How Will La-Mulana 2 Advance 8-Bit Design?

How Will La-Mulana 2 Advance 8-Bit Design?

Designer Takumi Naramura talks about Kickstarter, international appeal, and the science of evolving retro-style action games.

Playism's Kickstarter to fund the creation of La-Mulana 2, a sequel to indie favorite La-Mulana, hit its $200,000 goal over the weekend. Fans of the original may now look forward to being humbled and confused anew with a game whose main marketing tagline appears to be "We will destroy your happiness."

Of course, that brutal mindset is precisely why fans have be so quick to support the sequel; La-Mulana stands for a demanding sort of game design that rarely escapes into the medium's modern mainstream. The driving mindset for NIGORO, the team behind La-Mulana, can be found in the team's name: NI-GO-RO can be read as "2-5-6" in Japanese, a reference to the maximum count in many 8-bit games. La-Mulana lead designer Takumi Naramura once explained that his team likes to imagine an alternate reality where the MSX home computer didn't fade away in the early '90s but instead continued to advance, and indeed La-Mulana originally looked (and definitely played) very much like an MSX adventure that time forgot.

The original game won over a small, dedicated fan base, but the success of the sequel's Kickstarter campaign promises to expose it to a much larger audience. As NIGORO winds down the campaign and begins to work in earnest on their follow-up project, I've conducted a brief Q&A with Naramura about his team's plans and what precisely it means to "evolve" design in the context of a game so deliberately focused on the past.

USGamer: Crowdfunding is something that many Japanese gamers have only recently gained awareness of. Has Japan responded well to your Kickstarter campaign? Generally speaking, are you seeing more support from Western or Japanese gamers?

Takumi Naramura: We naturally assumed that we would receive backing from gamers outside of Japan, and had prepared advertising for this market. However, when we actually started, there was not much reaction to the game media as usual. But, we were quite pleasantly surprised to receive large pledges from many Japanese fans. This was a reminder that the most important thing is our fans and supporters.

There have been some precedents such as Mighty No.9 and Project Phoenix, but if an indie team with no game industry experience successfully funds a project on Kickstarter, it might make the news in Japan.

USG: How do you find the tastes and expectations of gamers differ between U.S. and Japanese gamers?

?TN: Comparing only NIGORO's fans in the U.S. and Japan, I don't think there is much of a difference between the two. Quite a number of fans in the U.S. have asked us "Make it even harder!" Our Kickstarter backers also went crazy over whether there will be additional, extra-difficult stages.

In Japan, while some of our fans are interested in higher difficulty, we also get requests to make the game a bit easier to play or understand. Some of our team also feels that we should drop the difficulty in order to attract more players.

USG: I've heard some gamers in the U.S. have refused to back the campaign because the game stars a female protagonist. Does that surprise you? Do you encounter similar sentiments in Japan?

?TN: Our team was also concerned about this before releasing the information. In actuality, we haven't heard any specific comments telling us to change the main character.?

?On the contrary, we're surprised at the favorable reception of Lumisa. We haven't announced whether it will be in the form of playable characters or story elements, but I can guarantee that some of your favorite characters from the original title will be back in action for the sequel.

"The first game was so hard due to the difficulty in connecting the hints, and realizing how the map or gameplay dynamics had changed due to a new discovery. We don't intend to make the puzzles any easier for La-Mulana 2, but we do want to establish consistent and thorough hint rules." – Takumi Naramura

USG: I assume you've made the Lumisa the lead for story-related reasons. How well will players need to know the first La-Mulana to appreciate the sequel? How much emphasis are you playing on story and lore?

?TN: We're coming up with a few ways to make sure that players will enjoy La-Mulana 2, whether they have played the original or not. With that said, the experience will be more rewarding and interesting for those familiar with the original.

It may be possible for first timers to the series to familiarize themselves with the story by watching online videos. However, La-Mulana's atmosphere of exploring ruins, and distinct play style (particularly the traps) will be best understood by playing the original.?

?It should still be a while until La-Mulana 2 has been released, maybe even long enough to finish the original! I hope our backers and new fans will give it a try.

USG: In terms of design, how closely will the sequel stick to the original? There was a lot of open-ended level design and backtracking in the first game. Will you be using the same principles?

