Strania – 2011 Developer Interview
Strania is a vertizontal shmup released by G.Rev in 2011 for Xbox Live and the arcades in Japan via NESiCAxLIVE. In addition to the usual game design elements, creator Hiroyuki Maruyama also talks about the turbulent development history and the challenges facing shmup designers working with today’s hardware. In 2015 Strania was released on Steam for modern audiences to enjoy.
—What is the origin of the title, “Seisou Kouki Strania: Strania -The Stella Machina-“?1
Maruyama: There’s nothing special behind it. (laughs) We had various draft titles, but since we were consciously trying to create a robot anime style with this game, we wanted something that wouldn’t necessarily have a specific meaning but would sound very strong and confident… and so, after a meeting, “Strania” was what we came up with. (laughs)
—It definitely feels like some robot anime, with the subtitle part.
Maruyama: Yeah, you mean the “Stella Machina” part. After we came up with that I thought we could use Seisou Kouki as ateji for Stella Machina. So in the West its just known as “Strania -The Stella Machina-.”
—When did the development and planning for Strania begin?
Maruyama: Quite awhile back. I think we started around the end of 2007. The arcade location tests were held in 2008, and if you add the breaks we had to take its been a really long development.
—What was the initial development plan for Strania?
Maruyama: At first it was just to make the next thing after Under Defeat. The underlying idea I had was to see if the two of us alone could make an HD game. This time the development expenses would be shooting up, and compared with our last game we’d spend 4 or 5 times as much. So it was like, the two of us made Under Defeat… how far can we take our skills? That spirit of adventure and experimenting was a fundamental part of it.
—It sounds really difficult though.
Maruyama: In the end it really took too much time to do it this way. The two of us just couldn’t get all the work done. Especially the graphics, that turned out to be nearly impossible with two people. Of course, if we had cut corners we could probably have gotten it done, but since we wanted to create something with the attention to detail and quality presentation of Under Defeat, we had to abandon the two-man development idea. It caused me to rethink things for the company, too. For our first original, HD game development, it was too challenging to do it the old way.
—Is there any difference in quality between the X360 and Arcade versions?
Maruyama: They’re entirely the same. There may be some very small internal differences, but I don’t think its anything a player would be able to notice just from looking at the games. Though there might be some changes in the colors here and there because of differences in the hardware capabilities and the GPU rendering. Also, the menu screens and panel are different I think; the arcade version looks more “arcadey” there.
—You’ve released “Side Vower” DLC for the X360, where you can play as the Vower faction. Can you select both the Vower side or the Strania side in the arcade version as well?
Maruyama: Yes, you can. In the arcade version you first choose your side, then you choose your course.
—Does that mean you had intended to include the “Side Vower” content in the arcade version from the beginning?
Maruyama: We originally planned to distribute Strania in the arcades in March, but that got pushed back due to the earthquake. We’d originally planned to release the arcade version first without the Side Vower content, then add it later, but since things got delayed we were able to release them together.
—It sounds like this development has been a long and windy road!
Maruyama: Yeah. At the beginning there was no NESiCA x Live service either. We were planning a Taito Type X pcb release, and the response at the location test seemed favorable for that, but soon thereafter the Type X boards stopped being available. So we shelved the project for awhile then, but we couldn’t stand the thought of all our work going to waste, so we decided on a console release instead. Sometime after that Taito approached us and said they had a new system of online distribution for arcade games with NESiCA, but since we had already switched over to console development, we turned down their offer.
Then last year, I was looking at the questionnaires we had received from a live conference event we had done, and I saw several regretful responses from fans: “well, I understand Strania won’t be coming to arcades, but please do your best!” As the manager of G.rev this felt unacceptable to me, so I went back to Taito and retracted our refusal, and we started developing the arcade version too. I think the low risk associated with developing for NESiCA, where you don’t need to produce a PCB, was also part of it.
