Dragon Saber – 1991 Developer Interviews
Dragon Saber was released in 1990 in the arcades as a sequel to the better-known 1987 vertical shmup Dragon Spirit. This interview and the accompanying concept art come from the liner notes of the Namco GSE Dragon Saber cd. Being liner notes, the main feature here is Shinji Hosoe and his music, but the programming, design, and graphics staff are also interviewed. .
Planning Dragon Saber
Osugi – Game Design
Hello, my name is Osugi, and I worked on the game design for Dragon Saber. Before this project, I worked on graphics and visuals. This was my first time as planning staff, so there were lots of challenges.
Unlike other STGs, Dragon Spirit had a well-developed story, and I believe the fans loved it for this. For us working on Dragon Saber, however, we came to feel the weight of its legacy looming over us.
As for why we chose this setting and period for Dragon Saber, well, when you are asked to write a sequel to a story that has already concluded, I think there’s three general patterns. First, you can write a sequel that takes place directly after the events of the first. Another option is to write a prequel to those events. And finally, you could chose the future to write about. We chose the future… there was a sequel to Dragon Spirit already on the Famicom and I didn’t like it much, and I felt that stories of the past involving a world of swords and sorcery were kind of played out by that point… that left the future for the story of Dragon Saber.
But it was good, because we wanted to show a kind of world that players hadn’t seen before in games (I personally really like the 4th fungal stage, which reminds me of the Sea of Corruption in Nausicaa). Also, if you’ve seen the ending you’re probably aware of this, but with that final message “May this not be the future of our planet”, we wanted to convey a deeper theme than Dragon Spirit. That was why we chose the near future rather than the distant future.
Well, I could go on and on about Dragon Saber, but suffice it to say that we didn’t aim to make a game that would out-do Gradius III… we created Dragon Saber to be a game “anyone” could play and find a degree of satisfaction in.
A Collection of Screams
Shio – Programmer
In the beginning, the world of Dragon Saber was silent. Thinking it sounded too lonely, I tried adding some sounds from Burning Force. These were all angular, mechanical sounds–it was noisy, very noisy. But now you know why the enemies all make that low thudding sound when they explode. I guess those early flying enemies ran on gasoline.
Gradually the sounds of Dragon saber as we know them were added. Of course, everyone recognizes that shrill shrieking “Gyaaa!” when your dragon dies and when you inserted a coin. When I’d hear that sound while working late into the night, I’d think “you know, there’s something wrong with you.” But hey, I figured if your Dragon had the power to spit out such a huge flaming phoenix from his maw, then he should die with equal vigor.
That made me think, what if every enemy had a death scream… the thought itself was terrible. But games are supposed to be noisy affairs, right? (at least, that’s how I justify it to myself now) A game of screams and death cries… it would have been great. But the problem was, if you’d asked me what all those different monsters’ screams sounded like, I didn’t really know.
So instead, I went about adding sounds like the glurping noise those cell division enemies on stage 7 make when they die (Shinji Hosoe was in love with this sound), and the crunch of ice as it breaks in stage 6… these are screams of a kind, aren’t they? Dear readers, if you’re so inclined, please try making that glurpglurp sound yourself.
By “a passing worker drone”
Area 1 – Sunken City
This boss “Akira” is quite strong for being a first stage boss, isn’t he? Did you know, in one version during development he had rings that went around him that were just brutal. At the location test even the hardcore players were getting angry, “This is way too unfair!”
Area 2 – Volcano
On this stage there’s a Centipede boss that comes out of the magma. During development, the people who saw it asked “How does this creature live in the magma?” More and more people kept asking this, and I think the whole development staff was rather flummoxed.
Area 3 – Fossil
This stage’s boss is called “Alien King.” For those confident in your skills, try destroying his tail first. This will trigger his “Panic!” attack. Try it out for yourself!
Area 4 – Fungal Land
Everyone who say this stage said “It’s Marchen Maze!” But I don’t think that little Alice would want to be walking around with those snails.
