Golden Sun – 2001 Developer Interview
This 2001 interview with Nintendo Dream magazine saw Camelot Software Planning co-founders Hiroyuki and Shugo Takahashi discussing the creation of Golden Sun, a Nintendo-published RPG for the Game Boy Advance whose unique “psynergy” system and cutting-edge visuals drew great acclaim from players and critics alike. In the interview, the Takahashi brothers cover, among other topics, their prior experience working on RPGs like Dragon Quest and Shining Force, the concept of centering an RPG on “super powers” and their desire to buck the conventional RPG template.
Hiroyuki Takahashi – Planner/Scenario Writer
Shugo Takahashi – Director/Scenario/Planning
Toshiharu Izuno – Assistant Producer (Nintendo)
—Let me start off by saying congratulations on finishing the Golden Sun development! Now that you’ve been able to take a breather, how does it feel?
Hiroyuki: Well, that breather is still a ways off. (laughs)
—Of course, of course… there’s always a sequel, or the next project waiting in the wings. While Camelot is well-known for making sports games, I bet many people don’t know that RPGs are also a specialty of yours. Could you share with everyone your history and connection with the RPG genre?
Hiroyuki: Sure. The first RPG I played would be Dragon Quest. Actually no… maybe it was Deep Dungeon.
Shugo: I think Dragon Quest was the first game where you were aware that “this is an RPG”, though.
Hiroyuki: There’s no doubt that I thought Dragon Quest was very interesting. For me, it was the fact that it had a story. And so I’ve always had a strong inclination towards the story aspect of RPGs.
My favorite three Famicom games from the early period, the ones that left the deepest impression on me, were Super Mario Bros., Dragon Quest, and The Legend of Zelda. All the things we loved about those games when we played them, I think that has exerted a big influence on the games we’ve since made. There’s a sense of respect we’re paying to those classics when we design our RPGs.
—Was that love also responsible for your decision to work in the game industry?
Hiroyuki: No, technically speaking I wasn’t involved with the creative side when I first joined this industry. Before long, though, I found myself working as a creator.
—What was the first game you worked on then?
Hiroyuki: That would be Dragon Quest IV.
—It wasn’t Dragon Quest III…?
Hiroyuki: On DQIII, I mainly did promotion and advertising. Since I was now working for Enix, after all, I really wanted to contribute to the development somehow. I saw it as a unique chance to pay my respects to a game I loved. So I thought long and hard, and what I ended up doing was creating an extremely detailed notebook of all the dialogue, every single line, of Dragon Quest III. And I annotated the messages with a sort of flow chart that showed how the dialogue was connected, and this way you could see where more info might be needed for a certain quest, or whether there were adequate hints and clues. Ultimately the notes I created ended up being extremely helpful for the development team, and from that I was given the chance to work on the creative side in Dragon Quest IV.
—After that, you embarked on a new challenge: creating your own original series.
Hiroyuki: Yeah, that would be the Shining series. It’s actually a diverse group of games though, and sometimes I wonder if it’s right to call it a series. The two things we’re always conscious of when we make our games, is 1.) we should always be evolving, and 2.) that our games show our originality. Those are very important to us.
Back when I used to play a lot of different games, I used to have ideas about how such-and-such would make for a great video game. Many years passed, and those ideas continued to go unused by anyone. For a long time I wondered why that was. I mean, you had all these popular games, wasn’t the next step forward in gameplay and design obvious…? But instead the majority of games released just tried to imitate and ride the coattails of what was already popular.
That was when I started to think, if no one else is going to step up, why not do it myself? I could start a company that was dedicated to creating games that did take that next, necessary evolutionary step. That was one of the big reasons I switched over to the creative side. It’s not that I think creating sequels is bad or anything. If you can create a series of games, and each has its own has originality, and distinguishes itself from others, then I’m all for it. But if it doesn’t have that… meaningful existence, I guess? Then I think it’s a pointless endeavor for us as creators. So in that sense, originality comes first for us, as a very basic premise of what we do.
Shugo: Yeah. It has to be something we personally want to make, you know? Without that…
—Were you able to utilize your experience and ideas in the development of Golden Sun?
Hiroyuki: Yes, all the experience we’ve accumulated over the years in making RPGs was very helpful in making Golden Sun. It’s a simple game in one sense, something anyone can pick up and play. However, if you keep playing it, I think you’ll see that it contains new gameplay that’s never been seen in any previous RPG. And that is Golden Sun’s strength, I think. It was a wild ride for us though. Getting players to understand the novel ideas you’ve included is very difficult, you see. And sometimes new things can actually make the game harder to play. You need experience if you want to add new things, lest you fumble and make the game worse. Golden Sun is really the crystallization of our experience, in other words.
—How long did you spend working on Golden Sun?
Hiroyuki: In terms of pure development man-hours, about 1 year. If you add in the time we spent conceptualizing it though, the early planning and all, that would be about 5 years. I’ve wanted to play a game like this for quite a long time. You know, when you ask yourself what is the reason we play games, the motivation… I think a huge reason is the desire to experience that which doesn’t exist in reality. You can be a hero, for instance. Golf and tennis aren’t entirely dissimilar, of course, but in an RPG, you can do things that you could never do in golf or tennis—you can live out your wildest, most unreal dreams.
