Shining Force – 1992 Developer Interviews
In these two interviews from Famicom Tsuushin, several members of Sonic! Software Planning and Climax Studios, led by game designer and president Hiroyuki Takahashi, discuss the making of the 1992 Mega Drive strategy-RPG Shining Force, the sequel to dungeon crawler Shining in the Darkness and one of the first Japanese strategy-RPGs released in the post-Dragon Quest era.
Hiroyuki Takahashi – Producer/Designer
—So, I bet you were surprised we’d be starting off this interview wearing these funny costumes?
Takahashi: Nah, I was in theatre in high school, so I love this kind of stuff.
—You did acting? That’s very unusual for a game designer.
Takahashi: I’ve done a lot of different things, yeah. Before entering this industry, I was a manager of an executive planning committee at a big company…
—So how did you transition to games, then?
Takahashi: I’m a very impatient person by nature. A bunch of stuff went down at that office, and…
—You quit? (laughs)
Takahashi: Yeah. After that I saw a wanted ad in the paper from Enix. I thought my project planning experience could be put to use there, so I applied.
—And what did you know about games, at this time?
Takahashi: Hah, well, luckily I had a lot of free time before I started at Enix, and I took that opportunity to buy a Famicom for the first time. I was 28 then, so I was extremely embarassed. (laughs)
—Which games did you play first?
Takahashi: This was just before the Famicom boom, and I believe I bought Super Mario Bros. When I played it, it was the first time I experienced how fun games could be. However, I didn’t think then that I would ever be making games myself. It was later, when I was reading articles about people like Shigeru Miyamoto and Masanobu Endo, that I was intrigued by what was going on inside their minds, and wanted to get involved in that. (laughs)
—So your knowledge of the history of video games wasn’t very deep.
Takahashi: Yeah. I’d say I don’t know anything more than the average person, in that regard.
—How about before that, did you ever play games?
Takahashi: When I was a student, for awhile I was really into Gradius. But more than games, I liked physical activities, stuff that involved moving your body.
Takahashi: Yeah. I was a ski instructor at one point, and I loved bowling and tennis. Right now I’m into golf.
—You sound like a proper exercise nut. (laughs)
Takahashi: I might be a jock. (laughs) But Mario really jolted something awake in me, and within half a year I had bought over 120 games. (laughs)
Takahashi: Of all those games though, I would say only 5 were really good. I’ve often said, with regard to Sonic, that we don’t want to deceive players, but that feeling comes because I myself have been scammed by so many bad games. (laugh) In that sense, I think Dragon Quest was an amazing game. I’ve always loved Akira Toriyama’s artwork, and I read his stuff in Shonen Jump every week, so I was captivated by that game. See, I really am just your average everyday player, right? (laughs)
—Turning to Shining Force, how did the project get started?
Takahashi: Well, first of all, people are always comparing Shining Force to strategy games, but that didn’t have much to do with it at all.
Takahashi: I mean, they informed our work, but I already had the rough idea for a game like Shining Force just three months after joining Enix, now that I think of it.
During that time, Enix told us to create a strategy game for the home console, something brainy where you’d need to use your head. As research, I tried playing a famous PC strategy game, but it wasn’t happening for me. This doesn’t fit me at all, I thought.
—Your impatience rearing its head again? (laughs)
Takahashi: …yes. (laughs) That wasn’t the kind of game I wanted to make. I was attracted to the idea of a game where you used your head more, but that was it. I wanted to do something more like Dragon Quest, a dramatic tale full of tears and romance, with a rich world and setting.
—But you weren’t able to realize your idea then.
Takahashi: No, it wasn’t until we were deep in the Shining in the Darkness production, when I had a chance to take a breather, that I started thinking about making a Game Gear title. If it was going to be an RPG, I thought something with that strategy style would be interesting. Initially, I didn’t imagine a game with a very big scope. But once we started the development, I started to get greedy… I didn’t want to do normal fight scenes, I wanted the enemy turn speed to be quick. That was the beginning of our troubles. (laughs) Actually, the whole development nearly fell apart because of the fight scenes.
