Legend of Mana – 1999 Developer Interview
This lengthy Legend of Mana interview with both the story and battle teams was originally published in the official Ultimania guide. It covers all aspects of the development, including the art design, music, battle systems, and the unique omnibus story approach taken by the writers. There’s also a nice vibe of camaraderie among the team as they joke and poke fun at each other; one gets the sense that this group of people very much enjoyed working together.
Koichi Ishii (Director)
Hiroshi Takai (Battle Chief)
Toshiaki Matsumoto (Designer)
Daisuke Fukugawa (Designer)
—This latest Seiken Densetsu game is brimming with new ideas, like the artifact and “Land Make” systems.
Ishii: The basis of those ideas came from things I had initially proposed in the beginning of the SaGa Frontier development, such as the “World Make System”, the “Monster Ecosystem System”, and the “World Link System”. Akihiko Matsui, who I was working with at the time, suggested the Artifact system for event items, and that made it’s way into Legend of Mana. Speaking of SaGa Frontier, actually, I remember having lunches with Takai then and talking about the next game we wanted to make. “Let’s do something with TOTAL freedom!”, we said.
Takai: Yeah, and we’re both kind of contrarians at heart, so instead of a normal RPG, we were talking about making a game where you wouldn’t do anything. (laughs)
Ishii: “I want to just craft weapons all day.” Stuff like that. (laughs) The kind of game we were thinking of was more like an open sandbox game,1 where we’d just throw some tools in there, and then players could use them freely and do whatever they wanted.
The first thing we thought of, the World Link system, was all about taking the weapons you crafted and the items you’ve picked up, and connecting them in a single system. No matter what mechanics we added, we didn’t want them to feel like an afterthought or some mere “bonus” mechanic… but as a result, the volume of Legend of Mana really blew up.
Takai: We used every last bit of space on the CD-ROM, didn’t we.
Ishii: Yeah. If you look at the time, we used up all but the last 2 minutes worth of space on the cd. We were originally thinking, oh, this is a CD-ROM, we won’t have to worry about space like we did with cartridges…! But in the end we did worry about it—a lot. (laughs)
—This is also the first Seiken Densetsu game for the Playstation. How did that affect the way you approached the development?
Ishii: We knew that even if we kept the same overall world of Mana, we wanted to develop a completely new gameplay system. In truth, every Seiken Densetsu game has had a dramatically different system. And I suppose that makes it more meaningful and satisfying for the staff. This time, because all of our staff were very interested in that theme—a game built around the theme of player freedom, that is—each person undertook their role with a sense of responsibility. If even one person had been unenthused or lax, I think we probably couldn’t have completed it.
—After SaGa Frontier, I understand the staff for that game was split into two teams: one group went to work on SaGa Frontier 2 with producer Akitoshi Kawazu, and the other group worked on Legend of Mana.
Ishii: Yeah. That split was necessary because they’re completely different games: SaGa Frontier is a turn-based RPG, and Legend of Mana is an action RPG. Also, Takai had been involved in the SaGa series since way back, and I believe he wanted to challenge himself by making an action RPG (not just another turn-based game).
—Takai, I know you like pro wrestling… I bet you thinking an action RPG would allow you to put in some wrestling moves.
Takai: You’ve got my number. (laughs) Just as a little easter egg of course. With the combo system in SaGa Frontier, I felt that I’d taken turn-based RPGs as far as they could go, and the only thing left to try was a real-time combat system where you could move your characters around, hence my wanting to challenge myself with an action RPG.
Ishii: Oh, I thought pro wrestling was your main inspiration.
Takai: … well, no, I mean, it’s more like once I got involved in this development, I figured I’d try and sneak some wrestling stuff in. (laughs)
—Takai, I think someday you’re going to grace us with an RPG with a wonderful pro-wrestling action system.
Takai: Nah, I think it’s more fun for me to play a wrestling game than to make one, sorry. (laughs) But I do I enjoy forcing wrestling stuff into a game like this.