—And what dreams did you want to bring to life in Golden Sun?
Hiroyuki: Ever since I was kid, I always wanted to experience having super powers. I used to read scenes from manga or books with those kinds of characters, and I always imagined myself as the hero using those superpowers. And a big difference between those mediums and video games is that in video games, you’re actually controlling things. One big goal of Golden Sun, then, was simply to allow people to experience that.
Earlier RPGs have almost entirely confined the usage of superpowers and magic to the battles. That’s very important, of course, and in early games like Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II, that alone was fun. But it’s human nature that once something becomes standard it also becomes “normal” and boring. So the next goal, in my view, was to make it so you could use your magic and abilities in more diverse ways.
Also, I was more interested in letting players use their abilities freely, where it seemed best to them, rather than signposting it really obviously, like “use it here!” I think that freedom has been rather lacking in games so far. I wanted to remedy this “lack”, and take this dream of super powers to a higher dimension, if you will. That was the biggest theme for the Golden Sun development. The ability to use your powers freely, as you will… that alone is enough, in my opinion, to make Golden Sun totally different from other games.
—Being able to use your magic as much as you want definitely is fun.
Hiroyuki: The majority of RPGs have always used something like MP, right? Recently spell effects and summons have become more and more flashy and impressive, but because they’re still tied to the MP system, I feel like there’s an opposite trend where you actually use those abilities less and less. You end up rationing and feeling like you don’t want to use your magic. But Golden Sun lets you use your magic as much as you want. So I hope players don’t just always default to the “Fight” command.
Shugo: Yeah, in Golden Sun, the more you use your abilities the more readily you’ll be able to press forward. I don’t mind that older style of RPG where you’re always just choosing “Fight” and saving your MP, but with Golden Sun we wanted to show how fun it can be to play without worrying about things like MP. You restore EP just by walking around, and the summons don’t cost EP either.
—I understand Golden Sun was originally being made for the N64.
Hiroyuki: No, not exactly. We were never developing Golden Sun for the N64. But we were making progress on an RPG for the N64. We got pretty far with it—the basic on-screen visuals and layout were done. But after finishing Mario Golf we had a meeting to decide on what our next project should be.
Shugo: It’s true that we had been wanting to make an RPG on the N64, and we did some prototype develoment to that end. But right around that time, we started hearing rumors about some new hardware… then it was like, ok, let’s hold up for a moment—maybe this isn’t the the best timing to develop an N64 RPG. Timing, you know, it’s a big thing in game development. And finding the right timing can be critical to the success of your game, I think. That being the case, we decided to switch gears and make a sports game, which is relatively easier for us to predict how long the development will take. That was Mario Tennis 64. And so the RPG idea got shelved for a later time.
Hiroyuki: We threw out everything we’d worked on up to that point.
—So none of that N64 RPG prototyping is reflected in Golden Sun, then?
Hiroyuki: Exactly, none at all.
Izuno: But while they worked on other projects, the GBA hardware eventually became ready for development proposals, so I think it was perfect timing after all.
—When was that?
Shugo: Let’s see, about a year and a half ago. We started the actual development a year ago, like I said, but before that we spent about six months doing various prototyping work, seeing what kind of graphics we’d go with, stuff like that. We researched the hardware too. All that took about half a year.
Izuno: When they sent the Golden Sun plans to us we tried to estimate what the target age range would be, and they sent us a few different examples of graphics they were thinking of using, given the age of the average GBA player.
Shugo: And in that sense, we really scrapped a lot of ideas in Golden Sun. We’d make something, scrap it, make something new, scrap it again. For the graphics, too, we tried many different things out in our efforts to pin down the right age demographic. The GBA was next-gen hardware, but we weren’t sure what kind of graphics were best for a next-gen system. We demoed quite a bit of stuff internally before we showed anything to Nintendo. It was a lot of back and forth, we weren’t really sure ourselves.
—You said you wanted visuals that would shock and awe players, but which parts of Golden Sun, specifically, are you referring to? I think of the way the camera swirls around during the battle scenes, and the spell effects when you use energy…
Hiroyuki: No, actually, the thing we have the most pride in are the maps.
Shugo: Yeah, it’s the truth.
Hiroyuki: Take your typical town. Visually speaking, if that town doesn’t look any more impressive than previous games, if it doesn’t have something new, then players aren’t going to feel like anything has really “advanced” with the GBA at all. So the map screens were something we put a huge emphasis on, and getting them to that level that made us go “yeah! this is it!” took over half a year by itself. It was such a strict and demanding process though, I think the graphics guys cried a lot…
Shugo: It was like, how could we take something typical and expected, and put our unique spin on it? That was the biggest hurdle for us, finding a way to make our game stand out in a recognizable way, to give it an identity so people would think “Yes, this is Golden Sun”, even with relatively simple things like the maps. In contrast, take something like the ability to rotate the screen during battles: when you’ve got the ideas and the technical ability, you can add lots of cool little touches like that. Of course there’s a lot going on under-the-hood there—it’s not a simple effect by any means. Once we decided to add that feature, though, it gave us a clear direction to work towards. However, with dungeons and the town maps, it was a different story… how do we surprise people here? That was honestly the biggest challenge for us.
