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A whole lot of independent developers have their heads down hard at work on creating their own take on the classic platformer genre -- often with a decidedly Metroid-influenced slant. But if anyone has a claim to prior art in this burgeoning field, it's NIGORO, who helped pave the way for a cottage industry back in 2005 with La-Mulana.
Six years later (or a couple of years after the beleaguered Wii port finally saw the light of day), NIGORO has kicked off development of their next game, with a full announcement due this weekend at Tokyo Game Show -- and fittingly, it's a sequel to the game that put them on the map in the first place. La-Mulana 2 exists as little more than a raw engine demo and some incomplete concept at the moment, and designer Takumi Naramura stresses that the team makes no promises for a time frame, but the intention is certainly real.
"The game concept, the game design itself, it's in my mind right now," says Naramura, "But we haven't been able to decide on a lot of things yet. It's not like we're hiding anything, but honestly, we don't have anything set in stone yet. One thing that's decided is the new character, the daughter of the original hero."
A young blonde woman in a classic Indiana Jones bomber jacket adorned with patches emblazoned with both American and Japanese flags, La-Mulana's protagonist currently gets about much like her father. She runs and jumps, whips foes, traverses the slice of stage NIGORO has mocked up for the initial demo, and dies horribly to surprising traps scattered throughout the world.
"There are lots of traps!" Naramura boasts. "That's like our stamp."
I couldn't really glean much more information than that from the short demonstration NIGORO offered, but La-Mulana 2 definitely gives off a strong Castlevania vibe. It's not just the 16-bit graphics (NIGORO is going for a refined take on the Wii and Steam versions of the original game's visual style) and the whip-based combat; the music sounds pretty much like it came from an NES Castlevania game. It's a small, subtle change from the vibe of the first game, which was patterned after early MSX and Famicom games like Arumana No Kiseki and Maze of Galious, but it does suggest fans of the original can look forward to something besides more of the same.
Which isn't to say it won't hold true to the La-Mulana spirit, of course. "Our ambition has always been that we try to evolve the 2D games that we love without bringing them into 3D," says Naramura. "That's our big theme. A lot of bigger companies have already made retro-style games, so if the big companies are going to do that, there's really no reason for us to do something like that. What we're concentrating on is to evolve the 2D games we loved while keeping them in 2D. So the graphics and the music and the game world atmosphere could change, but the core fun element of the games that I grew up on, I want to keep that lively.
And, of course, it'll be hard. Maybe even harder than the original, suggests Naramura: "The difficult gameplay in retro games, I want to keep that, and keep that kind of fun – you grind away at your game, and once you're able to clear something, you feel a real sense of satisfaction. I want to keep that feeling. I'm not going to get rid of that. But we're thinking about how to evolve other parts of the game.
"In Japan, I do get feedback from fans and people asking us to make the game a little easier, but... at GDC I talked with a developer and he told me to make it even more difficult, so I have to keep that promise," Naramura laughs.
The long, hard road travelled by the original La-Mulana is foremost in NIGORO's collective mind, and the team seems to be taking special care with La-Mulana 2 in order to create a sustainable venture. Besides their staunch refusal to commit to a release date or even make a promise beyond the fact that they've begun development work on the game, they're also taking scrupulous care not to overextend themselves.
"Size-wise, we're aiming to make it around the same size as the last one La Mulana," Naramura says of the sequel. "If we make it any smaller, people would be upset, but if we make it much bigger, it would be pretty hard on us. So we're aiming for right around the same amount of game world. What we're looking into right now is making it even more difficult, but still enjoyable, gameplay-wise."
They're also easing the way for possible format conversions by building the entire game on a more flexible engine. La-Mulana 2 runs in a widescreen format and is being made with an eye toward next-gen consoles -- something of an irony given that Nuramura claims not to own any of the current-gen consoles.
"Right now there's not a specific plan in place," he says, "but since we originally created a game on Wii and ported to PC, this time we've decided to make it in a way where we could port it to any system – PS4, Xbox One, anything else."
Of course, eight years have passed since La-Mulana's debut, and much about the games industry has changed since then. For one thing, the trend of independent development that NIGORO has truly exploded... and among the many indies to appear in recent years, quite a few of them draw on the same inspirations and present the same style as La-Mulana. So how can La-Mulana 2 stand apart from games inspired by its predecessor, such as 1001 Spikes and Spelunky? Naramura doesn't seem too concerned, actually.
"I've played a little bit of Spelunky," he remarks. "Spelunky and La-Mulana are very different games, so I didn't really play it from the point of view of how I could make my game different from those other titles, or what's special about LaMulana and different from other titles. I was just checking it out. What I strongly feel is that if I create something that I want to create, it's going to come out original. I don't really worry about my game being too similar to other games.
"But by playing Spelunky, I did experience one thing," Naramura told me ruefully. "I was able to experience the challenge of being killed by another developer's traps."