Nigoro was an Japanese independent game developer that has released a number of humorous -- and well-regarded -- Flash games over the last few years.
Titles like the slap-fest Rose & Camellia, and the skirt-flipping game Mekuri Bancho put the company on the indie map, but La-Mulana -- described as "a freeware free-roaming platformer game designed to look, sound, and play like a classic MSX game" -- is what really got them into the public eye.
The company has since become Asterizm, a proper (but still indie) corporation based in Japan, and is releasing La-Mulana on the Wii's downloadable WiiWare service, with a graphical upgrade that remains true to the genre.
In this interview, conducted during the Tokyo Game Show, we spoke with Vice president Takumi Naramura, and president Shoji Nakamura about what makes the company tick, the origin of Nigoro, and game influences:
How did the group first come together?
Takumi Naramura: For the most part, it got its start with the people that had come together to help with this game website I created. Three of these people liked to make games, and those three became the core staff in our outfit.
What was the site called?
TN: MSX3. [This site is not around anymore, but it had MSX game strategies, MIDIs, hardware info, and was generally the sort of 8-bit computer retro-tribute site you saw a lot of in the late 90s/early 00s. The site design was also modeled after Hydlide 3's screen layout.]
How has it been moving from an indie outfit to a professional company?
TN: I think it would've been nice if we could continue to make games as a hobby for the rest of our lives, but the fact is that all of us are in our thirties, and I think the staff has some serious talent they've built up. Looking at it that way, it sort of seems like a missed opportunity if we didn't use our skills to go to the next level.
We made the shift because we had built up a reasonable amount of confidence that we could succeed at this. It was sort of a natural process. There's also the fact that the Internet and the idea of downloadable games has spread well enough that even an outfit like ours can sell games, which is important because we don't have the sort of capital you'd need to sell packaged software.
What do you think about Flash as a game construction medium? What are the good and bad points of it?
TN: The greatest advantage it has is that anyone can play a Flash game, and -- more important on our end -- nearly anybody can develop a Flash game, too.
The bad part from our perspective is that, no matter what we're trying to make, we run into obstacles with the environment that we constantly need to find workarounds for -- controls, graphics, sound, you name it. It's a limited environment.
What's the engine or codebase did you use for the development of LA-MULANA?
Shoji Nakamura: We're making a new engine for the Wii in C++.
Will that be your engine for future games as well?
TN: Not wholesale, no, but some core aspects of it -- sound effects, game map displays -- will certainly be made general enough for re-use.
I was playing Mekuri Bancho [a flash game in which a delinquent, or “bancho” runs through a school flipping up girls’ skirts] last night and…
SN: Oh, thank you very much!
Can you explain the recent popularity of bancho games? Like Kenka Bancho and so on.
TN: In Japan, you really don't see anybody like that anymore. You could sort of call them "lost heroes" in the popular mind. (laughs)
SN: We had lots of banchos in our childhood. Well, okay, not lots -- two or so, anyway! (laughs) So it's a childhood thing.
Many of your games have some humor, but I feel that not so many games in Japan use humor very often, or effectively. Why do you think that is?
TN: I think they're afraid they'll go too far with it and people will get angry at them; it'd become a media thing. They don't want to risk that sort of thing, even if they want to include aspects like that.
I think that one of reasons Nigoro has gotten overseas popularity is because of the humor.
TN: (laughs) That's just what we aimed for.
The first time I heard about Nigoro was for Rose & Camellia.
SN: The slapping game!
Have you considered porting some of these Flash games to the iPhone or something? Many of them are gesture-oriented, so...
TN: I'd like to. We don't have the time nor the people right now, but I'd like to.
SN: Probably we will, but not now, anyway.
These kind of small Flash projects -- I think they're quite interesting, because you can focus on one interesting idea and make a small, self-contained game around it that is quite enjoyable. Is that your intention, to make these sorts of games?
