They don’t make them like they used to. Except, of course, when they do – such as with Inti Creates’ lovingly crafted homages to 8-bit classics. Or, indeed, to some of the games that are embedded deep within this developer’s blood; this is a studio, after all, formed from a team of Capcom veterans some 20 years ago, and that went on to make its name with the Mega Man Zero games at the turn of the century.
More recently, Inti Creates has carved out its own niche with an impressive run of action games on Nintendo platforms, the likes of Master Blaster Zero, Mighty Gunvolt Burst and the compilation of Azure Striker Gunvolt games securing the developer a place in my own heart. With the continued absence of Treasure from the frontlines of games development, Inti Creates has quickly become a new favourite boutique Japanese developer.
What’s truly remarkable is that, despite the ever-changing and often turbulent backdrop of games development in Japan, Inti Creates has stuck fast to what it does best. “The gaming landscape here in Japan is dominated by the mobile market. We don’t make any mobile games – we make only console games,” president Takuya Aizu tells me during last month’s Tokyo Game Show, before going into some of his own theories on how his studio has been able to endure.
“In recent years, Japan has really stepped up its game in recognising and taking a lot more care into choosing who gets to develop their games, and recognising Indies and indie talent. I think that’s been a big boon for Indies as a whole in Japan, it’s got a lot better over the past few years as opposed to when a lot of studios would go for the cheapest option and call it a day. There’s a lot more care being put into what games we’re making.
“Another part of the equation is that, as a studio, one of the biggest focuses we have is to make the best products we possibly can, spending as little money as possible. That’s kind of like our mantra. We put out a lot of games – and over the 21 years we’re constantly learning to upgrade to make games as fast as we possibly can but still maintaining that quality people expect.”
Indeed, Inti Creates’ workrate is staggering – in the Switch’s short life so far, the studio has managed to put out three games – and it’s a full-time job just keeping up with the developer’s output. It’s worth it, though, as Inti Creates’ games have been especially good of late – a result, I’d wager, of them moving towards self-published titles.
“Back in the day, we got pretty much all our work from other big triple-A companies,” says Aizu. “They’d hire us to make the game, we’d make it and that’d be the end of it. So I guess the biggest difference in recent times is how we’ve shifted greatly to making our own titles, and promoting our own titles – going from a company that takes stuff in and puts it out to whoever paid us for it to a company that puts a lot of effort into promoting its own titles, creating its own titles and making that the centrepiece of our company. That’s how we’re able to stay afloat, and stay in the black. Especially since they’re our own titles, you have that extra love and that extra power behind promoting and creating what is yours. We’re not on the verge of collapse or anything like that!
Why, I ask, was there that desire to make the shift towards self-publishing?
“There’s the factor of just getting those jobs from other big companies,” says Aizu. “They dried up a bit compared to the past. That’s one part of the equation, but the two big reasons we made that shift, the first one was that when you take in contracts from a big publisher, you have to make a game in a set timeframe, you play by their rules. Everything they say goes, and you have little input into how the game will come together.
“Especially when you make a game you really like – you might really want to make a sequel because you loved what you did, you absolutely crushed it, but you have no control over that. You don’t have the rights, and you have no control, and that can be really difficult sometimes. There are a lot of times when we’re like, if we just had a little bit more time we could have made something so much better, or we could do this or we could do that. That’s all very prevalent among creators, but it’s hard when you have no control over that stuff. You’re left wondering what could you have done if you had a little more time. There’s that, and that’s one of the core reasons we decided to self-publish. The second one, we have full control over our IPs. We want to exist on our own IPs, we want to promote our own IPs.”
The approach seems to be working well, and while Inti Creates does still take on contracts it seems preferable to what went before – especially when you consider that its most high profile work for hire in recent years was the beleaguered Mighty No. 9. That game, developed in conjunction with Keiji Inafune and his Comcept team, is far from the disaster some might paint it as being, though there’s no doubting it fell short of expectations.
