New old-school NES game Blazing Rangers will launch later this year. In our Karu_gamo interview, we spoke to Blazing Rangers‘ solo developer and Gotta Protectors creator about making the game, the fun of cartridge limitations and the lasting appeal of 1980s Japanese nostalgia.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: Could you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself and how you got into making games?
Karu_gamo: Until around 1995, I was working as a magazine editor, but my goal was to work in a video game job someday. I chose this medium first, because I wanted to experience other jobs as well. I worked on video game magazines, but also on general and manga magazines. At that time, I was writing articles introducing retro arcade games from the 1980s. I also worked with “Urusei Anzu”, who was the author of the first video game strategy guide in Japan. (It was for Xevious.)
After that, I had the opportunity to change jobs to the game development company Ancient. Until around 2003, I honed various skills as a graphic designer, but mostly 3D models and motions instead of 2D. I studied programming from that point, and in 2010 I developed Protect Me Knight for Xbox 360 by myself. At that time, indie games weren’t as popular as they are now, and I was fortunate to be able to acquire the needed skills at the right time.
In 2014, we developed Gotta Protectors for Nintendo 3DS. I remember the Ancient president [composer Yuzo Koshiro] telling me that he wanted to use music compatible with the actual Famicom. At that time, I thought it would be impossible to make new compositions for the Famicom. As a game developer, I had the expectation that it would require special development hardware. However, as I researched, I learned that not only music but also games can be made for the Famicom without it, so I decided to study the 6502 assembler.
I just made a NES-style game with Protect Me Knight, so game development for the Famicom was something I really wanted to give a try. I developed Protect Me Knight in C# and Gotta Protectors in C++. Then I created Amazon’s Running Diet with 6502 assembly language, which was my first Famicom release. Which now brings us to the present!
What games were your biggest influences when developing Blazing Rangers?
I think it was probably Dig Dug that influenced this game the most.
Amazon’s Running Diet was all about creating stunning sprites on the system. I developed it with the goal of expressing interesting effects while learning to program for the Famicom. It was, so to speak, an experimental game.
For Blazing Rangers, I studied the possibilities of background rewriting and connected it to exciting game ideas. I was creating the game based on a unique system, but with the goal of integrating dynamically changing terrain like in Dig Dug. In addition, the image in my mind during development was a stage where unexpected changes would occur to the player, just like on a real fire site. The flames are an unpredictably growing wall, and the player can change the terrain by discharging water. The flames might let certain level elements explode, which causes unexpected hazards and terrain changes. This ensures that the same strategy will not work every time, and the game does not get boring after many replays.
You’ve been fortunate to work with some really talented chiptune artists on your game projects. What is the process of working with them like? Is it collaborative?
I owe a lot to our president Yuzo Koshiro, but this time I asked Hydden to do the music. He composes NES music quite vigorously and has a very good understanding of ‘80s game music. We often communicate via Twitter and he also lives close to me. In terms of work, we worked together on Gotta Protectors and Susume!! Mamotte Knight [Nintendo Switch], so when I casually asked, he readily accepted.
The new-old-game scene, especially on Famicom, has been heavily driven by its music. What, to you, makes chiptune music so special? How do you think it enhances games?
Many of the NES games, especially Japanese games, have very impressive and clear melodies. I think this is the case because the composers are conscious of the importance of the music with the limitations of the game elements.
If you look at recent games, the graphics and game systems are realistic and complex. Furthermore, with the current capacities, it is possible to provide a lot of joy through things such as abundant events and items. Therefore, if the game music is too conspicuous, it will interfere with the gameplay. With this difference in mind, we aimed to create powerful melodies for Blazing Rangers that will excite the players.
In the trailer of Blazing Rangers, the main theme of the game has unique lyrics, and it’s inspired by theme songs of sentai series. It’s a classic style of Japanese drama series for children, in which three to five heroes fight evil. (There are actually many hidden fans among adults!) It reflects the image of heroes who risk their life and fight for justice. I love using songs with vocals in video games. Even in the Gotta Protectors series, we include songs with lyrics every time because those are truly remembered by the players.
We here at Siliconera are big fans of your work with Ancient, especially Protect Me Knight and Gotta Protectors. How are the efforts to localize the third game progressing? Is Ouritsu Anaboko Gakuen still in development?
Thank you! All of us are really grateful to Siliconera for always introducing the games made by Ancient. The translation of the Switch version of Susume!! Mamotte Knight has been completed. I’m sure new details will be revealed in the near future.
