Kazuko Shibuya – 2013 Developer Interview

Kazuko Shibuya – 2013 Developer Interview

Kazuko Shibuya has worked as a designer at Square since 1986. Although relatively unknown in the west, she played an instrumental role in defining the aesthetic of both Final Fantasy and Romancing SaGa. She also translated the lush illustrations of artists like Yoshitaka Amano and Tomomi Kobayashi into pixel form. The occasion for this interview was her graphic design for the “Final Fantasy ~Thanks~” tribute album.

—Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. I believe this is the first time we’ve had the pleasure to talk with you. I’d like to start things off with some questions about your history. I understand that, before joining Square, you wanted to be an animator?

Shibuya: Yeah. When I was in middle school I was obsessed with Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, and I started drawings cels and doing my own animation for fun. In high school, thinking about my future career, I set my heart on becoming an animator and enrolled in a technical school. In addition to my studies, I also got a part-time job at an animation studio.

—Out of curiosity, what did you work on?

Shibuya: Obake no Q-taro, Area 88, Transformers…

—Wow, and those are all still famous today too!

Shibuya: Unfortunately, it turned out the work of an animator wasn’t very fun. (laughs)

—Right, animation production is highly segregated work. You can say you’re an “animator”, but there’s a big difference whether you’re doing key frames or inbetweening.

Shibuya: Exactly. After doing the actual work for awhile, I realized it was different from what I had expected. So I told my professor “I don’t think I want to be an animator anymore…”, and right around the same time I got a job offer from Square, where I’ve been ever since.

Kazuko Shibuya

—You joined Square in 1986. That was just before Square, who had been making PC games, got into Famicom game development. Were you familiar with Square before you were hired?

Shibuya: …not at all. (laughs)

—Then did you take the job without knowing anything about the company or the kind of work you’d be doing…?

Shibuya: All I knew was that it was a game company and I’d doing art and graphic work for them. I thought, “No problem, I can draw!” So I didn’t particularly care what kind of company Square was. I was like, “Famicom… I think I have one of those at my house?” For Square’s part, I think they thought it would good to have someone with animation experience if they going to get into the Famicom business.

—You must have been the ideal candidate then! And this Famicom you had in your home, did you ever play it?

Shibuya: Never! Even today I don’t play games at all. (laughs)

—After you were hired by Square, what was the first thing you worked on?

Shibuya: The illustrations in the instruction booklet for Alpha. My memory is a little spotty on this period though. (laughs)

—Between Alpha and the first Final Fantasy, you were worked on a large number of games.

Shibuya: We had so few people that work wasn’t discretely assigned, as in “who will do this?” Instead, if you weren’t doing anything, you helped out on whatever you could. I did a number of drawings for King’s Knight and Suishou no Ryuu as well.

A page from the instruction booklet for Square’s PC-88 sci-fi adventure game “Alpha”, showing some of Kazuko’s early (and anomalous, given her later focus on pixel art) illustrations for Square.

Working at Square in 1986

—How many designers were there at Square then?

Shibuya: When I joined, there was only one. A few more people joined later.

—It’s surprising that Square was able to put out so many games then, with such a small staff.

Shibuya: I also worked together with programmer Nassir Gebelli on 3D WorldRunner and Rad Racer.

—Ah, the legendary Nassir Gebelli!

Shibuya: With the race track in Rad Racer, being a 3D game, the way it was programmed is that it didn’t display single sprites, but rather drew the graphics line by line. Nassir would come by two or three times a week, and I’d end up sitting by him all day, pointing out how the courses should be drawn: “this part is grey, x pixels long, this part is red, y pixels long” and so forth. He’d sort all the pixels out in his head, creating a single racetrack.

—The sense of speed in Rad Racer was very impressive, I didn’t know it was made that way. It sounds like Nassir didn’t work at Square every day then?

Shibuya: No, he didn’t. And whenever he’d come we’d end up going out for dinner that evening, so it was a drinking party 3 nights a week. (laughs) Usually Nassir, Hiromichi Tanaka, Hironobu Sakaguchi and myself would go out.

—Wow, that’s an all-star cast right there. In March 1987 3D WorldRunner was released, and later in August, Rad Racer. Finally, in December, Square released Final Fantasy to the world.

Shibuya: I think Final Fantasy was made as a response to the impact of Dragon Quest.

—Dragon Quest came out in May 1986, and Dragon Quest II in January 1987. Did the staff at Square play Dragon Quest? Were they impressed by it?

Shibuya: I think they were. Someone had bought it, and I can clearly remember everyone standing around and watching someone play Final Fantasy.