“One of the biggest difficulties with Mighty No. 9 was it being done through Kickstarter,” Aizu says of the problems encountered with that particular project. “We were fortunate enough to blow away our initial stretch goals, by many times over, but as that funding increases you have to add new goals to increase funding – if people don’t see those goals in sight, they won’t bother, so you keep adding on them and adding on them and adding on them. What the final project ended up being, the final Kickstarter with all the stretch goals, it was so much more than we initially imagined when we took on the project.
“You add all those extra things, even with all the money that we generated, and it’s still not enough. We were looking at the scope of what was expected for the project, and the amount of funds that we have, it just didn’t add up. How do you fix that? You work in a smaller timeframe with less people, and as you can imagine that can create a lot of problems and complications throughout the development. Those were particularly challenging over the course of development.”
Was it a case of the Kickstarter being too successful then?
“It’s impossible to say for sure, but that’s a very real possibility that you hit that sweet spot – your initial goal, somewhere around there, there’s a very real chance that without all those extra stretch goals we could have made a better project. We were Kickstarter beginners – it was almost five years ago now – and Kickstarter was very new to all of us. I think one of the biggest thing we didn’t realise at the time is just how much of that money – even when it’s a big fancy number – how much of it disappears before you even see it, in terms of Kickstarter fees, backer rewards, all kinds of handling this and doing all that. You can easily take half of that figure, it’s gone before you even get started. If we ever had to do a Kickstarter again, we’d be much more prepared.”
There’s a happy ending, of sorts, to the Mighty No. 9 story, however. Despite the somewhat turbulent release and reception of the game, Inti Creates’ development director, Kinshi Ikegami, maintained a love for the characters. “They’re characters we helped create, and we’ve got a lot of fondness for them,” says Aizu as he picks up the story. “Once Mighty No. 9 was over, he didn’t want that to be the last time we saw those characters. In his mind if might have been ideal to make a sequel – that wasn’t on the cards, so he thought what could they do with these characters. And so him and a small team at Inti Creates made a game on their own. Without telling anyone.”
Slowly but surely a game came together, until they had enough of a product to present to Mighty No. 9 creator Keiji Inafune himself. “They showed it to him, and asked what he thought of it. He was like, if you’ve done this much already, just go ahead and make it! We said we’d love to do that, but we couldn’t afford a big licence fee, but he just said it’s fine, we didn’t need one. Just go ahead and do you! Go nuts, have fun and make this game.”
And that’s how Mighty Gunvolt Burst – an impeccable side-scrolling action game cast firmly in the mould of Mega Man, and arguably the game Mighty No. 9 should have been – came to be.
It’s not the only remarkable revival Inti Creates has been behind this year, with Master Blaster Zero bringing Sunsoft’s cult classic series back to life. Blaster Master Zero does an impeccable job of updating the series while losing none of its charm, and it’s the kind of project you sense could only be possible within the walls of Inti Creates.
“There are a tonne of hardcore retro game fans here. The idea of those retro future games – we absolutely love them. These are people who worked on Mega Man 9 and 10 – they’re familiar with taking an NES game and creating one for a new era. And Master Blaster Zero’s director, Satoru Nishizawa, he’s a huge fan of that series, and he was thrilled to bits at the chance of making a new Master Blaster. It just happened like that! The final project was his dedication and love and respect for the series. He takes that all very seriously. The final product that you see in Zero, it’s because of that.”
And that, I think, is what makes Inti Creates’ games such a delight to play – they’re infused with a passion, and crafted with deep love that bleeds through the experience. That doesn’t look to change any time soon, either. On the horizon there’s Gal Gun 2 – a game that, to put it politely, is tailored to a certain cultural taste that doesn’t travel so well – as well as the fascinating looking Dragon: Marked for Death.
“We intend to keep that idea of these being super Japanese games,” says Aizu. “We don’t intend to change that at all.”
As our time together draws to a close, and before I head out to a Tokyo Game Show floor that’s been increasingly dominated by big ticket mobile games – where it seems the big money lies – I ask what’s next, and would Inti Creates ever be tempted to switch its focus away from console action games towards the more lucrative mobile market?
“Zero per cent!” says Aizu. “There’s a zero per cent chance of that happening.”
Amen to that.