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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

TECHNOLOGY

Game director Mikami ups speed, action in 'Vanquish'


Special to The Japan Times

Fifty-two floors above the ground in Tokyo's Roppongi district, one man is reaping all the applause. As he soaks it up, the look on his face is difficult to read. It has been over four years since he last received such attention, and he has yet to impart the information he came to relay; has yet to experience the coming vindication.

News photo
Game master: Shinji stands next to a life-size statue of Sam, the lead character from his new game "Vanquish," at a press event at Tokyo's Roppongi Hills. DANIEL ROBSON PHOTO

The 50-odd assembled Western journalists applaud this man not on the grounds of what he is about to unveil, because at this point (save for a rather dull CGI trailer) it is an unknown quantity. No, they applaud because of what he has done in the past. They applaud because he is one of the most eccentric and idiosyncratic developers in the world, back with a brand new game: "Vanquish." They applaud because he is Shinji Mikami.

If you have even a passing interest in video games, you know Mikami. For one thing, in the mid-1990s he created PlayStation game "Biohazard," known in the West as "Resident Evil," and with it invented the whole genre of survival horror — making space for rival games such as "Silent Hill" and "Fatal Frame." The Biohazard series has spawned 20-odd sequels and spin-offs on 12 consoles plus arcade cabinets and mobile phones, generating 40 million sales and a series of Hollywood movies starring Milla Jovovich.

And those who follow games more closely will know that 44-year-old director Mikami is an opinionated and humorous character — for example, when "Biohazard 4" was released for Nintendo's GameCube console in 2005, he pledged that it would remain exclusive to that console or else he would ritually behead himself (it didn't, but neither did he); and on the subject of "Biohazard 5" (in which he was not involved), he told an interviewer in 2008 that he would avoid playing the game because "if I see anything . . . that isn't done well, I'll be angry!"

Mikami joined publisher-developer Capcom in 1990, a year before the company unleashed its genre-defining fighting game "Street Fighter 2." He worked on various Disney tie-in titles before dreaming up "Biohazard," an action game crammed with zombies and B-movie scares, as a special-tactics squad investigated the spread of a deadly mutagenic virus. Mikami soon became a key director and producer for Capcom, working on Biohazard's sequels, the Dino Crisis series, "Viewtiful Joe," "Killer 7" and others.

Mikami reacted to the commercial failure of his 2003 game "PN03" by assuming deeper involvement in the development of "Biohazard 4" for the GameCube. He reworked the game extensively, leading to wild sales when it was released in early 2005.

He was among the key Capcom staff chosen to head up the company's new independent studio, Clover, a few months before the release of "Biohazard 4," along with Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya. The company was dissolved just three years later, shortly after Mikami's punch-'em-up "God Hand" hit the PS2; Mikami, Inaba and Kamiya went on to form their own studio, Seeds, now renamed PlatinumGames. Their four-game deal with Sega included the critical and commercial smash "Bayonetta," released in Japan late last year; "Vanquish," due out at the end of the year, is the first to be directed by Mikami.

"The most interesting thing to me is the response of the people who saw the game in action," he tells The Japan Times when asked how it feels to have unveiled his first game since 2006. "I haven't had a chance to ask anyone yet! What did you think of it?"

The answer is simple: "Vanquish" looks like a thrilling game. It's a third-person shooter, but from the game-play demo we witness at the press unveiling in Roppongi it is clearly a unique experience, combining the robust action elements of "Halo," the AI-controlled team play and duck 'n' cover components of "Gears Of War" and the speed of "Sonic The Hedgehog." Stealth is out the window; instead, speed and action are the order of the day.

The game's near-future story echoes recent world events and concerns. As nations scrap over dwindling energy resources, the Russians have captured a U.S. space station and used it to obliterate San Francisco. America reacts by sending in the big guns. The player controls Sam, a DARPA researcher and soldier tasked with recapturing the space station. Sam wears a high-tech lightweight suit of toughened carbon that is equipped with a booster jet, allowing him to surge around the battlefield as he shoots. Get up close to an enemy and you can activate Action Mode, a slow-motion effect that renders your robotic foes vulnerable to brutal attacks.

"It's not for me to decide whether the game is fun or not," says Mikami humbly. "That's up to the players. It's my job to satisfy them. But to do that, I've tried to make a game that I personally think is interesting."

At the presentation, we watch Mikami play a short introductory section of "Vanquish" before passing the controller to one of his staff ("He's much better at the game than me") to demo a full level. But Mikami insists that there are still many secrets to be revealed. When pressed on available weapons, for example, he is typically oblique, ditching words altogether and instead making a series of explosion noises and hand gestures to mime some sort of multirocket launcher and a bazooka.

"One of the key concepts is to design the game in such a way that players keep coming back after they've finished it," he says. "Playing through multiple times will be equally rewarding.

"There are three elements that will combine to encourage multiple plays. One is the world and map settings and the enemy AI algorithms. There's also the player's experience and skills, because you can always improve your rhythm to create a different play experience every time. And there's also a weapon enhancements system in the game."

Vanquish is a single-player experience, with no tacked-on multiplayer mode. But the player is aided in the campaign by several AI-controlled comrades.

"The AI of your teammates is fairly aggressive, so they get in there and do some work," says Mikami. "They're not just there to absorb damage. And you'll notice on a fundamental level the difference when they're not present — there's a completely different feel to the ebb and flow of battle."

The game is bold and beautiful, and appears incredibly tactile — watching the gameplay demo, we can almost feel the rhythm required to master the game. Mikami's had his highs and his lows; provided he can weather the pressure and maintain this level of polish over the whole 10-hour game, "Vanquish" could become another instant classic.



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