—What impressed you, Shibuya, about Dragon Quest?

Shibuya: …the hero’s crab walk. (laughs)

—Yeah, in the first game the hero sprite as always facing you as he went about his adventure. (laughs)

Shibuya: I don’t know video games very well, so when I saw that, I was shocked: “huh, why is he doing a crab walk…?” Sakaguchi and Tanaka had played a lot of Ultima and Wizardry, so I think they were very impressed by Dragon Quest.

Designing Monsters with the “Amano touch”

—One of the most famous things you did in Final Fantasy was the opening scene graphics. At the time, I think many people were surprised by that scene: “so games can have this kind of presentation too…” I’m curious, but whose idea was it to add an opening scene like that?

Shibuya: I think it was Sakaguchi or Tanaka. “When they cross the bridge, I want to show a cut-scene picture.” But I remember we didn’t have enough memory to draw a whole picture like that, and we struggled with how to display it. We ended up doing some major economizing: for the top part of the picture we left it blank, and we layered many of the same sprites for the hills and ocean.

—How do you mean “layered” ?

Shibuya: I mean we’d draw a single sprite, then repeat it over and over in a line. If we wanted a certain accent in the scenery, we’d try flipping the sprite first. (laughs) As further space-saving measure, we made the foreground all black, depicting only the hill and the characters standing there.

—And yet those silhouettes are so cool. You can see the cape blowing in the wind, and the hem of the wizard’s robe.

Shibuya: Yeah, even when I look at it today, I can still tell who is standing where. It turned out that working within such limited means was a good thing for me. (laughs) I believe I was about 20 when I drew that.

—Wow! And you were also responsible for the character pixel art?

Shibuya: Yes. Although it was Koichi Ishii who came up with the original character designs.

—My understanding of the graphic design process for Final Fantasy was that, first, Amano created concept illustrations, then Ishii would use those as a base for a design closer to something you could use in a game, and then you would do the actual pixel artwork.

The famous intro from the first Final Fantasy.

Shibuya: Actually, Amano’s illustrations were only used as concept art. The characters that were used in the game were created first by us. But Amano did design some of the monsters. His designs were in black and white though. (laughs)

—So you tried to replicate Amano’s monster designs as faithfully as possible in-game, and the color choices were left to your judgment?

Shibuya: Well, I guess you can call it “judgment”, but the Famicom palette was limited, so you did what you could with the available color combinations. (laughs) Also, many of the monsters were designed by the rest of the design staff, including myself.

—Oh, you designed the monsters too!

Shibuya: Yeah. My drawings had something of the “Amano touch” then… I spent a crazy amount of time studying his art.

—By the way, do you have any interesting episodes to share from the development of Final Fantasy I?

Shibuya: During Final Fantasy we didn’t have many staff members. It took less than a year to develop, so it felt like it went by in a flash. I do remember how excited everyone was when Amano’s pictures first arrived in the office. We saw the illustration where the giant is extending his hand, and everyone was like, “Whoa!!”

Amano’s illustration for the Golem referenced by Shibuya here.

Sequels: Famicom, Gameboy, and Super Famicom

—With FFII and FFIII, the staff at Square increased, but did you continue to do help out in other roles, in addition to doing monster and character design?

Shibuya: Several people helped out with the monster design, but only me and one other person did all the graphics work in-game. By III we had a few more people, I think.

—So for FFII it was still a small team, then.

Shibuya: As far as I remember, it was Sakaguchi, Tanaka, Akitoshi Kawazu, two programmers, and two graphic designers. It was something like that.

—So, around 10 people?

Shibuya: Yeah. All of us worked in a room about this size (13 sq. meters).

—Really? This small?

Shibuya: Yeah. The two programmers had their desks against hte window, and at a desk in the middle of the room were Sakaguchi, Tanaka, and Kawazu. I sat facing the wall, there were no drawers to our desks, just two long, thin conference room tables. That’s where I did all my work. I’d raise my hand and call out “Sakaguchi-saaaan” and he’d come over. (laughs)

—I didn’t realize you were still working in such a small development room by FFII.

Shibuya: It was too small, so we were always fighting! (laughs) The programmers and the three of them in the middle were often quarreling… (laughs)

Square staff in 1986. Kazuko Shibuya is standing behind Hironobu Sakaguchi. To his left is Nobuo Uematsu, I believe; I’m not sure who the other staff members are.

—You must have all been in your mid-20s then, full of vim and vigor!

Shibuya: Yes, and by the same token, we were all very serious about our work.

—Games like that, made with everyone’s dedication, are the ones that haven’t lost their appeal after all these years. Square continued with FFIII, which seems to be where Square really turned the volume up on the Final Fantasy series.