Area 5 – Canyon
In this stage you emerge from the canyon onto an ocean, but I wonder how it would have been if we’d reversed that, and you went from ocean to canyon? Would the gameplay of the stage have ended up different, too?
Area 6 – Ice Cave
We were trying to evoke the Cave stage from Dragon Spirit here. The huge size of the ice pick hitbox frustrated many, I bet.
Area 7 – Demon World
When you defeat the zombie dragon boss of this stage, there’s an animation of the wall behind him crumbling behind and a path opening the way ahead. But the graphics artist was complaining that nobody noticed it. Please look for it!
Area 8 – Darkness
This was a bonus stage. By the way (this is completely unrelated), did you know someone found the “Dragon Spirit Music Mode” on the first day? The devotion of our hardcore fans is amazing! No one on the development team thought it would be discovered so quickly.
Area 9 – Final Stage
For some reason there’s a bunch of fish enemies at the final boss, “Chaos.” I think someone was airing some grievances with these characters: they were supposed to be used in the Deep Sea stage which we had to completely abandon, sadly…
Music of Dragon Saber
Shinji Hosoe, Namco Sound Programmer
Spring is almost here! What’s everyone’s plans? Dragon Saber, which was released to arcades last December, is finally getting a soundtrack release, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s been nearly 5 years since I first started working on Dragon Spirit in 1986, and my musical style has changed a lot. My main concern for listeners is to what extent they’ll understand my musical progression.
The reason this is a 2CD set is, of course, the Dragon Spirit BGM remix. It all began rather simply: I wanted to see how it would sound if I took Dragon Spirit’s music data and played it on the system II hardware. There were some aspects of the FM sounds that had a different quality, and some details weren’t properly replicated, but overall it seemed OK.
I added sampled drums to it piece by piece, and was pretty satisfied with the sound. After that the development team spoke with me about adding it the game itself, since I’d done it already. How do you hear these songs in the game? Well, you all probably know already, but you need to insert a coin, and then hold button 1 and 2 down when you press start.
Later, however, I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake by adding the Dragon Spirit remix… did it mean less people would listen to the new Dragon Saber songs? Please listen to both! By the way, what are everyone’s favorite tracks? Personally, I like the Sunken City, Volcano, Demon World, and Ultima song (which isn’t to say I dislike the others, of course). The former two have that “go! go!” feel while the latter are more atmospheric. Of course everyone’s tastes are different, so our opinions might differ greatly.
I also like the ending theme for the Dragon Spirit BGM remix. I regret not giving it a little more power, though. Adding all these extra tracks wasn’t part of the original schedule, so we were very pressed for time… I hope you can forgive us.
I didn’t have any musical classes or training until middle school. My grades in those classes were almost entirely 2s.1 At the time I didn’t really care much about music, which was no doubt reflected in my grades.
But I wasn’t completely disinterested in music, and I owe that to Isao Tomita’s album The Planets. It was the first music I heard that really moved me.
At that time I don’t think synthesizers were recognized as instruments by most people. But I was amazed at the way he evoked the world of The Planets with a machine! It was so fitting, I was really taken aback. The original compositions were by Holst, but I had never imagined someone could arrange them in this way.
The next artist I listened to was Jean Michael Jarre. I think Dragon Saber’s music shows his influence. After that, I was influenced by Kraftwerk, YMO, and artists from that period. They called our generationthe “YMO Age” or “Techno Age”, right? It’s the era that bequeathed us techno pop.
That was my time. The first time I even thought to try playing an instrument myself, I was trying to copy YMO’s songs with my left hand. It was an important first step for me as a composer. But my maiden work was Dragon Spirit. In fact, before Dragon Spirit the only composing I had done was two rather clumsy songs with a band–I’d be hard-pressed to call it music, even.
I couldn’t play my instrument very well either… so you’re probably wondering how I was able to do Dragon Spirit? Well, it was because I used that supreme technology called a sequencer.2 And so I thought, fairly deluded, “Anyone can make music!”, and I began creating semi-musical phrases, building one bar at a time.
