Contra x Shinobi – 2003 Developer Interview

Contra x Shinobi – Cross-Talk Interview

Originally published in a January issue of Famitsu, this discussion between Contra: Shattered Soldier director/producer Nobuya Nakazato and Shinobi (PS2) director Toru Shimizu saw them discussing their reactions to their respective games' reveals, the essence of "cool" in action games, presenting traditionally difficult games to modern audiences and more.

Nobuya Nakazato (Konami)
Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo Production Department producer, and creator of the Contra series since the Super Famicom version. They also worked on Vandal Hearts.
Toru Shimizu (Sega/Overworks)
Director of Overworks' planning department; an action game fan who volunteered to work on Shinobi. Their representative works include Dragon Force.

Shimizu: I'm sure we were both developing our games in secret, but the footage you showed at the last E3 came as quite a shock. "Ah, 'Shin Contra'… wait, a new Contra game?!" I was really surprised (laughs). It was revealed at the same time as Shinobi, too.

Nakazato: I was concerned about the response to the video we'd shown at E3, so I took a look at the reactions online: there were many positive reactions, but also quite a few people saying, "it's too cool for a Contra game". I thought to myself, is it really so bad for a Contra game to look cool?… but when I saw the Shinobi trailer, I immediately thought, this is too cool for a Shinobi game! (laughs)

Shimizu: (laughs)

Nakazato: Ultimately, I think "cool" is the right direction to take, but I do wonder if both Contra and Shinobi are series that are almost required to have a bit of a "b-grade" vibe.

The extended cut of the Shinobi E3 2002 reveal trailer, included as an unlockable bonus video in the full game.

Shimizu: That's true… I do think there's an unspoken sense that they shouldn't strive towards being too stylish. The recent Rygar revival game has a fully modern game system, your Contra game is quite old-school and our Shinobi game is somewhere in-between. In the end, why'd you decide to stick with the 2D approach for Contra?

Nakazato: It's not like we were completely insistent on sticking with 2D—the recent trends across the industry are to make games that will be widely accepted by players of all stripes, in order to bring in more players.

Shimizu: Games that focus on flashy visuals, being easy to understand and a very moderate degree of difficulty.

Nakazato: Right, and that's perfectly fine, but I think the level of satisfaction one finds from such games is low, and I think that people are actually losing touch with games as a result. That's why we decided to make our game in 2D, so that we could really hone in on a specific audience and making something that they'd really enjoy. If the currently climate in the industry were different, we might have made a 3D game.

Shimizu: 3D is "subjective" and 2D is "objective" and they each have their advantages, so there's really no saying which approach is "better". I personally enjoy the sensation of feeling like you're in a 3D space, so I chose to make Shinobi a 3D game, but I also thought it important to adapt the speed and responsiveness of a 2D game.

Nakazato: I see.

Shimizu: However, if you design something to be broadly satisfying to everyone, it'll end up feeling half-baked, so in the end we decided to make something for core players to really sink their teeth into.

Nakazato: Something I also find interesting is that everyone who makes action games seeks to make them cool in their own way.

Shimizu. That's true.

Nakazato: Their sense of "cool" is different from developer to developer, however, so the abilities of the player-character are naturally going to differ from game to game—or, to come at it backwards, by examining the player-character, you can see the answer to the designers asking themselves, "what is cool?" For example, I can tell that the designers of Shinobi thought that slicing through four or five guys and then sheathing your sword was really cool. (laughs)

Shimizu: Right on the money! (laughs)

Nakazato: I thought "cool" meant never sparing a single enemy or eating a single attack, so I went around selling the other staff on that idea, and we ended up with a system where being hit by a single attack results in death. I was thinking back to that feeling of showing off to an audience back in the arcade days.

Shimizu: In Shattered Soldier, you don't just die from being attacked by an enemy—just bumping into them spells death! (laughs) That degree of severity shows just how dedicated you were to the core essence of the game.

...and for good measure, the E3 2002 trailer for Contra: Shattered Soldier.

Nakazato: When you're making an action game, where do you start?

Shimizu: I think up cool actions and situations, and from there I come up with characters, enemies and environments that'll fit the needs of those situations.

Nakazato: I just let the staff come up with ideas they'll think are interesting. I tell them anything goes, but most of them end up being complete nonsense—like, using a string-and-basket trap to catch aliens (laughs). Even so, after a month or so of work, we'll have come up with some workable ideas that we're then able to flesh out.

Shimizu: Sounds fun!

Nakazato: Even something ridiculous or trivial can end up being made into something fun with the right context, so we do give a lot of things a shot…

Shimizu: So you actually get them to the point where they're running?

Nakazato: …but when you actually play them, they're no fun at all. (laughs)

Shimizu: (laughs) It's quite common for people making action games to find out they're not much fun once they're playing them for themselves.

Nakazato: Yeah, and you don't want to have to fess up to your boss, either. (laughs) That said, you also gain the ability to work on the fly and quickly adapt around such setbacks.

Shimizu: Ah, that's true. Balancing the difficulty is always tough, too, isn't it? In Shinobi, falling into a pit means instant death, and there was a lot of opposition against this idea, even within the company, but I think that level of tension is what makes jumping action games fun.

Nakazato: Back in the day, the other team members would be pushing to make the games tougher and I'd be the one trying to rein them in, but this time it was the complete opposite. I wonder if it's a generational thing. (laughs)

Shimizu: The understanding among our team was that "Shinobi's always been difficult!", but we still ended up providing three different difficulty settings. [Overworks president & Revenge of Shinobi director] Ohba was like, "if you come up with one 'ultimate normal' difficulty that's fun for everyone, you won't need an easy or hard mode!", and so we did make an effort along those lines… but we knew it was an impossible task! (laughs)

Nakazato: (laughs)

Shimizu: Shattered Soldier doesn't have any difficulty settings, but I feel you settled on a good balance and that anyone could clear the game if they keep at it. I think more recent players aren't used to dying, or find it a hassle to die and have to start over.

Nakazato: Yeah… maybe they really don't like dying, or maybe it's just that they've never played games like these.

Shimizu: Sure, but if you die, why not pick yourself up and start over? The next time you play, you'll get a little further. Making incremental progress is part of the fun. I hope the players feel the same way.

Nakazato: Right! That said, everything seems perfectly fine when you're making the game because you've become accustomed to it, but if you leave it for a month or so and come back, you might be shocked by how difficult it actually is. (laughs)

Shimizu: That does happen a lot. (laughs) "Man, I don't remember it being this tough…" (laughs)

Nakazato: I can't even clear the game myself anymore. (laughs)

From Shinobi's arcade sequel, Shadow Dancer: the ninja dog companion, occasionally referred to as "Yamato". (source)

Shimizu: If I were to get the chance to make another Shinobi, I'd like to think more about the game balance and offer a more evolved Shinobi. There's still plenty left for us to challenge.

Nakazato: Personally, I want to see the ninja dog! (laughs)

Shimizu: Oh, yeah? But Dead to Rights already has a dog sidekick… (laughs) How about Contra?

Nakazato: We plan to stick to the same ol' old-school degenerate action (laughs) Well, I hope we can bring even more excitement to the action game genre in the future.

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