—What?! Then there was a chance Shining Force might never have been released…?
Takahashi: Yeah. You see, I wanted to make a game with fully animated fight scenes, something different than what you normally saw in strategy games. However, we calculated how much memory it would take, and we were shocked to find it would be over 40 megs. (laughs)
Normally, you’d abandon such a plan then and there. Using a compression routine would make things slow, too. What’s more, the graphics for these battle scenes weren’t easy to compress. Typically you’d be lucky to achieve a 50% compression rate with stuff like this, but we were able to compress them to 22% of their original size.
—I’d like to ask you about the gameplay systems next.
Takahashi: In Shining Force, the enemy AI routines—how they make decisions about what to do—are handled very differently from other strategy games. This, too, is probably a product of my impatience, but I can’t stand how slow the fights are in normal strategy games. Therefore we developed an entirely novel approach to the enemy AI routines.
—Now that you mention it, the enemies do seem to make decisions very quickly. Can you go into any practical details about the programming?
Takahashi: Sorry… that’s a trade secret. (laughs) What I can say, is that the solution didn’t come from the programmers, but actually was something the planners thought up. Their solution had the elegance of Columbus’ egg. Thanks to that, we were able to shorten the time the enemies spend “thinking”, and it also allowed for the enemies to move in a way that appeared more dramatic and lifelike.
—Yeah, sometimes I just want to scream at the enemy units, “you mother#$%*!!!”
Takahashi: Indeed. That was our goal, to make something that felt real enough that you would want to talk back to the screen.
—I think the game balance is great too.
Takahashi: Right? (laughs) I didn’t do any test playing myself though.
Takahashi: Yeah, it’s unusual, right? The thing is, if you play your own game too much, you’ll become numb and used to its flaws. But when someone else plays your game for the first time, those flaws will jump out to them immediately. That’s why I think game designers should always keep everyday users close at hand when it comes to testing their games.
Actually, I should add one note: I did play the battle with Mishaera in chapter 6, and spent a lot of time balancing the difficulty there.
—Ah, that despicable woman. (laughs)
Takahashi: The things she says really makes you hate her, right? (laughs) I love that character though. I think the balance in that fight with her, in chapter 6, is perfect. She’s tough as nails! (laughs) I wrote all her dialogue too. Another character I like a lot is Arthur.
Takahashi: Yeah. I love the Legend of King Arthur stories. His name comes from there too. I really love that kind of playfulness. (laughs) A lot of the dialogue I wrote for the party members between fights, when they’re in the headquarters, was done in that spirit too.
I actually wanted the design of your headquarters, as well as the dialogue you hear there, to change each chapter. But the programmers drew the line there and said, hell no. (laughs)
—By the way, who or what is Jogurt? He’s mysterious.
Takahashi: Yes, he’s a mystery. (laughs) He was originally just a sketch made by Yoshihiro Tamaki, who did the concept art for Shining Force. He thought it would be cool to have a completely out-of-place character in battle.
There’s also a lot of hidden events in Shining Force that even I don’t know about. It seems that while I was out of the office, the programmers added stuff on their own. (laughs) What I want to know is: where the heck did they find the extra memory for all that?! (laughs)
—Where did the inspiration for the world and setting come from?
Takahashi: The visual style was inspired by Medieval Europe. I wanted, more or less, to create a standard fantasy world.
—Like the Legend of King Arthur?
Takahashi: Yeah, yeah. The setting itself is an earlier story than the one told in Shining in the Darkness. In the backstory I wrote, one of your allies actually hails from the same Kingdom of Stormsong (the first generation) that is in Shining in the Darkness.1
—Whoa, I see you got pretty detailed with the setting.
Takahashi: For Shining in the Darkness, I actually spent a full month just fleshing out the world and setting. I thought about how the whole royal system really functioned, the role of the knights, things like that. I can’t write the story if I don’t know all that stuff in details. In fact, it’s only when the setting is fleshed out that I begin to know how the characters would interact with each other.
—Why are the knights all half-horse?
