Senran Kagura: Portrait of Girls for the Nintendo 3DS has been the subject of many discussions on Siliconera. Of course it has; it’s about modern-day ninja schoolgirls with gifted bosoms fighting injustice and government conspiracies. As the girls take damage during their battles, their clothes tear and tatter, until they’re down to their swimsuits. In 3D.
Despite this, Senran Kagura is still a game very much shrouded in mystery. Not much has been said about the kind of experience the game will lead you through, nor the inspirations at work behind the title or how it was conceived.
Designed by producer of the Half-Minute Hero series, Kenichiro Takaki, and written by Yukinori Kitajima — recognized for his writing on games like 428: In the blocked city, Shibuya and Okamiden — Senran Kagura certainly has interesting development talent associated with it. We got in touch with Takaki at Marvelous Entertainment to discuss the game and he very graciously agreed to address our curiosity.
I remember early on you joked about how it only took 30 seconds to come up with the idea of boobs in 3D, but you also talked about who was writing the game’s story and it was Yukinori Kitajima (428, Okamiden). Why did you choose him and how did Kitajima-san shape the story?
Producer, Kenichiro Takaki: Getting together with Kitajima on this was really serendipitous. I had the general idea of the game in mind, and had just set out to find a writer to flesh out the full story. And just when I’m starting this search, I come across Kitajima’s company, Synthese.
I had the opportunity before meeting with Kitajima to read some of his works and play some games he had written, so I had no doubt that he’d be able to deliver something more than just a game about some sexy girls running around like Benny Hill — he’d be able to write with some serious themes blended throughout as well. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and when we first met to talk about the game, we laid out a lot of plot specifics right then and there.
What I did was set up the meat and bones of the story. What Kitajima did was give it the blood in its veins. And our voice talent finally gave it the life force to let it take on a life of its own.
Kitajima’s influence throughout the story really abounds. It’s a deep story, but it’s easy to read through. There’s plenty of action and adventure where we can’t just jam in 20 characters [from a gameplay perspective], and yet there’s a large variety of situational plots and drama. There were plenty of ideas that Kitajima proposed for the game and its setting itself, so really, without him, we wouldn’t have this game.
Senran Kagura is a game that’s built upon story and characters, both of which you came up with yourself. It’s a fascinating sort of setting with a mix of modern-day shinobi, government conspiracies and school life. What kind of story concept did you have in mind with these elements and what do you want to express with it?
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with making a game that’s set in the past, with character designs following along the traditional ideas of what makes a ninja, with Senran Kagura, I really wanted to try making a game that featured a new kind of ninja, using the style that only a Japanese person would come up with.
This is a setting where ninjas continue to exist to this day. The person next to you could be a ninja without you ever knowing! Maybe they’re fighting secret battles every night. Maybe that dusty storage closet over there is actually hiding a ninja’s training grounds. This is a world that takes the relatively common, and gives it a bit of a spin, creating this sense of an unknown world that could exist before our very eyes. We basically took this concept and ran with it.
While in the world we inhabit, we don’t tend to actually fight each other with katanas, we don’t all live the same lives, nor see the same things, either. We fight through our work, or our studies. Sometimes, we’ll fight with our wives or girlfriends. All of these differences and experiences create different little worlds that we live in, and to me, peeking into one of these worlds is incredibly interesting. Senran Kagura was made with this idea in mind. You play as these schoolgirl characters, and while there are situations that we may typically expect in the life of a schoolgirl, there are plenty of unexpected ones as well. But that might be taking this conversation down a different path. ;)
As to the question of what I want to express through this story and these characters, I would draw your attention to another game I made, Half-Minute Hero. I made that game with clearly defined boundaries between good and evil. In Senran Kagura, while there is still good and evil, the line between them is blurred when you look at it from certain perspectives.
Through this vicious world of ninjas, I wanted to express the feeling you get when you can’t really say who’s good and who’s bad. Rather than just beating up everyone you disagree with, would you look for another way to settle your differences, or would you stick to what you believe? Personally, rather than being concerned about being good or bad, I want to keep progressing down the path I have chosen for myself.
Hanzo Academy is a school for shinobi set up to counter the rise of evil shinobi. What kind of school is it? What’s the atmosphere like?
On the surface, Hanzo Academy appears to be just a normal school, just like the ones we all attended. One difference is their “Ninja Studies Department”. Gifted young ladies who pass an especially notorious selection process will be forged into outstanding shinobi. This is of course kept secret from the other students, so the girls can enjoy their youth.
