Shining Force II – Developer Roundtable Interview

Shining Force II – 1993 Developer Roundtable Interview

This candid Shining Force II roundtable interview, conducted only a couple weeks after the game’s release, originally appeared in the Megadrive Fan Attack Special book. The team discusses the challenging (and lengthy) development schedule which overlapped with the Gaiden games, the improvements in the battle AI, story and thematic ideas, and other behind-the-scenes stories.

Hiroyuki Takahashi – Producer/Writer
Shugo Takahashi – Director
Yasuhiro Taguchi – Main Programmer
Yutaka Yamamoto – Programmer
Masayuki Hashimoto – Map Graphics
Shuji Shimizu – Map Design
Tatsuya Niikura – Map Design

—Shining Force II is finally complete.

Hiroyuki: Yes, we worked diligently to finish it. We definitely broke a sweat though.

—Let’s start by having everyone introduce themselves.

Hiroyuki: You go first, Yamamoto.

Yamamoto: I’m a programmer. Basically I did the event programming, and also the internal calculations behind the battle engine.

Shugo: He was responsible for all the code that makes up the battle engine. The damage calculations, whether to counterattack or not, whether a magic effect goes through or not, things like that.

Hiroyuki: The easiest work of his to actually see is probably some of the finer details in the movements, where he paid great care. Any of those technically-unnecessary-but-actually-really-cool details, he added.

Yamamoto: When you put it that way, it sounds… sad. (laughs)

Masayuki Hashimoto, Hiroyuki Takahashi, and Shugo Takahashi.

Hashimoto: I’m Hashimoto. I designed the map graphics, for the most part. Oh, and I also did some of the little effects.

Shugo: He helped out with the graphics, basically.

Hashimoto: I think I was busier than the main graphic designer though. (laughs)

Hiroyuki: The graphics were pretty much done by just two people. It was a huge amount of volume to get through.

Hashimoto: I designed all the maps too.

Hiroyuki: Yeah, no one but Hashimoto had any involvement in them. There was Aoki, though…

Shugo: He made the skin on the portraits look nice and shiny, stuff like that.

Hashimoto: He re-drew those over and over, I remember.

Shimizu: I’m Shimizu. I did the map layout and event design.

Shugo: You also placed the items and treasure chests on the maps.

Shimizu: I apologize for placing them haphazardly.

Shugo: My original request was a little broad, like just put these items between these two battles. There was a bit of play in there, of like 2-3 maps, I think. Anyway, so at first, I handed this job to Niikura, but he was just too nice! His item placements were too easy, so instead I asked Shimizu to do it, but Shimizu, well, he went in the other direction…

Shimizu: Hey, they’re all findable!

Hiroyuki: Yeah, but I’m sure people will wonder “what in the world is this mithril doing in here the middle of these mountains…?”

Shimizu: That’s such a big, wide area though, it would feel empty without putting something there, right?!

A few of the tricky Mithril locations placed by designer Shuji Shimizu.

Niikura: Hello, I’m Niikura, and I also helped design the maps.

—And what was the most memorable part of the development for you?

Niikura: Probably the treasure chest placement stuff we just talked about.

Shugo: Do you think any of your placements were better…?

Niikura: Oh no, I never said that.

—But how do you really feel?

Niikura: I mean, yeah. His placements don’t make any sense to me. (everyone laughs)

Shining Force Gaiden and Shining Force II

—How long did Shining Force II take to make, and what did that process look like?

Hiroyuki: We began the basic game design process around… April of last year, I believe. It was pretty laid-back until the middle of June, at which point we began planning for Shining Force Gaiden I, and that took up all our time. We completed the Gaiden scenario around the beginning of September, I think? Then I alone peeled off from that development and began working on Shining Force II.

