2010 MON DOJ Death Label Clear Interview
—First, I’d like to congratulate you on clearing Death Label. Its truly amazing.
MON: Thank you.
—I’d like to start by asking about your play time. I’ve heard it took roughly 7 and a half years, so have you been playing since the release date? (4/10/2003)
MON: Yes. I bought it the day it was released, and started playing it right away. Then I despaired. (laughs)
MON’s Death Label clear… watch this first!
MON: After about a week of playing,
I had made it to 2-3, but I got completely stuck there.
—You made it to 2-3 after only a week?
MON: Yes, and after that I continued to play intermittently, but I kept getting stuck. It actually took me six years to get through that part.
—I see… so that would mean you were stuck at 2-3 until 2009? Its really that difficulty?
MON: It was almost impossibly difficult. Actually, other players would get to 2-3 and then quit… it was a pattern I kept seeing. With a normal game, there are difficult enemies who may cause you to lose a single ship in order to defeat them, but in Death Label’s second loop they automatically take all your reserve ships, so you can’t rely on that.
—Did you stop playing during the 6 years?
MON: No, I didn’t take a break. I would occasionally get frustrated and stop for awhile… this happened many times. Last year I succeeded in creating a strategy for 2-3, and I finally was able to progress to 2-4.
—Now that you’ve cleared the whole game, would you say that 2-3 is definitely the wall?
MON: Yeah. If you talk about the difficulty of Death Label, half of the conversation will be about 2-3, I think. The rest would probably be about the last boss, “Shin Hibachi Kai.”
—What are some of the difficult parts with those bosses? Obviously you can tell that the bullets are incredibly fast just by looking.
MON: Well, with the latter half of the 2-3 boss, he emits blue and red bullets, in addition to which he releases two floating cannons, and those emit red needle bullets. You have to dodge all that simultaneously. Furthermore, the bullets themselves are moving fast, and the density of the bullets makes it hard to even guess where to dodge. On top of all that, if you use a bomb you’ll restore the boss and the floating cannons’ life. The whole thing is so laden with traps that if you make even one misstep, its over.
As for Shin Hibachi Kai, the speed of the bullets itself is difficult, but the problem is that because there are two Hibachis, there are multiple attacks where the bullet curtains keeps changing and you can’t reduce it to a simple route or pattern. The truth is, for bosses that have beautiful but fixed patterns, they might seem difficult at first glance, but if you learn the way to handle them it can be reduced to a simple route you follow.
However, regardless of how the attack generally evolves, if the bullet pattern’s shape keeps changing in subtle ways, it will be very difficult to plan a route. With Shin Hibachi Kai, the movement of the two Hibachis is random, so I couldn’t make a simple route out of it.
—I see. If there are little changes in the attack, the shape of the bullet curtain will appear distorted or strange.
MON: The problem was that the enemy’s positioning was different each time I played. In a similar sense to the latter half of the 2-3 boss, when the boss itself moves around a lot, the difficulty goes way up.
—I’ve heard you can dodge by leading* the bosses’ movement, but of course it wasn’t as easy as that here.
* 4Gamer Editor’s note: In DOJ Death Label, the bosses movements may apear fixed, but they actually move within a fixed range according to how the player moves. In this case, “leading” means manipulating the bosses position by your own movement.
MON: Yeah, not at all. But… even so, if you don’t lead the bosses, you won’t be able to dodge at all and will get hit by a bullet. So I had no choice and just did the best I could.
—Was it like that for everything after the 2-3 boss?
MON: No, it wasn’t. The 2-4 boss and the first half of the 2-5 boss “Kouryuu” actually move according to a fixed pattern. If you move entirely in a fixed way, the way the enemy fires… or rather, the way you dodge can all be reduced to a route, and in the end it just becomes “as long as you don’t make a mistake moving the joystick, you won’t die.”
The 2-1 boss is also entirely route based. The 2-2 boss is entirely route based until the middle, and in the second half he mixes in a variety of attacks.
The shy superplayer.
—But you have routes for them all, even though they’re mixed up?