TN: We're actually pretty bad at that. Like a lot of developers, we have a tendency to create these huge levels and all kinds of enemies to populate them. But as we've been making Flash games for two years, we've trained ourselves to keep that focus you mentioned, through games like Mekuri Bancho and so forth. So, in that way, it is our intention, yes. If we can keep finding ideas for them, we'll keep on making them.
With LA-MULANA, I'm curious to know why you decided to change the art style from 8-bit to 16-bit.
TN: Well, for one, while we all like the graphics and sound you get with old games, but we felt that if we continued to pursue that, we'd just be looking to the past and not challenging ourselves to try anything new.
Another reason is that a pretty large contingent of gamers, especially younger ones, are simply not interested in games that look "old." To them, "old" graphics mean bad graphics. So we felt it important that this be presented as a wholly new title.
The indie-game audience was probably interested in it in the first place because of its graphics. Still, the new graphics don't look “new” in the sense you’re saying.
TN: Perhaps we aren't getting our cues from classic games any longer for the visuals, but I think the taste of the original has remained unchanged. It's 2D graphics Nigoro-style.
SN: We call it "32-bit" graphics. (laughs)
It probably is, yeah. Sorry I said 16-bit. (laughs) It's sort of like Symphony of the Night-level.
TN: The graphics and sound are different, but the gameplay is definitely still rooted around the old style of platformers. That's Nigoro's name ["256" or 8 bits], after all. That's our roots.
That's true, yeah. I was thinking it looks almost 24-bit.
SN: (laughs) Like the Neo-Geo and so on. I love the Neo-Geo.
Me too. Some of the new screenshots remind me of -- you know Top Hunter? (Neo Geo arcade game)
SN: I love that game!
Me too. So, the Flash games that you've done -- the visual influence for those seems different from game to game. It seems to target a different kind of old-style feeling for each. Like, Nazca-type of anime, or Rose & Camellia has the old Japan interpretation of European art. What is your visual inspiration for each type?
TN: Well, starting at the beginning -- Death Village was our first Flash game, and that visual style was inspired by American comics. Since Flash games can be played by anyone worldwide, we wanted to try and attract a foreign audience with that.
With Rose & Camellia, we came up with the idea for the game first, and we argued over what story-based reason there would be for the ladies being polite enough to take turns slapping each other instead of going all-out and having a wrestling match. The shojo-manga (girl’s comics) backstory you see in the game was the very first thing that popped into my mind.
With Mekuri Bancho -- in old Japanese anime, you saw scenes all the time where students would flip up their teacher's skirt and stuff. That would show up in all kinds of shonen manga (boy’s comics), but never these days because of political correctness, so it's sort of a nostalgic thing for people our age.
That's how we came to build a game off it. As you can tell, I get a lot of inspiration from all the games, movies, manga and so forth that I looked through when I was a kid. You can trace pretty much all of my illustration work off one thing or another.
Some time ago I got several indies together in Japan to talk, and they’d never met each other, which was depressing. There should be some kind of forum for you to discuss things, because in my opinion, a big problem with the Japanese game industry is that nobody talks to each other. That's why so many of the big Japanese games are falling behind really fast. I think this is because they are not talking to each other, not sharing their ideas and not having new development practices. So I think the indie community would be a really great place to start doing it.
TN: Well, you have some breakout successes in this field, like Cave Story and our own LA-MULANA, but the fact is that nobody goes into the indie game scene with the idea that their stuff will ever sell. They give up on that from the get-go. I think it'd be great if we could overcome this with LA-MULANA and break through, and if we're able to do that, then maybe at that point we can try to help create a forum like that.
It'd be nice to have, since that'd be a more comfortable place for people to discuss ideas.
TN: Kind of a depressing story, I know, but...
It makes me sad because when I was a kid, games from Japan were the best, period, on console at least. Now that's not true at all.
SN: We'd like to do something about that. But first we have to get bigger. (laughs)