Tuesday Dec 17, 2013
Shinobi III is our second to last title in the 3D Classics series of interviews. As you’ll come to find, a lot of work was expertly done by M2 to bring this classic Genesis / Mega Drive game to the 3DS.
Thanks again to Game Watch and Impress, Okunari-san, and Horii-san for their involvement in making these interviews available to our western audience. Thanks to Siliconera for coordinating with us to help spread the word to SEGA fans across the web. And special thanks to our producer Sam for translating these interviews for everyone’s enjoyment.
As always, your comments are appreciated!
How will this title from the MegaDrive’s late lifecycle make it into 3D!?
Originally posted 8/7/2013
Right, Naoki Horii, M2 President, left, Yousuke Okunari, SEGA CS3 Producer
“Effortlessly pulling off things which people assumed the MegaDrive just couldn’t do…”
- Thank you again for sitting down with me, gentlemen. To date, you’ve released 3D Sonic The Hedgehog, 3D Altered Beast, and 3D Ecco the Dolphin as “GigaDrive” titles. But I’d like to ask what prompted you to choose Shinobi III to represent SEGA’s library of action games. Because I remember that the previous installment, The Revenge of Shinobi, also made a big impact at the time.
Yousuke Okunari (below, YO): The Revenge of Shinobi is of course the bigger title. However, when we released The Revenge of Shinobi as part of the SEGA Vintage Collection last year on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, we got a lot of feedback from people requesting the sequel as well.
Earlier on we had released Shinobi 3D on 3DS, which was a new title in its own right, and which in its own way paid homage to Shinobi III. So we thought that people who got to know the series through that game might better appreciate Shinobi III, since it has more variety in the actions you can perform compared to earlier installments.
We also wanted to keep popularizing some of SEGA’s more well-known games through the 3D Remake Project, which led us to include one title from the Shinobi series. Lastly, and you might know this if you’ve played 3D Galaxy Force II, we wanted to draw attention to how impressive sprite-based games can be when viewed in 3D compared to polygon-based graphics, like those used in Shinobi 3D.
Naoki Horii (below, NH): There are a lot of showpieces for the 3D within the game.
- Looking at your line-up after 3D Sonic, Shinobi III will be the fourth side-scrolling title that you’ve released using the GigaDrive, so I was thinking that maybe you chose Shinobi III based on how effective you thought the 3D would be.
YO: If you want to adapt what were originally 3D shooting games (such as Space Harrier) into stereoscopic 3D, porting the arcade versions is the most effective approach. Namely because the MegaDrive didn’t support sprite scaling. On the other hand, if you want to port 2D side scrolling games, there are a bunch of classics to choose from on the MegaDrive.
In terms of building up M2’s know-how as well, I thought we’d get better at the porting process if we focused on games of a similar genre to the ones we’d previously done.
- I see.
YO: Now Shinobi III is our fourth title that uses the GigaDrive, so I figured development would go pretty smoothly. Little did I know how wrong I was…
NH: That’s because MegaDrive games themselves evolved over time. By the time Shinobi III came out, games on the same hardware were really humming along, using sprites and backgrounds in very advanced ways, parallax scrolling backgrounds, all sorts of things. Developers around that time would do things like adjust sprite priorities (which determine what sprites display on top when sprites overlap) to spiff up a game’s backgrounds by making a single layer look like two or three.
YO: Looking back at the previous titles we released, we have Altered Beast, which was a launch title in 1988, then Sonic which came out in 1991, and finally Ecco and Shinobi III, which both released in 1993. Ecco’s biggest advancements were mainly in its impressive visual presentation, but Shinobi III’s advancements were programming innovations that changed how graphics were displayed. Since it had been five years since the hardware’s release, Shinobi III was at the point where it wasn’t just using all of the MegaDrive’s capabilities, it was effortlessly pulling off things that people assumed the MegaDrive just couldn’t do.
NH: We knew that remaking this kind of game in 3D was going be painstaking, but we also knew the final product would really impress people.
