Grasshopper Manufacture once did a lot of work for hire — the Shining Soul games on GBA, Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked for PS2 — but in its post-No More Heroes rebirth as an iconoclastic and very independent studio, it seemed likely those days were behind it. Huge publishers like EA (Shadows of the Damned) and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment (Lollipop Chainsaw) have engaged the studio to create big-budget original IP. Why go back to making anime games?
Anime games like Evangelion 3nd Impact, released this week for the PSP in Japan by Bandai Namco Games. (“3nd“, by the way, is a play on the word “sound” — “san” being Japanese for “three” and, of course, the Third Impact being a big event in the Evangelion universe.)
Is it the stewardship of Akira Yamaoka, who has recently taken the title of chief creative officer? Is it just the way the Japanese market works, where studios rarely turn down paying work that in the west would seem undignified? It’s not clear, and unfortunately, I didn’t think to pose these questions to Yamaoka when I spoke to him at the Tokyo Game Show.
I was very curious about Evangelion 3nd Impact itself, however. It’s a music game based on the popular series’ recent Rebuild of Evangelion film series, which includes Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, and Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance, and it came out this week in Japan. The Q&A, conducted at TGS, follows.
Can you tell me how the idea for Evangelion: 3nd Impact came up? Like, how you started making it?
Akira Yamaoka: So how it all started is that Namco Bandai, they just threw out: “Evangelion — is there anything that we think we can work on together?” And so Grasshopper actually came up with a few other concepts, including the one that now is 3nd Impact. “So an action RPG, and what about this music-based, rhythm-based game?” And from there on, everything just kind of moved forward.
Are you a fan of the original show, or the new movies, or anything?
AY: I don’t think I’d say that I’m a huge, huge fan. Not crazy about it. I just like it normally.
It was a big cultural phenomenon in Japan in the ’90s, right?
AY: It was a movement.
Do you have a lot of memories from back then? Have any of your memories of the phenomenon, or the show, informed the way you know you approached the game?
AY: Well, rather than going back in time and thinking about if I have any memories, or are there any elements from back in the day that sort of influenced or affected the way that we approach this game, it was more like, we already know that it already is an established IP, an established brand, and there is a huge fan base that has been following it. And it was probably another chance for attracting new users. So it was more like, we have to treat this with the utmost respect, so as to not take it away from the fans who are expecting what they would expect from another Evangelion installation, in the form of a digital entertainment.
You did the remixes for the music, right?
AY: It was me and a few other members at Grasshopper. And we also came up with some original tracks too.
Shiro Sagisu’s soundtrack is super, super distinctive. It’s very well known. When you hear the Eva music it triggers your feelings very quickly. What did you think about working with something so well known?
AY: Similar to how we approach the game, we knew that we had to treat it with a lot of respect. Basically, like you just said, it’s easily, instantly recognizable to people who know the music. And so we wanted to treat it with respect.
However, it’s not like we’re just remaking a new soundtrack, or a modern version of what was available back then. We need to implement this into an actual music game, and so the music part of it is more of a component that we need to take a careful look at, and dissect it, so that we know which part would really mesh well as a game system.
And so, therefore, we had to kind of break it down — and make sure that we don’t break it down too much, to where it’s not Eva music. And try to retain the memorable moments, or the melody, or whatever it may be. We had to retain that, but make sure that it was enjoyable as a game.
You said you had come up with a few concepts. And you settled with Bandai Namco on a music game. But why did you come up with the music game concept in the first place? It’s unexpected.
AY: How we came up with this idea is that we were looking at this — even though it fits within the music game genre, the idea of it, and how the user plays this game, is not your typical sort of rhythm-tapping, button-mashing game, where prompts show up on screen, and you tap, and you make music. It’s quite different.
What we wanted to do was, we wanted to make sure that your priority — and the primary goal, the user experience and what’s going on on screen — is to have them see a more of a visual storytelling of the series of Evangelion.
So it’s not your typical button-tapping game. Rather, depending on what you tap, the action interactively changes, and therefore it’s the user interacting with the actual visual storytelling, and then progressing in the game — so that idea was probably pretty fresh to Namco Bandai, and they took that, and ran with it.
That’s unusual, because it seems developers find it hard to break out of that button-tapping mold.
AY: Yeah, I agree. I mean, if we were to just use the sort of standard music game button-tapping mechanic, then it would just be as easy as adding a skin, right? Using Evangelion, the IP. But that’s not what we were aiming to do, and so we’re really having the user interact, by choosing their action, and then seeing that actually play out in game.
Anime games usually suck. Now that you’ve made one, do you have any insight into why?
AY: There is probably a slight disconnect in how we and fans of anime appreciate anime in its form, and why that’s entertaining to them. And then you have this slew of titles that are based on anime IP, and the component that really sells that game is not the same sort of value or appreciation that they have when they view anime.
So if there’s a way that we can translate the entertainment value, and the appreciation for anime into a game, and it’s integrated well, then maybe there’s a tighter connection. And as a result, there may be anime games that could sell well, or that may be more favorable over some of the ones that we’ve seen.
But I think the game is just a basic sort of engine, and system, that is allowing for anime IP to be just kind of layered on top of an existing action game, or RPG game, or whatever it is. It’s basically a label that’s being added to a game system, and therefore the connection is lost, and not everyone who appreciates this type of anime will then move over and say. “I’ll purchase that game, just because it’s based on this anime that I like.” So there’s still a disconnect between the two.
So you’re trying to bridge that gap with the game design that the team arrived at?
AY: Yeah, you’re exactly right. We didn’t want to just take that IP and put it on as a skin to any kind of more standard existing play mechanic, and so we’re hoping that there’s a sort of a common denominator of appreciation for the music game that we created based on the IP, and that there are elements in there that are easily translatable, or connectable, into why they appreciate Evangelion in the first place.
Let’s say that if there are core music fans out there, who’d just rather be tapping just for the sake of tapping and making music, it might not be the right game for them. But for Evangelion fans, it’s sort of casual and light enough that they’ll be able to get into it, even without having played music games.
Did you have to work really closely with Studio Khara to produce the game, or were you left on your own, away from the license holder?
AY: We had to work very, very closely with Studio Khara. And like I said earlier, it was all about being respectful to the franchise, but also making sure that it was treated in a way that anyone who would be touching this product knew that the DNA of Evangelion was kept in a way that it should. And so working with them was key in order to make sure that that came through.
– Christian Nutt has framed Evangelion art on his living room wall.