Shibuya: With FFIII, I mianly did the monsters, battle backgrounds, and maps. The monsters in FFIII were a real struggle. Amano’s designs were full of color, and we didn’t have a lot of memory, so I struggled with how to display them properly.

—Is there a particular monster you had a hard time with?

Shibuya: The last boss, Kurayami no Kumo (Cloud of Darkness). If you look at Amano’s original illustration, she is standing upright. But just translating that pose to the screen wouldn’t really fill up the horizontal space of the battlefield, and it wouldn’t look like a proper last boss. I ended up doing a major remix on it to give it the proper majesty.

—Although you only arranged her upper half, the style is very reminiscent of Amano.

Shibuya: I had to redraw a lot of the monsters myself in that way, for FFIII. With big ones like Garuda and Hein, I’d take the pictures Amano had sent, pull up a pixel grid, and try to arrange them as best I could.

Shibuya’s art for Cloud of Darkness. Note the adaptation from Amano’s original.

—Ah, I didn’t know you did that kind of work. After FFIII, Seiken Densetsu came out for Gameboy.

Shibuya: This one also had a small development team. Ishii, Kitase, two programmers, a graphic designer (me), and one more planner.

—From a layman’s perspective, it seems like designing for the Gameboy would be very difficult. There’s more graphic restrictions, and it’s only black and white.

Shibuya: Actually, the Gameboy was easier. Working in black and white is actually easier to make decisions about color. You’ve only got black and three gradations. I often find color more difficult to work with–you start to get greedy about what you think you can do.

—Interesting! On that note, Final Fantasy IV was released almost at the same time as Seiken Densetsu. Were you also involved in that game?

Shibuya: Yeah. I didn’t work on any of the in-game data, but I did many of the nitoushin1 character illustrations.

—Like the characters on the Super Famicom cover art who are all lined up in a row?

Shibuya: Yes. I also did the illustrations those are based on. At the 25th anniversary Final Fantasy exhibition, I presented my sketchbook which had many of my FFIV nitoushin character illustrations in them.

—Your sketchbook?

Shibuya: Yes, of hand-drawn watercolors. There was no Photoshop back then. (laughs) Another job of mine during FFIV was interfacing with Amano. I’d been working with him since FFII, so I continued in that role.

—So you were Amano’s point of contact at Square?

Shibuya: He’d explain things to me like “this character should be like this” and so forth. It was an easy arrangement for me, and I think for him too. I still work with him in the same capacity today, actually.

Shibuya’s sketchbook on display at the 25th anniversary Final Fantasy exhibition.

Romancing SaGa and Tomomi Kobayashi

—You were also involved in the Romancing SaGa series for the Super Famicom. Did you work on each game?

Shibuya: No, I only worked on I and III. After the first Romancing SaGa, I returned to Final Fantasy, so I didn’t work on the sequel. Geez, I really moved all over at Square… I don’t think there was anyone else who moved around as much!

—On Romancing SaGa, you worked on the characters. Whereas Yoshitaka Amano did the concept illustrations for Final Fantasy, here it was Tomomi Kobayashi. When you did the in-game graphics, were consciously thinking about the differences between those two artists?

Shibuya: I get asked that a lot, but no, not especially. With the monsters in Final Fantasy, I spent a lot of time looking at Amano’s art, so that’s how the graphics for Final Fantasy turned out. With Romancing SaGa I had Tomomi’s work close at hand and referred to it often as I drew, so Romancing SaGa just naturally looks like that. (laughs)

—By the way, you mentioned earlier that with the Final Fantasy characters, you created them before Amano’s concept art. With SaGa Frontier, which came first: Tomomi’s illustrations or you own designs?

Shibuya: Tomomi’s came first this time. For the original Final Fantasy, you know, there were a lot of nameless characters: Warrior, Thief, and so on. But in Akitoshi Kawazu’s world of Romancing SaGa, every character had a name and a detailed background, so Tomomi was asked to do all the concept art before we did anything. I would visit Tomomi’s at her house and talk with her about the art, then bring back illustrations she’d done for the team to see. Since I’d worked with Amano in this way, I worked with Tomomi too. I again did the in-game character graphics, but Tomomi and I got along really well, and it strengthened my personal attachment to the work.

The Romancing SaGa team at a special live event earlier in 2013. L-R: Kazuko Shibuya (designer), Tomomi Kobayashi (artist), Kenji Ito (music), Akitoshi Kawazu (director), and Masanori Ishikawa (Emperor’s Saga producer).

