The hardcore bullet-hell shooter has scorched eyes and cramped hands for the whole of its history, with its waves of miniature foes and pulsing chaos as iconic an image of Japanese arcades as you’ll find. It’s not the most obvious fit for Apple’s iPhone. The key players at Cave’s Mobile Content Department, fresh from a superb version of Espgaluda II, would beg to differ. Scrolling down-screen, four giant bosses approach: producer Yukihiro Masaki, director Mamoru Furukawa, and programmers Yuma Matsuda and Shingo Hozumi.
How and why did Espgaluda – a core arcade shooter – make the leap to iPhone?
Yukihiro Masaki: From our perspective, the iPhone made sense. This is a major platform we can’t afford to ignore. We had our first try last year with Matsuda’s Mushihime-sama Bug Panic [a spin-off from the popular series that more closely resembles a top-down twin-stick shooter, but which is currently unavailable]. When Espgaluda II Black Label was coming to Xbox 360 [via XBLA] we thought we could use the occasion to release an iPhone version as well. When we decided to do it, we didn’t wonder if it could be done, but how the unique aspects of the iPhone could be harnessed.
From left: programmers Shingo Hozumi and Yuma Matsuda, director Mamoru Furukawa and producer Yukihiro Masaki
How did the development team react when the decision was made to bring Espgaluda to iPhone?
Yuma Matsuda: I thought someone had gone mad! I mean, if you consider the graphics, the Xbox 360 itself isn’t ideal for 2D. We worked hard to make Espgaluda II possible on that console – now we’ve brought the same game to the iPhone.
Shingo Hozumi: I’ve been involved with many ports to phones, and we’ve never really managed to make a perfect port of a title to those platforms. So when we were given this project, to be a perfect port of the original, well… we had long discussions with the members of the original arcade team to define what direction to go in, how to use the iPhone to the best of its potential. We had no reference in front us, no precedents.
How did you overcome the challenges you were facing, such as the controls, graphics, speed, and so on?
Mamoru Furukawa: The iPhone is not very good at 2D. When it came to danmaku [the barrage of bullets] it rapidly became a burden to the performance so we had to work hard to find the right solution, graphically, to ensure enough resources to allow the game to run smoothly.
Matsuda: I was really concerned with delivering the graphics. I wasn’t concerned about the controls. Taito’s Space Invaders for the iPhone had proved it could work. Their slide controls were quite well adapted for the needs of a shooter.
Masaki: I was interested to see how other companies were working. In the west I feel there is a lot of communication, but in Japan – and especially in our company – we aren’t so good at that. I thought this project was a good place to change that. Matsuda-san really got lots of support from [veteran creator and bullet-hell godfather] Tsuneki Ikeda.
What do you think of the iPhone hardware?
Matsuda: Without buttons and a D-pad, it’s difficult to compare the iPhone’s feel to that of platforms we’re used to, but at the same time features like the GPS and the camera bring new possibilities. These are creative challenges that I’d like to explore.
Hozumi: We need to change our established habits of gaming through the use of buttons and a D-pad. So we have to think in a different way.
How did you promote Espgaluda II?
Masaki: It’s not easy to promote this type of game on the iPhone – I had to come up with ways to push the title prior to release. I had to do my homework. I wanted to release the game to the entire world, not just Japan. I knew that if I didn’t use external avenues to iTunes, very few people would ever know about our game. I used Twitter, blogs, YouTube. It was more challenging than with a packaged game. The first video was when people realised such a game could run on an iPhone as intended. The only problem was overseas – we had our in-game video posted on the site March 31/April 1 and the reaction was: “Nice April fool!”
The bullet-hell shooter has had a hard time finding its place commercially in the current generation of consoles. Do you think downloadable avenues, and specifically Apple’s iPhone, are the future?
Masaki: I think so, yes. It makes the genre more accessible and affordable. On the iPhone you have a variety of pricing with an average around a dollar. The iPhone makes content available everywhere to anybody and at a reasonable price. We’ve been selling packaged games for a while now but our producer, [Makoto] Asada, has already decided to test an online release with an original title this summer on Xbox Live. We also plan to go for original content on the iPhone. We believe there is the place for both digital and packaged distribution. I see the iPhone as a means to make players not only enjoy our games but also raise awareness about our packaged products as well.
Do you think the iPad would be a more interesting platform to develop arcade-style shooters for?
Masaki: We already have users who are requesting that we develop a shooter for the iPad, but we need to study the platform further to see what can be done and how. There is the issue of whether to develop a game especially for it. Plus, we already see a few technical obstacles, again with the amount of memory. Only Apple can solve that one.
So, can we say that this game is only the first of many Cave shooters for iPhone?
Masaki: You can indeed. We are already gearing up for our next shooter [Dodonpachi Resurrection, out tomorrow]. We need to try to deliver something even better than Espgaluda II, something that defines the spirit of Cave but also offers some fresh experiences. Watch out!