—The NESiCA x Live distribution system was the best way to go, it sounds like.
Maruyama: I think this is the future of arcade game development; that is, without actual PCBs. So in a sense Strania was also a good way to get used to that new development style. At the time the only single player game on the NESiCA system was Spica Adventure, so I felt there was a danger the platform would end up being used only for vs. games. So the timing felt right for us to step in and add a single player game for NESiCA, as no one else was developing one.
—Regarding the robot anime theme, were there any particular games/books/series you had in mind as you created Strania?
Maruyama: Takeda, who was one of the original planners, said that Jaleco’s robot STG Cybattler, where you wield a sword, was an influence. The gameplay is different, but I think that cool feeling of controlling a robot and wielding a sword was definitely something we were thinking of. As for the gameplay and presentation, rather than the arcade we were more influenced by console games–especially games like Spriggan Mk II and Musha Aleste. To some degree we were aiming for the straightforward progression that games of that era had. If we had done a full-price retail game, we would have inserted scenes where the characters talk to each other like in Spriggan Mark II, and have characters appear in the scoring info area and talk, and we actually did go so far as showing character faces for the location test.
The system we put into place where the characters talk to each other depending on the ranking you receive was something we added midway, by the way. But when the development changed to an online-distributed console title, the voice actors we wanted to hire ended up being too costly so we had to abandon that idea. Because of all that there’s some things that have been omitted, storywise.
—With many aspects of Strania resembling a robot anime, there’s a kind of nostalgic, retro-game atmosphere. Were there specific things you added to achieve that feeling?
Maruyama: Naturally we spent a lot of time and attention on the parts we wanted to make interesting, but for each designer it was something different. Takeda, who handled the planning and programming, focused on very specific details, and on making a story and presentation that would be a continuation of the finely detailed work we did in Under Defeat. The graphics designer focused on getting the HD look right, and especially on designing textures with a retro flavor. As for me, when it was decided we would be releasing this for Xbox LIVE Arcade, I worked hard on making sure it wouldn’t appear like a sloppily put-together, cheap “download” game, and did everything I could to go beyond people’s usual expectations in that regard. I’m proud that although this was a downloadable game that only costs 800 MS points, it feels like something that should cost a lot more. That quality presentation was what I focused most on, but yeah, everyone focused on the details of their sections in their own way.
—When you play it, you can definitely feel that attention to detail and care that is typical of G.rev’s games. Changing topics, in the Side Vower DLC you can play as the enemy forces and gain a completely opposite perspective on the game, which I think is an unprecedented addition for a STG title. How did you come up with the idea for the Side Vower DLC?
Maruyama: We did it so as to more fully depict the world of both the protaganist and his rival. The final stage in Strania ends up being the first stage of the Side Vower DLC. But the confrontations with each rival both take place at the same predetermined spot. Of course since each faction has different armaments and weaponry, the progression of events is different–one side will have giant robots and the other won’t, and so on. And for the bosses, each side throws the best they’ve got at the other. But both games are completely different.
—When I first saw the stage 4 giant robot boss, I was really enjoying figuring out how to beat him, but above that I was fascinated by the attention to detail in his appearance and attacks. He sure unleashes an arsenal on you!
Maruyama: His attacks are quite difficult to figure out, and we wanted players to enjoy discovering the cues and strategies.
—Its also fun trying to pick the right weapons in Strania.
Maruyama: One of our design concepts was to make a game where utilizing the different weapons was part of playing well. Using a single weapon and maxing out its level will get you points, of course, but your score will really shoot up if you are able to use the different weapons and level them all up individually. Strategically speaking, the weapon levels also increase faster when you use different weapons instead of just a single one, and finding the optimal combinations will be something scorers can pursue.
—I think precisely because the weapons are pre-set and always available, it makes it easy to come up with different strategies.
Maruyama: If you’re a person who’s just going for a clear, then only using the rocket because its strongest is certainly fine, but those aiming for a high score will need to use all the available weapons to their utmost.
