While it's been some time since Japanese studio Treasure released a new game – almost a decade, in fact – its influence can still be felt, even today. Treasure's games are held up as examples of the very best of their kind, and Radiant Silvergun – the company's Sega Saturn swansong – has recently been released on Switch and Steam.
Back in September of 1995, Treasure president and founder Masato Maegawa gave an interview in Micro Design's Game Criticism Vol. 5, September 1995. This interview has never been translated previously, and we're proud to offer it here in English for the first time.
This translation was intended to be included in full in Legends Of 16-Bit Game Development, but sadly, there wasn't room. It is offered here as a bonus for those who might be interested in ordering a copy of the book.
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Q: Treasure’s games always maintain a high quality, don’t they?
Maegawa: I have the feeling you might be praising Alien Soldier a bit too much, though.
Q: Well, I thought it was an especially fun, high-tempo game.
Maegawa: It’s difficult to accept praise for Alien Soldier due to the fact that we released it in an unfinished state. The market for the Mega Drive disappeared, and we were unable to get the game to even 50% of what we wanted it to be. But I don’t think the game’s original concept of “100 multi-jointed bosses” was a mistake. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call the movement of the multi-jointed bosses the best of any game in the world. I was surprised, though, when I heard you were going to review Light Crusader positively. It’s true that we just went ahead and made it entirely the way we wanted to. There have been a lot of not-so-good games being released recently. So, as is apparent from looking at it, we wanted to make Light Crusader in the style of an overseas game, and we followed that path straight to the end. Of course, we once again ran out of time. We should have made improvements such as refining the controls, but the situation became one where we had no choice but to release it as-is. Other magazines voiced quite harsh opinions about the game, which I guess was unavoidable.
Q: How do you go about capturing the correct difficulty level for games?
Maegawa: The difficulty level in our games is quite high. We even lowered it quite a bit in Alien Soldier (laughs).
Q: The only difficulty level options are for Super Easy and Super Hard (laughs). Was Super Easy the equivalent of Normal?
Maegawa: That’s right. Everyone asks, “How are these Super Easy and Super Hard?” (laughs). It’s more like Hard and Expert. But we thought those names were more interesting. We were really criticized for the high difficulty of Dynamite Headdy. People asked how we could make such a cute character game like that so difficult. The appropriate difficulty for a game is an eternal puzzle in game development. All of the developers at Treasure are quite skilled game players, so we’re always saying that our games are too easy. But when you’re making a game, you play it over and over, so it’s unavoidable that you learn to beat it easily. Anyway, a lot of users have been saying that our games are too difficult, so that’s something we’ll have to be more careful about from now on. We can’t just have everything always going full blast (laughs). With Light Crusader, we’ve heard that some people can’t even get past the first puzzle… I guess it might be a bit tough for Japanese users. Typically, RPGs really hold your hand and explain everything very clearly. There will be characters in the game explaining things to you, and you’ll think, “How the hell do you know that information?” (laughs). However, it gets boring to just see the same kind of game over and over. There are also fun anything-goes games, right? The thing I hate most is for people to think we’re imitating something else. I really want to get across to users what it is we’re going for.
Q: So, it’s true that you’re conscious of that when you make games?
Maegawa: Yes. The most important thing is to know what the policy or concept of a game is. It’s no good if you just have the vague idea to make an action game, for example. We divide our developers into teams, and the producer’s ideas become absolute. We make the game however that person says. They clearly and precisely lay out what it is they want to do. Otherwise, the game will lack a clear vision. It’s another question whether users will accept the game, though.
Q: Conversely, is it necessary for a game to be accepted by everyone?
Maegawa: I personally don’t think so, but if it’s not, it becomes more difficult for us to exist as a development company. We have to find a balancing point. We have to appeal to general users while also making unique games. But it’s unpleasant for me to view game development as a business like that.
Q: Games that have a lot of unique personality and that try new things tend to be avoided by some users. However, if they avoid games with unique personality, then new games will all start to look the same. I think that’s boring.
Maegawa: But it’s no good if you take things too far.
Q: Did you take things too far with Light Crusader?
Maegawa: Yes, we did. Furthermore, when you try to make something different, it’s easy to run out of time. The time available for making a game is generally just one year. I think that’s a bit too short to really put a lot into it. But you have to sell it, so there’s no way around that.
Q: If the development environment improves, then I wonder if it will be possible to develop over a longer period of time.
Maegawa: More than that, I hope some of the worse game development companies out there cease to exist. Users should remember if a company puts out a bad game and then avoid that company. We have to make that kind of company go out of business (laughs). It’s really bad to trick people into buying an awful game.
Q: Is it true that users have low tolerance?
