In this excerpt from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works, director of The Super Shinobi II, Tomoyuki Ito, discusses the design of the side-scrolling classic, how Sega operated during its prime, and the influence of Appleseed, Bond, Bladerunner and Cobra.
As an artist at Data East, Tomoyuki Ito’s first role in the industry was designing course layouts for the 1989 golf title Winning Shot for the PC Engine. When, in 1992, the production of The Super Shinobi II (known as Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master in the West) notoriously ran into difficulties mid-development, Ito was enlisted as director to rescue it. He brought to the game a distinct filmic sensibility, delivering pace and increased interaction with the environment – the protagonist gained the ability to run, wall jump and swing from the ceiling – which ensured its lasting place in the Mega Drive canon. Ito went on to direct a number of fondly remembered Saturn titles, including side-scrolling platformer Clockwork Knight and real-time strategy sim Dragon Force, before becoming a freelance director predominantly making games for children.
What inspired you to get into the video games industry?
Originally I wanted to work in advertising, but a friend from university started working for a game company – Data East Corporation – and I followed suit. I liked games, and at the time, was particularly drawn to titles full of action and intrigue – I even bought an Amiga just to play Dungeon Master!
“Treasure were based in the same building and they gave us lots of advice during development. They kindly showed us some work-in-progress demos of the game they were working on – Gunstar Heroes.”
How did you become involved with the Shinobi series?
The development of The Super Shinobi II was moving slowly as there was only one staff member working on the design, so my then boss asked me to help get the game back on track. I wasn’t particularly a fan of the series, but I loved ninja manga and anime so it was a great honour to contribute to the Shinobi legacy.
What do you think the main appeal of the series was?
It might be that the concept of a ninja as a superhero is fairly preposterous! I also think that since Joe Musashi, the main character, doesn’t talk it makes him seem very cool.
What did you want to achieve with The Super Shinobi II/Shinobi III?
I wanted to make a game that was like a film or an anime, in which a player could take full control of the main character. In other words, I wanted players to indulge in making the experience their own. I became obsessed with developing interesting and cool ways to defeat enemies or escape from difficult situations. For example – as is the convention in action films – I designed explosions that chased the main character so he had to run through the level to get away from them. The first half of Round 5, ‘Electric Demon’, is a good example of this.
Once you assumed the role of director, how big a team did you have working on the title?
Our development team consisted of 10 core members, including sound artists. In addition to this, we asked other members of staff to playtest the game and also outsourced some of the boss fights to an external development company. The team who created The Super Shinobi was developing another game at the same time – Bare Knuckle – so they were only involved in The Super Shinobi II in an advisory capacity.
Can you describe the atmosphere of developing games at Sega in the Mega Drive era?
At the time, Sega used many external development studios, one of which, called Megasoft, contributed to the development of The Super Shinobi II. They worked in an independent office, and I remember the atmosphere being extremely relaxed. Treasure were based in the same building and they gave us lots of advice during development.
What did you learn from Treasure?
They kindly showed us some work-in-progress demos of the game they were working on – Gunstar Heroes – and talked us through their development process. The game had an amazing sense of speed, and it was such an eye-opener for me. We had an idea to include horse riding and surfing scenes in The Super Shinobi II so players could experience high-velocity action – the same effect that a car chase has in an action film. We were aware, however, that this would take a lot of effort to develop. In the end, I think the advice we received from Treasure gave us the push we needed to implement those sequences.
It is popularly known that The Super Shinobi II underwent drastic changes during the course of development. What were the major modifications?
As I mentioned, I joined the project in order to alleviate some of the development struggles. Both the team and myself felt that the prototype ROM didn’t match up to the quality of the rest of the series.
So we recreated almost every round, even though the game was already in the final phase of development at the time. The biggest change we made was to the main character’s physical abilities. Even though there was a variety of moves available – running, a jumping dive kick and even the ability to wall jump – the level designs consisted primarily of enclosed spaces that didn’t make best use of those actions. Even I felt confined when I played it. So I expanded the levels to more than twice their original size, allowing the player much more room to run and use the dive kick. In the end, this added greater speed and fluidity to the game.
The game featured a suite of extreme enemies, including mutants and Godzilla-like robot monsters. How did you devise the creatures?
The team wanted to evolve certain aspects of The Super Shinobi, and we thought we could make fights much more preposterous by creating enormous bosses, such as robots and gigantic extraterrestrials. Another aim of ours was to highlight the power of the evil Zeed crime organisation by including some impressive examples of its infrastructure, such as a flying fortress.
“There were many in the team who liked the world of cyberpunk, so the design of the buildings and mechanisms was influenced by Blade Runner and Appleseed. A few of the rounds referenced scenes from James Bond films and the manga comic Cobra.”
What is the most important element to get right when directing a hack and slash or beat ’em up game?
I placed great emphasis on making The Super Shinobi II a cool game to play, so I spent a lot of time adjusting the size of the levels and playing them over and over, changing the arrangement of enemies and items. In game design, even a minor change in the height of a foothold, for example, or the inclusion of a particular enemy can produce varying levels of calm or stress in the player. Moreover, in designing the rounds I became obsessed with the placement of power-ups. I hid them in places where you normally wouldn’t think to go. Please try to find them all!
Did the team draw on any particular influences whilst making the game?
There were many in the team who liked the world of cyberpunk, so the design of the buildings and mechanisms was influenced by Blade Runner and Appleseed. A few of the rounds referenced scenes from James Bond films and the manga comic Cobra.
Were there any major challenges in developing for the Mega Drive?
The Super Shinobi II was an 8-megabit ROM and it was very hard to work within this fixed capacity. I tried several in-house compression techniques and eventually managed to get the program down to the necessary size. The features of the Mega Drive were relatively simple but it was an excellent console that allowed us to use a lot of clever programming tricks. The animated Sega logo that appears at the start of The Super Shinobi II, for example, was created by one of our programmers as a test to work around the hardware’s inability to scale sprites.
What did The Super Shinobi II teach you about development, and what were your fondest memories of making it?
It wasn’t so much about learning technical skills. It was more about appreciating the importance of teamwork in game development. Although programmers, artists and sound technicians play different roles, it is vital to create a working environment in which everyone can share their opinions, regardless of hierarchy. The Super Shinobi II is a piece of work that I and the other team members devoted all of our energies to, and for us it is a precious treasure.
On a personal level, what are your favourite Mega Drive games?
Among many good games, the first one that comes to mind is ToeJam & Earl. I was totally knocked out by it from the first time I played it. It was so funky and cool [Laughs]. I got a real sense of the developers’ spirit, personality and passion for the game from its sheer quality.
This interview was taken from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works, by Keith Stuart and published by Read-Only Memory. The lavishly produced hardback book features development artwork, design documents and game artwork for Mega Drive/Genesis games including Streets of Rage, Sonic The Hedgehog and Toejam & Earl, as well as concept paintings, hardware drawings and interview with original Sega developers. It’s available from the Read-Only Memory website.