Videogames are nowhere near as varied today as they were in the Eighties. Take Samurai Warrior for example, which turned the comic book tale of a samurai rabbit into a critical hit for various 8-bit computers. Here programmer Doug Palmer reveals how it all started.
Many in the Eighties would have considered a cult comic book about a ronin rabbit an unlikely source for a computer game, but not Beam Software, renowned for a number of top titles, including Way Of The Exploding Fist and The Hobbit. According to programmer Doug Palmer, there was a comics culture at the company at the time: “We were into 2000 AD, Love And Rockets, Raw, Critters (where cult title Usagi first appeared), and so on. Usagi was lying around, everyone enjoyed it, and Melbourne House founder Fred Milgrom spotted something.” And so, licence in hand, the company set about creating the game that would be dubbed Samurai Warrior: The Battles Of Usagi Yojimbo and become something of a cult classic itself.
There’s plenty of scrapping in Samurai Warrior, which is hardly surprising when you consider that its developers also made Way Of The Exploding Fist.
Doug remembers the game being very much a team effort: “Paul Kidd wrote the script, which sadly got somewhat butchered as we tried to squeeze everything into the C64. Russel Comte did the graphics and Neil Brennan wrote the music.” Usefully, Fred Milgrom had an advanced view of software engineering, and was interested in virtual machines, software components and object-oriented programming. “As a result, I had a library of pre-existing components to work with, and the game was therefore fairly easy to programme – most ‘difficult bits’ were solved by grabbing some pre-existing code,” explains Doug, who reckons this was an essential aspect of the game’s success. “Because the game was largely assembled from library code, all of the effort went into the storyline and the gameplay.”
At first, Doug recalls that the team got hung-up on swordplay, which is, unsurprisingly, a major component of the Usagi Yojimbo books (see ‘A samurai’s story’ for more background on the comics). “We had the idea of a Seven Samurai-style duel, where two opponents run at each other, leaving one standing and one slowly collapsing,” recalls Doug. “After a couple of weeks, the medication took hold and we began looking at the larger context of the game…” In the end, Beam’s creation evolved into a sideways-scrolling beat-’em-up – a genre that was looking tired well before the late Eighties; and yet, Samurai Warrior breathed new life into the genre, transcending its derivative nature, and becoming far more than a generic hack-’em-up, but with a sword-wielding rabbit as its main character.
The original designs that Samurai Warrior was based on.
According to Doug, this was down to Paul’s desire to get strategic decision-making into the game, thereby making it feel a little more like an adventure, where you could become fully immersed in Usagi’s quest to rescue Lord Noriyuki from the clutches of the evil Lord Hikiji. The branched map was initially a major part of this, but the choices of route rapidly diminished as the team ran out of memory. Instead, the limited locations Usagi could explore became populated with numerous characters, and the game was regularly punctuated by varied events, including attacks by bounty hunters, Usagi getting challenged to duels, and the sudden appearance of hidden assailants, who’d hide in the undergrowth or be in disguise, revealing themselves at the last possible moment. Despite anthropomorphic animals being peppered throughout as main characters, Usagi’s game world feels surprisingly real. In stark contrast to superficially similar games, such as Barbarian II, Samurai Warrior has radical changes of pace, with many peaceful moments, including when Usagi gambles, takes in a meal at an inn, or meets priests on the road (many of whom offer advice or some philosophical wisdom when you bow to them, by way of a text-based caption above the main gaming area). “The desire to have a more textured game that captured the more expansive spirit of the comics was there from the start,” explains Doug. “In the comics, Usagi spends a lot of time just enjoying the countryside or interacting politely with other people. We wanted to retain this element of samurai life, and I’d have had players writing haiku if I could have figured out how to do it!”
Unsurprisingly, Eastern ideals impacted on the game. “A major influence was ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’, a collection of Zen stories and koans from Japan,” says Doug, noting that many of the priests’ sayings are found within it. “The book also helped us develop the general approach of the game,” explains Doug. “One of the included sayings was, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’, one of those impossibly elliptical statements that makes Zen so much fun,” continues Doug, who enjoys the fact that you can “find a mountain of commentary on those ten words, none of which treats the statement literally”. That said, these semi-obscure statements, peppered throughout the game, confused some – one reviewer remarked that they couldn’t find a Buddha to kill! “It hadn’t occurred to me that, in the context of a beat-’em-up game, you could interpret the koan as a literal clue,” says Doug. “The whole idea of not finding the Buddha in the game was just perfect!”
The animation in Samurai Warrior is great with superb attention to detail.
Aspects of Eastern beliefs that caused fewer problems were the concepts of honour, strict etiquette and karma, integral to the Usagi Yojimbo comic books, and somewhat woven into the game by way of its scoring system. Unlike most beat-’em-ups, it’s often better to avoid fights in Samurai Warrior, rather than attack anything that moves. In the game, Usagi’s afforded two modes, ‘peaceful’ and ‘aggressive’, determined by whether or not his sword is drawn. In peaceful mode, he can bow to persons of equal status and must bow to those of greater status, or he will insult them (resulting in guards attacking); however, although Usagi needn’t bow to those of lower status, doing so gains ‘karma’ points. Although less essential later on in his quest, these points are vital early on, because Usagi begins the game almost bereft of karma, and should this value fall to zero, he’s forced to take the honourable way out: ritual suicide.
In aggressive mode, Usagi can attack enemies with his sword (three movements are on offer – ‘parry’, ‘sideswipe’ and ‘overhead cut’ – determined by how long the fire button is held down). However, players must be mindful that approaching someone with your sword drawn results in them assuming you’re aggressive, causing many characters to attack when they normally wouldn’t – and some put up more of a fight than you’d expect. “The absolute bloody viciousness of the priests came as a surprise when we were testing the game,” says Doug. “I didn’t analyse it very much, but it seems to be a combination of the range of their kicks and the delay caused by being hit by them – you never quite get back on to the front foot. This seemed like just punishment for monstering a priest!”
You can read the rest of our Making Of Samurai Warrior: The Battles Of Usagi Yojimbo in issue 29. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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