—Were there any wrestling moves you wanted to include, but couldn’t?
Takai: Joint locks. I always want to add them but it never seems to work out. This time, when I considered an enemy like a rabite, I realized there were no “joints” to lock. (laughs)
—I noticed there’s no penalty when you die and continue in Legend of Mana. There’s essentially no such thing as a “game over”.
Takai: I’ve always felt like it’s annoying being returned to the save screen. The idea for the automatic HP regen during battle came from a similar consideration… I mean, when your life gets low during battle, you’re going to have to heal one way or another, right? In those situations, if players are thinking about how to heal up, I’d rather they be focusing on ways to dodge and avoid incoming attacks instead.
—I see. By the way, you mentioned that SaGa Frontier 2 was being made by the same group at the same time as Legend of Mana. For Matsumoto and Fukugawa: why did you join the Seiken group rather than SaGa Frontier? Was it because you wanted to work on an action RPG…?
Matsumoto: Up to then, I’d worked on very edgy, dark games like Final Fantasy Tactics, but I wanted to try doing art for something with a more colorful and cheerful touch. Also, in those games I did before, they couldn’t spare a lot of memory for animation, so with Legend of Mana my hope was to create monster animation and movements on par with Capcom’s fighting games. (laughs)
Fukugawa: I had also just come from Final Fantasy Tactics, and wanted to do something with action… or at least, something with a distinct production workflow from the typical turn-based RPG development. I ended up working on the menus and gameplay systems, and I think I was able to come up with something new.
—I also noticed there are some common items shared between SaGa Frontier 2 and Legend of Mana…?
Takai: Our planner and the SaGa Frontier planner schemed together on that one, I think. (laughs)
Ishii: I think people who really love video games probably are playing SaGa Frontier 2. So there was a strong desire to appeal to SaGa fans, too.
—This Seiken Densetsu game definitely has the scent of SaGa Frontier about it.
Ishii: The idea of playing the game freely, however you want—yeah, you could probably call that a “SaGa-ism”. When I first joined Square, Kawazu and I used to talk about wanting to “explore fully what it meant for something to be a ‘game’.” In that sense, Seiken Densetsu is me pursuing a different path from Kawazu in answering that question, of what makes a game enjoyable.
—I think the sheer volume of Legend of Mana is an impressive testament to that search. Nonetheless, were there any elements you wanted to add, but couldn’t fit?
Ishii: The Land Make system was originally very different. It ended up getting simplified—in a good way.
Takai: There were lots of ideas, though they never got past the idea stage. One was that if you place an artifact on top of a land that already had an artifact, it would add some new institution or feature to it. Another idea was being able to combine two lands into a new unique one.
Ishii: Personally, I feel like the whole “land placement system” we’ve created here has only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I’d love to use it again and see how far we can take it.
Matsumoto: I had wanted to make “entry scenes” for the bosses. All the bosses have so much personality, and I wanted to highlight that with little opening cinematics… I was brainstorming these elaborately animated transformations and everything. (laughs)
Fukugawa: In the beginning, we had a system where pets could evolve and get stronger. Depending on how you bred them, you could have a Rabite and end up with a “Rabilion”, that kind of thing. For the Orchard, too, we wanted a more elaborate system with the fruit… it would rot if you didn’t tend to it, or you could do things to produce better crops and yields. Ultimately we left it out though.
Ishii: I had thought we’d be able to go a lot deeper on the pet and golem systems, honestly. But it proved impossible.
Takai: Yeah but, if we had done anything more there’s no way it would all fit into a single game. (laughs)
—Ishii, did you handle the monster design this time again?
Ishii: No, the older monsters are based off my designs, but the newer ones were mostly done by others. For the previous Mana games I did them all, but this time I wanted other members to experience the joy of seeing your own characters in a finished game, so I passed the torch on to the rest of the staff, including the new hires too.
—Chocobos make a long-awaited appearance in Legend of Mana, too—we haven’t seen them since the first game! As the creator of the chocobo, I imagine you’ve got a lot of strong feelings about them.
