Skulls of the Shogun director, Jake Kazdal, has worked as an art director on many visually impressive games such as Rez, Space Channel 5, Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, and Steven Spielberg’s cancelled "LMNO" project.
With such a diverse artistic background, I was curious to see what inspired the cartoony look of Skulls of the Shogun. Separate from our discussion about the influences behind the game, I also asked Kazdal about Skulls of the Shogun’s art direction. His answer surprised me, as I certainly didn’t expect to learn about how it was partially inspired by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
You’ve worked as an artist on some visually stunning games in the past, so I’m curious, what inspired the art direction of Skulls of the Shogun?
When I was at Sega in Tokyo, I worked with the Rez guys, who were the most phenomenal set of designers that you could ever hope to work with. I was so inspired and intimidated by working with those guys. In fact, when I left Sega, it was to go back to school to become as good a designer as those guys were because they were so phenomenal. I mean, I had never worked with anybody like that before in my entire career.
These guys were stunning and I gotta give a shoutout to one of my art directors, Hoto-san, who’s the art director at G-Rounding in Tokyo now, and their game Sakura Samurai comes out tomorrow, and it’s already getting a great response. There are a bunch of ex-Rez and Space Channel 5 guys in that company. Those guys are awesome! So, Hoto-san and I were super close. I mean, all those guys and I were super close. [laughs]
When [The Legend of Zelda] Wind Waker came out in Japan in like 2002, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how awesome that game was. The looks literally just — I was not prepared for it — blew my head off.
So we started talking about it at work, and they’re like, "Well, it’s kinda just based off of the old Toei animation from the sixties." And I was like "What’s that?" They said, "Oh yeah, there’s lots of old movies from the sixties that that look is sorta taken from."
This has apparently been disproven, someone told me that this isn’t true, but Hota-san told me that one of the art directors from these old movies came out of retirement to help art-direct or at least do some of the concept stuff for Wind Waker.
I was just again — for the fifteenth time — blown away by Wind Waker’s look, so I started doing some reference searching. [Kazdal reaches over to his bookshelf and grabs an art book with a Japanese title] These guys would take me out to these used bookstores and then I started looking at these old sixties anime films. Great character designs, full-blown animated tales from before they got into the limited animation. These were epic, kind of Disney-esque summer movies for little kids. Kind of classic adventures, Aladdin, stuff like that. This one in particular is called Wanpaku Ouji… you can see the resemblance to Zelda!
So just this whole look, I fell in love with. You’ve got these simple characters… this is like a giant Zelda game. He goes to the ice fortress and gets the ice sword, then goes the fire fortress and kills the fire guy, over and over. It’s just a giant Zelda game as a movie. Visually, it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen in my life. So I thought, "Hey, I get to do my own game now, that means I get to design the whole look. So I want to get better at this look I love so much, which gives me a great excuse to buy even more of these books!" (laughs) That’s really where Skulls of the Shogun came from. It’s that mixed with modern pop urban vinyl character design. [Grabs a vinyl toy from off of his desk] You can probably tell by all of the vinyl toys around the studio.
Yeah, I noticed a ton of them while I was going up the stairs.
I love that stuff! I love pop art, I have a ton of these books of modern pop art… when mixed with this sixties anime… that’s really where the look comes from.
Speaking of toys, I know [indie designer] Derek Yu managed to get some Spelunky toys made…
Yeah he did. He kinda like knew somebody… we talked about it at PAX for a bit. He had a bunch of family connections in China… I really want to do stuff! We’ve talked to a couple guys… nothing yet, but my dream is to have little vinyl figures of my guys from Skulls of the Shogun.
I’d love to see General Akamoto’s skeletal moustache in vinyl.
It’s gonna happen if I have to pay for it myself! I’m gonna make it happen.