2012's bizarre but addictive cult hit Tokyo Jungle was born from the mind of a man named Yohei Kataoka and a studio called Crispy's. Despite being a young man -- somewhere in his mid-20s -- Kataoka has made quite a name for himself.
In fact, you need look no further than his latest project, a small action title called Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day (which launches in Japan for PlayStation 3 today), for proof. Ranko is a portion of a five-part multimedia collaboration called Short Peace, a venture headed up by none other than Katsuhiro Otomo, the legendary creator of Akira. Besides Otomo's oversight, Kataoka's portion also sees him working hand-in-hand with names like Grasshopper Manufacturing's Goichi Suda, among others.
"What Mr. Otomo wanted to do was to use this project to make something based on Japanese culture and bring it all to the world," explains Kataoka. "He focused on movies, because those are a very big part of Japanese culture, but so are games. Because of that, he wanted one game to be part of the project. So he worked with Bandai Namco, and Bandai Namco went to Mr. Suda to talk about this project. Then Mr. Suda came to me and said that he wanted colloborate with me, because of this whole theme of collaboration. That's how it came together.
"There are a lot of creators involved in [Short Peace]. There's me and Mr. Suda, but there are also animation sequences, and those parts have different directors. So there are multiple directors involved in the project. Every Short Piece project, the movies and the game, and has a theme to it. One would be 'sci-fi," one would be 'violence.' For this one, Mr. Suda made the theme 'mixture.'
"[Suda] feels that current Japanese culture is one big mixture of a bunch of things. Tokyo looks like a great big mixture of everything. Because of that, there's a bunch of creators involved in this one project. The animated parts kind of stand on their own, the scenario stands on its own, and the game stands on its own. All these different elements are glued together by that theme -- that mixture."
At its most basic level, Ranko plays similarly to an "endless runner" style game. A sword-wielding school girl dashes through streets and subways, slashing and leaping at foes. What really sets the game apart, however, is its psychedelic visual style: As the protagonist swipes her way through enemies, they explode in a spray of bizarre, glitch-like effects that burst across the screen. In a lot of ways, it resembles a pop-art take on Capcom's upcoming Strider, with breakneck melee combat game married to Takashi Murakami artwork (careful, that link's not entirely work-safe).
In fact, Kataoka took inspiration not only from runner-style games but also 8-bit classic Genpei Touma Den (perhaps not coincidentally, also a Namco game):
"This project started out with a very short amount of time and a low budget. Because of that, Mr. Suda said, 'Okay, let's make a 2D action game.' Then he told me, 'I want to make a game like Genpei Touma Den.' I was a little confused when I heard that, so I thought, 'Okay, he probably means he wants an interesting 2D side-scrolling action game.'
"Mr. Suda was hung up on the idea of making a game out of pixel art. But I was thinking that there are a lot of pixel-focused games out there already. I felt like this title should take a different angle. With Crispy's, a different angle is probably better. So I asked for some more time, and within a couple of weeks I came up with [the current concept].
"Short Piece is a visual project, and so I wanted the game to have a very unique visual style as well, within the limits of time and budget. But I also needed to make a game, so I thought that a battle-type action game wouldn't be possible within those limits. I thought that something more like a running game -- like Robot Unicorn Attack on iOS -- would be more doable within our limitations. The main character of this game is being chased by this secret association, and she tries to get forward as much as possible so she won't get caught. I decided that whenever you'd encounter or fight with an enemy, you'd see very bright special effects, and they'd have a Japanese taste or style to them -- they'd describe something about Japanese culture.
"One example might have manga-style words and effects jumping out -- a collage of anime. Another one is made of distinctive Japanese art pieces scattered around the effect. If you're able to go through the game in a successful way, you'll be able to put out a lot of effects, and those effects will hit the enemies out there to create another effect. It'll set up chain reactions, and the more chain reactions you can make, the faster the main character moves. So if you play the game in a very skillful way, the game almost turns into a kind of promotional video or visual art piece itself. It's fulfilling the game system, but also fulfilling the main concept of the whole project."
Even without the splashes of anime and classic Japanese art, Ranko Tsukigime is undeniably, well, Japanese. In keeping with the general vibe of Crispy's games, it all takes place in a more-or-less real-world setting. In fact, this adherence to reality is, to date, the primary unifying element of Kataoka's work to date. (Based on Tokyo Jungle and the giant Pomeranian chasing the heroine in the Ranko trailer, "teacup puppies" seems poised to become his games' secondary unifying element.) The sights of Tokyo factor heavily into Ranko, as with all of Kataoka's projects -- and the shared setting is not entirely by coincidence.
"It's probably unconscious, but it's turning out like that," he agrees. "The next project I plan to create is going to be the same way. So, unconsciously, that might be my theme.
"My philosophy behind creating games is, of course I like creating something original, starting from zero, but at the same time I want a lot of people to check out my games and enjoy them. To create something that a lot of people can enjoy, you have to give them some kind of comfort, something sympathetic as a hook. You have to get them to sympathize with you. Then you bring in the original and unique stuff. Maybe that hook for a lot of people might be setting the game in real life -- something everyone can easily sympathize with."
And, of course, there are mysterious, powerful school girls wearing elaborate outfits and eyepatches... perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Suda's involvement. But the inclusion of this cliché, too, was a conscious choice meant to emphasize the Short Peace project's emphasis on Japanese culture and pop culture. According to Kataoka, all of these pieces work in concert.
"We focused on were high school girls," he says, "the kind of high school culture we have in Japan that's unique to our country. And the hero shows, like Power Rangers, the tokusatsu shows that are another unique thing. And parking lots that are several stories high, or that go deep down into the ground -- those are everywhere in Tokyo. So in this game we took some of those things that are specific to Japan and put them together."
"The background and the art style, the philosophy to all of this… The big theme for the game is mixture, right? If you go outside and look at what Tokyo is about, it's a mixture of everything. The buildings don't have a template style. They're all different. They look different. The era they come from is different. People from Europe might be surprised – 'Who really designed this city? It's all over the place.'
"But Japanese culture is kind of a receiving culture, more than an aggressive culture. We receive things and understand them in our own way, and then we put it back out into the world. That's core to the culture of Japan. I also wanted to express that in the game. That's the philosophy behind the art style here. This is how I described the city – you can see all the different sizes of buildings and styles of building. It's a mixture of different elements."
Despite Ranko's compact nature within the far more elaborate Short Peace package, Bandai Namco recently announced their intention to localize the game. Given its deeply Japanese nature and the complex tangle of property rights associated with a project like this -- not to mention its incredibly low sales in Japan -- Short Peace's leaving Japan uncompromised seems a small miracle.
For his part, though, Kataoka isn't married to being an independent developer working on low-budget projects like Tokyo Jungle and Ranko Tsukigime. While he enjoys the challenge of working within such harsh limits, he also feels he could make equally effective use of a triple-A budget.
"I feel like it's probably not the budget or the scale of the game [that motivates me], but more, am I interested in the project? Can I get into the concept? That's the thing that's most important for me.
"I feel like there are artists and creators, people who, let's say they get [$50 million] to create something, and they aren't able to create something interesting with that big a budget. That's probably the artist type. I feel like I'm more like the creator type. If I had a budget like that, I could understand what I need to create with that much money and what kind of game I needed to deliver. I could make myself find something interesting in creating that game. So I could probably work on a big budget -- I could create something fun within that too."