YO: When we were deciding on our MegaDrive lineup, both M2 and I felt that Shinobi III would make for a really fun game in 3D, so we went ahead and included it. We knew that the game had some parallax scrolling areas in it, and that it was also a straightforward side-scrolling action game, so we figured it would just be a matter of adding 3D to specific parts of the stage that really stand out, like we did with 3D Sonic. M2 agreed with me, and said, “OK, sure. Though, it just might take some work since it’s a game from late in the MegaDrive’s lifecycle…”
But when they actually got started, it was much harder than they imagined. For starters, there are a lot more stages in Shinobi III than other games from that time.
NH: Yeah, there are a ton of stages…
YO: We underestimated the game: there are seven rounds, and each round has three stages. That’s twenty one stages in total! Altered Beast had five. Ecco’s maps are big, but each one is one big image that’s almost like looking at an ant colony from the side. Which means that in terms of the visual presentation, similar graphics were used repeatedly, and you could use the same approach on them as you added depth.
NH: You’ll basically be fine doing the same thing over and over again.
YO: However, Shinobi III changes everything up in all its stages. The game progresses through completely different environments and completely different worlds, which meant we had to change our approach to creating 3D effects for each graphic in the game…
At first, we tried to do things the same way we were doing them previously, for example in 3D Sonic, where we added depth to the parallax scroll layers and objects in the background that had originally been drawn with a faux 3D perspective, and added 3D to previously flat backgrounds, like we did with Altered Beast or Ecco. But it just wasn’t enough.
- When you say “it just wasn’t enough”, you mean there was still something “off” about the graphics?
NH: At the end of the day, the MegaDrive was a console with two backgrounds and sprites on top of them, so the range of things developers were able to do was somewhat limited. Still, they did develop graphic swap techniques that let them make it look like there were three or four background images on the screen. Which means that even if we added depth to both background layers, or changed the priority of raster layers, it wouldn’t be enough; we’d wind up breaking the game’s presentation because certain parts of the game would look wrong. While we did make use of those techniques, we also had to touch up the graphics to give the game a real stereoscopic 3D feel.
If you’re parallax scrolling a background layer graphic that already has some sort of depth baked into it, the GigaDrive techniques aren’t going to help. There were a lot of places in the game for which we had to go in and add depth to by hand.
- Games around that time also had a lot of huge boss characters.
NH: That’s right.
- Those bosses may just be one big graphic, but depending on the perspective, you might be tempted to add depth to their arms and legs.
NH: When the bosses have multiple parts, people want to see depth on them, especially since a lot of stages have bosses with phases that completely change how they’re displayed on-screen .
The GigaDrive v2.0 is here!
- Some stages scroll vertically as well, don’t they?
YO: Vertical scrolling was one thing we really struggled with in Shinobi III. For example, stage 6-1. We ran some tests on this stage to see how 3D would look in one of the vertical parallax scrolling sections (hands over a 3DS).
We had a really hard time getting 3D working for the vertically scrolling rock wall here, as well as the elevator scene in 2-2. You might think the GigaDrive is transforming these scenes into 3D, but to make it work we actually had to upgrade the GigaDrive to version 2.0.
NH: That’s right, v2.0! The team members who built the GigaDrive thought that the features we’d implemented for 3D Sonic would be enough to support 3D in other MegaDrive titles, but they were wrong! It was like: “Oh boy, now we’ve got to deal with Vertical raster scrolling?!” Well, that’s not the right term, actually. Really we should call it “vertical multi-scrolling”.
YO: Raster scrolling is done using scanlines, so yes, the term “vertical multi-scrolling” would be correct.
NH: But everyone called it “vertical raster”. So one of the biggest changes to the GigaDrive for v2.0 was support for vertical multi-scrolling.
- The way you’ve added depth to these vertically scrolling parts of the stage really gives them a facelift!
NH: Yeah, it does.
YO: Late-cycle MegaDrive games became very focused on how to show visual depth within the MegaDrive’s limitation of only two background layers. Shinobi III is one of those games. So if you can take that onto the 3DS and add 3D to it as-is, it just enhances what was already there.
However, since M2 had to use a lot of different methods to create real 3D effects, there wasn’t a single method that could add 3D to all stages in all situations. This meant analyzing how the programmers for the original version had wrung out faux 3D effects from within the MegaDrive’s original feature set, one scene at a time. In order to remake those graphics in 3D, we had to go back to the GigaDrive itself and extend its capabilities.