MON: That’s right. You can say that not just for the 2-2 boss, but for the game generally, that once an attack ends, you make a route for the transition to the next attack, and so finally you’ve made routes for everything such that nothing unexpected comes. That is how I play, with a route for everything. So if there are 10 attack patterns, I know to do this for #1, and this for #10.
—So it all starts with seriously memorizing things. It sounds like slow and steady work.
MON: Yeah. In general all the bullets in the second loop for Death Label are fast, but for the especially fast ones, they’re at a speed which you can’t dodge just by looking. So from there, the main thing is to memorize the boss attacks and determine your movement route. Once that is set you just faithfully retrace the route when you play. You match the timing of your movement to the attack.
Doing this, you’ll be able to sync up with most danmaku patterns. Then if you always follow the same route, it removes the need to dodge. The work is basically all creating routes like this.
—I see. Are the routes you’ve created easy to follow?
MON: I’d say that for Death Label, a representative part would be the opening of the 2-5 boss. You can also see it on a video I posted earlier on my web site. A person named Abi thought of this dodging route, and at a glance it looks incredibly dangerous and acrobatic, but the truth is its an entirely preplanned route. While playing, I’m in a state of mind where I’m just moving, hardly thinking at all.
—In terms of creating routes for the second loop in Death Label, what were some of the frustrating moments?
MON: I mentioned it above, but if you get hit once the game is over. That makes it difficult enough as it is, but it also made it extremely difficult to establish a plan for clearing the game.
By a plan for clearing, what I mean is that when you’re developing an overall strategy in a normal STG, you can continue and do whatever to get to the last boss, after which you can get an estimate what you’ll need to defeat him. Concretely, what I mean is that you can first see how many lives and bombs you’ll need to defeat the last boss. Then you can start planning your playing from stage 1 around that estimate.
—In STG parlance, this is referred to as “resource management.”
MON: That’s right. But in the second loop of Death Label your lives are always at 0, so from the get-go that kind of calculating won’t work. And you can’t rely on bombs or hyper items, either. You really aren’t given much to clear this game, you just have to keep working at it. So in devising my clear strategy, from the start I can came to the simple conclusion that where I couldn’t use a bomb, I would have to just dodge everything, so I worked on dodging.
—When you came to that conclusion, did you ever get tripped up thinking things like “I know I just have to dodge this, but seriously?” It seems those would be natural thoughts.
MON: No, I didn’t think things like that. It was more like, I knew all this had been designed so you had to dodge it, so I just needed to figure out the right execution.
—I see. What were some of the particularly memorable spots where you “had to dodge”?
MON: Definitely the end of 2-3, and all of Shin Hibachi Kai’s attacks.
—All of them?
MON: His first and second attacks move so fast you can’t dodge them on sight. Getting to the second attack was the most difficult, and even when I watched a replay I had recorded in slow motion, I didn’t think I could dodge it.
So I arrived at the conclusion that I would just have to use bombs and hypers to time out those two attacks. Compared with those two attacks, the third was a little better, so I’d just have to dodge it. Here, let me show you in this video.
—Wow… the timing required for making the hypers appear is crazy.
MON: Yeah. I timed the appearance of the hypers completely, so I’m able to stay invincible during the whole second attack. By the way, the timing to make the hypers appear and refilling the hyper gauge on 2-5 to erase the enemy bullets is, to a certain extent, all part of a planned route.
—With the 3rd attack, there’s no pattern and you have to sight dodge, right?
MON: Yeah. It pushed my sight dodging skills to the limit. For the latter half of the 2-5 boss, the so-called “Jet Hachi” (the second form of the stage 5 boss Kouryuu), the bullet patterns can’t be reduced to a route and you have to sight dodge. But its not totally random, you still have a general idea of “if he’s moving like this and does this attack, I move like this.” Its like, you have a certain degree of strategy, but the rest is up to you to do your best and outmaneouver him.
MON: For parts like this where even after you’ve formed a strategy, there’s a degree of uncertainty, it may sound paradoxical, but its one of the main reasons you need to plan routes for everything else. This is because the more random bullet patterns you have to deal with, the greater the chance becomes that you’ll get hit. Therefore all you can do is increase the likelihood of success in other portions of the game, and try to lower the chance of failure overall. For example, if you have a 1 in 10 chance of getting through a certain attack, and similar attacks come 10 times, then your overall chance of getting through is extremely low. But if you can take 9 of those attacks and plan a fixed route out of them, your overall chance of success is now 1 in 10, which is much more reachable. Therefore, the important strategy in STG is to make routes and figure out how to minimize the uncertain parts.