Ishii: No, not particularly. I ceded control of the chocobos long ago—they’re walking on their own two feet now. As long as children take joy in them, and find them cute and adorable, I’m satisfied.
Takai: They’re all grown up. (laughs)
Ishii: Actually, before I joined Square, my dream was to design characters for Sanrio… people often laugh when they hear that. “What?! Sanrio??? But that’s nothing like Square…?!!” (laughs) And that’s why it makes me extremely happy to see the Chocobos appreciated on the same level as Sanrio’s characters. The warriors of light, the vehicles like the airship—many of those characters in Final Fantasy were things I had kicking about in my head since I was child. Chocobos, mogs, and the monsters from Seiken Densetsu as well… I can’t really say I have a favorite, I love them all the same.
—The sprites in Legend of Mana are all hand drawn. Were polygons off the table from the beginning, then?
Ishii: My sense was that, given the Playstation’s graphical power, if we did the characters with polygons they wouldn’t look good enough to elicit the player’s empathy. The reality is that hand-drawn characters are still better at that, for now.
Matsumoto: I could see polygons working for characters like Mantis Ant, but bosses like Du’Inke, who have a lot of richly detailed facial expressions, it would look funky if we had to use angular polygons for that. (laughs) I’m really glad we went with traditional pixel art.
Ishii: As graphics processing improves, so too will polygon rendering, and I’ll be happy to use polygons when they can match the image of the characters in my head. That’s the key, you know—the characters have to feel like they’re alive.
Matsumoto: When the technology gets to that point, I’d love to try drawing a polygonal boss with cool transformations. Like, depending on what kind of elemental damage he taks, different parts suddenly change and transform.
Takai: It’s good to dream big. (laughs)
Matsumoto: Bosses, you know, in a way, they’re a huge part of the presentation of the game. With the grand appearances they make at the end of a scene, they’re critical “supporting actors”, in a good sense of the word, and I want them to delight players. So what I’m saying is, don’t just rush to defeat them right away—take your time and enjoy all their actions and animations! (laughs) If you grind and overlevel, yeah, you’ll have an easy time, but you should keep that in mind… anyway, this time, for Legend of Mana, we put an extra amount of care into the last boss. I’m really excited for players to see it.
Ishii: My hope is that people will first try playing with two players. Multiplayer has been a big part of the Seiken Densetsu games, and action RPGs are always more fun when everyone’s there yukking it up together, right?! Legend of Mana has again been made on that premise, that it’s more fun with another person, so I hope people try it that way at least once. Other than that, I hope players enjoy the freedom of finding their own unique playstyle.
Takai: It shouldn’t be a passive experience. We don’t want the game to play you—we want you to play the game!
Ishii: Exactly. Back in the day, people who played board games often came up with “house rules” of their own design. My hope is that Legend of Mana feels somehow nostalgic for those people… and for players who are used to the style and flow of video games today, I hope it’s an experience that opens their eyes to this whole other kind of game and playstyle. If Legend of Mana can succeed in provoking all those different feelings, then for that reason alone I will consider it a huge success.
PART II – The Story/Event Team
Masato Yagi (Story/Data)
Nobuyuki Inoue (Story/Event)
Miwa Shoda (Story/Event)
Shinichi Kameoka (Designer)
Koji Tsuda (Designer)
Noriko Sasaki (Designer)
Yoko Shimomura (Composer)
—The volume of content in the story was another thing that impressed me about Legend of Mana. You really crammed a lot of different events in there!
Yagi: Well, the Legend of Mana development began with everyone writing short little stories. From there we decided that Inoue’s Escad storyline, and Shoda’s Jewel Thief storyline, would be the main stories.
Ishii: After that, Yagi added the Dragon Killer storyline, which was focused on battles and the idea of telling a very mainstream, traditional fantasy story. We wanted the dragon to be stronger than any we’d ever featured in a game.