This is the “grinding away in the pits” that we alluded to in our 3D Galaxy Force II interview. Shinobi III has twenty one stages, and of course you can’t get away with just one 3D effect per stage. Some parts of the stage are similar to each other, and some are completely different. Really, I’m just impressed that the project even finished.
NH: We did run a little over schedule.
YO: You did, but it was a battle with time.
NH: Because the 3D programming was looking like it might run over schedule a bit, we were able to add in a couple more 3D touches with the lost time. Since we’ve made so much progress with 3D vertical multi-scrolling, it makes me want to use it in other games. You know, after we get Thunder Blade out.
YO: The hardest part about this game was the final boss. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you see it, but it’s worth checking out the original in 2D first.
- This looks impressive even to the untrained eye…
YO: The original already had an extremely 3D-esque look to it, and it was rasterized to the screen to give it a wavy effect, despite being a single graphic. This is the kind of thing you’ve just got to remake in 3D.
- The original graphic was clearly drawn to give the impression that the floor and the ceiling start in front of you and then move into the background.
YO: It’s similar to the ground and ceiling graphics in Space Harrier. It’s the graphic designer telling you to look at something in 3D. But there’s no depth information of course. This was actually still 2D right up until just before the final version of the game. Out of respect to the original, we knew that we couldn’t just leave it in 2D, so the Shinobi project manager over at M2 worked hard on it, until the 59th minute of the 11th hour.
And… Well, here. Take a look at it again in 3D.
- Wow, it’s popping out of the screen, as if that’s how it was always meant to be. (laughs) I see what you mean. So the wireframes at the top and bottom of the screen and the wavy portions of the backgrounds are separate layers, right?
YO: Two separate scroll layers are rasterizing on the screen. We’ve added depth information to the single graphic of the undulating wire frame. With the GigaDrive releases up until now, we made background and foreground layers 3D by assigning them different depths, but in this case we’ve “knocked” the wireframe into the background to give it “diagonal depth”.
- (Laughs) So that’s what’s happening. Sounds like you had to pull out all the stops. It’s like always with you guys, you know it’s got to wind up looking like this, and then it does.
YO: The difference between adding depth values to two parallel layers, and thus making them 3D, and knocking the wire-frame portion diagonally into the screen was like night and day. The 3D effect of parallax scrolling is ultimately just like the 3D effect in Galaxy Force II: lots of sprites are overlapped among several different parallel levels. However, collapsing a graphic diagonally into the screen requires a totally different approach.
- So did you give each horizontal line on the screen its own depth value? That’s possible, right?
NH: It is, but it’s very processor-intensive.
YO: Similarly, when you’re at the stage start screen, there are stage illustrations hovering in mid-air with Joe Musashi standing right in front of you, and both of them are in different locations. The background and forest have been made 3D by collapsing the graphic into the background, which makes it look like the forest is extending to the horizon. Just getting this screen done was an ordeal on its own.
- I suppose collapsing a single graphic into the background diagonally was something you hadn’t done yet on the GigaDrive, and making it happen was quite a challenge.
YO: That’s right.
- Once people saw the parallax scrolling that we were just talking about in the last stage, it became a rather common technique used in games, didn’t it?
NH: Yeah it did. Just another tool of the trade.
- And the 3DS version shows what you can do with the same image in 3D.
NH: Of course, no one ever imagined it would be in 3D in the first place, right? They just wanted to give a 3D edge to the graphics. It’s that much more powerful in real 3D.
- It must have been quite the process.
NH: This was actually the first time the programmer who added 3D depth to the game had ever touched the GigaDrive. Up until then he had been working on Virtual Console Game Gear titles. So I asked him if he wanted to try adding some 3D to Shinobi, and all of a sudden he was adding it everywhere he could.
NH: He just didn’t know when to give up. He worked on it like a man on a mission, right up until we were out of time.
- Well, that’s the kind of project this is, I suppose. No one knows when to quit… (laughs)
NH: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) When I come into work, I’m always like, “boy, you guys seem to be having fun over there!”
YO: Now this is probably something most people wouldn’t care about, and something I didn’t even realize until it was explained to me, but some of the visual effects in this game were created with very elaborate programming tricks, and they’ll basically fall apart when you put them into 3D. An example would be 3-1.