—Are you saying that you spend more time planning and forming routes than actually playing?
MON: Actually I spent about the same amount of time playing as I did planning the routes out. Trying out all the possibilities in my head took a really long time.
—When you’re imagining the routes, do you do that while watching your replays? Or do you simulate things in your head?
MON: I do both. Sometimes when I’d get sleepy at work and such, I’d start thinking about the routes and test them out when I got home. Depending on what I was doing, if nothing was going on, I’d start thinking of routes. I once got a flash on inspiration while watching the Sakura Taisen Music show. (laughs) In the end it was like a puzzle, where I made as many routes as possible that would minimize the need to actually dodge.
—So then your Death Label clear was the fruition of all that steady, detailed route planning.
MON: Actually, on the playthrough where I cleared the game, I had only just finished planning routes for everything, and what remained for me was to connect that up with a no-miss of the sight dodging parts. So I figured from here on out it was just a question of probabilities… “If I can play through to Shin Hibachi Kai’s last attack 50 times, then probably 1 of those will result in a clear.” So I predicted I might clear it by the end of 2010. But then, surprisingly I cleared it on my first try.
—Wow, really, right on your first try?
MON: Yes. Having reduced the elements of luck to their bare minimum, on my first playthrough I actually got very lucky.
—In that sense do you think there’s still room for improvement of your routes?
MON: No, I don’t think there’s any further room to raise my score. Though there is a little room to fine tune my routes and clean up some of the movement. But to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m going to do that. (laughs)
—I’d like to ask a bit about the environment you played in. Looking at the picture you shared with us, it looks like you sat with your legs crossed while you played?
MON: Yes, that’s how I played.
—Sitting cross-legged like that and playing for a long time, didn’t your legs start to hurt or get numb?
MON: In my case, that didn’t happen.
—Did you choose that posture because playing on an arcade cabinet with your elbows bent is straining, but sitting cross-legged like this allowed you to keep them straight?
MON: No, that wasn’t it. I find playing on an arcade cabinet very easy, and its the standard for me. I just found the cross-legged posture the easiest way to emulate that.
—I see you play on a tate’d CRT…
MON: I do pretty much all my gaming on a CRT.
—Right, HD TVs still have problems with screen lag/delay.
MON: Yeah. Especially with the 2nd loop of Death Label, there’s parts where the speed of your reaction time is being pushed to the limit, so you want to minimize any display lag.
—I noticed your joystick there is the HORI Real Arcade Pro. Have you made any modifications to it?
MON: I’ve made one small adjustment, actually. Not with the electronics, but I adjusted the microswitches to change the play in the stick by adding spacers.
—Was this to reduce the play in the stick?
MON: Not necessarily… there’s still some play there. It was just to make it easier for me personally. (laughs)
—Did you swap out the buttons or the stick itself?
MON: No, I didn’t change anything there.
—That’s somewhat unusual.
MON: Its often said among gamers that “the best stick for STG is Seimitsu, and the best for fighting games is Sanwa.” But personally, I think that in the end whatever is easiest for you to control is best. So this time I used a Sanwa stick.
—By the way, this is kind of an in-depth question, but have you ever experienced a situation where you go to dodge, and you see what you need to do in your head and with your eyes, but your hand just doesn’t move there? For me and probably others at my level, that happens often, but I’d like to hear if players of your caliber experience that.
MON: Yeah, that has happened before.
—Also, when you’re weaving through a danmaku bullet pattern, do you ever overshoot your movement and run into a bullet? I understand that one of the main causes of dying for people not used to STGs is moving too far and crashing into a bullet.
MON: That goes away once you get used to STGs.
—I see, you can fix that with practice. One other things I’d like to ask is, do you do push-ups or anything to train your body for STG? I think some arm strength is required for the fine movements needed to control the ship.