—Wow, it’s surprising how much you’ve done at Square.

Shibuya: Aside from drawing, that kind of communication was my speciality. (laughs)

—The next games you worked on were FFV and FFVI. As the memory on SFC cartridges was expanding, so to did the breadth of expression Square’s games could achieve. FFIV was an 8mb ROM, FFV was 16mb, and FFVI was 24mb. You had advertisements proclaiming the appeal of “EXPANDED MEMORY!”, but it really did feel like Square’s games took a step forward in both graphics and content.

Shibuya: That’s true. I remember doing an magazine interview with Sakaguchi about FFV and saying, with some exasperation, “There were too many damn jobs!!!” (laughs) All I did for a year was character graphics for those jobs.

—There were five characters in FFV, and over 20 different jobs. So if you had to create job graphics for all of them, that would be over 100… and you did all those?

Shibuya: There were two of us working on the jobs, but we had to do everything for them, including the designs. It was insanely difficult.

Later–right after FFVI was finished, actually–Kawazu asked me to come work on character graphics for Romancing SaGa 3.

—The Final Fantasy and SaGA series both continued on the Playstation after that.

Shibuya: I worked on SaGa Frontier and SaGa Frontier 2, alongside the same staff that made Romancing SaGa 3.

—With the system now changing to Playstation, did the development platform also change?

Shibuya: On SaGa Frontier I used 3D graphics tools and did the modeling myself. I’d create the basic animation and pre-renders this way, then touch them up with pixel work.

—Oh, I didn’t know that you also did 3D CG modeling. I was mistakenly under the impression that you only did pixel work, and weren’t involved with 3D.

Shibuya: Whatever I could do, I did. Of course I’m not familiar with the latest, modern 3D tools today, but I do have a solid understanding of the theory behind 3D graphics, and that experience still helps me today.

—Speaking of your experience, when I see the “banzai!” victory dance of the Final Fantasy characters, or the dancelike poses the characters make while fighting in Romancing SaGa–in those instances I feel that your experience as an animator served you well. I can see how it helped to create more enchanting and convincing characters given the limited animation frames available.

Shibuya: Yes, definitely, my experience as an animator was invaluable to me.

—I especially liked the way that one character in Romancing SaGa would spin around and strike a pose.

Shibuya: That movement was created by one of the planners. He wanted to make a proper pose that involved kicks or something, but when it was done it looked like the sprite was spinning around. (laughs)

Shibuya's beautiful pixel art for SaGa Frontier 3.

—A lucky accident! She spins so beautifully, I was really impressed. Interesting that it came about that way…

Shibuya: Back in the day we were all very good at turning our lemons into lemonade. (laughs)

—Following SaGa Frontier 2 you worked as graphic director on Blue Wing Blitz for the Wonderswan, but after that we saw less of your name in Square’s games.

Shibuya: I continued to work at Square, but I started doing less graphics work. I did help out on FFIX after that, though.

—What did you do?

Shibuya: FFIX was developed in Hawaii. One day, right after I had got back from vacation myself, I came to the office and received a one-line email from a fellow staff member: “Want to go to New York and Hawaii for free?” I asked what he meant, and then another cryptic one-line reply: “Ask ___ in the ___ department about it.”2 (laughs)

—Hah, that doesn’t explain anything! (laughs)

Shibuya: That’s the kind of person he was. (laughs) So I asked him about it, and was told: “The truth is, Amano is based in New York right now. Could you meet with him and talk to him about the art for FFIX, then bring his drawings back to Hawaii?” (laughs) I was between projects at Square so I said yes right away, and was off to New York the next day.

—Hah, it all sounds so casual.

Shibuya: From Japan to New York, and then to Hawaii… I did that about three times in two months. It was a good experience for me. During one of the trips Amano was having an exhibition in New York, and I got to attend it with him.

—Interesting. I had no idea such things were going on behind the scenes of the FFIX development!

Menus and Fonts

Shibuya: Shibuya: Actually, while I was involved in that for FFIX, the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles team was being formed. I did the menus for that game.

—Not the characters or the backgrounds?

Shibuya: I like designing interfaces too. Actually, I was the one who made the menus for the Famicom era Final Fantasy games, too. I created the 8×8 pixel sized font and drew the menus myself.

—Ah, you did the menus too? I didn’t know that either.

Shibuya: With Final Fantasy I and II, we only had two people to do all the graphics, so I did the menus. I also did the spell and item effects. Doing that gave me experience with all the different aspects of graphics work that go into a game.

—It doesn’t get talked about much, but I feel like the menus in the Final Fantasy series contribute greatly to the world of the games. The deep, navy blue windows bordered by those white tubular lines, and the finger-shaped cursor… many games after Final Fantasy followed that model.