About half of April and June we spent in planning meetings, and I believe the upshot of those meetings was that we then had Taguchi start working on the programming for Shining Force II, for about a month. After that he went to work on the programming for Gaiden II, then took a break, and November was spent doing mostly exploratory work. In December we had more meetings about Gaiden II, then there was the New Year vacation… so yeah, it wasn’t until mid-March of this year that, as a company, we were all working together on it. Everyone’s main project was Gaiden II, but we had idle time in between that, and we used that idle time to develop Shining Force II.

A review of Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict, which came out in 1995 and links the stories of Shining Force 1 and 2.

In between Gaiden 1 and 2, we had about a month where we looked at issues in Shining Force II like how to handle the data, and how to handle the AI. So yeah, that’s the basic roadmap of how things went, a lot of concurrent work.

Shugo: There were also times where we’d be developing the Gaiden games, and have a neat idea, but it wasn’t possible to add to Gaiden so we’d shuffle it over to Shining Force II.

Hiroyuki: Yeah, it was while we worked on Gaiden that our vision for Shining Force II really came into focus. In fact, had we not made the Gaiden games, I doubt we could have developed Shining Force II as quickly as we did.

Only 2kb of Free Memory?!

—Shining Force II is a big game, isn’t it?

Shugo: It’s actually just shy of 80 megabits.1

Hiroyuki: That’s all thanks to the compression routines we used. There was also a “puzzle” element to where we placed the data. For example, sometimes moving certain data to a different location was more efficient, or sometimes we’d want to divide a certain block of data up into different places…

Shugo: It was like a jigsaw puzzle.

Hiroyuki: It’s not something you have to do in your typical 16 Mbit game.

Shugo: We ended up using 99.74% of the available memory. There was nothing else.

Hiroyuki: We used it all… I think there was only 2kb of space remaining. The memory is divided into banks. There’s 108, I believe.

Shugo: A lot of those banks were used to 100% capacity. They was nothing more we could stuff in there.

Lured by Pizza into my First All-Nighter

—What was the most difficult part of the development?

Hiroyuki: Probably the timeframe we were working in. What do you guys think?

Taguchi: The final week. Probably the all-nighters we had to pull before the final deadline.

Hiroyuki: Any programming techniques you’re particularly proud of?

Taguchi: Techniques? No, nothing special, at least nothing to cry home about. Overall though I think it all turned out really well.

Hiroyuki: I believe you put a lot of sweat into the random encounter battles. Also, the caravan system.

Taguchi: Ah, yeah, when I was working on those, we still had some leeway with our time.

Hiroyuki: And how about you, Shimizu?

Shimizu: Hmm. Well, I definitely had my hands full with designing and placing all the different map events. However, when crunch time arrived, our map work was pretty much all finished, so I don’t know that we had it all that bad. Occasionally I’d be a little taken aback by how much the scenario writers wrote, but that was about it.

Niikura: When I was debugging, it was really annoying having to always play from start to finish. And the overall volume of this game was just a lot more than before, too.

Shugo: I can see that. Everytime something got revised, you had to go back to the beginning and start over. How many times in total did you finish the game…?

Niikura: The full game, probably 3 or 4 complete playthroughs. I tried to skip through different battles.

Shugo: I wouldn’t want that job, yeah. It’s very different from playing for fun.

From October 1st through 3rd, Sonic Corp held a promotional release event for Shining Force II at LAOX in Akihabara. Several of the developers attended as well for a meet&greet Q&A session.

Yamamoto: The hardest part for me was the event I worked on during that all-nighter.

Hiroyuki: Didn’t you say you’d never worked through the night before?

Shugo: That’s rare for a programmer.

Yamamoto: Yeah, it was my first time doing that as a game developer, but I was lured by the promise of pizza…

Hiroyuki: Yamamoto likes pizza.

Shugo: Yeah, once we hear Yamamoto say “Ah, that was some good pizza”… we know we’ve got him.

Hiroyuki: I mean, pizza’s easy enough to order, right? It’s our final trump card… so when the employees hear “Hey, let’s order pizza guys”, they know they’re in for a long night.

One-shotting Zeon

—Do you have any crazy stories from the making of SFII?