Inoue: And yet it ended up being rather weak. (laughs)
Shoda: Originally it was those three storylines which we were building the game around, but at some point we realized we wanted to feature the mana tree and those themes too, so at the end we added the mana tree events.
Inoue: We knew from the start of the development that we would be doing a multi-scenario game, with somewhere between 40 to 100 events. We ultimately ended up with 68, so I guess we hit the mark pretty dead-on.
—For those three main storylines, what themes were you hoping to explore?
Inoue: Escad was definitely love. (laughs) Love and justice, and all that. But I have to say, I had more fun writing Niccolo’s story, since I could make him say whatever I wanted. (laughs)
Shoda: For the Jewel Thief storyline, the main themes were the Jumi tribe, and just wanting to explore each character’s relationship to it. I didn’t want to say one side was in the right, but that everyone sees what’s right from their own perspective. For Elazul and Pearl, in particular, I wanted them to have satisfying character arcs. That’s why at the beginning of the story Elazul is something of a hooligan, and Pearl is kind of an idiot. (laughs)
Yagi: I wanted to depict the theme of “bonds” in the Dragon Killer story. In the very beginning of our planning, Larc and Sierra were not siblings, but lovers. Sierra gets brainwashed by Tiamat, but at the end she comes to her senses thanks to her strong bond with Larc. Shoda said that was too cliche though. (laughs) She also pointed out that “For a woman to show her weakness as a woman, it’s not very flattering.” For those reasons we changed them into brother and sister. So while the form may have changed a bit, that theme of bonds ended up the same.
—Was there much back-and-forth between the writers of each of the main three storylines, to make sure everything gelled together?
Shoda: Well, for the Dragon Killer story, my first idea involved the “Dragon’s Eye”, which just as it sounds, was a magical dragon eye which the party steals. That ended up becoming the Mana Stone. Other than that though, I didn’t really think about trying to connect up with the other stories.
Yagi: Now that you mention it, one thing we hadn’t anticipated was how central the Sproutlings would become to the story.
Inoue: When we had to include a demo disc with SaGa Frontier 2, we needed a character who could explain the world to the player, and the only option available was the Sproutlings… I guess by saying this, I’m revealing how little of the story we had completed when the demo was released. (laughs)
Sasaki: In terms of events, it’s not an easy one to unlock, but I definitely want players to experience the Gilbert: Love Boat story.
Inoue: It pretty much encapsulates all the themes of the game. If you play that, you’ll understand everything you need to about Seiken Densetsu. (laughs)
—Another new thing in Legend of Mana is being able to select the gender for the main character.
Ishii: Yeah, basically we wanted all players, whether male or female, to be able to select a main character who could be an avatar or stand-in for themselves.
Shoda: But Ishii, weren’t you saying you wanted a genderless option too. (laughs)
Kameoka: In the very beginning Ishii told us he wanted 8 different characters to choose from. Somehow we were able to convince him two was a better idea… or wait? Wasn’t it 4? I think that was the number we settled on at first…?
Yagi: It was, yeah. But due to scheduling issues we knew it was going to be impossible, so we didn’t tell Ishii and secretly changed it to 2.
Kameoka: I think there were supposed to be 15 different kinds of weapons too. That was another thing we had to convince Ishii wasn’t going to happen… I mean, if you give this guy free reign, he’ll spend forever making a game. He’ll never stop! (laughs)
Shimomura: We also talked about doing 100 songs minimum, in the beginning.
Ishii: Hey wait, that’s not right! All I said was, “Uematsu is writing 100 songs, so why don’t you do 50?” (laughs)
Sasaki: There were a ton of monsters to create too. Originally the idea was to have “evolutions” for the monsters, so that for a single monster we’d have to create five different varieties or evolved forms. That would have been over 300. Even worse, they told me they wanted the pet graphics to look different from the monster graphics… that’s why I drew that rabite with the red slanted eyes. (laughs)
Tsuda: Let me tell you, it was no cakewalk with these backgrounds either.