Maegawa: I think users are focused on a number of different things. From the perspective of the developer, we have to consider different ways to get users interested in our games. But I have some small doubts in how we approach it. A lot of game developers are now working on Saturn games, and they’re all going with 3D polygon graphics. What used to be impossible is now possible. Because of that, games are going off in this completely new direction with polygons and virtual spaces. But Guardian Heroes, which we’re currently making, is being designed without the slightest thought to polygon graphics. We’re going entirely with 2D anime-like graphics. Even though the hardware specs have increased with the Saturn, if you go with 3D graphics, suddenly you’re stuck with even fewer characters and slower processing speed than before. It’s called a next-generation console, but there’s still something missing from it being a true dream machine. You can probably overcome that with good software, but developers haven’t yet reached the required technical level. In terms of sprite graphics, the Saturn far surpasses the current console technology, so it’s possible to create something very intricate and complex. That’s why we’re focusing on making something full of sprites: the ultimate sprite game. It’s true that a 3D game will attract attention just because it’s 3D, but it’s also possible to make a 2D game that sticks out. I think that’s an interesting direction to go in.
Q: Guardian Heroes is a fighting-action game with RPG elements mixed in, right?
Maegawa: That’s right. Because we made games like Gunstar Heroes and Yū Yū Hakusho, people have started to call us “action Treasure,” but we’re not only obsessed with action games. We want to make games in a variety of genres. We’re trying our hand at some RPG-like games now with this and with Light Crusader. With Guardian Heroes, it’s like we’ve added an RPG to a fighting game, and the RPG component is quite strong. There are also a lot of branching paths. Because we’re quite accomplished at making fighting games, we’re thinking of various ways to advance the gameplay style.
Q: I have the impression that Treasure’s games always have a high degree of freedom to them. With Light Crusader, the puzzles and items have really been built well, and I also feel that the world view has been carefully crafted.
Maegawa: We’re always thinking of how to give the player more freedom, and also how to create an interesting world view. It’s nothing special; we’re just trying to avoid doing what others have already done. I guess we’re a bit strange like that.
Q: The instant I turned on Light Crusader I thought it was a DOS/V game.
Maegawa: That’s exactly what we were going for. The developers who made it are big DOS/V fans. The designer in particular put a lot into it due to his love of Western games. There was a feeling of, “We have to make this kind of game popular in Japan, too” (laughs).
Q: A lot of Japanese games are too similar to each other, and they can be a bit light on originality at times.
Maegawa: We want users to feel that our games are fun. It would be great if we could bring users even more into the process of making a game. As it is now, the only thing we can do is hear user feedback after a game has been released, and then build that feedback into the next game. We aren’t making progress with that aspect of development, since we’re making games in such a crazy manner. We really have to give more consideration to the general audience and improve the balance more. Otherwise, we risk leaving the users behind (laughs). Our individual developers also tend to go off in their own directions (laughs). Well, that can be a good thing. In the past, there was a time when games were made by just one person, right? Nowadays, games have so much content that it takes a team of ten developers to create one game. That results in developers being unable to do what they want to do. I think that’s a bit sad. Alien Soldier began with just one developer making it. “Let me do it on my own,” he said to me. And the game ended up like it did because he flew off in his own direction (laughs). Well, I try to have a clear policy for game development and think carefully about these matters.
Q: During the Mega Drive era, I had the impression that Treasure was really using polygons well, but it’s interesting that with the release of the Saturn you’re now focusing on 2D.
Maegawa: We displayed the Treasure logo using polygons on the Mega Drive. At the time, everyone said it was difficult to do polygons on the Mega Drive, so we researched it and gave it a try. But now, it’s not enough to just display polygons on the screen. You have to have a very clear idea of what you want to do with polygons.
Q: At one point, whenever the next console generation was mentioned, the idea going around was that everything would be done with polygons. Even the tiles in mahjong games…
Maegawa: That’s crazy (laughs). I didn’t think it would actually be released. You’re talking about Sunsoft’s [Mahjong Station] Mazin, right? It’s fun to see how far they took it. It’s really nice to have an environment where you can develop a game freely. Even though I talk about developing freely, there are a lot of limitations. In order to release something as a product, it’s necessary to follow the most basic rules. If you break those rules, then the thing you’re making will no longer be a game. I become jealous when I see how Compile is able to truly do whatever they want on their Disc Station releases. It’s great when you’re in a position to be able to do what you want to do. I wonder if we’ll see more of those kinds of things since the game medium is changing over to CDs. For instance, we could release a special Treasure game as a bonus supplement to a magazine (laughs).
Q: Your next title, Guardian Heroes, will be on the Saturn, right?
Maegawa: If only the Mega Drive had a bit more life to it, we would have considered releasing one or two more games on it.
Q: Is it true that it’s easy to make games on the Mega Drive that make full use of the hardware?