Hiroyuki: One time Shimizu killed Zeon with a single critical hit.

Shimizu: I attacked him with Slade and he died in one shot! I was like, Daaamnnn! That’s cool.

Shugo: We fixed that right away.

Hiroyuki: Part of me thought, well, it’s pretty rare, so maybe it’s fine to leave in. But of course, this is the final boss, so I think players would feel let down and unfulfilled if they just suddenly one-shot him.

Shugo: He would die with Soul Steal too. Who was it that was responsible for making Zeon again…

Paste’s Real Name was Slime!2

—Any other behind-the-scenes stories…?

Shugo: I remember with Talos, you can’t damage him unless you use the Achilles Sword, right? And wasn’t there originally a magic effect for that sword if you used it in battle…?

Yamamoto: Ah, not exactly. So, at that time the Achilles Sword could cast Bolt, but if you targeted Talos, he would absorb all the damage and it wouldn’t hit the surrounding enemies.

Hiroyuki: Whoa, so he basically had protection from multi-target spells. That’s how it was?

Yamamoto: That’s how it was written out in the planning docs.

Shugo: Yeah, ultimately we updated that though, and just made it so Talos couldn’t be targeted with magic period.

Hiroyuki: There’s lots of little trivia like that. We also weren’t able to use the name “Slime” for the Paste enemy.

Shugo: The delivery was about 5 hours late. As I recall, we submitted two different master app versions, with different enemy names.

Hiroyuki: First we learned Slime was out due to copyright reasons so we tried to change it to Ooze or Gel. But those ended up also being no-gos, so in the end we settled on “Paste”. I remember feeling like, “what the hell, seriously?! who’s using up all these names?!”

Artwork from a Shining Force II strategy guide, showing Bowie and Sarah fighting against Talos.

The Computer AI is Twice as Big as SF1

Hiroyuki: The AI for this game is getting close to the level of a good chess AI. However, simply making a chess AI stronger is not, in reality, all that difficult. The bigger challenge is increasing the variation.

Shugo: Yes, and in that regard, we were able to add a lot of variety to Shining Force II. The AI will take different actions depending on whether an enemy is holding an item or not, for instance. I think we’ve made a lot of progress in those areas.

It required a delicate balance of programming, but the approach we took was completely different from the first Shining Force. In that game, you see… the truth is, it relied on several dozen pre-set patterns, which were keyed around the action the player took.

Hiroyuki: The easy way to program a strategy game is with preset logic: “If the player does X, the enemy will always do Y”. It’s much more difficult to do something more subtle and varied, like “if the player does X, the enemy may do Y.”

Shugo: The Shining Force II AI is definitely faster than the first game, even though its more than twice as complex in terms of the amount of AI calculations it performs. And yeah, the other big challenge was how efficient and deterministic the AI should be. The programming is setup in such a way, where the computer will not always make the most optimized choice, but we still tried to make sure it didn’t look like it was just being stupid. If the computer always makes the perfect choice, you see, it becomes little more than a mechanistic shogi simulator. So the challenge was how to avoid that shogi feeling, but also make it look like the computer was “using its head” when it made moves. And that’s where our balancing efforts come into play.

Another Shining Force II

—How did you come up with the story this time?

Hiroyuki: When it came time to write the scenario, there were actually 4 different story ideas we had. Ultimately we settled on the one that’s in the game now, but one of the other ideas would have intertwined the plots and stories of Shining Force 1 and Shining in the Darkness. It was a very dramatic story, and in the beginning we were actually going to use that one. I guess one reason we changed course was because a portion of the development staff switched to a different project…

Also, there were some on the team who felt like it would be better not to connect the two games, to have a standalone story instead. After thinking about it, I thought they might be right, and eventually we ended up dropping that story. Even now there’s still a part of me that wonders what the game might have turned out like, had we kept going with it. But ultimately I do think it was for the best.

—Are there any “messages” or themes in Shining Force II?