NH: There’s a trick that other companies have used in shooting games, for example, where you take a square graphic and shift it one pixel at a time, which makes it look like it’s a single scrolling background graphic. The catch is that your background graphic has to be a single block. You could call it “cycling background cells”. We’ve added 3D support for techniques like this with the new GigaDrive v2.0. Stage-wise, a good example is the biological weapons research facility in stage 3-1.
- Huh. Yeah now that I think about, this does seem like something the MegaDrive shouldn’t be graphically capable of.
NH: At first glance, it seems like there are a ton of background layers, but this stage is actually just made of square-shaped graphics arranged around each other. Or rather, they look like a background because of how they’re placed. With this approach, you only have to shift a single block when it’s drawn, leaving fewer areas that you have to redraw. You save on memory as well as processing time.
What it took to make 3-1 3D
How 3-1’s screens are rendered by the GigaDrive.
* A & C move at the speeds they appear to move at.
* B is drawn on Extended BG4 with the same depth as C, but is animated by cycling cells, and scrolls at the same speed as layer A.
* It may be possible to freeze the cell animation and scroll at the same speed as background C, but doing so makes the background look different from the original.
(You may not notice it at first since the screen flickers in this section of the game, but if you watch layer B while your character is moving, you’ll notice that it doesn’t move in sync with C.)
Background Layer B is actually comprised of animation tiles that are laid out on-screen and rapidly redrawn to give the impression that they’re scrolling. The 3D version adds depth information to these tiles.
- Wooooow. That is a pretty smart approach.
NH: It is smart. The team really dug deep for this one. But if you use that technique to add depth the way we normally do for GigaDrive, it wouldn’t work right. So we had to extend our functionality for games that use cell cycling.
- I see. I guess that’s the only way to create 3D in a stage like this.
“When you know the original developers wanted to create a sense of space in the original game, it makes you want to push that even further.”
YO: We had underestimated what our original plan would require. However, from among the games we originally selected for the lineup, we thought that Sonic and our next release were going to be the toughest. We wanted to get the hardest games out of the way first.
NH: We were ready to stake the fate of the GigaDrive on Sonic…
YO: Yeah. For Sonic, the idea was “Let’s blow everyone’s socks off!” We figured that if we could bring the parallax scrolling portions of the stage into the background, it would impress people. But once we sat down to get started, we realized how off our calculations were. (laughs)
NH: Yeah we did.
YO: We should have spent more time with each game when we were choosing titles.
NH: When we were considering which parts of the game to remake in 3D, we figured, “Hey, we can do this, we can do that”, because we’d already done it on Sonic. That was a mistake. (laughs) If we’d moved Sonic to the rear, we could have drawn a reasonable line in the sand about what we were going to do with Shinobi III.
- (laughs) Well, you guys don’t really know when to give up either (laughs). I feel like even if the release order was reversed, you still would have convinced yourself that “Hey, we can do this,” or, “That’s going to be a snap.”
NH: At M2, we might have told ourselves that if we do Shinobi first, 3D Sonic would be out of this world.
- (laughs) Then again, if you went straight to late life-cycle MegaDrive titles, you might have had to delay the releases for the arcade and GigaDrive games, right? I mean so far, you’ve been developing titles one by one, and gradually improving your approach by taking the lessons learned from the previous game into the next game. As a result, you’ve been able to work more efficiently, but at the same time you find things you feel like really have to be included in the game as you go along. Considering that, if you’d done Shinobi III first, you might never have gotten around to the other GigaDrive titles, and there wouldn’t have been any games for a while after the 3D Super Hang-on release. (laughs)
NH: That’s definitely possible.
YO: In the end, I think that Shinobi III wound up being a culmination of all the things we’ve accomplished on the GigaDrive up until now.
NH: Yes, everything we’ve built into the GigaDrive to date has made it into this game. It’s got all the toppings.
YO: With Shinobi III’s development, the GigaDrive is finally complete…
NH: … That’s what I wish we could say, but there are still a lot of small problems and stuff that’s not quite there yet. For example, if we wanted to do Gunstar Heroes, we’d have to expand its functionality. (laughs)
- Yeah, that game has multi-jointed characters and other relatively unique specs since it came out at the very end of the MegaDrive’s life cycle.