Maegawa: With the Mega Drive, you only have to think about the game itself. It’s different with the Saturn. On the Saturn, you might spend three months just researching how the hardware works. It will take even longer if you really want to make the gameplay system solid. And then making the game itself will greatly extend the development period. That’s how it is on the Saturn. I think that’s true for everyone.
Q: Did it take three months for you, as well?
Maegawa: Yes. We didn’t have access to the complete development hardware, either.
Q: I think it’s still possible to make interesting games on the SNES and Mega Drive. Especially when it comes to content-focused games like RPGs, the graphics don’t matter so much. What’s the difference there?
Maegawa: I don’t think the quality of the graphics determines how fun a game is. It’s all about the gameplay system. The appearance is just something extra. Of course, it’s better if the graphics look nice, so if you have the possibility of playing a game on the Mega Drive or the Saturn, the Saturn’s superior graphics make it the better choice. However, nice graphics alone don’t make a difference. I often say this, but after the SNES was released, there were a lot of really high-quality NES games released, even though the console was at the end of its life. With the first games on the SNES, there wasn’t enough time to really put a lot into them. I think more effort should be put into the gameplay system rather than just the graphics. If you ask me what makes next-generation games different from current games, there’s nothing different. It’s true that the graphics and sound have to be improved, but that’s not enough. It’s necessary for game developers to figure out how to make the gameplay system itself more interesting.
Q: After you’ve started developing for the Saturn, how does the Mega Drive compare?
Maegawa: With the Mega Drive, there are some aspects of the hardware that were really limiting. For example, you can’t exceed the sprite limitations or you’ll get flickering. Those kinds of limitations have been reduced with the Saturn. But that shouldn’t be misunderstood. The issue is really whether the developer knows how to write the software for the hardware. I think it’s silly to argue about hardware specs. With the Mega Drive, the games that were released at the beginning of the console’s life seem like they were made for different hardware compared with those released at the end of its life. The hardware capabilities are brought forth through advancements in the software. For example, I doubt there are any people out there who are going to purchase a PlayStation just because it can display more polygons than the Saturn.
Q: I doubt anyone is actually able to count polygons (laughs). I really wish that kind of thing wouldn’t be the focus of the contest for the market. I feel like the contents of many next-generation games are a bit stale compared to current-generation games.
Maegawa: There is definitely a problem with all of the focus going to the graphics and production instead of the gameplay system. The balance is off. Once you’ve figured out the gameplay system, then you can add some flavor to it with the graphics. I’m not saying 3D graphics are bad, but I don’t think it’s good to just start with the concept of making a 3D shooting game. Instead, you should decide the gameplay system and then perhaps decide that 3D graphics would make it more interesting.
Q: Polygons might just naturally fit certain types of games. For instance, this particular game might work best with polygons.
Maegawa: We’d probably be fine if we could just make 2D games into 3D games. However, on the current home console hardware, you have to develop with all kinds of limitations such as the number of on-screen characters. Those limitations cause a decline in the quality of the game. With that, I can’t help but wonder if the current types of 3D games are really OK. However, one thing I think is really good with Virtua Fighter is that it can pull off a one-vs-one fighting game in 3D with the current hardware specs. They knew they would be able to do it, so that’s why it works. But there are going to be problems if you try to apply that to something else. There’s no way you can make an action game with twenty characters on-screen into 3D. That’s why we’ve decided not to go with 3D for our game. It’s scary to not put the game’s concept first and foremost. I consider 3D games to be a single genre. Now, 70-80% of games are 3D games. It's very scary.
Q: It’s easy to show users something new.
Maegawa: I think one or two 3D launch titles for the Saturn would be enough. Users are going to get tired of it. The issue is where 3D graphics should be used. There are places where they work well, and places where they don’t. If you mis-use them, then you end up heading in the wrong direction.
Q: In Light Crusader, the doors and such are made with polygons. Were you aiming for some effect there?
Maegawa: No, I tried to stop that at the beginning (laughs). That was a misconception of the developer.
Q: So, what is a true next-generation game?
Maegawa: I don’t really like the words “next-generation game.” I’m focused on how we can advance the gameplay system of a game, so I’m not sure about things like “next-generation.” I guess that’s a weird answer.
Q: All that matters is the outcome, right? Not discussion of hardware specs.
Maegawa: It would be good if people considered “new” to be those things that are evolving. It doesn’t matter that the hardware is changing, or that 3D is being used more. Furthermore, I really don’t want things like “interactive” to be thought of as next-generation. Games aren’t becoming more interesting just because they’re made for the Saturn, but because they are evolving. Even if it’s made for a previous generation console, if a game has a new concept, it’s a next-generation game. That’s it.
Q: Thank you for your time today.