iNiS VP of development Keichi Yano addressed this year's GDC crowd with a talk entitled "From 'Ouendan!' to 'HELP!': Inside the Elite Beat Agents
," where he detailed the developer history that lead to last year's release of Nintendo's hit rhythm game for the Nintendo DS. With him were two fully-dressed ouendan - Japanese male cheerleaders - who occasionally cheered him on, a la the original game's premise.
Before the Koei-published PlayStation 2 rhythm title GitarooMan
, iNiS had never developed a game. "I remember we called Sony out of the blue, when we started thinking about developing, and said 'Um, can we make a PlayStation game?' said Yano.
"We had never made a game before, much less a PS2 game!" This lack of experienced was obvious in the team's numbers. "I was the game designer, and at the same time I was the lead programmer," Yano admitted. "I studied all the time, read books, came to GDC, and at the end of the development cycle we thought we had a good, innovative game."
Having successfully completed GitarooMan
, iNiS was inspired by the music genre, and ready to tackle their next challenge. However, there was one problem. "It sold, like, nothing!" exclaimed Yano. "Any confidence that we had built was just completely crushed like a fly. At this point we had lost all confidence in the music game genre, and at the time, the Japanese game industry as a whole lost confidence in music games too."
Rather than a pure music-based game, iNiS created a prototype of an action game that used musical elements. It was this prototype that was the basis for the developer's first interaction with Nintendo.
"To make a long story short, they thought our idea sucked," said Yano. They continued to pitch the prototype, but "to make a long story short, it never happened," he explained. "What's worse is that it took about three months for both parties to come to that conclusion."
Hot-Blooded Cheer Squad
While waiting around to figure out their next move, iNiS CEO Masako Harada recommended that the company make an appearance at E3. "In hindsight, I really thank her for that," said Yano. This was E3 2004, where the two major new handheld's -- Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS -- were shown for the first time."
"Like most of you, we waited in the lines of death," said Yano. "We thought wow, PSP would make a great platform for a GitarooMan
! And then the second idea I got was man, that ouendan game might work great with the touch screen and the two screens."
"That ouendan game" was an idea pitched to Yano about a year prior. "The premise of the concept was that it would feature hot-blooded ouendans that would help people overcome their daily struggles," Yano explained. "In Japan they stand for the spirit to fight on and overcome adversity, and these were things we needed in the company at the time."
"Osu!" screamed the real-life ouendans.
Yano showed the prototype video presentation he used to pitch Ouendan
. The video looked, more or less, like the final game: a scenario played out on the DS's top screen, and on the bottom screen, the ouendan cheered people into overcoming adversity. The song, Morning Musume's "Koi no Dance Site," would be used in the final game. The stage premise, involving a crowd trying to physically prevent a train from hitting a watery-eyed puppy stuck on its tracks, did not.
"The team really wanted to do this [stage concept]," explained Yano, "but I felt there was one glaring design flaw. What happens when you don't succeed?" At this point Yano displayed a still shot of the puppy, looking at the now-laughing audience.
"I felt pretty content that once Nintendo saw the concept, they'd be positive," said Yano, who was correct. In fact, the game was approved just one week later.
Agents Are Go
"I think the entire team was thinking at this point, how the heck are we going to translate this into something that a western audience could appreciate?" Yano had been telling his team through the duration of development that the game would be released in American and Europe as well as Japan. "And little did they know, we had no agreements with Nintendo to create a localization of the game," he said. Luckily, Nintendo did approach iNiS for a localization after the game shipped.
"So we started thinking about how to take this Japanese concept and bring it to the world that would not understand all this. I had the sense that we had created this motley crew of guys. You had a guy with a big thing of hair, guy with an eyepatch, and guy with a mohawk. We were thinking okay, we got Motley Crue, and we're adding Ouendan to that. So what do we get out of that?" The answer, to Yano's audience's laughing delight, was the Village People.
"We thought that a team with guys like the Village People would be interesting and fun to play," said Yano. "I thought it was pure genius at the time." The initial game concept replaced the three tough, hot-blooded ouendan with an afroed man in a sailor suit, a cowboy, and a mustachiod man in leather. The music in this game was set to consist entirely of disco hits, and was codenamed Disco Squad
"We went too far," admitted Yano.
The character concept that would ultimately become the Elite Beat Agents came after Yano tried to picture what kind of team he might personally enjoy playing as in a game. Ultimately, he decided on a combination of the Ghostbusters, the Men In Black, and the Blues Brothers.
"There are a couple things that are similar to the ouendan," said Yano. "They're dressed in black. This was a very important design decision, because when you have colorful markers, you want to make sure the gamer can see those characters. And also that they were a motley crew. The differences are that they're agents, and instead of hot-blooded, they're cool." Yano also took inspiration from the Austin Powers series of movies.
Yano realized that characters were only half of the equation; motivation was just as important. "Blues brothers were on a mission from god, austin powers was on a mission to groove. I thought that as cool as those might be, it might not be enough for the player, so I knew we needed one last element. And I came up with Charlie's Angels. I envisioned that it would be cool if you could have a character like Charlie command the agents and give these guys orders. And I thought it would give the agents a little more credibility. So mission from God, mission to groove, and mission from Charlie."
Yano took the opportunity of this talk to officially announce the sequel to Osu! Tatake! Ouendan
, which is officially titled Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashi - Osu! Tatake! Ouendan 2
. "Loosely," said Yano, "that translates to 'Burn! Hot-Blooded Rhythm Soul.'"
iNiS added "a lot of features" to this upcoming sequel, which they are unfortunately unable to talk about. They also revamped the character design of the ouendan themselves, making them more mature and tough. Additionally, the ouendan will compete with a competing cheer squad. Concept art and screenshots were shown depicting this rival group, which dresses in blue and has fair hair, rather than the black outfits and striking features of the original squad.
Two screenshots were shown, clearly showing that the new cheer squad are playable characters. These shots depicted a level scenario in which a businessman has purchased too many shoes, and has to unload them somehow. His desperation takes him as far as outer space, where he tries to sell shoes to alien creatures.