Shibuya: Yeah, I designed that finger and the backgrounds as well. So when I was put in charge of the menus and fonts for Crystal Chronicles, it was very natural for me.

The iconic look and feel of the FF menu.

—How do you go about designing an original font?

Shibuya: I had a celtic-ish image in mind for Crystal Chronicles, so I based my font design on that. At that time the menu design section at Square was a part of the effects group, so I also helped a little on the effects. When you enter a town and the town’s name is written out in calligraphy, that was also done by me.

—You really have done a lot at Square.

Shibuya: Well, no one asks much about these things. (laughs) My job title says “designer”, so my work is to design all manner of things. But I think many people have the impression it’s only pixel art.

—I think most fans probably don’t know about your work outside of pixel art.

Shibuya: My name appeared in the credits for Crystal Chronicles, so perhaps someone saw it and thought “eh, she did the menus, not the characters?” But I’ve been doing all kinds of different work since the beginning. I think if I had stuck to doing just character art, I would have eventually found myself in a blind alley. I was really happy, therefore, when I was asked to do the menus for Crystal Chronicles. I drew manga and did illustration when I was in college, and there’s a decorative element that I like there, which is also important in menus.

—Someone who aspired to be an animator, challenging herself and taking an interest in user interfaces… not to be rude, but it’s a little weird.

Shibuya: Hehe. (laughs) Find something interesting in whatever you encounter–that’s my motto. After Crystal Chronicles, I worked with the same team on Code Age Commanders. I’m credited there as “menu designer.”

The Process of Pixel Art

—I believe it was around this time that Square opened the “Pixel Craftsman – Kazuko Shibuya” website.

Shibuya: The SquareEnix Members website had a browser-based web tool, “GAME BRAIN”, where you could make a simple game yourself. It would look like a Famicom game, with pixel graphics. The person who made that site then asked me to do the “Pixel Craftsman” site.

—I believe the idea was that even someone with no experience could learn the basics of pixel and sprite art. It begins with drawing characters, and later expands to objects and backgrounds. What really surprised me in those lectures, though, is when you said: “When I make a sprite, I imagine everything in my head before I start creating it on the monitor.” Do you really not do any rough sketches? You just dive right into the pixel work?

Shibuya: Yes, even today I don’t draw on paper. In truth, I think the 3D experience I’ve had helps me out here.

—How do you mean?

Shibuya: (points at cover of CD jacket) In my mind, these characters all moving around in 3D.

—Really? Although you drew all these characters in side profile, you’ve got a detailed image of them in your mind… front and rear view, off-angle… even moving about?

Shibuya: (while gesturing at the space in front of her) It’s sort of like this empty box of space here–in three dimensions.

—So when you imagine the characters, they sort of float there in your mind’s eye?

Shibuya: Well, it’s probably more correct to say that I imagine the Maya3 computer screen that I’ve worked with. (laughs)

—(laughs) So you can rotate these images around freely in your mind. Do you imagine them in a blocky, pixellated way?

Shibuya: No, I imagine them as unpixellated, three-dimensional nitoushin models. When I go to draw them as sprites, whenever I encounter a question like “Is this right?”, I just rotate that image in my mind and check.


Shibuya: There’s lots of poses I have to create that aren’t just side-profile, too: kicks, chanting spells, death poses. Those are also fully imagine in my head in 3D first. It might sound strange to hear this, but in fact, it’s only in my mind that all these characters are perfectly depicted.

—Incidentally, during your Pixel Craftsman lecture, you weren’t doing any game-related pixel art, were you?

Shibuya: No, I wasn’t. But shortly thereafter I was asked to help on a new cell phone game, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. That was the first time in 10 years I did new game pixel art.

—You also did pixel art for the android/iphone game Final Fantasy Dimensions in 2010.

Shibuya: Yes, although my title then was Art Director for the Mobile Contents division, so I helped out on Final Fantasy Dimensions in between my other duties. Someone would ask me to take a look at their design, and I’d give some assistance as best I could: “This font doesn’t really match the feel of the game, why not try this one?” or “This menu could be improved on” and so on.

—I see. Even though your names appears less on the staff rolls, then, you’ve actually continued to be involved in a number of titles.

Shibuya: Yeah, and actually, this isn’t known by the public I think, but I also did art for Dragon Quest.