—Were there any particular difficulties you faced in developing a full HD game?
Maruyama: The graphics. The programming is just a matter of learning the hardware, and once that’s done you can move forward, but the graphics… the textures especially took a lot of time. STG development may not generally require a big staff, but if you’re going to take the quality to the next level then it will take a lot of money. To be honest, developing Senkou no Ronde was a lot easier, because the screen didn’t scroll much. When objects are just floating in empty space its no problem, but when you start adding buildings and other features it gets more complicated. Backgrounds are like the wellspring of a STG from which everything flows. They really take a lot of energy and time.
—Now that you mention it, that is true.
Maruyama: Once you start to think about it that way you can look at other STGs and clearly see the work involved. Of course there are games with bad backgrounds too. But for scrolling STG, once you’ve finally put a lot of effort in the backgrounds you can say “ah, it finally looks normal.” We struggled with backgrounds during Border Down, too. One workaround is to make a game like Geometry Wars, and rely exclusively on visual effects for the background. But I think doing a traditional robot/mecha style in a STG today means that you can’t just rely on a bunch of a flashy effects.
—The overall presentation of Strania is also very engrossing, but is there a particular scene that you want to point to and say “take look at this!” ?
Maruyama: The most readily apparent would be the stage 4 and stage 6 bosses. I think arrogant, preening mechas are really interesting to depict. With human-form boss characters, making them appear interesting can be difficult. But if you have the freedom to depict them like we had here, I think its really interesting.
Another thing is that sometimes we specifically wanted players’ attention to be drawn away from the player character and notice all the little details here and there. For example, the background for the stage 5 boss changes depending on how the battle is going. We’ve prepared a lot of small things like that.
—Are there names for the enemy and player ships?
Maruyama: Yes, for each side, Strania and the Vower. However, each side doesn’t know the actual designation of the others’ ships, so enemies are called by their identification codes.
—This game has a simple story, with all the characters appearing in the attract sequence. But I imagine there’s a more detailed setting and story?
Maruyama: We did create one, but its like… I’m not going to talk about it publicly. (laughs) The characters we had first envisioned when the game was being developed for the arcade ended up turning out a lot differently too. And considering all the additional Side Vower content, it really went through a lot of updates. Originally we wanted to have a story attract sequence, but due to cost problems we couldn’t do it… so we ended up having all this background about the story and characters that we had no way to show. The endings are different for 1P and 2P side though, and there’s also a 2P co-op ending, so hopefully players can get some sense of the characters through that.
—But you don’t want to divulge much about the story now.
Maruyama: If the game sells well, perhaps we’ll do a novelization or something. But my personal feeling is that because we did spend all that time on the setting and story, what players need to know about the world of the game should still all be conveyed one way or another through the visuals and presentation generally.
—Its quite different from Senkou no Ronde, which was very expressive and elaborate.
Maruyama: Strania was basically made with a classic sci-fi feel in mind. If, like Border Down and Under Defeat, it ends up getting ported several years from now, then perhaps we’ll add some story to it. You can look forward to it for the X720 and PS4. (laughs)
—In the credits I saw the name of Hiroshi Iuchi, famous for Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. Fans have been wondering, what parts of the game did he work on?
Maruyama: Graphics, primarily the backgrounds. He wasn’t a part of the game system or story, but since we were friends from before, he kindly joined as a graphic designer.
—Right, G.rev worked together with Iuchi on Gradius V. Changing the subject, the music for Strania was done by Keishi Yonao. Please tell us how you chose him.
Maruyama: When we started the Strania project and it came time to decide on who to choose for a composer, the X68000 and PC Engine immediately came to mind, and so naturally Keishi Yonao’s name came up too.
