As a love-letter to the shoot-em-up genre, Sine Mora was unequivocally hailed as a graphical tour-de-force upon its release earlier this year. Although it eschewed the more frenzied approach of danmaku and bullet-hell shooters (as evidenced by companies such as Cave), Sine Mora still strived to confidently seek out its own identity in a genre that had been severely under-represented since the twilight period of the 16-bit generation. With the game developer appropriating a more elaborate and innovative approach to help revive interest in a flagging genre, Prior Games’ attempt to bring Sine Mora to a more mainstream audience resulted in the game receiving polarising reviews from across the board. Those who preferred the more traditional, yet frenetic bullet-hell style of shooter grew to despise the title’s slower paced time mechanics, whilst those of a more casual and mainstream orientation gradually learned to appreciate the title’s new spin on an age-old formula. And so with this in mind, I sought an audience with the minds behind the game, and managed to sit down with Balazs Horvath (Business Development Director of Prior Games) to discuss as to why he wanted Sine Mora to appeal to a more mainstream audience, and why he thought danmaku and bullet-hell shooters were a dead end for the shmup genre.
Mr Horvath, Prior Games is the developer of Sine Mora. Is that correct?
Yes. The team who is working with Prior Games has been the team who developed Sine Mora at the previous company – Digital Reality. We just took the core team who created the game, and that is what we based the new studio on.
Just so as to ensure that there is no confusion, Prior Games is the same company as Digital Reality, but with a name change. Is that correct?
No. Digital Reality still exists and develops their own games, but the team who created Sine Mora within Digital Reality left the company, and created a new company called Prior Games, but it’s the same people. We have the same Lead Designer – who was also the Producer, the Designer, and the story writer of Sine Mora – who is now the CEO of the new company. I was more on the marketing side, launching the product, and I also joined. We also have the core team who worked on Sine Mora with us.
It’s rare for a Western-developed game to focus on such a Far-Eastern/Japanese-centric genre – like shoot-em-ups. It’s also extremely rare for a Western-developed game to focus on the very same type of shmup games that the Japanese are renowned for. Why did you decide to take this approach and release the type of Japanese styled shmup that Sine Mora is?
First of all, you might say that in the last couple of years, shoot-em-ups were totally dominated by Japanese companies – e.g. Cave. But we wanted to change this to some extent and to go back and see as to why it became such a niche genre, to the extent that only people who love bullet-hell shooters play the genre. We went back to that and we created something from there as we believe that danmaku and bullet-hell shooters are a dead-end for the genre, as they will just narrow the number of people who play shoot-em-ups. With Sine Mora, we wanted to bring the genre back to the mainstream. We wanted the mainstream to play shoot-em-ups again, like back in the old days, where people played Space Invaders and where the genre shifted zillions of copies, and where it just generated $4 billion of revenue.
Why a Western company? Well first of all, it was not entirely done by us. We had Japanese partners. We really wanted to add credibility to the game, where one of our Japanese partners was Grasshopper Manufacter who created the visuals. At the same time, we felt capable enough to touch on that genre and to do something amazing.
Sine Mora is an extremely impressive game from a visual standpoint, and you’ve talked about how you wanted to bring shoot-em-ups back to the masses. Were you not concerned about producing a game with such high production values for a genre that enjoyed such a niche audience? I mean, surely shmups are niche for a reason, as you can only go so far into drawing people back into a genre that has been long forgotten – and one that is no longer considered to be commercially viable for a lot of companies.
We make no compromises on quality. We knew that if we wanted to make a game that was top-notch – from a visual, technical, and all perspectives. We obviously analysed the market, and Sine Mora is out on XBLA, but it is also coming out on PSN, PS Vita, as well as PC – in a month. The development of all versions actually went on simultaneously for quite some time, until Microsoft stepped in pretty late in the development and asked for exclusivity, which then pulled the focus of the team towards the XBox version first. But it’s all merged code, and the game is a multi-platform release – which makes it viable from a commercial sense – even if it is niche. At the end, we are happy with the sales figures…
You were able to get renowned music composer, Akira Yamaoka, involved with the project. How hard was that to achieve, and at the same time, what do you think Yamaoka-sans was able to bring to the Sine Mora project?
Well it wasn’t just Yamaoka-sans who joined the team. We’ve been in talks with Grasshopper Manufacture through a good friend of us who introduced the two teams – Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality – and we instantly felt that there was common ground between us and that we spoke the same language. They all brought up the idea of Sine Mora and spoke to Suda-sans and Yamaoka-sans about it, and they instantly loved the idea. So from that perspective, it was really easy to get them on board because they loved the concept. Managing the relationship afterwards was really easy as we shared that common culture – we love videogames and we want to make excellent videogames.
Grasshopper Manufacture has its fingers in a lot of avant-garde and niche titles, and whilst the recently released Lollipop Chainsaw game has been a success for them, they also did the retro themed No More Heroes game which leant itself towards a more B-Grade gaming aesthetic. Do you think Sine Mora‘s lush visuals and extravagant production values are at odds with Grasshopper Manufacture’s retro-themed philosophy, where a lot of their games enjoy a more B-Grade and low budget avant-garde status which the developer/publisher is renowned for?
The concepts were actually done by Grasshopper Manufacture, and the technical execution was done by Digital Reality. The style is however truly Grasshopper(ish), but if you compare it to Lollipop Chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned, No More Heroes or Killer 7, then I don’t think it is as “punk” as it could be. We did have a discussion on the visuals and both studios agreed on it and felt comfortable with it, but whilst we don’t think it’s as crazy as other Grasshopper Manufacture titles, we are still happy with what we’ve got and what we achieved at the end.
You have stated that Sine Mora isn’t quite as “crazy” as other Grasshopper Manufacture titles. With that being said, considering that a lot of hardcore bullet-hell fans were left disappointed with Sine Mora, why did you opt to tone down the “craziness” and focus on other elements instead – such as the time-bending mechanic?
In the beginning, we wanted to make a game that suited both the hardcore fans as well as making it appeal to the mainstream. But then we ran into design decisions where we realised that you can’t really do both at the same time, in the same game, otherwise you end up losing some of the spirit or you end up making compromises that you don’t really want to make. There came a point where we had to decide as to which option to go for, and we decided that with this production, and with the vision that we had for the game, we wanted to bring the game to a mainstream audience. We knew that our game-play decisions would make the game more appealing to casual mainstream audiences, whilst alienating those who are hardcore shoot-em-up fans.
What games would you say have been an influence on Sine Mora?
Einhander, Ikaruga, Gradius, R-Type… All the good shoot-em-ups.
Have you ever considered approaching any of the developers behind the aforementioned games for game programming and development assistance?
Yes, we have been discussing that. It might be something that happens in the future.
Does that mean that there will be a sequel to Sine Mora?
We don’t think so. As far as we are concerned, Sine Mora is complete.
What other projects does Prior Games have in the pipeline?
We have our first title coming out that uses the same engine that Sine Mora used. It’s an extremely versatile engine that can be used for either a new shoot-em-up game, or an action (2D) platformer, but still be used for a game comprising lush visuals and amazing technology.
What type of game is this new game going to be?
When we are ready to show it, we’ll show it.
Is it going to be a platform blaster?
No, no, no, no. It’s going to be a platform blaster, and we are going to blast all platforms with it (laughs).
Mr Horvath, thank you.