Ishii: Geez guys… maybe things would have gone more smoothly without me. (laughs)
Tsuda: At first there were 12 towns planned. I didn’t want to say “that’s impossible” before even trying, but when I got down to work, just as I expected, it became clear it wasn’t going to happen—and if I didn’t say something right away it could screw things up for everyone later. (laughs) So we reduced the towns down to 7. I thought only having one cave land would be boring, so we talked about doing 3 instead. There were supposed to be 3 forest lands too. The two different forests, the White Forest and the Jungle, are remnants of that idea.
—In the mystic city of Geo, there’s characters from the other Seiken Densetsu games in the temple, and other hidden easter eggs in the background there.
Tsuda: There’s so many cool characters from the previous games, we tried to include them there for a little extra mood and atmosphere. One of the maps we didn’t use had Vuscav (Booskaboo) from SD3 in the background too.
—How exactly did you go about creating the characters for Legend of Mana, by the way?
Kameoka: We were handed a list of potential characters, and together, a few of us selected ones we thought were interesting. Originally the characters didn’t have their genders specified, and we were given a lot of freedom.
Ishii: The one restriction for this game, though, was no simple human characters. So I think everyone struggled a bit with that at first.
Kameoka: Yeah, and after making Bud and Lisa (Corona), we couldn’t just keep adding characters with big ears as their only non-human feature.
Inoue: And Danae used up our quota for “tail” characters. (laughs)
Yagi: By the way, it just occurred to me, but why did we give Larc a tail like that?
Kameoka: That was something Masaki Otani (character designer) added on his own. It’s not a real tail though. It’s just an ornamental part of his armor.
Shoda: I didn’t know that. (laughs)
—The sheer number of characters in Legend of Mana is impressive, too.
Kameoka: I know, right? (laughs) It wasn’t something I realized while I was drawing them, but people have often remarked on how many there are. That impression probably comes from the fact that we didn’t re-use NPC portraits much, for people in the towns and such. Believe it or not, at first we had even more characters. We shaved it down to the bare minimum to make the towns feel adequately populated, but even then… there’s still so many.
Yagi: It seemed like every time an event got finished, there were more new characters. (laughs)
—Were the monsters designed in the same way as the characters?
Sasaki: Basically, yes. The very first monster designs were made by all of the designers getting together and throwing ideas around, and selecting the ones we liked best. The monsters from Seiken Densetsu 1, though, we left more-or-less the way Ishii originally designed them. Many of those older monsters have a beautiful simplicity, so we didn’t add much to them.
—There are a lot of cute monsters this time. The women on our staff here were making a fuss about the little cockatrice chicks, “Don’t hit them!!” (laughs)
Sasaki: I want players to get as many pets as they can… even if that means selling ones you’ve already got in your corral. (laughs) I hope players enjoy gathering them and watching them grow.
—Turning now to the music, I’ve heard some interesting stories. Is it true Ishii asked for one of the songs to sound like a pro wrestler’s entrance theme?
Ishii: The first boss theme Shimomura created was different from what I was imagining. I wanted something with a bit more vigor and energy.
Shimomura: Being a fantasy game, I thought something wistful and nostalgic would help unify everything, so I was honestly a little baffled when Ishii told me to make it like wrestling music. (laughs) And when I went to him asking what we should do for Escad’s ending theme, he looked at me with dead seriousness and said, “How about Enka?”
Inoue: Enka, oh yeah… it would have been great if we could have made that fit. (laughs)
—The opening and ending songs feature Swedish lyrics… how did that come about?
Shimomura: We wanted a song with a female vocalist that would fit the image of the game, and something which was neither English nor Japanese. For the world of Seiken Densetsu, we all felt that Northern Europe was an awfully close match. The skies, the greenery, the charming buildings and architecture, the abundance of water. So we did some research, and we liked the sound of this one Swedish vocalist the best, and we decided to have her sing in her own native tongue. Hearing the lyrics in Swedish like that was a real interesting experience for me. But probably because Japanese people aren’t very familiar with Swedish, it sounded like Cantonese to many. A bunch of the testplayer feedback cards asked “Is that Faye Wong?” (laughs)
—Who wrote the lyrics?