YO: OK well, let’s say that with Shinobi III, the GigaDrive version 2.0 is finally complete. Beyond that, it’s all down to M2 working on the nitty gritty details to bring quasi-3D elements from the late-era games into true 3D.
NH: Well, the original MegaDrive-era graphical artists and programmers were also deep in the muck, and even though they were working on 2D CRT screens, they wanted to evoke “space” within the game to the extent that they could. When you know the original developers wanted to create a sense of space in the original game, it makes you want to push that even further.
YO: Those little nitty gritty details are the things I hope people notice the most in Shinobi III.
“It really is a second attempt, twenty years later, to deliver to the players that sense of depth, that sense of really being in the game.”
YO: Incidentally, just as we’ve done with all the other 3D Remaster Project games, this title also has two features that weren’t in the original game.
One is the stage select. Unlike 3D Sonic, this wasn’t in the MegaDrive version. You can now see every stage boss, from start to finish, right out of the gate. I say this every time, but we really want people to see how the 3D looks in all the stages, regardless if you’re actually able to clear the game or not.
- Did the original have three continues? I can’t remember. It’s great that you can jump straight to any stage.
NH: The continues are now unlimited as well.
YO: Another thing we’ve included is the “Expert Ninja Mode”. This is something that allows you to assign controls to each button. Both The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III essentially have the same basic controls: Jump, Attack, and Ninjutsu. But in Expert Ninja mode, you can actually assign separate buttons for the close range (kunai) and long range (shuriken) attacks.
We also included a guard button, so you can now guard instantly. In The Revenge of Shinobi, when powered up, you could block things with your two kunai, and use your katana to deflect shuriken, but in Shinobi III, you had to hold down the button to guard so Joe would toss out a shuriken first and your guard wouldn’t instantly activate. Guarding didn’t work the same way it did in The Revenge of Shinobi. In the 3DS version’s Expert Ninja Mode, you can now guard with the push of a single button. The guard hitbox is a bit tighter than it was in Revenge, but the fact that you can instantly block attacks now is huge for players.
You can assign the guard button to L, R, A, B, Y, or even X if you want. Use whatever works for you!
And actually, this isn’t the first time this mode has made an appearance. You might not be aware of this, but you could use it with a cheat code in the original. The game actually supported the 6-button gamepad for the MegaDrive, which at the time had just been released. Still, since we are porting the game to the 3DS, we’d run out of buttons if we left the 6-button support in there, so we needed to a proper implementation for this control scheme. And since trying to assign all these buttons with the button configuration we’ve had up until now would be a bit of a pain, we’ve adapted the controls into icons. Really, there probably weren’t a ton of people who knew about and used the cheat code for the original, so in this version, we’ve included the functionality as a default default. I think it brings a breath of fresh air to the gameplay.
- … People might think that the guard will make them invincible throughout the game, but that’s not the case.
NH: No, that’s not the case. It’s sort of like how people thought the original Street Fighter would be easier if you switched from pressure-sensitive buttons to a 6-button layout, but that wasn’t the problem in the first place.
- (laughs) It was the button inputs that made that game tricky.
YO: Playing Shinobi III with a guard button makes it totally different from what you’ve played before.
- In car terms, it’s like switching from an automatic to a stick shift.
YO: People who’ve mastered the normal control method, or played the normal style but got stuck somewhere along the way should give it a try. I think they’ll find it’s like playing a different game.
I’ve never asked the original development team, but I hear this game took a quite a while to develop and I have a feeling they wanted to make it so that the guard action was instantaneous. Perhaps they gave up when they were doing adjustments to the game balance or something. At the very end of the development cycle, they heard 6-button controller was coming out and implemented support for it, so I imagine that at that point it was too late to include the guard by default. Since we’re working on the port, we figured it was time to let that feature shine.
- It wouldn’t have been odd around that time to have a guard action. I think it’s a good idea.
YO: And since now you have your shuriken, which are limited in number, on a separate button, it makes you want to get in there and attack at close range.
- Yeah, it’s even more of an action game if you keep yourself from using your shuriken.
YO: Shinobi III also had two new close range attacks: dash slash and kick, in addition to the kunai attack. So trying to get through the game without using any shuriken can be fun in quite a different way.