Shibuya: When we ported “Dragon Quest Monsters WANTED!” to smart phones, the producer asked me to make some improvements. I worked on the monsters some, but my main job was the battle backgrounds. I created a variety of scenes by myself and presented them to the subcontracted developer. They used about three or four of the backgrounds I made. As I drew them I wondered to myself, “How many years has it been since I did this?” (laughs)

—Today Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are both made by the same company, Square-Enix. It’s something no one could have imagined back in the Famicom and SFC days.

Shibuya: Yeah, it was surprising. I remember thinking, “a new era has finally dawned!” (laughs) But taking responsibility for the Dragon Quest series means you’ve got to do it right. If it’s Dragon Quest, it’s got to have that Akira Toriyama look, so I studied his pictures intensely. I looked at his style of technique to make sure my backgrounds matched the feel of the Dragon Quest monsters.

One of Shibuya’s backgrounds for Dragon Quest Monsters: WANTED!

—Did you also look outside of Dragon Quest, at Toriyama’s manga work, like Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball?

Shibuya: Of course. I tried to draw it like Toriyama would if he were doing Dragon Quest today. The first one I drew was the plains, and the producer told me when he saw it, “You can tell this is Dragon Quest the minute you look at it.” I was very happy.

—Yes, that first impression is very important with pictures. It’s mysterious, but somehow you can tell right away, even from a simple grassland background, “oh, this is Dragon Quest” or “this is Toriyama.”

Shibuya: Yes, it was fun to delude myself that I too was now a Dragon Quest developer. (laughs)

—Your latest work was the smart phone game Final Fantasy Dimensions, released in August 2012. You were saying you touched up the graphics for the android/iphone ports?

Shibuya: Yes. That was also a very difficult project. The size of the sprites was huge. These sprites here (points to the CD jacket) were only 16×24, but the sprites for Final Fantasy Dimensions were 48×48.

—That’s 6 times larger than an old 8×8 sprite.

Shibuya: It’s what the size of a mid-boss would be back then, so it was really difficult. If you made the sprites any bigger, I don’t think they could be drawn as pixel art.

—Was it a new challenge for you, drawing sprites this size?

Shibuya: It was. Although, sadly perhaps, my method for drawing them hadn’t changed in 25 years.

—How do you mean?

Shibuya: Basically, I use no special graphics tools. There’s nothing to make the work any easier. (laughs)

—Thanks to advances in technology, CG and music composition tools have gradually become more and more sophisticated, but pixel art still must be done the old way, 1 pixel at a time, right?

Shibuya: Yeah. But having made it through, I felt once again “my skills have progressed.” (laughs)

—I was under the impression you were already a master, but you’re saying you still had room to grow?

Shibuya: Yeah. If I keep working in this large format, I can probably do an even better job in the future.

Larger enemy sprites from Final Fantasy Dimensions

—And I imagine the number of colors available also increased?

Shibuya: They did, but it was only about 32 colors available. If you make the sprites big, and take off all restrictions on color, I’d never finish for sure…. (laughs)

—Is it difficult teaching people pixel art?

Shibuya: It is. The first thing I ask people is: did you study drafting in school? can you sketch figures?

—So even with pixel art, it all lies in the basics of draftsmanship?

Shibuya: Yes! If you can’t draw, you won’t be able to do pixel art either.

—To a layperson, it must seem that the techniques used in realistic drawings are completely different from those used in pixel art… but I guess that’s not the case!

Shibuya: It’s because good draftsmanship is what allows you to depict shapes and forms accurately. As the size of sprites gets larger, it’s even more important.

Most people, to achieve a sense of solidity to their sprites, will use a lot of shading to create contrast. In my case, it’s the opposite: I try to create a sense of “depth.”

—That makes me think of Amano, whose pictures have a strong sense of depth to them. The contrast is low in a lot of his work, with almost no highlights. It creates a soft kind of depth.

Shibuya: With pixel art, whenever I add strong shading I keep a close eye on the overall balance of the sprite, modulating as I got. Adding too much shading can be bad: you should add no more than is needed.

—Is it difficult to explain that kind of depth to others?

Shibuya: It can be. Instead of trying to write an e-mail or explain it in words, I think they understand more clearly if they see me drawing. So periodically I’ll meet with them and show them what I’m doing.

—What you said about rotating the image in 3D in your mind and then recreating it as pixel art–that also reminds me of an artist doing a rough sketch of a model.

Shibuya: Yeah. Now that I think about it, they are the same process. When drawing, first you start with a general shape, adding shading bit by bit. Then you look at the empty space and more precisely define the different parts/limbs, adding or subtracting shading as you go. And it’s the same kind of process with pixel art for me.