Takahashi: (laughs) They’re centaurs. That’s also connected to the setting. In the land Shining Force takes place in, it’s just common sense that those are the knights. If you were to go to another region, however, you’d find different races, and accordingly, a different idea of what knights are.
Designing a world really is important for any game, I think. And it has the added bonus that once you’ve constructed your setting, you can re-use it for future endeavors. (laughs)
—Doesn’t it take WAY too long to do all that though…!?
Takahashi: Well, I guess I just love fantasy. Dragon Quest really re-awoke that in me.
—What about Final Fantasy?
Takahashi: Well, the vision of “fantasy” in that game is a little different from the orthodox fantasy that I know and love. I’m all about King Arthur and Lord of the Rings… but I was also inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s martian series of books.
Takahashi: Burroughs was a famous fantasy writer. The Mars stories are science fiction, but they’re more like “science fantasy” I think.
—So you’re also a sci-fi fan?
Takahashi: I grew up on all those genre books from Hayakawa and Sogensha publishing houses. It was literally all I read. (laughs) When I was a kid, my parents often took me to see Walt Disney movies. The sci-fi books I read were a perfect match to those movies. There was Perry Rhodan too, a sci-fi series recognized by Guinness as being the longest-running series in the world. I read all 150 or so volumes.
—So what you’re saying is, you’re a sci-fi otaku. (laughs)
Takahashi: No, I’m not an otaku. (laughs) I really was a voracious reader, though, so sci-fi has probably had as big an impression on me as fantasy.
—The initials of Shining Force do spell “SF”. (laughs)
Shining Force – 1992 Developer Interview
originally featured in the Shining Force Encyclopedia
Hiroyuki Takahashi – Producer/Designer
Kenji Orimo – Director
Yasuhiro Taguchi – Director
Yoshihiro Tamaki – Character Designer
Hidehiro Yoshida – Graphic Designer
Yoshinori Tagawa – Programmer
—When was the concept and structure of Shining Force first completed?
Takahashi: I came up with the rough idea for Shining Force in November of last year. I was still working on Shining in the Darkness at that time, but these ideas kept bouncing around in my head. I had the general idea for the story, and I wanted it to have Dragon Quest-style progression. Above all, I wanted it to feature something never seen in any RPG before, which is why made the fight scenes in that strategy/battle simulation style.
Taguchi: I don’t play strategy games, personally. The truth is, during the development I thought of Shining Force as an RPG, not a strategy or simulation game.
Takahashi: When it came to making a strategy game, at first only Tagawa and Tamaki were for it. Orimo was uncertain about the idea, and Taguchi was absolutely opposed to it. I think he wanted to make something with a strong story, is why.
Taguchi: Yeah, that was my thinking.
Tamaki: I’ve always liked strategy games with a proper experience system, where your units get stronger and stronger as the game progresses. It was something I already loved, so I was all for doing a game like that.
Takahashi: At Sonic, we don’t like to issue orders from on-high to our developers, “make this!” We’d rather it be an idea everyone comes up with together, which then gets hammered into a form that everyone agrees on. Which, of course, necessitates a lot of meetings…
Tagawa: Yeah, and sometimes it devolves into a cheap teenage drama. “WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!” (laughs)
Takahashi: In order to please people with opposing ideas, we added a lot of different elements to the game. I think this resulted in it being full of interesting ideas. Of course, we were also lucky to have an amazingly talented staff for this project, which was also a huge key to its success.
—The animated fight scenes are truly a sight to behold.
Yoshida: Oh my god, those were so hard to make. But I’m glad we took the time to depict everything in such detail, because I think it makes it a lot easier for players to empathize with the characters and story.
Orimo: Yes, I’m so glad we stuck to our guns and faithfully reproduced the original concept art in the graphics. Normally, no matter how awesome the concept illustrations may be, they end up being represented on-screen with chintzy little sprites.
Takahashi: I hate it when games look “generic”. Actually, the truth is, the look of the animated fight scenes was inspired by the opening of a certain RPG… 2
Yoshida: We made both the background sprites and character sprites very large and realistic, and it was a challenge fitting all that in the limited memory.
