E3 2010: Masahiro Sakurai Makes Kid Icarus Fly Again on the Nintendo 3DS

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Masahiro Sakurai’s been teasing the Nintendo faithful for years. As one of the masterminds behind the Smash Bros. fighting franchise, the game director was responsible for putting Pit, star of the old-school NES game Kid Icarus, in 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. This move not only delighted fans of the plucky angel hero but it created an annual tradition where rumors of a new Kid Icarus game would pop up. It’d been 17 years between the Kid Icarus game on the Game Boy (remember those?) and Pit’s appearance in SSBB, so surely something had to be coming, right? I even made this frothing desire for more Icarus the point of one of my April Fool’s Day posts.

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But Nintendo finally announced a new Kid Icarus game this E3 and said that it’s going to be the marquee game for the new Nintendo 3DS handheld. Prior to E3, Nintendo reps reached out with an opportunity to interview a high-profile mystery developer. It wasn’t until I stepped into the room that I became aware that I’d be interviewing Sakurai-san. What followed was a wide-ranging discussion about bringing back Pit, the different strengths of Western and Japanese game development and designing a title to take advantage of the specific capabilities of the Nintendo 3DS.

Sakurai-san, they kept your presence a big secret but I’m glad that we can get some time together.  So let’s start with how long have you been waiting to bring Pit back.

So, the revival of Kid Icarus actually began in Smash Brothers. We brought him back for Smash Brothers and I personally did all that design work. We made a decision to upgrade and re-envision what the character was like with some more current trappings. From that time I certainly had an interest in the franchise.  Now this time around, the project actually began with an original game idea, and the match seem to be a good one for the mythology and the character Kid Icarus. So it just so happened that the game idea and the franchise matched in the project then start it from there.

Okay, so what was the central idea that kind of spurred the development of a standalone game?

So the original idea was a game in which you had air combat and ground combat and then end up with a boss battle. It was that kind of flow, sort of a hybrid of a shooting game and a third-person game with those two things. Now the idea is that Pit as an angel who can’t fly and provides this scenario where [the goddess] Palutena grants him the ability to fly for just five minutes. That seem like a good match with this gameplay idea, and in trying it out in initial testing phases, it seemed to work pretty well. I definitely knew that there was this very strong demand for revival of the franchise overseas and I thought that this was an idea that was crystallized and would satisfy that demand.

How is Uprising going to incorporate the fiction and the continuity from previous games?

In the last game, the story revolved around setting Palutena free after she had been captured and imprisoned by Medusa. This time around, Pit is actually working as team with Palutena. They have a very close type of communication and they’re working together to defeat Medusa, who has been revived after 25 years and is leading the so-called Uprising.

Going back to the design, at what point did the idea to make it 3D happen?  Did that come from you, Sakurai-san or from hardware? Who decided to marry the two together?

I’ll begin with some background, if that’s okay. First of all, Mr. Iwata revealed to me that there was a new portable in the works and it was the first time actually that this had been revealed to anybody outside the company and he essentially said I want you to create a game from this new hardware. With that, he also said “Anything is okay, you do whatever you want.” I had been thinking of a 3D shooting concept that I’ve explained and in addition to that Mr. Iwata said, “Maybe you might like to do some Nintendo franchise” and I felt that if the match was good, then there’s definitely room for that. And as I explained to you, it did up being a good match.

Now when that hardware was revealed to me, it wasn’t decided at that time that it would use the 3D screen technology.  It was only clear to me that the 3D processing capability as far as using polygon or shaders was going to be a much more powerful than the current DS. So the 3D screen was decided at a later time and, quite by chance or luck, they found that to be a very good match with the gameplay idea and continued on development from there.

Did you think of any other Nintendo characters besides Pit when you’re thinking about who you would like to make a game of?

Yes, there actually was one other and that was Star Fox.  But the problem with Star Fox was that—and you’ll see this when you see the trailer for Kid Icarus––is that the game design incorporates a lot of different views.  For example, flying and shooting sideways or turning around and shooting behind and I felt that there were some restrictions with Star Fox in this regard. With Pit, there is a certain amount of flexibility that is allowed and makes a better fit for this gameplay.

Why do you think Pit is so a beloved character for a certain generation of gamers?

It’s an interesting question. I’d like to ask the players that themselves! But, I think–and you can recognize this from the original game, too–that he has sort of this carefree, worry-free sort of air about him and that I think provides a positive outlook for the player and relieves some of the stress that you get from more serious games.

There’s an interesting kind of a parallel between Kid Icarus: Uprising and the new Legend of Zelda where Link is only going from sky to the ground and the same thing with Pit. Was there any concern about the games being too similar?