On the other hand, all of the students at the Orochi Academy for Girls are shinobi. They learn all kinds of illegal techniques in a tough military setting.
Senran Kagura has been described as a side-scrolling action game. Is it more in the style of a brawler where the focus is on defeating a lot of enemies one after the other, or is it more of an action platformer like Muramasa: The Demon Blade?
I would say it’s more like Double Dragon, but instead of fighting enemies one by one like in that game, you have to throw down against large groups of enemies.
Each of the five shinobi in Senran Kagura are said to have differences in battle. Aside from their ninpou techniques, what other differences can you give examples of? Also, did you base these stylistic differences on their personalities?
Indeed. Their weapons, moves and clothing were chosen based on their personalities. The Hanzo girls contrast well against their rivals from Orochi Academy, and we balanced them to foster discord.
We took elements from Japanese anime characters and made keywords out of them. We then assigned certain words to each character. At the same time we clarified what each character likes and dislikes, as well as what her motivation is. This way each character turned out different, but we were also able to balance the game as a whole. If you want to know how each girl is different, I guess you will just have to play it.
I thought the most interesting feature of the game is how the girls change, depending on your playing style. Could you explain this in a little more detail? How do the girls change and what triggers these changes?
One thing I question in games is that even though people will play in different ways, the characters develop in the same way. You would think that someone who only fights with an axe would grow huge arms, and their battle cry and the amount of muscle they carry would change. So in Senran Kagura, instead of just increasing the values of some parameters, we implemented a system for changing between Yin and Yang styles.
The idea is based on Sadism and Masochism. If your character cleanly lands multi-hit combos, her Yang (S) style will strengthen over time and her voice will come to sound more aggressive to show this. Yin (M) style is also very aggressive, but by pulling off certain moves the character will strip down to her swimsuit. She will forego defense entirely and bet everything on swiftly raining blows on the enemy. She will be taking much more damage and the pain that comes with it, but her attack power will greatly increase and she’ll be able to string combos together endlessly. She will become more sensitive to pain, and her voice will take on a certain arousing quality. Yin style fighting is very satisfying.
Using the change system, is there a way for the player to tell if they’re playing “properly”? Also, is it possible for them to play a certain way in order to make the girls change in a specific manner?
Your Yin and Yang attributes are shown on a gauge in-game to make it easy to see how far along each is progressed. Once they are maxed out, a new Senran attribute will appear. After that you will be able to switch between the three at any time. I wish there was a better way to show this than with a gauge. If you have any good ideas, please fill me in!
This is a Nintendo 3DS title, which means it has 3D visuals. What did you have to do differently during development, now that you have to account for the 3D effect?
This was uncharted territory when we started this project, so we went through a lot of trial and error to get it right. We considered a number of different patterns… how do we move the camera, where and when do we switch to a different camera, do we move the character or not. In the end we sublimated this into the costume-tearing transformation scenes.
Also, everyone experiences the naked-eye 3D visuals differently. Even depending on how I was feeling a certain day I’d see things differently. Each member of our team had different impressions of what they could stand to view, so we were adjusting the visuals right up until the end of development.
There are some games we’ve seen where the 3D effect causes objects to appear like cardboard cut-outs, while others make them appear more rounded and three-dimensional like you’d expect. Could you give us any insight into how you approached designing 3D for Senran Kagura’s character models?
We have more than sexual reasons for inflating our characters’ breasts! Simply put, its easier to achieve a 3D effect if you add some distance between the top of the chest and the torso. Clothed or not, well-defined breasts are better suited to 3D.
We decided on a few simple design rules setting out. These would be things like you couldn’t over-decorate the chest or butt, because we’d be applying 3D effects to those areas, or avoiding designs that clothed the girls in trousers because you can better render a sense of space with skirts fluttering in the wind.
I have to ask…what does your wife think of all this?
She helped a lot to make this game great by dropping lots of ideas on me from a perspective I can’t experience. She’s my most vocal critic. At first I was going to make the game all about ninjas, and she blurted out, “Wouldn’t it be great to call it ‘Ninjaful Life’?”
I don’t know if she was referring to Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, or just misspoke, but to me it sounded awesome. It’s the kind of game that might piss off a wife or a girlfriend, but when we met I was already involved with Ikki Tousen, so she’s a good sport about it.