Guardian Heroes – 1996 Developer Interview

Guardian Heroes – 1996 Developer Interview

These interviews shed light on the inspirations, motivations and goals of lead designer and illustrator Tetsuhiko “HAN” Kikuchi during the development of Treasure’s Sega Saturn melee action game Guardian Heroes. The first interview, from Game Hihyou, shows HAN’s antipathy towards the adversarial nature of vs. fighting games and his drive to lead them in a more communal direction, a shift many developers continue to attempt today.

—What inspired you to make Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: First of all, I was starting to feel like the kind of games I like weren’t being made anymore. You could say Guardian Heroes was the result of my searching for what I personally still found fun about games. It was made through a lot of trial and error, putting together different elements that seemed fun to me—it wasn’t like I had this “amazing idea!” for a game right from the start.

—What was it exactly that you were chasing after, with Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: My first idea was that I wanted a game where you could beat up a ton of enemies. Such an approach has its pluses and minuses. If there are too many enemies, it can clutter up the screen and make it hard to see, but it also feels great to clear all those enemies away. Ultimately we decided to go for it, and that became the central idea for the game.

—So, that refreshing feeling you get when you clear the screen of enemies—was that the most important design choice?

Kikuchi: Of course it is important, but another critical element was making sure the characters and enemies had a lot of reactions, and even technically “pointless” moves and gestures. When it comes to characters moves, in the old days characters would just have a punch or kick, but Street Fighter II changed all that by adding many different kinds of punches and moves. Other games quickly followed suit.

Tetsuhiko “HAN” Kikuchi, designer / project leader.

With that in mind, I sensed that the more reaction patterns there were, the more ways there would be for players to enjoy the game. Letting a player do whatever they want—I think that’s one of the best things a game can do. In that sense, Guardian Heroes represents my attempt to create a belt-scrolling beat-em-up that could stand toe-to-toe with recent vs. fighting games.

—Is Guardian Heroes a beat-em-up, then?

Kikuchi: That was my basic concept, but almost all of the developers saw it as a vs. fighting game. There were certainly some gaps to be bridged, but I think we ended up merging the two nicely.

—Guardian Heroes mainly revolves around big group fights rather than 1v1 fights. Did you feel like that limited the fighting gameplay in anyway?

Kikuchi: No, not at all.

—How are you at vs fighting games, btw?

Kikuchi: I actually don’t enjoy competitive games like that. There’s already more than enough competition in the world these days. And for vs. fighters, it’s not easy to create a game where you can just enjoy it regardless of whether you win or lose—it’s slowly becoming a world where only skilled players can enjoy it. When there are two players in a competition, must they become enemies? I want a game where the players don’t have to be enemies, a game where you feel no bitterness or ill will afterwards.

—Have fighting games become boring because everything is about winning, then?

Kikuchi: I don’t think it could have turned out any differently, to be honest. And I definitely do not place any blame on the players. People pay money to play these games, so its only natural that they’ll do whatever they can to win. Game centers attract lots of people and everyone is paying to play, so I think it’s unavoidable. But my ideal is that those people would see each other as allies, not enemies. In any event, with things going at this rate, with developers being strong-armed to make games with shorter playtimes in order to generate more income, it’s getting harder and harder to make interesting games. I feel like the end is in sight for the era of the fighting game.

—Do you feel more possibilities in action games then, compared to vs. fighters?

Kikuchi: Dead ends are an inevitable eventuality, but I think there’s more time there. You often hear that STGs have reached a dead end, but I don’t think that’s true: thanks to the inflation of difficulty we’ve reached an impasse, but if you think about it from the perspective of what new ideas could be possible, I think there’s a lot left to be discovered for STGs. Action games also have a very long history now, and there are paths we’ve exhausted there too. But again, if one changes their mindset, there’s still a lot left to explore. The same might be said of FTGs, but when it comes to milking more income out of them, I think we’re pretty much done.

