Vanillaware's Kamitani on Keeping the 2D Flame Alive in the Age of 3D

Vanillaware's Kamitani on Keeping the 2D Flame Alive in the Age of 3D

George Kamitani, and his studio Vanillaware, are responsible for some of the most beautiful 2D games of the past 20 years. Glixel/TGBus.com

The creator of 'Dragon's Crown' and the upcoming '13 Sentinels' speaks on artistic influences, his body of work, and his team's love of 'StarCraft'

The creator of 'Dragon's Crown' and the upcoming '13 Sentinels' speaks on artistic influences, his body of work, and his team's love of 'StarCraft'

It's been roughly 22 years since polygons took over the gaming world. The last dedicated game console designed with 2D games in mind – not counting handhelds – was the Sega Saturn, which launched in 1994 and was summarily crushed by the fledgling PlayStation, which went all-in on 3D. Though it lost the war, Sega's doomed console was home to a number of beautifully realized 2D games, and one of the most stunning of all was 1997's Princess Crown – a side-scrolling action RPG with deep combat tactics, huge animated sprites and a painterly art style that would become the calling card of its creator, George Kamitani. Years later, Kamitani would go on to found Vanillaware, one of the few studios today still dedicated to 2D games.

Over the years, Kamitani and his band of artists and designers have doubled down on the art form of the 2D game, creating the gorgeous Odin Sphere (recently re-released as Odin Sphere Leifthrasir), Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and the critically acclaimed old-school brawler Dragon's Crown, which was known for its hyper-sexualized character design. Stylewise, imagine if the Brothers Hildebrandt worked in anime. We recently spoke with Kamitani about the challenges of making 2D games in the age of 3D, and about his company's upcoming mech saga, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

Tell us about your earliest creative influences. It may be coincidence, but I see touches of Frank Frazetta in your art style.
There are so many artists and artwork that have influenced me, it's hard to catalog all of them. The artist that got me drawing in my youth is Akira Kagami's early manga. Kagami's drawings and character designs were delicate, like a girl's comic, in an original world with rich, mechanical, futuristic tech that was before its time in the Eighties and feels current to this day.

I used to draw manga as a hobby until I entered college but I felt that I drew much too slowly to make a living at it. Around that time, I shifted my interest to game development, which I was also very much into at the time. Ever since I encountered fantasy worlds through gaming, I began to collect western fantasy books and illustrations. I was enchanted by John Tenniel's "Alice in Wonderland" illustrations. I turned to Frank Frazetta's work for inspiration many times when working on Dragon's Crown.

What is the Vanillaware collaborative process like when concepting and creating a game?
As the game director, I determine the game mechanics, character and background design as part of the overall game concept. Then, various members of the team irons out the details. Nobody helps me with the game scenario so I have to struggle through that alone. [laughs]

Depending on the team, there are times when the entire game changes. For example, in Dragon's Crown, the initial idea was that there would only be underground mazes like in the game Wizardry but the background art team kept creating these beautiful outdoor scenes. I couldn't reject them so we ended up changing the original concept of the game.

As long as it becomes a more appealing game, it's ok that the original concept changes. That's probably the real thrill of being a director. The team at Vanillaware constantly delivers beyond my expectations so it's a lot of fun creating games.

Let's go back to earlier days. The 2D art in Dungeons & Dragons was great, but Princess Crown on Sega Saturn was on another level entirely. What was your goal with that game, and was the Saturn's hardware really as good for 2D as everyone says it was?

As I recall, the Sega Saturn version of Princess Crown was not released abroad, so I am surprised that people know about it and give it high praise. Looking back, it's a miracle that that game was completed among such chaos. This is going to be a long answer but I'll share with you a story from the development of this game.

After I left Capcom, I went to go work for a small game company for adult audiences in the Kansai region. The company was going through a transition from making games for mature audiences to mass consumer products and I felt that if I could make original titles for consoles, it would work for me. While taking into consideration the size of the company and their style, I came up with Princess Crown based on Princess Maker. However, I had only written concepts for action games at Capcom so the adventure part would be an action game while the story and characters had developmental aspects to it.