Actually, it’s just quite vy coincidence that they’re so similar! During the development of both of these titles, Mr. Miyamoto most likely knew the direction of both of these titles.  But however, I can take no responsibility [laughter] because I knew nothing of Zelda until just two days ago. So as far as the coincidence I’m not too worried about it but perhaps Mr. Miyamoto should have told me! [more laughter] But, that being said, flight in the sky should really stand on it on its own as an individual and strong type of game mechanic. Regardless of whether or not there’s any coincidence, it’s very well suited and designed for this experience.

Did anything about the game play design change once you found that it was going to be in 3D?

Basically, no. If anything, that just added these extra benefits. The initial game design really benefitted from this technology, in particular the sense of depth and the feeling of recognition of enemy placement. There’s a lot to think about in game design for a game like this as far as how to handle targeting, how to handle character and enemy movement and the 3D actually took a lot of pressure of how those certain mechanics are handled. So, what I consider to be a very smooth control mechanic now together with this 3D should provide a very stimulating experience.

Okay, can we take a look at the game in here?

So, I’ve really boiled down the controllers to three very pure and concentrated control inputs, and that’s L button for shooting, the slide pad for character movement and then the stylus is on the touch screen for reticule and camera movement.

You know how in FPS games that are played a DS you are forced to change your camera or your aim by moving from left to right, for example, to the edge of the screen and having to repeat that over and over and over again? That was quite an inconvenient system soo this time we’re implementing flick control for quicker turns. There are other such controls that I won’t go into, but overall it’s a very seamless control of the screen.

The depth-of-field is really amazing; it feels like far away inside of the screen.  Speaking of that, was there a desire to make things bigger? Pit hasn’t been in a game for almost 20 years and the last time he was 2D. So, was there like a pressure to make a very big game to meet big expectations?

You mean like the spaces that we play inside or the overall scale of the game?

A little bit of both.

One thing that I was slightly concerned about–and I don’t know how much this is going to answer your question–was as far as using the 3D for depth. This is the first major device to be focused around 3D and it’s a small portable system and there is, after all,  some slight concern about how it might strain your eyes after playing for too long.

So, with this in mind and also considering this is a portable device, I wanted to make a very dense play experience combined into this air battle/land battle/boss battle system that it does sort of chop up the experience into shorter sections.  And, you know, I like open-world games; they’re one of my favorite genres and I appreciate that kind of experience. But, I also think that considering the portable platform and the 3D screen, I like to keep it a very concentrated impact for dense play experience over a limited time as far as the scale of the game.

Speaking of open-world game and different genres, what do you think of the state of creativity in games today? People always talk about Western development versus Japanese development. Do you see a big difference there and, if so, what do you feel like each section does well?

As far as creativity, in designing Kid Icarus, I took a look at what I thought was an overriding problem with a lot of game design. I’ve found that, in the established genres, the controls are always the same. For example, in shooting games, you find first-person-shooters utilize all of the buttons on the controller and always do the same thing the stick is for moving, triggers for shooting and they’re always trapped in this very restricted framework for gameplay. And, that’s just not creative.  It feels like people are taking this empty shell and just swapping out the story and art and whatnot.

This time, with Kid Icarus, we wanted to address that certain problem and not only because I think the industry deserves it, but also because it’s a more satisfying experience personally.  And for this different direction, I wanted to take what was a common control system in shooters and get something that was new and smooth and easy for new players, but something that was suitable to the hardware as well. In the same sort of way that fighting games started to feel stale, there was definitely something new to be had in a design like Smash Brothers. That series, I think, was able to allow new players to come in and made it more accessible. There are so many more possibilities for game design out there but I think a lot of developers are shutting out those ideas and it is definitely a creativity problem.

About the difference between Western and Japanese design, there’s really a lot of opinions on this and this is just one of those opinions. But, I feel that Japanese game design and game development really isn’t a good match for the big-budget Hollywood style game experience. There are lot of different factors such as things like the team size and the way development proceeds and is communicated within teams. I mean, there are instances where this trend is more dramatic than others, where teams are either more well-suited to a certain style or not.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m really impressed with Western game design and enjoy a lot of those games. But, personally–and this is something that Nintendo also follows the same philosophy–I trend towards focusing on a gameplay mechanic and working on that mechanic. I start with something that’s very, very simple but is perfected for its gameplay qualities and not try to force it into becoming a larger, more expensive big-budgeted experience. Unfortunately, a lot of developers get caught in trying to out do each other and what ends up becoming is a simple competition in graphics or in scale and whatnot. I think the most important thing–and maybe my overall message for this answer–is that developers just need to focus on what they’re good at. And, while some may be good at these big budget experiences, others are not, and that could be telling of different trends between Western and Japanese game companies.

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