Shikigami no Shiro II – Developer Interview

Shikigami no Shiro II - Developer Interview

This Shikigami no Shiro II interview originally appeared in the Official Setting Materials book published by Famitsu in 2003. It largely focuses on the new characters Roger Sasuke and Niigi G.B., while also taking a close look at the boss and stage design. The Shikigami series is (in)famous in the West for a butchered "localization" (Mobile Light Force 2), and while this interview does not go into that saga, it does help explain the series' broad appeal in Japan.

Naoki Suda - Director
Tetsuya Sasaki - Alfa Systems President

—When did the Shikigami no Shiro II (hereafter, SnSII) development begin?

Suda: We had talked about making a sequel before we finished the first game. The initial planning documents were drawn up fairly early, and it didn't take long at all for the go-sign. We'd originally wanted to make the first Shikigami no Shiro a full-polygon game, but because of the PCB we used, it wasn't possible. This time everything was based on the NAOMI boards, and it felt like we could finally do the things we wanted to.

—It sounds like you had a clear idea about the direction for SnSII from a very early stage, then.

Suda: To an extent, yes. We had the idea of removing power-ups, and of possibly increasing the number of Shikigami patterns. We also weren't able to include two-player cutscenes last time, and we were determined to add scenes for every 2P combination for this sequel.

—It's very rare to see a shooting game without power-ups, I think.

Suda: We solicited feedback postcards from players after the first game, and the opinions about the power-ups were evenly split. In the first SnS, there was such a stark difference in difficulty depending on whether you had power-ups or not. It created a system where dying once usually led, avalanche-style, to losing all your lives.

That being the case, why not just remove power-ups entirely, we thought. With no power-ups, dying isn't a total death sentence, and it's a system that's more friendly to beginners. It makes balancing the difficulty easier on our end, too.

Naoki Suda (L) and Tetsuya Sasaki (R)

—SnSII now features two Shikigami attacks for each character. Was it challenging to come up with ideas for the new Shikigamis?

Suda: Yeah, it was hard to come up with new Shikigami attacks that would retain the same vibe and mood for the character, while also being meaningfully different in the gameplay department. The hardest one was Kuga's Shikigami, Sazae-san. We didn't want to change her basic attack, which is a homing shot that attaches to the enemy and saws into them.

At first blush, both Shikigamis have homing attacks so they don't feel very different. But at high-level score play, the differences become very clear. I admit, when I first saw them, even I thought "these are the same!" But when you see someone carefully arranging the enemies for scoring purposes, the differences in scoring between become apparent.

—Kim's secondary Shikigami attack with the two swords is also really cool.

Suda: We put a lot of effort into fine-tuning that one. At first, the swords came out to the left and right of you. For the final version we made it so that when you move Kim down, the swords fire up, but during the development the swords fired in the same direction you were facing. We also made many adjustments to the size of the swords, and the damage calculations too. As with Kim's main Shikigami attack, it's extremely strong when you manage to hit with both swords. That's why we lowered the damage a little bit when they're held right in front of him.

—So damage changes depending on the angle of the swords...?

Suda: That's right. At first, you could massacre any boss with that frontal sword attack. That wouldn't do, so we lowered the damage of the frontal assault, compared with his other angles of attack. In any event, when we saw how strong his high tension attack was, we realized we'd turned Kim into an overpowered character. (laughs)

—Please gives us the behind-the-scenes scoop on how you created the new characters for SnSII.

Suda: From the earliest stages, we had a decently firm grasp on who they would be.

For Niigi Gorgeous Blue, we figured out the idea for her attack first, before deciding to make her a playable character. We wanted a character who could use the enemy attacks against them. With Roger Sasuke, on the other hand, we wanted a ninja in the game, so in his case the character came first.

New characters Niigi G.B. and Roger Sasuke.

—Roger's secondary Shikigami attack, where he detonates bombs, is a unique idea.

Suda: Yeah. When I think of ninjas, what immediately comes to mind for me are shurikens and caltrops. Shurikens would work fine for a primary shot, but I was wondering if we could design an attack where you sort of lay out caltrops. And that's where the idea for his secondary Shikigami came from.

—For a full polygon game, I thought it was impressive how naturally Roger's scarf flutters in the wind.

Sasaki: Yeah, scarfs, capes, and skirts… any fabric that flaps around is difficult to simulate with polygons! Getting that right was a point of pride for the designers.

Suda: It was a challenge because the new characters were designed from the start as full-polygon characters. For example, for Niigi's cat, in a 2D game it wouldn't look weird if a cat suddenly appears out of nowhere. But in 3D, we have to create that cat separately out of individual polygons. The designer came to me saying he was stuck, because he didn't know where the cat should appear from. We ended up making it so Niigi's cat hangs out on her shoulder there, but we couldn't move forward until we'd fully worked that out, including the action where she thrusts it in front of her.

—How did you go about creating Niigi's two different Shikigami attacks?