I’ll have a few general poses in mind for a character, and then it’s just a matter of figuring out which one works. In some cases where the upper half of a character is good, but the bottom half isn’t working, I’ll just delete the entire bottom half. (laughs) Then I’ll take another fresh look at it and start over.

—Start completely over?

Shibuya: Yeah. When I’m stuck like that, trying to figure out what to do, I find that my confusion just multiplies. (laughs) If I notice something doesn’t look right with a character, I’ll try removing all his clothes and armor. Then I might realize his arm should be further from his body, or that the hip joint was off. When you get lost, it’s best to start from zero.

—Again it sounds like all the experience of figure sketching and animation has been extremely useful to your work with games.

Shibuya: When I was a student in high school I was a part of the art club for a long time. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study with an excellent teacher there. I’ve been in the game industry for a long time too, so all my accumulated experience has helped me out…. but, still, I don’t play games. (laughs)

—How can that be, when you’ve been in the industry for so long!

Shibuya: Not playing games helps me be more objective with my work, I believe. (laughs) But I wouldn’t say that I especially dislike games or anything. I play some online games from time to time. I’m awful at them–I have no sense for games.

I also never read game magazines or other publications. I try to keep all extraneous information out of my mind, so I can have a flat, objective attitude for every project.

—And copying other company’s games certainly won’t lead to anything innovative or cool.

Shibuya: I know, right? For me, I think it’s more helpful to broaden my mind through other things, like travel.

Memories of Final Fantasy Music

—Those are the kind of personal experiences that fuel creativity. I’d like to shift gears now and ask you about the “Final Fantasy Tribute ~Thanks~” album that you did the cover art for. You’ve had a chance to listen to it now, I’m sure?

Shibuya: Yeah. It’s great. Listening to it brought back all kinds of memories for me… all kinds of debugging and playtesting memories, that is.

—I see. The music brings back memories from the times you worked on the games?

Shibuya: Yeah. It’s great. Listening to it brought back all kinds of memories for me… all kinds of debugging and playtesting memories, that is.

—I see. The music brings back memories from the times you worked on the games?

Shibuya: Right. Not the content of the games per se, but rather the time we spent creating them. (laughs)

The cover for “Final Fantasy ~Thanks~”

—Stuff like, “I remember how crazy our schedule was then…” and so forth?

Shibuya: Right, right. The building we worked in, where I was sitting, who was around me at the time, that kind of stuff. It’s really nostalgic for me! The first song on the second disc, the Final Fantasy V main theme, reminds me of the FFV opening and ending graphics that I drew.

—Ah, you mean the scene where Butz and the Chocobo are running across the Final Fantasy V logo! That was very memorable, but I didn’t know you did it?

Shibuya: Yeah, that was me. For the ending scene, everyone is together on chocobos (Kururu is on the wind drake Hiryuu), riding across the plains. It’s in a 3/4 perspective. I created that scene after all the other development had been done, including the music. So when I listen to the music now it really brings back the time I spent drawing it.

—Yes, music has that power. Did Nobuo Uematsu work in the same office with you back then?

Shibuya: The music staff worked in a separate, soundproofed location. The last time Uematsu was sitting together with us was at the Ginza office, I think.4 By the time we released FFI and were working at the Okachimachi office, he was already separated in another room.

—I see. Then it was during the final debugging stage of development that you heard all these songs for the first time, hence your memories of the debugging.

Shibuya: Right. Oh, and while I have fond memories of all the Final Fantasy titles, the one I did the most debugging and playtesting for was Final Fantasy VI.

—As the last Final Fantasy on the Super Famicom, it had a huge amount of content.

Shibuya: Yeah, I worked on it all night, night after night. But every morning they’d give me an updated ROM… unfortunately, in a single day, someone as bad at games as myself could only reach the midpoint of FFVI, where the world is destroyed. (laughs) So every morning I’d come into work for another day of debugging, feeling a little dejected, thinking “Here we go again, another day of searching for Gau on the Veldt…..”

The Veldt, from the FFVI OST.

—That section must be quite memorable for you, but not in the way it is for most players. (laughs) As a fan, hearing nostalgic music like brings back memories of playing at a friend’s house, staying up all night to beat the game… friends you had from that time in your life, who you haven’t seen in forever… and so on. I think many people’s memories are connected to Final Fantasy in this way.

Shibuya: It makes me very happy to think that Final Fantasy takes up even a single page of someone’s memory. It makes me happy, and it also inspires me to keep going, there’s work yet to do! (laughs)

—With the “Final Fantasy Tribute ~Thanks~” album, I think many fans will have a new chance to get to know you and your work. Have you had any feedback from them yet?