So, nervous and shaking, I presented this concept to Sega and the top honcho at Sega asks me, "Is this an RPG game?" At the time, the Sega Saturn and PlayStation were head-to-head in a console war and we didn't know who was going to win. I guess both sides were looking to add even one more RPG games, which were the most popular genre, to their catalog. If I answered no, the concept would most likely not pass, my answer was, "Of course, it's an RPG." My eyes must have been swimming frantically like a crazy person.

Ultimately, we decided to staff up and make a proper RPG by creating solid characters and a storyline which led to double the initially budgeted man-hours. We were still able to get it greenlit by Sega and that's how the project started. But, it wasn't long before we faced the next battle. The company that I worked for went under. I contacted Sega to ask them to save our team. However, Sega was in discussion with Bandai about merging and they weren't in a position to spend lots of money on a new development team with no reputation. That's when I was introduced to the people at Atlus. Thankfully, Atlus picked up Princess Crown and we were able to finish the game.

I'm in a state of arrested development at the age of 14, so it's probably just that I enjoy drawing girls more. [laughs] 

In regards to the Sega Saturn, which I personally also loved, it was a sprite machine and excelled at showing a lot of sprites. In comparison, the PlayStation was a polygon machine and wasn't as good as the Saturn at displaying sprites. If we had made Princess Crown on the PS1, the animation probably wouldn't have been as smooth.

Ironically, it was the PSP version that finally enabled North American players to experience that Sega Saturn game, but Princess Crown was also notable for being the first of many Vanillaware games in which a female character takes the leading role. Why are you drawn to creating strong female characters?
I'm in a state of arrested development at the age of 14, so it's probably just that I enjoy drawing girls more. [laughs] Seriously, in regards to Princess Crown, as I mentioned earlier, I was trying to be true to the style of the company I worked for and that's why I chose to use a girl for the main character. If the main character is a girl, I thought I could make a game like Dragon Quest with a visual style influenced by Alice in Wonderland.

The reason I think I make games with strong female characters is this: If a girl is forced to summon the courage to fight, she should be victorious.

2013's Dragon's Crown was a return to the Dungeons & Dragons days. Did you achieve the things you wanted to with Dragon's Crown? You'd been trying to make that game for over a decade.
Dragon's Crown took over 10 years to make and is a symbol of my dedication and perseverance. I'm sure there are things that don't hold up to people's expectations but I gave that game everything that I've got, so I'm very proud of that title.

The co-op in Dragon's Crown was one of the game's strong points, and it's easy to imagine the game world expanding in a sequel. I know you like to shift gears when you work on a new game, but is this something you would like to revisit at some point?
I would love to make a new Dragon's Crown game. Dragon's Crown is actually the second game we made with co-op. The first was [Japan-only title by Square Enix] called Fantasy Earth and the third one will be after I finish 13 Sentinels.

Since it was originally imagined as a Dreamcast game, how much would you say the PS3 and Vita version of Dragon's Crown differs from your original vision?

The framework of the games are the same. However, the world and character design is completely different. We were not originally allowed to make it in 2D so we were developing it in 3D, but the project eventually fell through. The 3D models that I designed were then repurposed for Fantasy Earth.

GrimGrimoire is a real-time strategy game, which is an unusual choice for a Japanese developer. It's also very different from most RTS games – it doesn't have an overhead view, for one. What inspired you to make it?
When we were hiring staff to make Odin Sphere, the people at Nippon Ichi got word that the team that made Princess Crown had gone independent. And Mr. Shinkawa, the president of Nippon Ichi at the time, came and told us we could make whatever game we wanted. We were so excited we didn't even think of the long-term consequences and decided to make a real-time strategy game. The old-timers at Vanillaware were all hooked on StarCraft and we wanted to try to make a similar game. But it turns out RTS games don't sell in Japan.

In my state of elation, I proposed that it would have the feel of Atelier Marie and Harry Potter to make the game more approachable to the female audience... and so on and so forth. [laughs] It's crazy to think of it now...

Because the development for our other game Odin Sphere got delayed, we only had six months to finish GrimGrimoire. However, because everyone on the team were hardcore StarCraft fans, I would give instructions like, "This skill is like the Yamato Gun" and "This unit is the Dropship" and everyone was in tune, and we were able to make the game in time for the master deadline.