MON: No, I don’t. Actually my thinking is the opposite there. If you put too much force into controlling the joystick you can’t make fine movements. In my case I use the wine grip for the joystick, and I don’t put any power into it, so I don’t get tired no matter how much I play.
—So far you’ve talked a lot about the importance of making routes. I’ve heard beginners say they don’t know where to start with that. Can you give them any advice?
MON: The first thing, as I said above, is to develop a general clear strategy. Its fine to die before getting to the clear, but once you finish the last boss, doing that reverse calculation is important. The plan starts with how many bombs and lives you’ll need to clear. For difficult parts too, if your plan allows you enough bombs to get through it, then you can bomb and you don’t need to dodge. I think once you know the parts where you won’t have any bombs, then starting there you can make a route. But first of all, you need that overall clear plan. Only then can you go stage by stage and start to make routes according to that plan.
—Do you have any message for people who are going to start STG games? Surely, after seeing this achievement, there will be some people who are interested.
MON: My advice is not to spend all your time only on STG or even games generally, but to do a wide variety of activities. I realize that’s kind of strange for me to say. STG is of course interesting, but if you do nothing but STG, you lose sight of other things. Games are great, but its fun to develop other hobbies too.
—Finally, I think that after your clear other players will now be encouraged to try clearing Death Label. Do you have any advice for them?
MON: I think players will be able to refer to the videos I’ve uploaded of the clear, but to a certain extent, I’d like people to experience the fun of creating these routes on their own. That’s really where all the fun lies. (laughs)
—Now I’d like to ask Mihara some questions. It took MON seven and a half years to clear Death Label. Did the clear happen sooner than you expected, or later?
Mihara: Hmm, well, I thought it would take 2-3 years to clear. When we were adjusting the difficulty for Death Label, our basic design was to make something enticing to the top arcade players of the time, and to make it so they couldn’t clear it.
—So they couldn’t clear it? (laughs)
Mihara: Each time a game is cleared, Cave thinks to themselves “how can we make the next game unclearable?” and sets to building new walls and challenges for players. That’s how Death Label was. To be honest, with Death Label, it was sort of like… if someone can clear this, great, and if no one can, ok.
—So that’s how it was.
Mihara: I’ve often been asked if it was even possible to clear Death Label, but we made it so that if you get through it without dying, it can be cleared. But I figured that even for top players, connecting everything together into a no-miss would require a lot of time and effort. So when I heard that MON had cleared it, the feeling was “How wonderful, someone has shown us it can be done!”
Mihara: Also, the timing is coincidental, but today there is something I can tell you. (laughs) This is “top secret”, but now that you’ve cleared Death Label and seen the ending, in fact, there are now 2 futures that have been created. In one, the fight continues in the universe of Death Label. But there is another future which is connected to Cave’s new game, the X360 Arrange A mode of Daifukkatsu…. Now the battle will continue on the two stages of the past and future. MON, you are the one who oversees the future. (laughs)
MON: By “future” do you mean Daifukkatsu?
Mihara: No, Daifukkatsu is the past.
MON: Looks like I’ll have to helm the front here in the future (Death Label). I’m not sure I have the confidence for this… (laughs) 1
Mihara: Anyway, thanks to MON’s clear, I can tell you that the story of Daifukkatsu Arrange A is connected to Death Label. Ikeda, Asada, and myself too were all saying “thank goodness” when we heard that MON cleared Death Label. And being just before Daifukkatsu goes on sale, its perfect timing!
MON: Really! I’m really happy to hear that.
Mihara: This is also just coincidental timing, but Ikeda and I had been saying lately how it would be interesting to connect the Daifukkatsu Arrange to the setting and story in Death Label, just lightly tossing the idea around. Ikeda really got into it and enthusiastically went to work on creating it, and that’s how they got connected. That’s why Leinyan appears in the Arrange, and its supposed to feel like she’s the only one who can put a stop the Colonel’s ambitions. Anyway, make sure to buy it and see for yourself. (laughs)
—Well then, MON, what new challenges await you?
MON: I want to just enjoy playing Daifukkatsu as a player, for now leaving aside the question of whether I’ll play it seriously. And I’ve got a real backlog of other games to get to. (laughs)