Hiroyuki: This goes back to what we were talking about a moment ago, but one big motivation for us was the feeling that RPGs lately have all kind of forced themselves into a single, narrow frame. The word “game” can have a myriad of meanings, and ideally each game one plays would feel different from the next. But these recent games, it feels to me… they’re all well-made insofar as it goes, but none of them have really impressed me. It’s like the “wow factor” just isn’t there anymore. The problem, I think, is that the creators are boxing themselves in with their preconceived idea of what an RPG is supposed to be.
There’s different appraoches to designing gameplay, and one way is to imagine what you want the player to be able to do, then add stuff that you hope will be cool and interesting. On the other hand, with RPGs, when you know there’s going to be battles, an overhead map, towns, dungeons… then developers will start off by automatically adding actions like search, talk, use items, magic, all the standard stuff. I think the majority of RPGs made recently follow this formula, I’m afraid. There’s no reason you have to do that though! And the problem is, if you make that framework your starting point, you’ll never escape from it, you know? So we looked at those things and asked, could we change this? Or rather, why does it have to be that way? Could we do something better, something more? Those were the kinds of thoughts that animated our development of Golden Sun.
—The quality of the music in Golden Sun is excellent as well. It feels like a full display of Motoi Sakuraba’s power as a composer. Have you known him for a long time?
Shugo: Yeah. He’s an extremely easy person to work with. People like him who can handle anything you throw at them, and return something creative to boot… they’re very rare.
—I understand that, generally speaking when the composer starts working, there’s no in-game visuals yet. Do you try and explain your image for the songs in writing?
Shugo: Well… mainly we just give them titles to work with. We give a name for the scene, and ask them to write something that matches that. We almost never explain what that specific scene or situation is about, though. It can actually turn out worse, you know, if you do a bad job forcing too particular an image on them.
—So you’ll say just say something simple, like “this is a song for a desert”, and that’s it?
Izuno: Yeah. Like Acchicchi Sabaku (Shifting Sand Land from Mario 64).
Everyone: Hey, that’s a different game! (laughs)
Shugo: It really is like that though. (laughs) When it comes to writing music that evokes a specific vista in the listener’s mind, there’s none better than Sakuraba. We have always wanted to make “progressive” games in the original meaning of that word. And when he writes music, Sakuraba naturally leans towards progressive rock. The fact that it’s not this contrived thing with him, that it’s what just comes out naturally, is what makes his stuff so good I think. That’s something we both share in common, and I believe it results in the visuals and music feeling very synchronized to players.
—Did the fact that this was a handheld/portable game inform the development in any way?
Shugo: No, we didn’t pay any mind to that.
Hiroyuki: Yeah, it’s almost the opposite… we deliberately tried not to think of it as a “handheld” game. (laughs)
—But the conveniences you’ve added, such as the ability to save anywhere and the sleep function… surely these were added in light of this being a handheld?
Shugo: Ah, yeah, in that sense, you’re correct. Those additions (saving anywhere and sleep function) were quite tricky to implement, though, and it was really easy for them to cause problems elsewhere. It’s funny, but the things that immediately impress players tended to be fairly easy for us to include, whereas the functions no one really notices were, in contrast, caused a lot of programming issues.
Izuno: They were a real pain to debug too. If you moved something on the map, like in a puzzle area, and then saved and reloaded, the thing you moved would be back in the original place and you’d be permanently stuck. That’s just one example, but yeah, there was lots of stuff like that in the debugging.
—One thing that I thought must have been tons of work was the Mind Read psynergy. Did you write messages for every NPC…?
Hiroyuki: That was tough too, yeah. When you’re reading their mind you’re seeing their true, hidden thoughts. So in each instance we had to decide whether this particular person’s dialogue was based on their thoughts, or whether they were thinking about something totally different.
—I kept thinking “this must have been hard for them…” as I played. (laughs)
Shugo: It was. Very very much so. (laughs)
Hiroyuki: That’s because this game is crazy. Normally we wouldn’t do all this. (laughs)
Shugo: It may be an RPG in form, but when you actually play it, you may find it’s closer to an action game.
—Why did you decide to split the story across two games?
Hiroyuki: To be honest, early on when I read the scenario, I realized that if we included the entire story then the playtime would probably reach over 100 hours. I had my doubts about whether such an epic length was appropriate for a handheld game… I thought 40 or 50 hours would be a better volume, you know?
Izuno: There was never a fixation on having it all be in one game. And we actually had the idea quite early, to switch protagoanists in the second half. We planned for Jasmine, Garcia, and Sheba to be the leads in part two.
—What! That’s interesting. But only the three of them?
Hiroyuki: You must be wondering about what happens to Alex. But that’s a secret. (laughs)
—When will the sequel be released?
Izuno: We’re aiming for next Spring.
Shugo: Whoa. No rest for the wicked.
Hiroyuki: I know, we’re asking a lot of the team. (laughs)
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