I feel a little embarrassed being called an evangelist. 

The only issue was the difficulty level. The majority of gamers in Japan have never played an RTS before, so Nippon Ichi asked us to lower the difficulty setting. We had to change the "Easy Mode" to "Normal" and "Normal" to "Hard." We also added a "Sweet" level which was even easier than the "Easy Mode" At the time, we were hesitant to make the game so easy because we were still new at making games. I wrote the story but to keep the budget low, we had decided that there would only be five students and five teachers in the game and the stage would only be within the school grounds. Adding a time leap in the story was a necessity. The main character jumps out of the timeline and the story ends, but I wrote it so that the player finds out why the crime happened in the game's sequel. I'm usually a very slow writer but this was the first game I created where I wrote it with a sequel in mind. I was so excited I finished writing the story in two months.

As for the sequels, I need to get the company's approval, and I can't just make it because I want to. After this experience, I decided to only write stories where the game concludes at the end of the game so that I have no bitter feelings when I don't get the approval for a sequel. I was able to write GrimGrimoire in a short time and it's one of my favorite of the stories I've written.

You released Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir earlier this year, a remake of 2007's Odin Sphere. Why did you feel this was the time for a reboot?
That is the direct result of my team's contribution. The director for Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir was Ohnishi-san, and I don't think he needed my help at all with the directing of the game. All of the games I made are precious to me. They're like my daughters. But they each have their shortcomings that have been pointed out by consumers. I made Odin Sphere based on criticisms of Princess Crown. Odin Sphere also had a lot of problems so I made Muramasa: The Demon Blade with those criticisms in mind. And then Dragon's Crown was based on Muramasa, and so on. Each title was built from scratch without repurposing or remaking an older game. If I had been the director of Leifthrasir, we probably would have lost the fans who loved even the shortcomings of the original. It would have resulted in a completely different Odin Sphere game. For example, I thought that the game's "Magic Mix" system was a failure and wanted to cut the whole thing out. It's thanks to the new team members that joined our company because they loved's Odin Sphere that we tried to preserve the various features of the game and carefully improved it instead of cutting them out.

Muramasa is another of your games that you've revisited and improved over time, first on Wii, and then on PS Vita. It's also notably different than your prior work – it's seeped in Japanese mythology, rather than western fantasy. What inspired it?

I had consecutively done fantasy titles so I wanted to do something different. The concept for Muramasa: The Demon Blade came from the idea of presenting a "ninja Princess Crown" concept to the person who created the arcade game Ninja Princess at Sega. The story for Odin Sphere was inspired by Shakespearean theatre so if I was going to make a Japanese version, I felt that the setting should be inspired by kabuki, so I collected a lot of kabuki scripts. I also referenced a lot of Japanese classical literature, but the old language was very difficult. And I was somewhat nervous to use Japanese mythology, so there's more Buddhist theology in the game.

Visually, I was influenced by block prints from the Edo period, and I imitated the ink-wash painting style using bright, vibrant colors. I was also influenced by the classic Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi anime where there's a certain comical element to the background. I tried to create an authentic environment that's different from a realistic style.

You're a proud evangelist of the 2D art form and among the few developers who still embrace the medium. How much more potential do you see for the style?
Thank you for the high praise. I feel a little embarrassed being called an evangelist. In regards to the limitations of 2D graphics, we hope to explore that in 13 Sentinels. I'm not sure if all our ideas will work, but look forward to it!

In the past, other well-known creators such as Koji Igarashi and Keiji Inafune and others have had trouble getting support for high-res 2D games by their publishers, despite the hunger for these types of games by fans. Another example is Metroid, which hasn't seen a 2D incarnation on console in a long time. If the opportunity arose, would you be up for making a Metroid-style game?
That sounds great. I'd love to try to make it. How do you think the fans would react if Vanillaware made a Castlevania game?

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is your first mech-based game, but the trailer has some subtle 3D elements. Is this a hint that we will see some 2.5D elements in the game?
Kind of... No, it's a secret.