Concept art (with translated notes) for Guardian Heroes’ indomitable Undead Hero, the NPC ally that accompanies the player through the single-player story mode; not only does he represent one of the earliest examples of a CPU-controlled partner in a beat ’em up, he’s also an obvious example of HAN’s eagerness to accommodate players of all persuasions.

—Is it easier to create console games, where the player can leisurely enjoy the experience?

Kikuchi: I don’t think it’s a question of one being “easier” to make. And in fact, a more condensed experience can be better. I think games like Rayforce, where the fun is tightly packed into each moment, makes for a more solid game. Console games often have parts in them you don’t really want to play. But that dilemma you face in arcades—not being able to let players play for a long time—is definitely not a problem with the greater freedom of design in console games.

—Were there any games that influenced you when making Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator. Since that one came out, I’ve been too busy with development to play any games. Some of the other developers have been playing stuff like Virtua Fighter though, so a number of things from that (like “tetsuzanko”) made their way into Guardian Heroes.

—What was it you liked about Alien vs. Predator?

Kikuchi: There was just something about it, that when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Yeah! This is what I’ve been looking for!” It’s one of those games that just makes you feel like you’re a badass. I was really impressed by all the impossible acrobatic moves the Predators could do. I think you’ll clearly see that influence in future games I direct or design.

—Are enemies like the final boss and the royal magic robots, with their inhuman movements and attacks, an expression of that influence in Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: Yeah, one of my design ideas was to be sure to include non-human enemies and characters. My original vision for the many of the enemies and the last boss was something that would make people go, “wtf is that?!”… but I think ultimately I toned it down a bit. Something that truly looked as awesome as a god, after all, wouldn’t really be something you could put in a game.

Alien vs. Predator (arcade, 1994), a flagship title among post-SF2 belt-scrollers and an influence on Guardian Heroes.

—How satisfied would you say you are with Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: Satisfied? (laughs) We did all we could do—the best we could do with the time we were given, the team we had, and the circumstances. That pretty much sums up my feelings about that. However, if you were to ask me on my deathbed that same question, maybe I’d say 30% or 10%, but here and now, at the end of the development, I feel that it’s 100%.

—The general reaction to Guardian Heroes has been pretty mixed. Do you think players were confused by it being a new genre of action game?

Kikuchi: I think a schism has emerged between players and developers. In the early days, there was a sense that players and developers were searching for new styles and genres together; there was a kind of reciprocity between them. For example, if a game only allowed you to jump and punch, then players would explore all the different ways that mechanic could be realized in the gameplay. And for developers, if another company released a game in a certain genre, that developer would concertedly try to do something different.

But recently, there’s been an increasing number of players that show no interest in finding their own ways to play. Everything is becoming very passive, with players not wanting to do any work, but just sort of play a game as if they were watching a movie. And developers, too, have learned a system that consistently sells games: if something new comes out, they all just imitate that. Now you can call that cowardly, yes, but from our perspective at Treasure, we see this as a big chance for us. As more and more knock-off games proliferate, we think that by doing something decidedly new, players will take notice. It’s a good time for us.

—Half the players out there seem to be craving something new, while half of them won’t touch something if it isn’t familiar. I think it’s a difficult problem for developers.

Kikuchi: That’s true. There are lots of people out there looking for something new though, I think. We all have to work together if we want this industry to head in a positive direction. And I think developers need to realize that if we just keep putting out sequels, it might seem ok for the moment, but it paints a grim picture for the future.

—You’re saying players and developers need to keep the lines of communication open.

Kikuchi: Yes. But I do think it’s a mistake for developers to tell players what to do and what to like; developers should be very attentive to player’s tastes. I hate it when developers have this snobby attitude towards players, like “you people will never understand my game!” I mean, when developers brag like that, and the game turns out to be crap, they just end up getting themselves fired… so let’s stop that. (laughs)

—People often say that Treasure’s games are very difficult.

Kikuchi: The developers at Treasure all have their own various ideas about game design, and there is an element to some of those ideas that is somewhat hostile or indifferent to players. As a result, I think Treasure’s games are very difficult.

—Treasure definitely has the image of being a developer for the hardcore or “maniac” gamer.