Tamaki: Up to now, most games have used sprites which can easily be flipped/mirrored when you need to rotate them in a different direction. But in Shining Force, we endeavored to make give a more realistic, full-bodied vantage of the characters, so every different angle (left, right, top, bottom) had to be drawn uniquely. We couldn’t re-use any of the sprites, god, it was so much work…
—I understand you called the platform the characters stand on when they attack the “otachidai”.3
Taguchi: When Tamaki was working on the mock-up drawings for the battle scenes, he sometimes drew the player characters feet standing on a craggy outcropping of rock. We wanted to try and use that image for the in-game screens if we could. We called it “otachidai” at first, but later we started calling it “otoko no hanamichi”… (laughs)4
Takahashi: There are different terrain effects for each tile, but we didn’t want to take up valuable screen real estate by showing those with numbers. The terrain platforms were our way of conveying info that visually.
—What can you tell us about the different characters in Shining Force?
Takahashi: Taking allies and enemies together, there are a ton of characters in Shining Force, but the ones that join your party in the latter half of the game… we called them the “weirdo force”. (laughs)
Tamaki: Yeah, all those non-human characters, that probably reflects my taste more than anything. Jogurt, he was one I added to the game based on a quick sketch, half as a joke, before any official concept art had been done. He has the same face as Orimo.
—The highlight of Shining Force is, of course, the strategy battle system. Do you have any war stories to share about its creation?
Takahashi: On the enemy’s turn, their calculations (for what action they’d take) needed to finish within 1 second. Anything more than that, and it would break the flow of the game, I thought. Tagawa, I believe you had many challenges with the programming…?
Tagawa: Am I allowed to talk about them? Once I start, I won’t want to stop. (laughs)
For the battle calculations, the first thing the monsters do is figure out who they’re facing, then what action they should take. But unlike a normal war simulation game, the possible number of actions, when you consider things like spells and items, is very complex. Then for any action they need to calculate HP and MP… to do all that, you have to somehow simplify and quantify the possible choices…
Takahashi: Well, if we get too detailed, we’ll be here all day, but suffice it to say, for the enemies AI to feel realistic and varied, naturally it’s a lot of work. Add in the requirement to have it all processed within 1 second, and yeah, it was crazy.
Tagawa: It was. Even now, I’m not quite sure how we managed it.
Takahashi: Either way, I felt very strongly that if the enemies could only attack you, it would be boring. For that, I put everyone through the ringer…
Kan Naito, who programmed the towns, also worked on Dragon Quest III and IV. I’m amazed at how much he fit in, both in terms of the size of the towns, and the number of events. We really were blessed with an incredible staff, people with career experience and good sense.
—Were there any difficulties coming up with the title “Shining Force”?
Takahashi: We had a few different candidates for titles. The one we chose was suggested by the scenario writer. Originally, the title was simply “Kamigami no Isan” (“Legacy of the Gods”). I’m something of a sci-fi diehard, and I read a bunch of sci-fi novels that had similar-sounding titles, like “the ___ of the ___”, so that’s why we settled on this one. (laughs)
—Were there any influences for Shining Force you would like to share?
Takahashi: Let’s see… in terms of movies, there’s Walt Disney’s animated films. Also (and I believe Horii is a fan too), when I was young, supone manga5 was very popular. Of those, I loved Ikki Kajiwara’s works. I loved the heroes of those stories, who always had some dark side to them. I think those works influenced me in ways I wasn’t aware of at the time.
—Now that you mention it, the hero of Shining Force is also a somewhat tragic character, having lost all his memories. (laughs)
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“Stormsong” was the original Japanese name for the Kingdom of Thornwood in Shining in the Darkness.↩
Takahashi doesn’t provide any clue to what this RPG was, but I’m very curious!↩
Otachidai generically means platform, as in a platform that a speaker would stand on to give a speech. It also can specifically mean the platform where imperial addresses are given, which is probably why it’s mentioned here.↩
Otoko no Hanamichi refers to the side stage in kabuki where actors exit and enter the main stage.↩