- So Expert Ninja Mode wasn’t part of the original development plan?
YO: The idea at first was to include it as a hidden feature.
NH: Making it available by default came along later in development.
YO: I really wanted to highlight the fact that this command existed in the game. I always thought of it as a little hidden bonus, but if you know how to access it, it’s a lot of fun. So we brought it to the forefront with Expert Ninja Mode. You can think of the 3DS version’s guard as a bonus action like the Spin Dash we added to 3D Sonic. You could certainly play without shuriken if you want, but that sort of “self-restricted” gameplay is a little old school, you know. (laughs) Of course, if you want to play with infinite shuriken, we’ve left the original cheat code in as well.
- You can also select the difficulty, so people who are skilled at the game can tune the difficulty as they like. That’s also similar to the addition of 3D Sonic’s Spin Dash, I suppose.
YO: It’s actually the opposite of 3D Sonic since in this case, we’re taking things that were in an earlier game and adding them to the sequel. In this version, you can use the guard without powering up. One of the things we struggled with was updating the UI template with icons for the button config, which we were fine with up until then. But if we hadn’t switched the config over to icons, it would be really hard to figure out what you’re doing. It sounds minor, but this change actually wound up impacting our schedule. (laughs)
- Well, the control config is definitely easier to understand now that it’s more visual. I think it’s a nice addition that people will appreciate.
NH: It’s a modest upgrade, but we did put a fair amount of time into it. Definitely fool around with it.
YO: The international version is also in there too, although the only difference is the logo (and a little bit of text). (laughs)
- So the difficulty of the international version isn’t any different from the Japanese one?
YO: Apparently not.
- Alright gentlemen. Final words before we close up?
YO: Given that it was one of the MegaDrive’s later titles, Shinobi III is the most refined version of the 2D Shinobi series. I think that it’s a fine example of a well-executed action game. It’s also a showcase for how we’ve taken all the in-game effects from the original and remade them in stereoscopic 3D. If you’ve never had a chance to play this game, there has never been a better time.
When this game originally came out, there were a lot of other competing action games being released at the same time, and this installment didn’t have Yuzu Koshiro-san’s music, who was involved in the first game. So it had a couple of dings against it, and there may have been some people who passed over it. But in reality, the music is really good, and it’s highly regarded by action game lovers. So while there may be a good number of people who haven’t tried it, I think they’re really missing out. (laughs)
- It’s definitely a hard choice, but I think that The Revenge of Shinobi was a little more widely known. That said, I think Shinobi III is really polished, and something people should play through themselves.
YO: The dash is really fun. For the people out there who want to play The Revenge of Shinobi, I recommend you check out the version on Wii Virtual Console, or the SEGA AGES ONLINE (Sega Vintage Collection 3 overseas) version. (laughs) It’s a different console, but it’s on sale now and people love it! If you’re one of those who are just dying to hear Yuzu Koshiro-san’s on 3DS, then go and pick up a copy of the Game Gear version of Shinobi on 3DS Virtual Console. That one is a masterpiece as well, so if your interest in the series is piqued, please give it a try!
NH: Just as our predecessors tried to wring out every last bit of power from the MegaDrive to create amazing graphics, we also did our best to squeeze out every last drop of stereoscopic 3D that we could from Shinobi III. Please enjoy the fruits of our persistence. We think you’ll like it.
- Since you’ve relate all the trouble you guys go through to make it, I wind up empathizing with you guys as I play the games.
NH: I think that there were spots that people overlooked back then like, “Hey wait a minute. The MegaDrive shouldn’t be able to do three layers of scrolling!” By putting Shinobi III in 3D, it’s easier to see some of these impressive achievements. I hope people will get a kick out of wondering how some of this stuff was accomplished.
YO: The effort that they put in back then… it’s amazing how they were able to create such a sense of depth within the game, in terms of both programing skill and graphical design. And now M2 has taken up the reigns by turning it into 3D. It really is a second attempt, twenty years later, to deliver to the players that sense of depth, that sense of really being in the game.
- And it sounds like you have another title coming along in due time as well! So I look forward to talking to you guys again! Thank you so much!
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 The original Street Fighter machines had only two pressure-sensitive buttons: punch and kick. The strength of the attack was determined by how hard you hit the button.
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