Hiroyuki: I think whatever each person gets out of the game, that’s perfectly fine with me… but for our part, there was a feeling that we didn’t want it to be a game of senseless slaughter. If it’s kill, kill, kill, then eventually killing itself becomes pleasurable.

Although I don’t think Shining Force II is particularly remembered for its lore or story today, it’s interesting to hear the amount of thought and work that went into it.

We didn’t want to do that. If you think about the whole idea of “defeating evil”… for us, evil is something that disturbs peace. And defeating it means everyone coming together and combining their forces in order to expel this disturbance. Sometimes that intention gets buried and you lose sight of it, in a war simulation game. We really didn’t want to let that happen though for Shining Force II. I think that’s why the games I make always make a point to emphasize that aspect of evil.

—And what is that aspect of evil, in Shining Force II?

Hiroyuki: For example, before you get the boat, there’s a big event. In that scene, you learn through some dialogue that this villain, who is so strong he can destroy the very earth itself, will soon be revived. I think most people, in reality, would want to run from something as terrifying as that—you wouldn’t want to get personally involved. And yet, in so many stories, the characters hardly seem to give a second thought about standing up and fighting back. I wanted to express the opposite mentality, and only later in the story do the characters finally realize “We’ve got to go back to Granseal and fight.”

Also, bad guys are commonly portrayed in a way where they’re 100% bad. In reality, though, I think that’s not the case, and that due to a deviation in one’s thinking, a once good person can become bad, too. The final enemy has an aide, and we tried to express some of that in this character’s personality.

The Next Generation of Shining Force

—Have you thought much about the new Saturn hardware?

Hiroyuki: The nice thing about the Megadrive, was that it came out during a period when none of the console hardware could hope to handle true arcade-quality ports, and this meant that arcade users could be full and enthusiastic supporters of the Megadrive. You see, the hardware today is capable of games that, for the large part, look very similar to arcade games. But the problem is, if you don’t go beyond mere imitation, then I wonder what value the hardware has.

—What kind of game will you make next?

Hiroyuki: Something in the RPG genre, probably. A game with a lot of dialogue would be nice. Something where you look back on it and think, “Ah, that scene was so good”—something that stays with you for a long time.

—Finally, please give a message to our readers.

Hiroyuki: We put a great deal of effort into the story, so I hope players will enjoy it. I personally struggled with writing the scene where you help Felder, and the parts before you get on the boat. Because they were so challenging for me, I hope players will enjoy them.

Shugo: We worked very hard to create battle stages with a sense of tension and immediacy. Also, one thing that surprised me, was when I looked at one of the strategy guides, their advice was totally not what I expected. It made me realize that depending on how you play, it can be a completely different game for each player—everyone gets to experience their own individual Shining Force, as it were.

Taguchi: For the Nazca Ship event, I worked all through the night, and when the dawn came I started programming that scene. By that point I was in a complete trance state, and didn’t even have time to watch the sunrise.

Yamamoto: I recommend just playing straight through on your first playthrough, and once you’ve learned every character’s strengths, the next time you play you can assemble a party of your personal favorites.

Hashimoto: For the ancient temple map, I used a number of books and documents as research materials when I was designing it. As a member of the graphics team, the one character I really want players to see is the Master Monk Sheela.

Shimizu: I want players to see all the events, of course. The discovery of Sheela, and the Pangoat Valley scene where Bowie gets all flustered and then Astral knocks him over…

Niikura: I hope players will try and find all the mithril so they can forge the special weapons (starting with the Murasame) that you can only make with the mithril ore.

I don’t believe Hashimoto drew this illustration, so his comments about Sheela probably refer to her scantily-clad combat scene sprites.

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  1. For reference, 1 “megabit” of memory is equal to 1/8 megabyte, so 80 megabits would be 10mb of space. As Hiroyuki describes below, compression was used to fit that in a 16 mbit, or 2mb sized ROM.

  2. Paste is the name for the Bubbling Ooze enemy in the English localization.

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