Suda: The idea to separate her two Shikigami attacks, where one is limited by time, and the other is limited by the number of bullets absorbed, was something we came up with during the balancing process. We re-made and revised it many times. The challenging thing was that it needed to be effective for both survival and scoring purposes. To that end we adjusted it so there would be a small delay before she re-fires the absorbed bullets. She can use that time to graze bullets and raise her tension.

During the development, we kept hearing "Niigi can't score". I insisted that she could, but it's an advanced technique for hardcore players. To test that we actually had a superplayer from Kumamoto demonstrate high-level score play with Niigi's secondary Shikigami.

—The ability to rotate the barrier around the player makes her very difficult to use if you aren't used to it.

Suda: The superplayer moved around the screen while rotating the barrier to absorb bullets. He plotted his routes very deliberately and was always sure to leave one bullet on-screen, to raise his tension. We'd predicted much of this playstyle, but seeing someone put it all into action was truly impressive.

Sasaki: There's a concrete motivation to score within the world of the game too. (laughs) If we'd used something other than coins for the score items, though, I bet it would've felt different.

Suda: Next time we should use cash bills. (laughs)

Concept art for the various stages. The two upper right images are some very early pieces of concept art that isn't reflected in the finished game.

—Not to be outdone by the player characters, the bosses in SnSII also have a ton of personality.

Sasaki: The most popular so far have been the Aja Brothers. When the voice actor was recording their lines, he did it in a sort of manzai comedy style, it was really funny.

Suda: Yeah, lines like "Haaa~~", "Fu~un", and "KYODAI PAWAA!!!" (Sibling Power!). (laughs) In terms of ideas, at first we just knew there would be two bosses for that stage. We wanted it to feel to players as if they were combining their powers and attacking in concert—but coming up with actual attacks for that gave us a lot of trouble.

One very challenging boss was the stage 3-1 block boss, Freyr. During the development this boss was criticized because the lines didn't disappear and you couldn't score. So I spent the next couple days doing nothing but thinking about blocks and block formations, working it into the system you have today where the blocks will disappear when they're lined up. When I see scoreplayers taking advantage of this section I think the effort was worth it! If we'd left it the way it was in the beginning, it wouldn't have been as exciting.

The boss who turned out better than we thought was the Stage 4-1 boss, Mimir, where the walls start closing in on you. I thought it would be interesting to have a boss who restricted your movement like that, but it turned out better than I'd hoped for. In contrast, the stage 4-2 boss Yukari Horiguchi was easy for us to make, but you can basically park yourself right in front of her and shoot her till she dies. She goes down too easy; the balance is a little off there.

Sasaki: She will surely make a return one day, and have her revenge on the player!

Decimating Yukari Horiguchi with a cheap point-blank attack.

Suda: The final boss, Shintaro, was conceived with the idea that he would "re-mix" each player's different attacks. We were a little worried about Kuga's remixed attack. The Sazae attack is rough, so we just faked it with a bomb.

—Where do you see the Shikigami no Shiro series heading from here?

Suda: Personally speaking, I don't feel any big rush to make Shikigami no Shiro 3 right now. After we made the first game I wanted to make a sequel right away, but that urge is satisfied now that we've popped this one out. That said, if we get a lot of requests from fans, I think we'll have to make it one way or another. So I don't feel like this is the end; I'm pretty sure the many characters of Shikigami no Shiro will have another chance to live again.

Sasaki: We've done all this foreshadowing, we can't just end it here. (laughs)

Suda: Right, there's still unanswered questions, like "Who is Tsukiko..?" She seems to be Kohtaro's fiancee.

Sasaki: That's what Shintaro was so jealous of. (laughs) We haven't really elucidated the structure of Kohtaro's family yet, and I can think of a number of ways to tell that story. Who were his parents, his younger sister, so forth. Does he have a secret love child somewhere…? (laughs)

Suda: I've got a feeling we'll be continuing to explore this world of Shikigami no Shiro for awhile yet. We're putting out comics and novelizations too. When we made the first game, I never thought it would expand in so many directions like this!

The full set of five Shikigami no Shiro II novelizations. In addition to manga, a hybrid STG-visual novel game would also be released a few years later.

—If you do release another Shikigami no Shiro game, will it be a shooting game?

Suda: I don't think it has to be. Maybe we'll mix things up with a different genre. The nice thing about STG, though, is that we can release it in both home consoles and the arcade, which we want to do. If it's console-only, no one gets to see you play, and it's a little lonely. There is some pressure when people watch you playing in the arcades, but that's also part of the fun, I think.

Sasaki: I'm sure there's people out there who would be embarassed to show off their unskilled playing. For them, they can train on the Gamecube console version at home, and when they're ready, I hope they'll make their magnificent game center debut!

—Please give a final message to all the SnSII fans out there who have purchased the console Gamecube version.

Suda: I hope players check out the EXTREME mode. The intense revenge bullets make it very hard, but since this is a console game, you don't have to worry about how much money you're spending. Also, I want players to see all 35 of the two-player cutscenes. They'll show you how the characters are inter-related, and you may discover some interesting things that will connect up with future developments…

Sasaki: I feel the same way. The cutscenes have over 6 hours of voice acting, which is more than most RPGs. Try playing with a friend and watching them together. And if you don't have any friends, please make some. (laughs)

—Do you have any interesting episodes to share from the development?

