WayForward Technologies and Namco are hoping to shake up genre conventions this summer with their unique GBA "Shooter/RPG" Sigma Star Saga (SSS). WayForward last made waves with their cult-classic Shantae, a game which struck a chord with players starved for the adventure/platformers of the 8 and 16 bit eras. Sigma Star Saga Matt Bozon, director, artist and charater designer for Sigma Star Saga and Shantae was kind enough to answer a few questions along with SSS producer Phil Cohen from Namco.
Although it wasn't quite a breakthrough commercial hit, it's hard to ignore the fan response that Shantae had -- it was something of an instant cult classic. Were you surprised? And how do you account for it? Do you think the same will happen with Sigma Star Saga?
Matt: Games are weird. Brands that come from gaming are spotty and not always imaginative. Sometimes it's a great gameplay hook that doesn't need characters, or its a bunch of characters that are crammed down your throat and the gameplay feels forced. Shantae's characters and world were created entirely to support the gameplay, and the animation and story were created for giving life to the whole adventure. It's a pure and very inspired game, and everyone working on it understood that we were trying to raise the bar in a way that would appeal to a small group that would replay the title over and over. We were prepared for "serious" gamers to dismiss it as kiddie fare. It's a "what-if" game. Like, what if there was more storytelling and animation back in the NES days, but the gameplay stayed true. Sigma Star Saga on the other hand is a different animal.
It's not trying to be retro (though it kind of is anyway), and it is far more story driven than Shantae, not based on sight gags and flirting with the player. It really is the action gamer's RPG, and should appeal to the neglected shmup lovers who never get more than 20 minute long shooters.
But players who love Shantae will find that it has similar appeal and the same attention to detail.
Phil: I believe that SSS will definitely have a loyal following. So much attention to detail has been focused into the gameplay, story and art that it is impossible for the love and hard work put into the game to go unappreciated.
What was the inspiration for this one? What were your main influences? Do I detect shades of the NES classic The Guardian Legend?
Matt: Yeah definitely. Rehashing that game (and Kid Icarus) is my dream job. But Zelda 2 and Gargoyle's Quest were also inspirations.
Phil: As gamers that have been around since the golden age of Atari, it's impossible to not draw inspiration from the classic titles we grew up with (I vividly remember my father commenting on how beautiful the NES graphics were when he saw Super Mario 2 at the local mall). One of the great pleasures of growing older as a gamer is seeing how ideas evolve and morph through time...as an example, I remember how excited I was to play River Raid on the 2600; I felt the same excitement when I played Afterburner the first time in that hulking sit down arcade machine, when I played the untextured 3D F-15 Strike Eagle at the arcades, and currently when I play Ace Combat 5 at home. I'm sure that those who are familiar with the classics will see where certain elements were inspired from, but will discover that SSS is a unique RPG experience that is taking the genre into a new and exciting direction.
There's sure to be some people who are not sold on the idea of combining two such fundamentally different genres. What was the pitch? How would you sell them on the idea?
Matt: Well, Namco came to us with the idea of a shooter that levels up, maybe exploring different sectors of space, but, looking back, I think they were talking about a Star Control type game. We just took the idea and threw a totally character driven spin on it, and they liked it and gave us like a billion dollars or around there. Phil at Namco was really into Alias (someone's got a crush) and wanted a double agent storyline, so that's where the plot originated from.
Phil: Well, $1 billion wasn't quite what we gave them for a GBA title...but close ;) The core idea is to really create an RPG that can reach out and be enjoyed (and played all the way through) by fans of multiple genres. Most RPG gamers play the other popular genres as well, so the combination of a faster paced gameplay mechanic with the traditionally slower paced RPG is sort of the next logical step for the RPG genre (though by no means do I believe that the traditional slow paced RPG's will die out). We want to deliver something new and exciting, and our goal is to create a game that RPG gamers will appreciate, and that non-RPG gamers will enjoy as well; it may even attract some gamers to RPG's who traditionally do not enjoy them.
Along those same lines, shooters and RPGs challenge the player in very different ways. Some might worry that a skilled player could progress too quickly if he was simply good at the shooting section. It would seem there would be less of a wall to progression? What were some of the challenges you faced with an ambitious concept such as this?
Matt: Yeah, that's been one of the hardest parts, keeping thumb dexterity from negating leveling up. The hero gets tools that keep him from advancing too far in any one direction, which helps guide the player and keep them from milking EXP until it's time to do so.
Phil: The coolest part about how this is integrated is that player skill directly correlates with leveling up in most instances. If some player has insane coordination and can avoid getting hit at all, then technically the player could pass certain sections/boss' that are meant for a higher level. However, this would be like trying to kill an elephant by throwing nerf balls at it; you may be able to do it, but it would take 1 billion nerf balls and an amazing amount of time. If your shooter skills are worse than your best friends, then you'll probably end up being a higher level character by the end of the game than your buddy but both of you will have beat the game in the same amount of time.
This is your first crack at the RPG genre. What do you hope to bring to the genre? What do you feel is right or wrong with RPGs today, and how does Sigma Star Saga address these concerns?
Matt: Up till now we've done a couple "adventures" like Xtreme Sports
(GBC) and Shantae (GBC) but no, nothing with a complex level up system. I hope we can bring action and pacing. This is what always loses me on big name RPGs. I like Final Fantasy 1-3, but the complexity and slow pacing of the later games hurts my face. Sigma Star Saga is deep for a shooter, but aggressive and episodic with storytelling, power ups, and keeping things moving along.
Phil: Namco is definitely not new to the RPG genre; we know what works and what doesn't. With titles like the Tales of Symphonia, Xenosaga II, and Baten Kaitos under our belt, we have a commitment and love for the genre that has produced consistent hits with RPG fans. Combining this knowledge with a talented developer like WayForward is a winning combination.
WayForward's bread and butter seems to be licensed games, and they've been known to release some of the better handheld titles out there. Do you wish you had more opportunities to work on original properties like Shantae and Sigma Star Saga, or do you prefer to work with popular liscenses?
Matt: Licensed games pay the bills. But our technical and artistic advancements always come from original concepts, and then we use that to give our licensed games an edge. But if we had more chances for original games, you might get to see more of WayForward's muscle. So many amazingly talented people here and only a fraction of their potential sees the light of day. More opportunities for original games are definitely needed.
Hopefully SSS will pave the way. Got-Next would like to thank Matt and Phil for their time. Sigma Star Saga is slated to arrive this summer on the Gameboy Advance. We expect good things from this title -- stay tuned for our upcoming review.