Kikuchi: People use that label “maniac” a lot, but it’s easy to overlook the idea of “mania” contained within that term. People who experience mania about something are those same people who are looking for new and interesting gameplay styles. Without doing anything, those players seek us out. It’s nice, because it’s meant we don’t have to do a lot of specific market research to sell our games. The problem is the non-maniac, everyday gamer: if you don’t try to appeal to them somehow, your game will never get big. But that isn’t to say we want to dumb down our games for a general audience; on the contrary, I want us to find ways to uplift and attract them to us.

An early character comparison sketch featuring Serena Corsair, Han Samuel, Lucia Burger, Undead Hero, Reinhart Valgar, a soldier grunt and Macho Goro.

—I think Guardian Heroes has changed Treasure’s image somewhat. It’s like you’ve become a “major” company now.

Kikuchi: Yeah… though more than being a big developer, it feels more like we’ve become a “brand”. That’s great for the company and I’m happy for that, but to me personally it’s a little sad. I don’t want people to just see our games as the Treasure “brand”—I want each game to be looked at individually, on its own merits.

—I think becoming a “brand” is inevitable for a game company, once they get big enough. What are some of the challenges you see ahead for Treasure now that you’re there?

Kikuchi: Well, if we’re going to be major, I’d like us to live up to that, and try to get more and more players interested in our games. If we can create interesting games that really grab players’ attention, then I think we can lead those players in a good direction. I think there are things we must do if we get big. But what we lose is the ability, as a small company, to put out a hit game that unexpectedly takes the world by storm… and that is a little sad to me. (laughs)

—…is Guardian Heroes that very game?

Kikuchi: Well, I’m a little doubtful it will have that big an impact. (laughs) I’d like to make something even grander. My dream is to make a game so compelling that it would sweep up even those who normally don’t like games. I think that’s a good goal to have.

—Please give our readers a closing message.

Kikuchi: Hmm, now that’s hard. (laughs) Let’s all do our best together to make the game industry the best it can be. Your opinions are the drivers that change the gaming world. And I think that readers of publications like Game Hihyou are just the sort of people who, together with developers, can make that impact.

Guardian Heroes – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Sega Saturn Magazine

—What was your role in the development?

Kikuchi: At first, I wanted to be involved in everything (excluding the programming). Of course, I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t do it all on my own, so I became team leader and oversaw everything. I was in charge of character design, specifically.

—What was your development concept for Guardian Heroes?

Kikuchi: When I started the project, the catchphrase was “Exciting and Invigorating!” We had heard that the Saturn could do anything when it came to 2D, so I thought, let’s make a game with 100–, no, 200 enemies on-screen at a time! Of course when I saw the actual specs, I realized that wasn’t possible. (laughs)

—Is that when you decided to add RPG elements?

Kikuchi: Yeah, by adding character development and branching paths, it added variety to the stages. Also, because you’re free to allot the end-of-stage experience points however you’d like, the play experience is customized for each player. A skilled player could even decide to not assign any XP, and fight the final boss at Lvl 1. I think that breadth is the selling point for Guardian Heroes. Anyone can clear the game, though that’s not to say we want it to be a game you play only once.

—Is the versus mode in Guardian Heroes a kind of an evolution to the Makyou Toitsusen system used in Yuyu Hakusho?

Kikuchi: No, we weren’t attempting to re-create or re-do that system. But we did want to keep that fun aspect of Yu Yu Hakusho, which was more about having a blast with your friends rather than winning and losing. So you can think of Guardian Heroes as a more flashy version of that system.

There are a lot of characters with non-human forms, so I think it’s goes outside the boundaries of your typical versus fighter. It might be an exaggeration to describe it as “revolutionary” or something, but I do think players are going to be taken aback by it. That’s exactly what I want everyone to experience though, the joy of fighting with all these weird enemies.

Yu Yu Hakusho, which certainly resembles Guardian Heroes in some respects.

We’re still brimming with new ideas we want to include, so yeah, for those of you who have been waiting for something with vim and vigor, I think this will be the game for you.

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