Suda: We spent a lot of our energy compensating for the unique differences in hardware between the arcade PCB and the Gamecube. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, you see.

—Why did you add the "Chibi Fumiko" character?

Suda: As we approached the end of the development, we realized we'd forgotten to include a hidden character. (laughs) One day I remembered "Chibi Fumiko" from the comic anthology for the first game. She was created specifically for that comic, at the request of the writer, and we never had any intention of using her in-game… but given the situation we found ourselves in, I thought, "We can use this!!!" and we hurriedly added her. (laughs)

—Tell us a little about the new characters, Niigi Gorgeous Blue and Roger Sasuke.

Suda: Niigi is a girl from another world, who has come here in pursuit of someone. Originally she was an entirely different character, but the guy working on her one day suddenly did an about-face and changed the character to Niigi. Her bullet-reflecting cat was added as a joke at first, but it ended up becoming part of her actual character.

Before the designers decided that Niigi's real identity was Yumi Araigi from Gunparade March, some of the early concept art depicted her as a normal high school girl.

Roger, who calls himself "a close friend of Kuga", is a ninja who loves Japan. I personally think foreigners' misconceptions about Japan are really funny, and I wanted to make a character with that vibe.

—What do you think is the secret of the Shikigami no Shiro series' popularity?

Sasaki: I think it's because of the high-risk, high-return Tension Bonus System. I call it an "action casino". (laughs) There's also an Easy mode, and in the Gamecube options, you can adjust the difficulty however you'd like, so it's something players of all levels can enjoy, which I think is a factor for it's success too.

Sasaki: I think it's how we've put the characters and story up-front, and the gameplay system which can be easier or harder depending on how you play. It's made so even a beginner who's not playing very seriously can still enjoy the game.

—As a genre STG is often associated with men, but the Shikigami no Shiro series also appears to have many female fans.

Sasaki: Yes, that's true. It's likely owed to the appeal of each individual character, and the unique world our company has created. Then there's the novelizations and other areas we've built up.

Suda: I do think there's a lot of female fans. I myself have occasionally seen women playing Shikigami no Shiro at the arcades. I think nearly half the fans may be women. This is actually something we planned from the very beginning of the development: "There's never been many female fans in this genre, so let's try and change that." Seeing that ambition come true has been very satisfying.

The "relationship chart" for Shikigami no Shiro II. In Japan, every television drama publishes maps like this as a handy reference for viewers. As described above, character-centric efforts like this were likely part of the plan to attract more female players.

—When I first played SnSII, I felt the difficulty was a little high, and I got the impression that this might be another game for "hardcore" players. What did you actually intend with regard to the difficulty?

Sasaki: I was worried people would think the opposite: that because we put the spotlight on the characters, that it's not a serious game.

Suda: It's the fate of arcade games that they must be designed for repeat plays, so a higher level of difficulty is intentional, especially when compared to the home console versions. However, I don't really think of Shikigami no Shiro as a "hardcore" game either. (laughs) If by hardcore we mean having a lot of depth and replayability, though, then I would be happy to hear that.

As for the difficulty, we tried to tune it so that even newer STG players, if they kept playing it and persevered, would be able to eke out a clear. The downside is that dedicated shooting gamers may find it a little easy.

—Do you have any advice for new players, or scoring advice for experienced veterans?

Sasaki: For beginners, I recommend Kuga or Kim's secondary Shikigami. For scoring advice? Well, I think advanced players already know this, but "playing tag" (oni gokko) is an essential basic technique. (laughs)

Suda: For inexperienced players I recommend Kuga's fairly vanilla secondary Shikigami. Players having problems with dodging should try Niigi's secondary Shikigami. You can use your shot most of the time, and when you get to a tough spot you can activate her Shikigami and punch through the bullet patterns. You should be able to get quite far that way.

As for advanced players, I think I'm the one who needs their advice. (laughs)

—Do you have any live events planned?

Sasaki: From 10/24 (the release date) to 11/25, we'll be hosting the "Shikigami no Shiro II Official High Score Trial - Dreamcast Magazine Cup" as a web event at our homepage. We've got a "Shikigami President Prize" waiting (laughs), and we hope many people will join in the fun.

—Please give a final message for players.

Sasaki: Be sure to play SnSII as a couple; it will strengthen your relationship. There's a lot of interaction between fans at the Alfa System homepage too; be sure to pop in and check it out!

Suda: We were very conscious of the beginner and unskilled crowd when we created this game. This Gamecube port of SnSII, in particular, was made so non-maniac players could fully enjoy it. I'll be very happy if it can serve as a good introduction to what makes STG games so fun. Hone your skills on the Gamecube, and then show everyone what you've got at the game center!

Nausicaa-esque concept art for Shikigami no Shiro II

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