Shibuya: Yes, people were tweeting about it to me. There were people who knew about me from before, but there also some comments like: “I didn’t know these were drawn by a woman?” There have never been many women working in the game industry, so I hope my work can serve as a small inspiration to them. Although, it can be a difficult work environment for a woman… (laughs)

—As you drew the sprites for this cover, did seeing any of your older work make you think “I sure was inexperienced back then…”

Shibuya: Of course I think “I wonder why I drew it like that?” But that older work has a strength and vigor of its own, so I don’t think “I need to fix that.” They’re important milestones to me.

—How did you approach re-doing the sprites for this cover then?

Shibuya: I would say they represent a more “refined” approach.

—Who was the hardest character to draw?

Shibuya: It might be surprising, but Zidane from FFIX. His hair was very difficult to get right.

Closing Thoughts

—Of all the characters you’ve drawn in your career, are there any you have a special affection or attachment to?

Shibuya: Not really. When I draw, I pour all my love into what I’m drawing… so I can’t really think of any one particular character who stands out.

—What about the Black Mage?

Shibuya: I definitely like him, and he has his little details: “The Black Mage has to look like this!” But then, so does every character. Butz has his charm, Tina has hers… when I’m in the midst of drawing them, I feel that kind of affection for each of them. But as time goes by I become more objective and neutral about them.

—Is it because the turnover for different projects is so quick?

Shibuya: Exactly. When I go to draw something new, I don’t use my past works as a reference. A new game, a new story, and new characters: everything starts over from zero.

—You never re-use previous poses?

Shibuya: Nope. All the poses I draw are done only with reference to the character I’m thinking about at that time. For job changes too, I always start from zero: “if this character changed to this job, how would it look?”

—And that gives each character his own originality.

Shibuya: Well, there’s limited space with pixel art, so some poses will inevitably resemble each other. And there just aren’t that many different variations for things like taking damage and casting spells. So in the end some characters look similar–perhaps almost the same as another character–but either way, I never look at my older stuff as a reference. “This pose for this character only” is my rule.

—Finally, do you have any messages or advice for young people reading this article?

Shibuya: To those aspiring to the game industry today (and those already in it), my message is: the fundamentals are important. I think this is true not only in art, but in sports and everything else. If you have a solid grounding in the fundamentals of art, you can handle most anything that comes your way.

—For art that would be draftsmanship, but it’s definitely true for programming, music composition, and writing too. Every field has its basics, the axle on which everything else turns.

Shibuya: Yeah. Also, this advice is especially for those doing art and graphics: be observant of everything around you, and try to have a view of the world that extends beyond your desk and PC. You can’t use google images for all your research!

—Yes ma’am!

Shibuya: There’s no substitute for experiencing things with your own two eyes, taking in the whole atmosphere and context directly. A designer must hone all five of her senses. Vision, hearing, and smell and touch too. They are all connected to creativity. The more experiences you have to draw from, the more depth you will be able to impart to your creations.

I personally love to travel and go on trips often. One memorable scene was when I climbed Ayer’s Rock: the air, the wind, the wide open sky. Another time I saw a brilliant red sunset illuminating a mountain range in New Zealand. I remember a Swiss woman standing beside me exclaiming, “The mountains are burning!” (laughs)

Aside from travel, you can glean a wealth of experiences from your daily life, too. Let these be the raw materials for your art.

—It’s true that nowadays you can easily find scenery from all over the world on the internet, but no matter how much material you gather in this way, it can’t compare to the experience of actually being there. In any event, after our talk today, I’m glad that more people have learned about your work: not only as a “pixel craftsman”, but also your work with fonts, menus, backgrounds, and as an all-around coordinator for Square’s games.

Shibuya: Well, I don’t have too many chances to talk with the public, so I’m a little embarassed somehow. (laughs) The characters in Square games live in another “world” that I, too, try to thoroughly inhabit when I’m creating them. No matter what I’m working on, be it pixel art, menus, or background art, I always to make things that are beautiful, that feel right.

Of course, you can’t just egotistically push your own ideas. But on the other hand, if even a single part of a creation feels wrong, or I have some doubt about it, I won’t give my OK to it. On that point, I don’t waver.

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. The Japanese term “ni-toushin” refers to a character illustration where the body and head have the same size. While the promotional art here obviously qualifies, so do the typical 8/16 bit era Final Fantasy character battle sprites.

  2. She doesn’t give the person’s name unfortunately, so the flavor of the anecdote is mostly lost.

  3. A 3D rendering and design tool.

  4. Square’s original office was in the Ginza district of Tokyo. They were there from 1986 to 1987.

1 comment

Leave a comment

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