

Kojima: Even the monsoon season would be OK. It would teach people to be grateful for the sun! (laughs) Anyway, we’re almost done with the development here. But the fine-tuning is proving to be difficult, so I think we need a little bit more time still.

—Since there are so many changing variables, as you said, I imagine a lot of delicate balancing is needed.

Kojima: We did our first balancing and debugging around the office here… but eventually I want to go around the country and test play it in different areas. If I do that though, I might end up getting more ideas, and wanting to add them, and then we’ll never finish the damn thing. (laughs)

—Hahahaha. (laughs)

Kojima: My usual pattern. (laughs)

—What are some of the things that are most important to you when you’re creating a game?

Kojima: The feel of the controls. That’s everything. Whether it’s fun to move around in the game or not. You can talk about an idea until you’re blue in the face, but I think what matters most is whether it actually feels good to play.

On top of that, I like my games to have some special something in them—maybe when you’re playing now you don’t notice it, but in the future it sticks with you… to give an example from when I was a kid, there’s the manga Tiger Mask. When I look back it now I think, wow, that was a really intense, really deep manga. But I also learned a lot from works like Tiger Mask. In my generation, we didn’t have good role models; no one taught us anything. There was no one in my neighborhood to act in that capacity either. That’s why we ended up learning a lot from movies and manga. For the current generation, I think games are fulfilling a similar role. With Boktai, I hope to impart a feeling and regard for certain things: that our Earth is always turning, that we enjoy the blessing of the Sun (and being aware, in contrast, of the bad or negative sides of the Sun too). People tell me all the time that my games are too “preachy”, but I don’t like games that have nothing to teach. (laughs)

—What was your childhood dream?

Kojima: I wanted to be an astronaut. I still do. I think I was partly influenced by The Planet of the Apes. (laughs)

—The old movie, from 1968? There was the Apollo space mission the next year too, did that influence you too?

Kojima: I watched it in real-time. I told my son, “You’ve got to go to space! Don’t miss your chance like I did!” He wants to make a space movie, that’s his dream… well, I guess I’m the one who planted the dream in his head. (laughs) I said to him, “Going to space to film a movie, sounds great! That’s two dreams for the price of one!”

—Going into space would be high on the list for any director, I imagine.

Kojima: I would like to go. Not to Mars, but to the surface of the moon. Just getting out of Earth’s orbit, and seeing our Earth from up there… I could die happy. Seriously, I wouldn’t care if I couldn’t come back.

After my astronaut phase, the next dream I had as a kid was to work in animal conservation. Long ago there was this old Japanese TV program called “Yasei no Oukoku” (Wild Kingdom) that my Dad loved. All he ever watched was nature and wildlife documentaries like that. In that show, there was this gruff old Tarzan-looking dude who would do stuff like wade into a swamp and catch an anaconda with his bare hands, then take the animal back to a conservation center. It was pretty ridiculous but I thought it was extremely cool.

—They had programs like that back then, eh?

Kojima: I wanted to be a detective at some point too. In the Los Angeles homicide department.

One of a few silly TV commercials for the original Boktai.

—How did you end up joining Konami then?

Kojima: I had originally wanted to make movies. Putting aside for a moment whether I could become an actual director or not, I embarked on a series of experiments to see if making movies was something I could do for a living. I also loved books, so I thought if I could write a book and win a prize, maybe that could be turned into a movie, and so there was a period of time where I worked on writing stories too. Unfortunately (and this still true today), even if you go down the whole film school route, there’s no actual guarantee that you’ll be able to make movies… plus, the truth is I had also wanted to become an artist (painter) at that time too…

—What? An artist?

Kojima: There was a period, before my Father died, where I thought I’d become an artist, but my Father died very suddenly when I was 13. My family was full of artists, you see, and they hadn’t been able to make a living off of it. For that reason I decided to go to college (although I didn’t study for the entrance exams), and I spent 4 years kind of slacking off while I wrote short stories. I had a lot of free time then so I started going to the game center. They had Namco’s Xevious there, along with Konami’s Hyper Olympics (Track and Field) and something called Pooyan. “Wow, there’s a company out there that gives their games such on-the-nose names as Pooyan?”—that was how I learned of Konami’s existence.

Having spent time in the game centers, when the Famicom came out and you could play Xevious in your own home, it was like an absolute dream come true. To compare it to movies, it would be like having your own home theater. Through the Famicom I got into Super Mario Bros., and I also played The Portopia Serial Killer Murder Case. That was when I first started to realize, “You know, the world of games is actually really interesting too.”

After that I started looking for work, and I thought I’d visit the various game development companies I knew about. Every company I went to had a very youthful vibe—it was nothing but young people whose original dreams had failed for one reason or another. (laughs) I, too, had wanted to be a filmmaker. Others I met there were failed manga artists, or musicians whose bands had broken up. In spite of those setbacks, every one of them was still full of vim and vigor.

At that time, Konami’s main offices were located in Kobe, on Port Island. Thinking to myself “there’d be no better place to work than this!”, I joined up. Plus, for my generation at least, Port Island was a great dating spot. (laughs)

—Thank you for your time today!

Kojima demoing the game for the folks at Nintendo Dream.

If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!

  1. Something like, “you pull it out, it’s hot! on fire! they’re really burning now!” — it’s basically just a string of nonsense heat/fire words.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *