Popolocrois Monogatari – Developer Interviews

Popolocrois I&II – Developer Interviews

These two PoPoLoCrois interviews cover the making of Sugar & Rockets' heartwarming (but often overlooked) RPGs for the Playstation. The first, found at the GSLA archive, discusses general concepts and inspirations, while the second, from The Playstation magazine, explores the characters and story of the sequel in more detail. A long-awaited translation patch was finally released for the first game in September.

Ritsuko Hisasue - Game Design
Yukio Umematsu - CG Designer

Hisasue: When the planners first came to me to talk about a new game, there was already a whole original world they'd created. And our job would be to turn that world into a game. So this world was already there, and we were going to create the game system entirely from scratch. The first thing we did was decide on the isometric (quarter-view) perspective. I had helped out on the map design of an isometric game before, and it was very interesting work. I had a lot of fun doing those drawings. So that was how I got involved.

As for the game's concept, there was a feeling that, with the incredibly talented animators we had on-hand, it would be a crime not to use them for animation. That was one of our big design premises. Apart from that, we wanted to create something that would make full use of today's new hardware. It was kind of like we were aiming for that same "wow!" feeling of progress that players got when they saw Dragon Quest II for the first time. With the hardware back then, developers had no choice but to abridge and omit things, but even today that continues to be the case with a lot of things.

When a character gets into a bed at an inn, for instance, most games won't show them actually getting into the bed—they just show a kind of "abbreviation" of that action. Or think about the way the backgrounds and characters don't really match up a lot of the time, the dissonance there. We wanted to make a game that removed that feeling, and depicted those little things without "faking it".

The huge volume of sprite animation in Popolocrois gives it the cozy, lived-in feel that the developers were aiming for (and the fans love still today).

Umematsu: Yeah, getting into bed… that's never shown in games. But I think ultimately, the players still know what's trying to be conveyed. Small expressions and reactions, those weren't easy to create, but I think they've contributed to Popolocrois being a good game.

Event scenes, too, the player is being deprived of the freedom to move around and interact. That's why we thought we should have a variety of animation and action, linked to the dialogue, to make it feel alive. We're trying to make player smile wherever we can.

Hisasue: I think there are two main perspectives from which one can look at the character of Pietro. One, is you can play him while remembering the feelings of your own childhood, and two, you could see him the way a parent sees a child. I bet a lot of people feel the latter, and see the combat as a kind of protection-style game where you're watching over him. In either event, we were thoughtful of older people's experience, players from their mid-20s through to their 40s and 50s.

For example, in Ultraman there's that kid Hoshino-kun, right? He's not a member of the team. When I was a kid watching Ultraman, I didn't relate to Hoshino at all. I would get more excited imagining I was an adult member of the Ultraman team. I suspect that kids aren't very interested in other kid protagonists.

That's why, rather than going for your typical kiddy shonen manga feel, we aimed for nostalgia, something that feels more familiar and close to your everyday life. We tried to pack the game with moments and feelings like that.

These ads were part of an 8-page spread in Famitsu showing the "Adult Popolocrois Monogatari", which imagined Pietro as a salaryman going to hostess bars, having drinks, and doing other "adult" things around town. Hisasue's comments above suggest these ads perhaps had more thematic resonance than meets the eye.

Umematsu: I tried not to look at other companies games when making Popolocrois. I knew it would influence me to want to copy them.

Hisasue: We don't have many people on our staff with experience making RPGs, either. But I think that's precisely why Popolocrois has come out this way… it's a game that a group of people unfamiliar with RPGs would make.

Umematsu: I feel like we did our very best in the limited time we had. The final product reflects that. I mean, I can nitpick about this or that animation or movement I'd fix, but for me personally, I'm satisfied with what we've created.

Hisasue: I feel like nothing ever really comes out exactly the way you first imagine it. But this time we came very close to that image, and if I complain about this, I get the feeling nothing I make will ever satisfy me. (laughs) The sense of satisfaction I feel now about Popolocrois is quite refreshing.

Popolocrois Monogatari II - 2000 Developer Interview

originally featured in The Playstation magazine

Yousuke Tamori - Story
Hiroyuki Saegusa - Planning/Writer

—To start things off, when did you begin working out the structure of PoPoLo II?

Tamori: It's hard for me to pin down an exact date. To be honest, I'd been thinking about the story of PoPoLo II for a long time. I even had the basic outline for the characters in II when we were making the first game. However, that game just spiraled in size so we couldn't fit them in then.

—So you had the story for Popolocrois II completed in your head since the first game?

Tamori: Yeah, it changed a lot though. But I knew the final boss then. In the first game, we only used about 1/5 of the characters I'd originally imagined. There were a lot of charming characters that I hoped to use someday, and thankfully the first game received good reviews, allowing us to make this sequel.

—Regarding the story, did Tamori come up with the outline of the plot, and then you worked that into scenario-form, Saegusa?

Saegusa: Yeah. Tamori would give me the gist and flow of the story, then I would flesh out the details. We talked a lot throughout that process… "let's add this", "yeah, we better have that". It's like we wrote it together.

Tamori: Saegusa helped expand the story too. Whenever the story needed to be changed to accomodate the game, he would give me a lot of ideas.

Saegusa: The appearance of Princess Elena, for instance, was actually done for a very systematic reason. But as it turned out, when she shows up it was the perfect thing to give a sense of how Pietro has grown.

Tamori: The theme of the first game was Pietro's love for his mother, but in part II he's separated from her. That made having a little sister perfect. And it creates a sense of responsibility too.

Yousuke Tamori (L) and Hiroyuki Saegusa (R).

—Saegusa, this was your first PoPoLo game you participated in. Did you have any struggles?

Saegusa: Popolocrois has a very strong, well-thought out world. Being a sequel, this game needed to distinguish itself from the first one somehow. Maintaining consistency while writing the story was a challenge for me.

Tamori: First I had Saegusa play through the first game, to brainwash him. (laughs) I think the world of Popolocrois naturally matches Saegusa's inclinations as a writer. He surprised me many times with the way he wrote.

—Which scenes in the story left a big impression on you?

Tamori: The episodes overlap and build on each other in such a way that they create a single overarching story, so they're all important. A prologue which explains why things are how they are was in the previous game too. But there were also important scenes I absolutely wanted to include, like the scene where Narcia is waiting in front of Royal Family's Cave in the prologue. Also, Pietro and Narcia's first date scene.

—You see Narcia and Pietro's love start to bloom in that scene.

Tamori: Yeah. Also, the scene where you hear Narcia singing, and Pietro goes to her. It's the first time Pietro sees her grown up.

—Did you come up with that scene, Tamori?

Tamori: No, that might have been Saegusa. (laughs)

Saegusa: You got mad at me about a bunch of things, like having Narcia kiss Pietro on the cheek. (laughs)

Tamori: I was worried about that. Of course nowadays it seems like no big deal, so I said OK. I guess I'm old-fashioned. (laughs)

—Saegusa, what were your memorable scenes?

Saegusa: I feel an affection for all of them. I write the scenarios myself, then the voice actors do the ADR, and the graphics are added… when I see that finished product my heart swells with emotion.

—After playing the entire game, even more than the larger plot with Maira, I was most moved by the story of Pietro and Narcia.

Tamori: Yeah. To be sure, the heart of this game is Pietro and Narcia's story. With Pietro's Mother out of the picture, it's really the story of his relationship with Narcia.

Concept art for Narcia. The note on the left explains that her pendant is only to be shown after Pietro gives it to her.

—Was it your intention to write a story that would move people to tears?

Tamori: In the beginning, making Tetsuji Yamamoto (of Sugar & Rockets) cry was one of my goals. (laughs) I'm joking of course, but even still, if your writing is good it should be able to make people cry.

Saegusa: We didn't set out to write a tearjerker. The emphasis we placed on the emotional dimension of the writing was something that came out as we found the direction of the game.

Tamori: Saegusa writes with passion! As I read his writing I realized the story was getting more and more intense. (laughs)

Saegusa: I'm sorry, yeah, I always write very heavy stuff.

Tamori: And in response I tried to write more mild scenes.

—What do you mean by "heavy", exactly?

Saegusa: If I write peaceful, calm stories, the feelings will be the same. When I think I'm overdoing it a little, being too dramatic… in fact, that's actually just the right tone, I believe. I want the fun, joyful scenes to be thoroughly joyful, the sad scenes to be deeply sad, and the heartwarming scenes to be unabashedly heartwarming. A clear, wide emotional range.

Tamori: There's delicate moments too of course, to balance it out.

—The fully voiced dialogue this game lends a different impression to each scene, too.

Saegusa: Adding voice acting wasn't something we talked about in the beginning, actually. But I'd originally described Popolocrois as an "anime romantic RPG", so it was a natural progression to voice acting. Before starting I had figured it would be a difficult process, and indeed, once we got into it a lot of unexpected challenges cropped up. The biggest factor was simply the volume to record. It goes without saying that maintaining the same level of quality throughout was no mean feat, but simply fitting everything into the available memory was also hard.

Tamori: The characters are always talking, which had the unexpected effect of making the game visuals and the animation feel seamless. That was a new discovery for us. I feel like we came one step closer to that "anime-style romantic RPG" ideal. We've increased both the quality and volume of the animation this time.

—I'd like to ask about the gameplay systems now. You've changed the combat up for the sequel.

Saegusa: Basically, only the user interface really changed. The first Popolocrois and Popolorogue had strategy style battles, right? I thought maybe we could make the controls easier, which is why Popolocrois II is this way. We also wanted the combat to be enjoyable given the way new party members that come and go.

The combat system in Popolocrois, featuring an isometric "strategy game" style grid.

—It's not too difficult to make progress in Popolocrois II. I imagine this was because you wanted players to focus on enjoying the story?

Saegusa: Yeah. I think the story aspect of Popolocrois is very strong. We don't want players to get lost in the battles or the NPC dialogue and forget the story. So we did our best to make it a stress-free experience. That doesn't mean, however, that we ignored the combat; it's important that the combat scenes are exciting, and there's a surprising amount of depth there.

—Could you be more specific?

Saegusa: First off, the level system. When lower level characters are added to the party, they receive a larger share of the experience. They very quickly catch up to the highest level party member. Also, the characters' relationships have an influence on combat too. They say things like "I'm doing my best!" during fights, and that means their stats have temporarily increased. When characters who are compatible are near each other, like Narcia and Pietro, there's a higher chance of that occuring.

—I see you've added various thoughtful things. Yet, compared with the "combat heavy" direction that a lot of RPGs are moving in, Popolocrois II feels like it goes against the prevailing trends.

Saegusa: I would counter that the popular RPGs today don't make a lot of sense to me. When I'm playing an RPG I want to enjoy the story. In that sense, Popolocrois is a very mainstream, orthodox game in my opinion. (laughs)

—Tamori, with this game, do you feel like you've told the entire Popolocrois story, or is there more?

Tamori: No, I don't feel that way. There's a gap between the stories of Popolocrois I and II—many unsolved mysteries remain. So someday I'd like to dig deeper into that area. I don't have any specifics to share now, but I'd also like to tell some side stories in this world too. I'd also like to re-construct the whole world of Popolocrois. Because so many people were involved in making it, there's some things that don't line up right. I'd like to rectify that someday.

—Saegusa, what are your future plans?

Saegusa: …Popolocrois III! I'm working diligently at it right now.

—Well then, please give a final word for readers.

Tamori: There's a huge number of events, and I hope players see them all. And there's lots of different characters so I hope players change their parties up as they go and try them all. As you level up each characters' skills, the graphics change too.

Saegusa: The combat itself can be thought of as a kind of story event, so please try out lots of different things. The truth is, we put a lot of playful stuff into the combat. For example, with Gamigami Maou's item bomber ability, you can defeat the final boss Maira with a beach ball! (laughs) Be sure to experiment!

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