The first music I wrote for Dragon Spirit was accidentally deleted and no longer exists, but the first song I made right after that disaster was the song titled “Omake” (bonus). Many people probably already know this, but it was used for the loading screen of the X68000 port of Dragon Spirit. Right when I made Omake, we officially announced the release of Dragon Spirit at Namco, and they used Omake as the temporary BGM for it. I remember them prodding me and saying at that announcement, “Of course, the music will be changing!”
Anyway, to return to the main topic of making music, I think its something that anyone can learn to do. The process of writing music is really all about this: how much time can you devote to it?
My early methods for composing went like this. First, I’d program a simple rythym into the sequencer. Then I would play keyboard lines on top, trying different things out. As for what equipment I used back then… let’s see. I had a terminal for sequencing (now we’d just call it a PC98 or X68000), a pcb (Namco system86 at first, but later I upgraded to system1), and finally a Yamaha Portasound keyboard (YuuYuu from the Wonder Momo development lent it to me). That’s all I had.
While listening to the parts I added incrementally, I’d try layering new parts on, adding new ideas one by one. Parts I didn’t like I’d rewrite… and rewrite… and rewrite… until I’d finally get something I could call a song.
At first it took me almost 3 weeks of continual programming until I finally got something into a completed state. Who knows how many hours I spent in that interval… people with talent might be able to crank things out with less effort, but for an amateur like me, going over the same thing over and over was the only way.
However, the flip-side is that I think anyone can write music if they have the willpower to spend enough time on it. I think its best to spend your time and effort trying to copy others songs, imitate their styles, and trying to transcribe the melodies you hear in your head. In all these activities its the same–if you keep refining it until you’re personally satisfied, its sure to turn out well!
If you try writing music this way and think “I can’t do this”, it may just be that you haven’t spent enough time on it yet. You need more experience before you can level up, right?
Well, there’s a couple things I’d like to share that I remember from the mastering and recording process of this CD. This recording wasn’t as simple as just taking the sound from the PCB and recording it. We actually had to find FM sounds and samples that most closely matched the PCB music and re-record them, taking care to preserve the signal to noise ratio, and sometimes updating the music data itself. As such, I think we achieved a very balanced sound. Sometimes we had to use some different tricks, or mix in a little noise to make it more closely match the PCB, always asking what made things sound the best.
That reminds me, lately it seems that buying PCBs has become more common among game fans. Buying the PCB has significant merit of being able to play whenever you want. You can even listen to the music in the test mode whenever you’d like… but what’s that? Lately you can’t do this, you say? Yes, recently many games haven’t included sound test modes. Some people have been complaining that this is because of CDs are becoming more common and companies want to force people to buy soundtracks, but I think that may be a misunderstanding.
I think its mostly because a consumer who buys a PCB could possibly record the music from the sound test and make an illegal copy. Lately every game company has been taking some precautions against recordings, but I think this is just to prevent illegal copies. It isn’t a case of them just saying “you don’t get to hear it!”, so I hope players will understand. If someone goes to the effort of buying the PCB, I know they want you to be able to enjoy its music to the fullest.
“Seeing your work copied illegally is like seeing your cute daughter violated.” …these are the words of Namco President Nakamura, but its describes my feelings as an artist perfectly! We should protect those things that are copyright Namco.
On that note, I’d like to thank everyone for buying this cd. I’m sorry the conversation got so serious and stern there at the end. Until the next time, “see you later!”
Dragon Saber Concept Art
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!
Japanese grading systems go on a scale of 1-10 or 1-5, with 1 being the lowest. So scoring 2s is pretty bad, something like a D or worse.↩
This whole discussion of using a sequencer might seem a little passe today, but it helps to remember that in 1991 now-widespread things like DAWs and home recording were largely unknown to the public.↩
A very silly joke. “Headrock” sounds like “headlock” to the Japanese, who have no “L” sound. Japanese punning often involves these kinds of inversions.↩
Umi means sea and mimizu means worm/earthworm. The tongue twister means something like “earthworms and seaworms are both worms.”↩