Ouritsu Anaboko Gakuen is also in the final stage of development. Though it looks like a typical JRPG, it became quite a unique game with fresh gameplay.
What sorts of things can you do when developing games on your own that you can’t when working with Ancient? What makes you want to develop these solo projects?
In fact, I developed Protect Me Knight and Gotta Protectors mostly by myself. But of course, the music isn’t by me! However the game ideas, programming, designs, sound effects, balance adjustments and stories were all created single-handedly. So it didn’t make a big difference to me to develop Blazing Rangers by myself.
However, when I first worked on Blazing Rangers, I had little desire to make a game that would sell well. The challenge I was working toward was this: how do I make an interesting game in 32K + 8K?
Fortunately, First Press Games is selling it as a physical product. I wanted to live up to their expectations, so I shifted its focus towards not only being interesting, but also being tailored to the audience I could appeal to. So, in the end, it became the same as my usual work. Either way, this is the style through which I can show my best, so I’m confident that those who play it will enjoy it.
In your work, both with Ancient and solo, you’ve covered both sides of the retro game divide. You’ve made homages that feel nostalgic but reach beyond the old specs, and you’ve also built games (like Blazing Rangers) that adhere to the restrictions of the actual hardware. How are these two different to make? What do you like about each?
There are many retro-style games, but I get the impression that most of them have a fashionable design overall. There aren’t many games that follow the style of the time in terms of design, and among them, there are probably no games that have adopted the designs of Japan from the 1980s to the early 90s.
I also love the cultural aspects of the time. The current consoles with fewer restrictions are more suitable for incorporating such things into the game. For example, there is an in-game instruction manual in Gotta Protectors. Wrinkles appear as you touch it more, and food stains show up. It’s important to me that those who spent those days as kids can enjoy these nostalgic situations. This is just one of many ways you can use the power of the current hardware.
How involved was First Press Games in making your game a reality? How did they help?
If you make a game by yourself, it eventually becomes difficult to see where the problems are. Their candid feedback gave me the opportunity to review it from an objective point of view. Their playfulness with physical products really shows in things like the packaging designs and Collector’s Edition bonuses. It really cheered me up when they showed me all the details.
You made Blazing Rangers not only to Famicom standards, but to a very early, limited cartridge spec. Why?
Game producers during the tight limitations of the past are like rock stars to me. Actually, I had the opportunity to meet someone like that: Mr. [Yoshiaki] Inose, who is a legendary game developer. He developed many amazing games, including Star Force for arcades and Mighty Bomb Jack for NES. As I researched his story and games, I became strongly motivated to make a video game crafted with this limited capacity. Now I finally have this opportunity.
Two-player co-op is, like a lot of early NES games, a big part of Blazing Rangers. How important is playing with a friend to the experience?
The main purpose of the game is to rescue the children, but it is also important to extinguish the fire and defeat enemies. Therefore, sharing the tasks between two players is definitely a key to clear the game quickly.
Of course, I made sure to adjust the game to be enjoyable by just one player, but I also structured it so two players can experience it together in a different way. Actually, I created a mechanic to make it impossible to move when water gets shot on each other, but due to the narrow levels, it hindered gameplay too much. So I removed it.
Blazing Rangers’ two characters, Popo and Mimi, have some slight differences. How does this affect gameplay strategies? Any tips for getting the most out of their quirks?
The biggest advantage of Mimi is her fast movement. On the contrary, Popo is powerful. Therefore, Popo can walk steadily even if he carries children or the water hose, while Mimi will get noticeably slowed down by them.
On maps with a small number of children like in earlier stages, Mimi will have a big advantage. Popo can be more stable on maps with a lot of fire and many children, so his advantage is in the second half of the game.
With all of your games, you really lean into the ephemera of the retro game experience. You share “screenshots” from tube TVs like old magazines used to do. You build elaborate promotional material that looks different and appropriate to different regions. What is it about the aesthetic of old games that is so special to you?
Japan’s economy was booming in the 1980s, and because of that, I think there were many outstanding manga, anime and games. Nowadays, there are many hardships for everyone, even for children, which are likely linked to the current state of the economy.
I like the brightness of the culture of the ’80s. With the current situation in which retro games are attracting more and more attention, it’s not just about missing the old days. It’s also to pass on the energy of the ’80s to the next generation. I strive to do this through video games.
Thanks to Karu_gamo for taking the time to talk with us! This Karu_gamo interview was lightly edited for clarity. Blazing Rangers is available for preorder now from the First Press Games site. For more on the game, check out our hands-on preview!