?TN: La-Mulana 2 will carry on the style of the original. Of course, we will be refining the game concept originally delivered by the first title, so expect some improvements. In order to utilize the open level design to its fullest, we will improve the map connection rules, and consider cleaning up the routes to make it harder for new players to get lost.

There were a lot of things we didn't notice about the original until our fans told us, after the game had been completed and released. I want to put this valuable fan feedback to good use. And I'm more than happy to cut out anything that interferes with the enjoyment of the game's core puzzle-solving elements.

USG: The difficulty of La-Mulana is pretty well-known, and that even seems to be a centerpiece of your Kickstarter campaign. But will the sequel really be as hard as the original? Will there be any difficulty options or other ways to ease the challenge?

?TN: Both the puzzle-solving and action elements may be difficult compared to recent games, but I think the action is well-balanced. It should be possible for most players to clear the action scenes after enough tries. I think our game is considered difficult due to the amount of puzzle-solving, but there are a few things we messed up in the original.

By watching a lot of online gameplay footage, we have been able to identify areas that confused most players, and realize how we have misguided the players in parts. The ability to check so many playthroughs has taught us a lot.

USG: A lot of the first game's challenge came from the opacity of many of the puzzles. How do you walk the line between being unfairly vague and being too simple?

?TN: I think the key here is to guide the player to the best route. Veterans of the first game, or players replaying La-Mulana 2 will be able to look for new routes on their own, creating new challenges.

The first game was so hard due to the difficulty in connecting the hints, and realizing how the map or gameplay dynamics had changed due to a new discovery. We don't intend to make the puzzles any easier for La-Mulana 2, but we do want to establish consistent and thorough hint rules, and give the player some breathing room to fully concentrate on the puzzles.?

USG: The old games that inspired La-Mulana often felt like they used impossibly dense puzzles or unintuitive design as a means of extending play time. These days, that doesn't really work — once someone figures out a solution, it's all over the Internet almost immediately. Look at the way MMO games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI evolved to account for the popularity of guide wikis. How is La-Mulana 2 adapting to that reality?

?TN: I encourage guide wikis, and hope for even more game footage to go online. As you mentioned, nowadays anyone can easily find game guides and walkthroughs online. We have no way to prevent this. On the contrary, I want gamers to use them as much as possible. Action gamers who don't care for puzzles can look up solutions in a wiki. Facing a seemingly invincible boss? Checking out other player's movies may come in handy.

The information is there for those who choose to look for it. I feel the choice is entirely up to each player. Many fans of La-Mulana will rely on their own skills and wits instead of looking up the easy answers. Using forums to discuss with fellow gamers and solve puzzles together is yet another way to enjoy the game.

We've carefully tuned La-Mulana so that it will take more than looking up information online to beat it, though.

USG: You've mentioned that your games and indeed the name NIGORO comes from a fondness for old games and a desire to evolve them. But what does evolution mean to you, exactly? I find many games in La-Mulana's style simply rearrange old ideas in different ways. What will set La-Mulana 2 apart?

TN: When you say "evolution," everyone tends to assume the focus will be on flashy visual appeal – graphics, production, and the like. I'm more concerned with subtleties. It can be based on original ideas, or a combination of old ideas, but my idea of "evolution" means that these core gameplay concepts need to be further refined and polished.

"I have to admit that even I couldn't tell you exactly what is supposed to be so novel or innovative about our games. But if you try playing them, I think you will find a certain element of excitement or fun that can't be found in 2D games to date." – Takumi Naramura

For example, the original La-Mulana had very few hints and practically no tutorials whatsoever. But just adding hints doesn't mean that the game would necessarily be more fun. In fact I would say one of its unique charms is the lack of hints. I feel that the process of changing a game's style to match current trends in order to sell more copies is actually preventing "evolution."

I have to admit that even I couldn't tell you exactly what is supposed to be so novel or innovative about our games. But if you try playing them, I think you will find a certain element of excitement or fun that can't be found in 2D games to date. This is just the "evolution" that we are striving for, and I think one aspect is combining the difficulty of a retro game with the approachability of a modern game.

USG: Thank you and good luck! Personally, I'm hoping to be able to play La-Mulana 2 on my PS Vita.

TN: I've heard that porting to and developing for game consoles has become more open than before. We are not committed to any particular hardware, and I wish for our games to be accessible to as many people as possible.

We felt that Kickstarter support was necessary in order to deliver La-Mulana 2 as quickly as possible, and at our standard of polish.?

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