There were other game composer luminaries I also considered, and I was having trouble picking one until I came across a video on youtube of Yonao playing the Korg DS-10. As soon as I heard that I asked Shinji Hosoe for Yonao’s contact information. I requested that he compose the music for Strania, to which he readily agreed.
—Is there a particular song you’d recommend?
Maruyama: There’s over 20 tracks, so its hard to choose. What immediately comes to mind is the stage 5 theme. Its catchy, has lots of impact, and is quite impressive. We used it in the promotional video for Strania too. As far as my personal recommendation, I’d say the opening theme and the tracks for stages 1, 2, and 3. They’re not only good songs, but as STG music they really match the atmosphere and raise the tension level.
Naturally I want the player’s feelings to be manipulated and controlled by the music. In that sense, I think the sequence of songs from the prologue through the 3rd stage is very successful in expressing the progression and variety of the stage itself.
The Side Vower music is more chaotic and I think it turned out very interestingly. Since you switch sides, the music is all new. I requested that Strania’s soundtrack be made in an 80s style, but with Side Vower we went with Yonao’s idea of doing it in a modern style of what’s popular today.
—Were there any other notable difficulties in developing Strania?
Maruyama: This is more of a business thing, but pricing the Side Vower DLC was very difficult. We wanted it to be 400 MSP, but we didn’t expect the DLC to sell that well, in which case we’d almost certainly take a loss at that price. But that doesn’t mean we could thereby just set it at 800 either. In terms of content, Side Vower has as much in it as Strania… but everyone wants DLC to cost somewhere around 400 MSP.
—There really is a lot of content, taking the Strania and Side Vower DLC together.
Maruyama: Yeah, for 1200 MSP you can play a total of 12 stages. I don’t think its a problem selling that in Japan, but overseas its extremely difficult. Some aspects of it were well-received, but we got a lot of comments that there wasn’t enough content in the game. Overseas they really place an emphasis on playtime. The tendency is that the longer a single playthrough is the better, and getting a bad rating in that regard means it won’t sell very well.
—Personally I think its a good thing that each stage is short, and like an arcade game its immediately accessible to play.
Maruyama: They just have a different sensibility overseas. In all the reviews online you see “too short!” written everywhere (laughs). Making the stages short was of course part of our initial plans for Strania when it was going to be an arcade game. Making it so the action was tightly paced and you could die quickly was all done on purpose; we didn’t want a game that dragged on sluggishly. But of course I think this reflects a difference in the way Japanese and Westerners think about games.
—Do you have any strategy advice for Strania, for STG beginners?
Maruyama: Dodging in danmaku games will definitely test your skill and abilities as a player, but Strania is a different genre of STG. Its more like a Mega Man game, where you play again and again and memorize each section. So if you keep practicing you’ll surely be able to clear it. We tuned the difficulty to take into account the level of different player’s abilities, and I hope players will have fun developing their own strategies as they go. It isn’t a game where you can reduce everything to patterns though, so I think each player will have his own way to get through sections and will perceive the overall difficulty differently.
—Do you have a final message for G.rev’s fans?
Maruyama: I want to say thank you to everyone who has played Strania. Also, we put a lot of work into the details, and I think it will be a game people can enjoy for a long time. Each stage has something you won’t want to miss in it, so please enjoy discovering all that. I think its far more enjoyable when you can discover things for yourself, rather than having a game just passively handing everything to you. Partly due to hardware limitations, many older games had that feeling of discovery to them… with simple pixel graphics, its amazing how far they could stimualate a player’s imagination. Strania may have higher technical specs, but I believe we’ve kept that same spirit in our game.
Despite being a “memorizer” I feel confident that Strania holds up to other recently released STGs. I’m especially confident that fans of older STGs like Musha Aleste and Spriggan will enjoy it! I want people to remember the joy of those games again.
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That is, in fact, the entire title in Japanese. We simply know it by Strania -The Stella Machina- here in the west. The Japanese “Seisou Kouki” part will be explained by Maruyama in the questions below.↩