Shimomura: I did. They were Japanese first, and then we had them translated to Swedish.
Ishii: It was too wordy though, I remember.
Shimomura: Yeah, it wasn’t easy! First we translated it into English, then from English into Swedish… a two-step process. Just before the recording session, we made a lot of cuts and changes.
—Were there any songs you wrote which Ishii rejected?
Shimomura: Not many, but there were some. The songs I really loved though, I wouldn’t take no for an answer: “Now this here is great! This has to be in there!” (laughs)
Ishii: Thankfully the songs she pushed for the most were good ones that didn’t require much convincing.
Shoda: I love the music for the Bejeweled City.
Shimomura: It’s the last dungeon in the game, but there’s something very sad about it, a kind of emptiness, a feeling of fading away… I really like that one myself too! Looking at all the concept art, and then reading the stories, letting my imagination run free—I was blessed with the freedom to write the music I wanted to write, so it was a very fun experience. I hope the music blends in well and enhances the overall atmosphere and mood for players.
—Inoue, in addition to writing the story events, I understand you also wrote the Encyclopedias.
Inoue: The World Encyclopedia was basically just cutting and pasting Ishii’s background notes. There may be some contradictions with the dates though… like it says Dragoons live for several hundreds of years. (laughs)
—I heard you also wrote the Cactus Diaries. Where did that idea come from?
Inoue: The cactus wasn’t supposed to be anything special. But we all loved how it looked. One day Ishii said “let’s add a diary to the game” and that’s the shape it ended up taking. I actually wrote all the entries in just 2 hours…
Yagi: It was done in a flash. Suddenly it was in the game and none of the rest of us knew where it came from.
—Did you write them while actually playing through Yagi and Shoda’s stories, then?
Inoue: No, when I had to write them, I didn’t have time for that, so I just went to each writer directly and got the summarized version, so the diaries are pretty simple: “Today Elazul and Pearl showed up, had a little chit-chat, went to bed.” (laughs)
Kameoka: You sure you weren’t writing the story of your own life there? (laughs)
Shoda: I remember Inoue came over to me and asked for an explanation of my story, and while I’m sitting there trying to tell him about it, he suddenly stops me and goes “Ok, that’s enough”, and then he just left!
Yagi: Same here! For the Dragon Killer entry he just wrote some nonsense about dogs!
Inoue: Hey, I told you I didn’t understand it. (laughs)
—I think it adds a nice, albeit unexpected, extra bit of flavor to things though. Outside of the diary there’s a lot of other funny dialogue in Legend of Mana, but was that done intentionally, Inoue…?
Inoue: I don’t know about intentionally, but… I guess it’s just my default state-of-being. Nonsense words like “komakedara”, they just come to me and I write them down. I believe they call it channeling the spirits. (laughs)
Shimomura: Some jokes are references though. Like when Flamesh casts a spell, she goes “Papageno, papagena”, which is from one of Mozart’s operas.
Yagi: What about the kaichuu pupu? (US: Popo Bug)
Inoue: That one… also just popped into my head. I was drunk coming home one day, and when I got back I excitedly drew a rough sketch of it on a piece of styrofoam. (laughs)
Tsuda: Sounds like Taro Okamoto’s style. (laughs)
Yagi: For people who thought Legend of Mana had good dialogue… I wonder what they’re going to think after reading this.
Inoue: Probably “This guy’s crazy, but what are you gonna do?” (laughs)
Yagi: “I’ve been played for a fool by a fool.”
Kameoka: Maybe they’ll think “I can be a game designer too!”
Yagi: “Let’s channel the spirits.” (laughs)
Inoue: “Anyone can do this job!” (laughs)
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The term he says is “hakoniwa” (diorama), so “open sandbox” is anachronistic here, but it is an accurate description.↩